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Friday the 13th Sean Cunningham 1980

Back Before Camp was Camp

Let’s get into our little tinfoil-and-cardboard time machine (painted pink, of course – for better fabulodynamics) and travel to New Jersey, 1979 – where, in a haze of modest intentions and cheap pot smoke, a group of young filmmakers are unknowingly filming what will ultimately become one of the most influential horror films of all time:

Christmas Evil.

No – wrong holiday. Mother’s Day? No, that was on the other side of the lake….

Ah! That’s it – Friday the 13th. Yes -- although not the first of the Special Day horror films (Black Christmas and Halloween beat it by a longshot), Friday is arguably the most influential and oft-referenced slasher film ever made – which may seem odd when you consider just how low-rent and uncomplicated the film actually is. Built from the flimsiest of conceits (a group of teens reopening a cursed summer camp are stalked and killed by an unknown assailant over the course of one day), Friday is a cheap-looking, uninspired piece of stalk-and-slash simplicity. And that’s why we love it.

It’s very, very hard to approach a film that has gotten so much mileage out of so little with a fresh eye, but I tried -- oddly, although I have of course been swimming in a sea of sequels and ripoffs for the last 25 years, I actually had not sat down and watched the film that started it all in its entirety since about 1987 (for you twinks out there, back then we had a different Nazi in the White House and Michael Jackson was famous for doing something other than licking children). To be honest, revisiting this little piece of history was a bit disorienting. Where are the scares? Where’s the gore? Where – oh wait, there’s the gore. But where are the great Final Girl moments? What about – oh, there’s some more gore. What about the bitchy teens and nudity and cussing? How about some woofed-out hair and Spandex? And most importantly, where are the tits?!

Friday the 13th is to the 80’s slasher movie what Black Christmas was to Halloween: it’s a simple, limited, first-person “mystery killer” tale whose basic rules will be borrowed for use by later films where the masked killer becomes the central focus. Black Christmas deals with the problems a group of girls suffers in a house as a killer in their midst slowly picks them off. We never learn who the killer is, and few of the characters even suspect that he is a threat of any kind to the girls. In Christmas’s American cousin (Halloween), the emphasis of the entire narrative is squarely on Michael Myers, who enjoys ample screen time and discussion about him by nearly every member of the cast. Friday the 13th is about a group of camp counselors who are methodically picked off for no apparent reason other than their proximity to a lake. While the mystery behind who the killer is may be fun for the audience (we never see the perpetrator and are usually witnessing the killings from about his/her point of view, launching a parade of red herrings and guessing-games), it isn’t even a point of discussion for the characters, who have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on. In fact, a full half-dozen people are already dead before anyone notices that something is amiss. But in the sequels, Jason is clearly the ticket-seller. He enjoys plenty of screen time (from mid-Part 2 on, anyway) and is a constant point of reference. With the “mystery killer” aspect missing, things become much more formulaic, in a “Christians-versus-lions” kind of way.

But back in the summer of 1979, things were very different. A group of idealistic teens were working hard to rebuild a camp for kids to come and enjoy themselves. AIDS was a thing of the future. And a group of young actors were about to get their chance to be just one degree of Kevin Bacon. Of course, none of them really went on to do much else, so they’re more of a handicap to the game than anything else… nonetheless, there they were. Oh – did I mention Betsy Palmer was in the market for a new car?

It's 1979, 20 or so years after a young retarded boy drowned in Crystal Lake while the lifeguards were busy pulling aside the roast beef curtain. The following year, two counsellors (we're not actually ever sure if they were the negligent horndogs) are brutally stabbed while making out in a hayloft as the other counsellors tried to bore each other to death with folk music around the fireplace. Actually, the opening scene is quite atmospheric, for what it is -- the moon is full, the crickets are out, and the mood is quiet and eerie. But before you know it, a cameraman with a knife (at least, that's what it must have looked like to audiences at the time, who weren't likely used to seeing murders from the killer's point of view) is cutting up the kids, and with a white-hot animated title, Friday the 13th announces its genre-shattering arrival onto the scene.

