I made my way through most of the Halloween franchise, and for now, the Nightmare franchise. But it’s time to leave Haddonfield and Springwood behind and travel to the Garden State, the site of Camp Crystal Lake and the menacing Jason Voorhees. I’m doing that today, of course, with the first film in the franchise, 1980’s Friday the 13th.
In my imagination as a kid and a teenager, Jason Voorhees was always slotted second behind Michael Myers, but ahead of Freddy Krueger. I’m pretty certain as a kid and teenager, I saw more of the Friday the 13th films than the Nightmare films, but they also sort of blend together after the first two films? So as we go through this, I’m not sure if there’s a film in the franchise I haven’t seen yet, but we’ll see.
I have seen the original before, and in the director’s chair is Sean S. Cunningham. Prior to the 1980 film, Cunningham produced Wes Craven’s directorial debut, 1972’s exploitation horror film The Last House on the Left, which, all these years later, still holds up as grisly and grim. It’s a favorite of mine, inasmuch something like that can be a “favorite.”
Screenplay credit goes to Victor Miller, who, interestingly, mostly seems to be a daytime soap opera (and award-winning) writer for All My Children, General Hospital, Guiding Light, and One Life to Live. I could actually see the soap opera mindset lending itself to the slasher film because it’s really an episodic sort of mindset: Jason Voorhees is going to come back with a new (and some returning) cast of characters, and off we go. Despite the title of one of the sequels, there is no “final chapter.”
In hindsight, as I’ll get into after watching the film, the plot of the first film definitely has a soap opera feel to it.
As I’ve written before, this film came out two years after Halloween and was obviously inspired by it. Much like Halloween, it was done as an independent film on a shoestring budget of $550,000. But different from Halloween is that a major studio, Paramount Pictures, picked it up for distribution.
I also have to mention the music by Harry Manfredini. There’s the iconic “ki ki ki, ma ma ma,” based on the idea of, “Kill her mommy!”, as in, Jason Voorhees imploring his mother Pamela Voorhees to kill one of the characters (spoiler!). I always heard it as “ch ch ch ha ha ha,” but that’s neat to learn what it actually is. But for whatever reason, the soundtrack overall didn’t resonate with me the same way Halloween’s did. However, thanks (yet again) to the Halloweenies podcast talking about the films, I re-listened to the soundtrack in full, and it is damn good! It’s a genuinely great, haunting soundtrack. I also like that Manfredini was inspired by 1975’s Jaws to use certain musical cues to as a motif to signal when the killer (like the shark) is nearby.
One other item worth pointing out behind-the-scenes is Tom Savini, the makeup designer, and who is credited with the makeup work and special effects for a lot of George A. Romero’s zombie flicks.
In front of the camera, we have Adrienne King as Alice Hardy, the main protagonist. The two things of note about King is that unfortunately, after appearing in the films, she had a stalker come after her, and she left the film world for a bit. However, the second thing of note that’s really cool; when she did return, she did some stunt work. That’s neat.
I don’t really know anyone else on the cast, like Harry Crosby, who played Bill, who apparently became an investment banker. That amused me for some reason. I guess these people are so immortalized in an iconic film, you just assume they stick with Hollywood, but a lot of them go back to leading normal lives. It’s fascinating.
Oh, and I guess there is a this one actor who is in this, playing Jack, who you might be familiar with: Kevin Bacon. Bacon, along with most of the cast, are theater-trained actors, which means, they are actually good at acting more than you would normally see in a low-budget horror film. Betsy Palmer, who played Pamela Voorhees (or Mrs. Voorhees, as she’s credited) was a longtime television and theater actress, and it shows in a good way.
Palmer is also notable for saying the script was a “piece of shit,” but she did the film anyway because she needed a new car. Apparently, over time, she “warmed up” more to the franchise and the role, but that’s pretty funny.
The premise of the film is that Camp Crystal Lake has been shuttered for over 20 years due to “several vicious and unsolved murders,” according to Amazon Prime’s synopsis. Further, “The camp’s new owner and seven young counselors are readying the property for re-opening despite warnings of a “death curse” by local residents.”
So that mayhem (the “vicious and unsolved murders”) happened in 1958. And then we go into that direct influence from Halloween: Two camp counselors sneak away to have sex, and we get a point-of-view perspective from the killer, just like in Halloween when Michael Myers stalks and kills his sister Judith Myers after she had sex, and we get Myers’ POV.
You know, watching this in hindsight knowing what the reveal at the end is, the guy’s reaction to being caught fooling around actually makes a lot of sense, “We weren’t doing anything, we were just messing—” If it was a big, scary guy that came up those stairs to confront them, I think he’d have a different reaction. But since it’s Pamela Voorhees (spoiler!), he reacts more like, “Awe shucks, you caught us!”
