Friday the 13th
Dir. Sean S. Cunningham (1980)
Camp counselors are hunted as revenge for an accident that claimed the life of a boy who drowned in nearby Crystal Lake.
I've already kinda reviewed this film in the past, a double-feature review that compared the revered original film in the series with the newer fan-favorite Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, but what better time to revisit the classic slasher than on the Friday the 13th that falls during our 31 Days of Halloween! While there are certainly some weak points in the film, which we will discuss in further detail a little later, there are some fantastic bright spots that influence the genre to this day, from the creepy harbinger that warns Annie (Robbie Morgan) away from "Camp Blood" to the backwoods location of the actual Camp Crystal Lake itself, a variation of the "cabin in the woods" locale that would eventually inspire movies like, well, Cabin in the Woods.
Director Sean Cunningham, who pitched the movie with just a poster in the hopes of turning a quick profit after the success of Halloween, makes full use of a banjo-ey soundtrack that hearkens back to Wes Craven's seminal The Last House on the Left and some teenagers-who-are-clearly-a-little-older-than-they're-supposed-to-be. This includes, of course, a young Kevin Bacon, who also receives one of the most memorable on-screen deaths of the entire series when he gets an arrow through the neck courtesy of the killer (and Tom Savini, of course). Of course, there is also the twist at the end of the film, in which it is Jason's mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who is actually doing the killing. It's an all-timer of a revelation, though it's one that falls apart under even the slightest scrutiny (more on that in a bit).
The summer camp setting and the quick turnaround time makes the film look a little cheap at times, a downside that is easily remedied by the incredible effects abilities of Savini. It's a dated film, easily looking like it could have been filmed in the latter half of the 70's than in the dawning of the new decade. There's the unfortunate scene of animal cruelty, the killing of a snake that supposedly was quite upsetting to the snake's owner. There's a bit of Native American cultural appropriation as well, a cringe-worthy scene that feels particularly off-putting by today's standards. By and large, though, as dated as the film may be, it set a new standard for slashers that built upon its Carpenter-helmed forefather and ushered in a franchise that helped establish the second face on horror's Mount Rushmore.
The biggest gripe in the film, of course, is the presence of Mrs. Voorhees herself. It's an intriguing and original twist, to be sure, but it's also fairly nonsensical. It's tough to imagine the frail Betsy Palmer pulling off some of these kills, especially because she's pretty much completely manhandled by Adrienne King's Alice once the audience discovers it's her behind the killings. Don't get me wrong: Palmer does a fantastic job in the role, delightfully unhinged and crazy enough to be terrifying despite being an elderly woman. For the foundational film in a franchise, however, it's a plot twist that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for the rest of the film that came before it. Then again, what the hell do I know, the series has clearly done pretty well for itself.
There are also some truly magnificent scenes within the film. Marcie's stalking and eventual murder is wonderfully shot, with lingering scenes scored by just the falling rain interspersed with creepy shots of her oblivious monologues into the mirror, clad only in underwear as she is being tracked before eventually having an axe buried in her forehead. The Harry Manfredini score is iconic, of course, but it is used to utter perfection throughout the original film. Cunningham, despite being known more as a producer and having very limited directing chops, creates some epochal scenes that have been aped for decades at this point.
By utilizing a cast of attractive people that don't feel unattainable and the best effects man in the business, Friday the 13th became an all-time classic despite its numerous flaws. It suffers slightly from a smaller bodycount, but what kills are there are pretty excellent for the time and delivered a bit more bloodshed than the other proto-slashers that came before. It heavily relies on the first-person perspective made famous by the Italian gialli films from the previous decade while carving a path all its own, initiating a lot of the "slasher rules" that would be lampooned by Craven and others in future generations. F13 feels like the perfect slasher because it is: while future films in the franchise would lean heavily into the "fun" aspect, the original film feels exactly like the type of movie that is scary enough to draw people into the horror genre without making them feel like they're wasting their time. And there's really nothing more that you could ask from it.
Who this movie is for: Slasher fans, Cult classic aficionados, Camp counselors
Bottom line: Decent performances and excellent effects work from one of the masters of the craft highlight a film that is utterly iconic in the genre. Director Sean S. Cunningham does a better-than-adequate job in creating some truly excellent scenes of stalking terror, and the incredible score from Harry Manfredini creates a soundtrack for your nightmares. While there are certainly more entertaining films in the franchise and I have a general problem with the twist that no amount of fansplaining will solve, Friday the 13th is a cult classic because it absolutely deserves to be. It's yearly viewing at least, and it introduced a franchise that has spanned twelve movies, several video games, and hopefully even more in the future. If for some reason you haven't seen it, it needs to move to the top of your watchpile during the 2023 spooky season.