We move to the present -- er, the late seventies, where a young, doe-eyed, and likely smelly granola chick named Annie is hiking her ass across New Jersey to a cooking job at Camp Crystal Lake. As Annie slowly learns (via several hilarious encounters with locals), the camp (dubbed -- gasp -- Camp Blood by the superstitious townies) has been closed pretty much since the murders back in the 50s, with several attempts at reopening thwarted by mysterious disasters (fires, contaminated water, that kind of thing). Annie is warned against going to the camp, but her pluckish idealism and desire to work with children (NOT "kids", as she so stupidly makes clear -- she would also likely call Friday the 13th a "film", not a "movie") wins out in the end. While walking the last few miles to the camp, Annie is picked up my a mystery driver in a jeep, and of course is taken into the woods where her throat is unceremoniously cut. Dribble, dribble, cut to...

Up at the camp, Steve Christy is chopping wood in just a pair of cutoffs -- our first true scare in the film. When the kids arrive (a completely unidentifiable group, really -- they seem quite normal but not exactly interesting), the lovely Alice (Adrienne King, looking oddly like a grown-up Vicki Steubing from Love Boat) bounds from the house and immediately establishes that she is both not very bright and almost entirely without any sort of personality. Just the way we like them. No, seriously -- watch the way that she interacts with the new counsellors -- she's worthless! Actually, at this point it's almost impossible to tell who the main characters actually are; we've already had a significant prologue and a good 15 minutes spent with Dead Annie, and now there's a bunch of generic kids thrown at us, none of which has any distinguishable features. Luckily, we then move to a scene where Alice chats with Steve -- lucky, that is, until we learn that there have been romantic overtures between the two, which is just plain disgusting.

Anyway, we now have our heroine, boring as she may be, and soon we move to some harmless hijinx by the lake (fake drowning, trying to get each other wet -- Alice reinforces her uselessness by throwing a life preserver at a drowning victim's head as he is being pulled out of the water -- nice one, Al). It all seems rather banal, really -- but the lake is pretty and we know that someone's going to come along and bloody up all that water, so it's all good. The sluttier girl (Marcie) has an odd monologue about how she has been having some sort of foreboding dreams that probably foretell her own death (they don't involve her getting an axe in the face in an outhouse, but the general feeling is there); it's actually oddly similar to the premonitive blabber that Belinda Belansky pulls in Piranha before she gets munched. Brenda almost gets shot with an arrow by Ned, the dorkier of the men, and... that's about it. The sun goes down and Steve goes to town, for some reason -- probably to give us someone to suspect in the murders. Ned sees someone slip into one of the cabins and investigates, and Jack (Bacon) and Marcie decide to fuck. All is good in New Jersey.

But not for long! After a curiously prolonged -- although pretty skinless -- sex scene (we actually see them going through the motions, which is pretty unusual for a horror film -- usually it cuts away as soon as they get serious) that reveals that a recently-murdered Ned is relaxing on the bunk above, Marcie excuses herself to take a ladylike leak, leaving Jack alone to smoke a cigarette and get an arrow through his neck. Pretty impressive effect, really -- and I imagine it drove people nuts at the time. Marcy doesn't get off so quickly, and is given a fairly creepy stalk scene in the outhouse -- but then again, any scene that begins with a character being terrorized on a toilet is pretty creepy, in my book. She goes to investigate the noises she's hearing, and on the wall behind her we see a shadow of an axe being lifted -- a brilliant use of visual shorthand. She turns, and THWACK! -- the axe hits her square in the nose, buried up to the hilt in her pretty face. Nasty stuff, really. This is really the worst of it (unfortunately), so enjoy it while it's there.

Cut back to Alice, Brenda, and Bill (yummy Bing Crosby spawn, Harry Crosby), who are smoking a little grass and playing strip Monopoly. But not in a pervy, offensive way -- in fact, it's all remarkably tame and wholesome, really. These seem like normal, decent kids who are just bored because they're stuck out in the woods by themselves. The game ends, and in an odd, understated moment, Brenda comments "Just when things were starting to get good" to Alice -- who was about to have to take her clothes off. Whoa -- what was that?! Is Brenda lesbian? I definitely think that a signal was being sent with that comment, however veiled and cryptic it might have been. Brenda retires to her bunk to read alone and go to bed (yup -- total dyke), and is just settling in when she hears a creepy child's voice crying outside in the rain. Oooooooooh... now it's getting good. Could the ghost of the dead boy be behind all this? Seriously, is that what is being suggested? Now the red herrings are dead herrings! Brenda, dutiful lesbian caregiver, goes outside to try to help the lost child, and unknowingly wanders right onto the archery field where she was nearly shot earlier. Suddenly the lights blaze on, leaving poor Brenda blinded in the pouring rain, standing in front of a target. She's understandably horrified, and the scene is very scary. We cut away before we see what happens...