What’s interesting watching this film in 2020 is that it’s hard to decouple your viewing from cliches or hallmarks of the horror (and particularly slasher) genre. In other words, if you were watching this in 1980, none of this would be cliche or a hallmark yet. For example, Ralph (who in the credits is credited as “Crazy Ralph”), the creepy local resident who warns Annie (played by Robbi Morgan) about going to Camp Crystal Lake; we get that “crazy” character in a lot of horror movies thereafter. And it’s a red herring because you think, oh, he must be the killer because he’s creepy. Also subversive is that we’ve become conditioned now to think the first person we get familiar with and particularly a woman, in this case Annie, is going to be the “final girl.” But that also gets subverted when she’s killed (spoiler!).
Heck, even the entire premise would become a horror cliche: A bunch of young kids go out to a far away place and get butchered. In some ways, Friday the 13th is more the birth of the traditional slasher than Halloween is, or at least, spawned a lot of imitations.
For the most part, the cast of characters are likable and you don’t want them to die. But, uh, gotta say, sorry, Ned (played by Mark Nelson), please die. He’s annoying, and perhaps a little racist with his depictions of Native Americans. On the other hand, someone I don’t want to die is Jack because it’s Kevin Bacon, but it is one of the most iconic deaths in horror: After having sex, he’s lying on the bed when the killer holds him down by the forehead while sticking what looks to be the spear of an arrow through his throat. Even 40 years later (40 years!) this holds up extremely well. The special effect looks great and believable. In fact, all of Savini’s work in this film looks great and holds up all these years later.
What’s interesting about Alice, as the final girl in this film, is that she’s the only one of the characters who gets a chance to really realize what’s going on. When any of the other characters realize something is amiss, they are killed immediately or don’t even get to realize the amiss part before being killed. Despite her terror and fear, though, she goes into resourceful mode, which was nicely established at the beginning of the film when she was nailing in the gutter, I believe, on one of the cabins.
Both of those points are similar to what happens to Laurie Strode in Halloween: She’s the only one who gets a moment to realize something is amiss and is then resourceful about fighting back. But also, both Alice and Laurie are taunted by the killer, who shows off the other kills. For some reason, both Michael Myers in Halloween and Pamela Voorhees like to play with them a little bit more. Is it because they are the last one on the list, so they feel they have more time to terrorize?
“Did you know a young boy drowned a year before those two others were killed?” – Pamela Voorhees to Alice
The last 20 minutes, when Betsy Palmer comes in as Pamela Voorhees, is pure brilliance and subversion. Not to mention, the iconic monologue that starts in earnest with the above iconic line. You can also see Palmer’s theater background at work. She plays it so well with the dramatics and expressiveness, but it’s also quite terrifying and menacing. “Look what you did to him!” She’s great.
Savini’s great special effects come through at the end, too, when Alice cuts off Pamela Voorhees’ head; it still holds up! Well, not her body because she doesn’t have a head anymore and crumbles to the ground. But it looks great! By virtue of that, Alice has to be considered the best horror movie protagonist? Because she actually killed the villain, and definitively: she cut her head off! There’s no coming back from that (well, there shouldn’t be).
The final shot is beautiful and well-done, as they tease Jason coming after Alice on the boat. But it seems to be a dream? So maybe they weren’t trying to set-up a sequel. I forgot that it’s written as a dream sequence, albeit still somewhat ambiguous. You get why they ended up making Jason Voorhees the villain and continuing with sequels. With only a half-million-dollar budget, this film made nearly $60 million world-wide. I think Paramount ended up spending more than the budget to make the film on marketing, but still, that’s a heck of a profit return on their investment.
But as I was saying before, you can see the soap opera influence. The idea is that Pamela Voorhees is mentally distraught after her son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake, but instead of dealing with her own guilt at not having saved him, she projects it onto the camp counselors and blames them for it. So she goes on a killing spree, thinking that’s what Jason Voorhees would want. But for us, the viewer, rather than a traditional slasher film this is more like a whodunit mystery because we don’t know until the final 20 minutes who the killer actually is.
This film holds up extraordinarily well on all fronts. The story is tight and interesting, the acting is well-done, the special effects hold up, and Cunningham’s direction is great. It’s a good-looking film with a memorable soundtrack. You don’t even have to adjust it for its shoestring budget; on it’s own merits, this is a well-put together film.
I don’t think it gets enough credit in the horror genre because it’s not a Jason Voorhees movie, so it gets sort of dismissed for the later sequels that have Jason Voorhees (particularly with the hockey mask). But this is a worthy original franchise film in the same way Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street are.
Critics contemporaneously and today don’t seem to like the film much, seeing it as overly violent and derivative of Halloween. While yes, it does have more violence than Halloween and as I’ve written, is derivative of Halloween, it also is its own thing, and creates its own imitators. The critics are too harsh on this film; it’s ultimately a violent, subversive, and psychological whodunit, and it works on that level.
If it’s been a long time since you’ve seen this entry, do yourself a favor and try it out again.