That Friday the 13th has an important place in the history of horror films is indisputable; while not the first ‘slasher’ film (Halloween beat it by two years and undoubtedly inspired this film in many ways), the runaway success of Friday the 13th kick-started the explosion of these type of films that dominated the 80s horror scene. But does that historical significance translate into an enjoyable film when viewed through modern eyes? That’s a little trickier.
Produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, and written by Victor Miller, the film opens in the 50s with two camp counsellors at Camp Crystal Lake sneaking away to have sex. Soon, using the killer POV shot made famous by Halloween’s opening, an unseen killer approaches and murders the pair.
We then jump to the present, well, 1980, and follow Annie (Robbi Morgan) as she arrives in the small town and asks directions to the camp. Here the locals make mention of ‘CampBlood’ and it’s gruesome local reputation, but Annie hitchhikes out towards the camp. But the reputation is well deserved since a helpful (but unseen) local motorist stops to give her a lift, and murders her before they arrive.
We then meet the other camp counsellors who are finishing preparing the camp for the arrival of the kids. These characters are unmemorable archetypes who have very little personality or screen time before being bumped off one by one, by the unseen killer. The only one who really stands out is Jack played by Kevin Bacon, and that is really only because Kevin Bacon is recognisable, not from anything about the character or writing.
The film seems to wear it’s influences openly, from the Halloween-inspired killers POV as a device to enhance tension while never having to reveal the killer’s appearance, to the Psycho-esque following of a female protagonist who arrives, acts as an audience proxy to learn of the history and setting enough to convince you she is the star and then offing her.
The music is very reminiscent of Jaws, and does not seem particularly suited to this film, although it does introduce the series trademark “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sounds (of which composer Harry Manfredini notes “”Everybody thinks it’s cha, cha, cha.”), which are suitably creepy and evocative, and work far better than the more traditional brass-heavy score.
Finally the ending is completely and shamelessly cribbed from Carrie, although it still works.
Overall the film does a poor job of introducing the characters and giving you a reason to care about them, so their murders only serve to shock and do not generate much tension. It also never shows the killer until the end which also makes it harder to have an antagonist to fear.
That said, the film moves quickly and is never boring, and the death scenes, while not horrifically gory by modern standards are bloody, inventive and fun.
It does something interesting with the identity of the killer, and I’m in two minds about talking about it, but since this is over 30 years ago, and Scream hung a hat on this plot point I’ll go ahead.
Stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers.
Having Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) as the killer is interesting, because playing against gender type is interesting (although the stereotype of the slasher antagonist wasn’t as fully formed when this was made), but it isn’t well handled. The death of Jason in the 50s is mentioned in passing in act 1, then completely ignored until the final few scenes when Mrs Voorhees turns up and within seconds turns violent. Without introducing her earlier there is no surprise to the killer’s identity.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhatten (1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Jason X (2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (2003)