Meanwhile, Alice is napping and Bill goes to look for help, as something is obviously wrong -- where the hell is everybody? Well, we know that they're all dead -- all but Steve. Whoops -- there he goes, stabbed in the rain by someone he apparently knows. Bill goes outside to look, and Alice makes coffee. In real time. I suppose it's supposed to be suspenseful, but watching a girl make coffee is about as suspenseful as... well, watching a girl make coffee (see also: a girl making eggs in Ten to Midnight). There's a moment when she opens the pantry door that echoes an earlier scare (when crazy Ralph from town pops out of the pantry ranting about the price of tea in China), but it's a dead scare. Alice goes outside and finds Bill stabbed in far too many places for his own good with arrows (let's be sensible, Pamela...), and understandably freaks out. Alice barricades the front door, and Brenda (or is it Marcie? eh...) gets chucked through the window. A car pulls up outside, and Alice gratefully rushes outside to find...

Betsy Palmer in the hottest cableknit sweater ever stitched. Yes, in the last act of our little drama, our top-billed star has finally made an entrance. If you had any doubt as to who the killer might be, you can pretty much guess that it's going to be the much-lauded American Sweetheart who randomly appears in the climax, teeth sharpened for a good round of scenery-chewing. Betsy introduces herself as Mrs. Voorhees, a friend of the Christys, and almost immediately reveals to Alice that she is the killer (she puts up a front for all of 45 seconds before she starts bitchslapping the shit out of the poor girl). It turns out that Jason was her son -- her dead gay son? -- and she has been killing anyone who sets foot on the camp grounds to protect his memory and punish the evil fornicators who let him die. Betsy really puts in a good show here -- she's a toothy menace that acts circles around poor King before she terrorizes her for a good ten minutes, bashing her in the head, throwing her, slapping her, and pushing her face in the sand (my personal favorite moment). In one final gasp, Alice manages to get the machete that Pamela has dropped and charges the bitch, lopping her head clear off her fabulous baby-blue jumper. Alice gets into the rowboat and floats out into the lake for safety.

In what is probably the most famous coda in the history of horror films (the end of Carrie being a close second), Alice wakes to see police beckoning her to shore. The sun is low on the horizon and the lake is a glow of late-seventies amber. Suddenly, a dead retarded sissyboy leaps out of the water, grabs her, and pulls her out of the boat and into the water. Alice wakes up in a hospital bed and asks, "But what about the boy?". The police tell her there was no boy... and a 10-sequel cash-cow is born.

Taken as a standalone slasher, Friday the 13th is an exceptional bit of mystery fun. It's more intriguing and creepy than it is scary, and the characters are uniformly disposable (Mrs. V completely steals the show once she enters the picture), but it is strikingly original, well-constructed, and downright bleak, all told. The story is also laid out quite well -- the history of Mrs. Voorhees' fury is all there, and her vengeance is almost understandable given her terrible loss (it's a lot like The Burning, which is also revenge-themed, and set in a camp on the East Coast). It's a bit of a shame that the heroes weren't a bit more interesting -- I like Alice just fine, but she's nothing compared to her successor, the spiky, ballsy, resourceful Amy Steel in Part 2. But I guess that that the Final Girl would come into her own in time, and you really can't blame this film for falling short in that department when it got so many other things right (the score, the location, the quiet dread, the gore, the confusion created by the separated characters and piling up of bodies). Some of the more obvious ridiculous elements are just plain funny -- for example, there's no way Betsy Palmer could heave a grown lesbian through a window -- and why does she do this just to run down the lane and drive up in her Jeep? But overall -- Dynasty catfight aside -- the film manages to sidestep camp and plays things quite straight throughout, like an Agatha Christie mystery with some splashes of gore.

It's hard to believe that this film got such a critical trouncing when it came out -- it's really quite tame by today's standards, even with the gore -- especially if you consider how conventionally the story is laid out (as opposed to more surreal and grotesque films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, which owes this film a hell of a lot for paving its way in public opinion). But people do like to get worked up in a tizzy about things like this, don't they? Looking back, it's an admittedly odd watch, but a good one, and a refreshing look at how uncomplicated this genre can be -- and still be effective.

Bonus: for an article by me on Jason's "complicated" relationship with his mother on Pretty-Scary.net, click HERE .

Rating (out of 5):

 

This made-for-TV movie features a young actor who would later star as a closeted homo in Far From Heaven