Friday the 13th (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Starring: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Kevin Bacon, Peter Brouwer, Walt Gorney, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
By the time Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th appeared on theater screens in 1980, audiences had already been exposed to the concept of Ebert’s “dead teenager” movie. In 1971, Mario Bava delivered Twitch Of The Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood, the source of a lot of inspiration for some of Friday the 13th Parts 1 and 2 death scenes), 1974 saw the releases of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, and John Carpenter’s Halloween was a huge hit in 1978. The creators of Friday the 13th aimed to cash in on Halloween‘s success, using many of its tropes (killer-point-of-view, teen sex, “peaceful town”, final girl, and so on), and their gamble paid off. The movie was a smash and its influence on the slasher genre is obvious. (As of 2023, it has spawned 10 sequels and a remake). The funny thing about the movie is how different it is from later films in the series like The New Blood or Freddy vs Jason; on a re-watch, I couldn’t help but notice how low-key it is.
The tone of the movie and where it ends up narratively is different than most of the sequels, which are interchangeable in that a monster by the name of Jason Voorhees stalks dimwitted horny teenagers. This first film has an unseen but decidedly human killer. There isn’t anything supernatural happening here, even in the Carrie-like ending which was clearly meant to be a dream. I will say that the killer’s reveal in the last half hour is a cheat, since no real clues are given that would enable anyone to solve the “mystery” except for the idea that it is somehow connected to events that happened in the 50s. Friday the 13th plays with the idea of curses. The camp counselors who attempt to open up Camp Crystal Lake for the summer are told that the place is jinxed, that a young boy drowned there, that a series of mysterious fires and poisoned water shut the place down for years. Ralph (Walt Gorney), the town crazy, constantly badgers the teens with warnings like “it’s got a death curse” and “you’re all doomed!” Head counselor Steve Christy ( Peter Brouwer), his assistant Alice (Adrienne King), and a group of horny teens (including a young Kevin Bacon) don’t listen. The book of Revelations is given acknowledgment, Cunningham shoots a full moon covered by black clouds, and one girl dreams of rain turning to blood. The date Friday the 13th itself stems from the unlucky symbolism of the number 13 (a Norse myth) and the sixth day (in Christian mythology). It’s ironically funny that, in the pre-Christian era, Friday was associated with love and fertility. Actually, the movie is light on sex and nudity. For example, a game of strip monopoly (which the movie’s heroine happily plays) never ventures beyond the PG-13 stage. But there is a notable juxtaposition of a couple getting it on while the body of a victim lies hidden a few feet away.
It’s obvious that the movie’s attention is centered on Tom Savini’s gore set pieces, which involve throat slashings and beheadings, but the camera doesn’t linger on the gore for too long as Cunningham usually has the scene fade to white (it looks like a film overexposure). Much of the movie is slow going; the best moments are at the end when our last remaining survivor (or “final girl” as termed by Carol Clover) channels Jamie Lee Curtis and fights the killer. The scenes of Alice running around the cabin making coffee, securing doors and looking for weapons tend to meander for too long; other sequences could have benefited from tighter editing. Then there’s a scene with a motorcycle cop that has no payoff, except perhaps to establish the care-free attitude of the teens.
I hope that by telling you the killer is Pamela Voorhees I’m not spoiling anything (you’ve seen Scream, right?) She’s played by Betsy Palmer, who adds a manic energy to the role, even though the character is somewhat derivative of the Norman Bates type (she occasionally talks to herself using the voice of her dead son). The final scene of Jason rising out of the lake is pretty good, even if it is lifted from Carrie. Even Harry Manfredini’s score, while now-famous, seems inspired by Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. But there’s no denying the effect of this movie on modern slashers (including the superior Nightmare on Elm Street). It has all the motifs, although the “have premarital sex and die” trope is probably a reach. Better to say that kids who don’t have direction in their lives will end up paying for their inattention. It seems like a theme that kids at the tail end of the tumultuous 70s took notice of.