Synopsis: Camp counselors are stalked and murdered by an unknown assailant while trying to reopen a summer camp that was the site of a child’s drowning.
Stars: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
In May of 1980, the horror boom was not yet upon us and John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece Halloween was still the pinnacle of what could be done with a small budget and big scares. The rampant plague of sequel-itis hadn’t spread around Hollywood because the films that spawned these endless repeats weren’t around yet. If Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the granddaddy of the slasher film then I would consider Halloween and Friday the 13th as twin fathers of the genre that started a movement in the film industry that still exists today.
Like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the first film of the series is unquestionably the best…and remains to this day one of my go-to films for its excellent first hour, healthy performances, and ingenious scares. Director Cunningham works with Victor Miller’s thin script and creates a real fine thrill ride…drawing out the suspense so long that it’s easy to feel the last half hour is a bit of a letdown considering how much build up there’s been up to that point.
Cunningham sets up the menace right out of the gate by taking Carpenter’s brief use of point of view camera work in Halloween and making it almost an entire character in Friday the 13th as the unseen killer stalks the counselors as they prepare to open a summer camp long-since closed. When I was young, these types of movies were all about the blood and the gore but as an adult I have to give a lot of credit to the director for making a film that transcends its smarmy but humble plot.
Viewing the film again for the first time in a few years, I found myself getting genuine chills along the way. From its frightening freeze frame pre-credits image to several fiendish kills that still give me the willies after all these years, Friday the 13th doesn’t show its age as a thirty two year old movie. I think it’s actually gotten better with age as the simple efficiency it employs feels refreshing in our current film climate of bigger, better, faster, meaner.
As I mentioned before, the first hour of the film is really a striking cat and mouse game…where the mice don’t have a clue as to the kind of trouble they’re in. The finale of the movie where the killer is revealed (I’m not going to say it here but it’s such a cultural touchstone that at this point who doesn’t know?) is when the movie starts to become less interesting. That’s partly the fault of the actors involved with this sequence, partly the fault of Cunningham for not marinating the grip he’s had on our throats, and mostly the fault of the script that I’m guessing didn’t have a lot more to say. It does bounce back nicely in the famous final minutes, though, so all is quickly forgiven in my book.
Cunningham gets solid if unremarkable performances from his cast – this was still early enough when good actors could be recruited for horror films and before acting in one became a mark of shame. Like Halloween, this first Friday the 13th was an independently financed picture that was eventually purchased and distributed by Paramount Pictures. A healthy cash cow for the studio over the next decade, the Friday films would run from very good (Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) to the schlocky (Friday the 13th: 3D) to the just plain wrong (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning). If you want to get the job done…stick with the original trip to Camp Crystal Lake.