Film Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby III, Peter Brouwer, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor, Laura Bartram, Betsy Palmer

Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Synopsis: A group of teens head off to Camp Crystal Lake on Friday June 13th, 1980 for some summer work and fun, but most of them won’t be coming back home.

If you’re a fan of slasher films that have few redeeming qualities, then you’ll probably love Friday the 13th. It must be a testament to Jason Voorhees’ status as an iconic character in pop culture why this gets any attention in 2018, because, quite simply, this film isn’t very good.

The opening emphasises how influential Halloween and Psycho were for Cunningham – and the horror genre – as he structures this scene similarly to Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece while using very Psycho-esque music when camp counsellors Barry (Willie Adams) and Claudette (Debra S. Hayes) are slashed. It’s also similar to both films in the sense that we don’t see the killer here – just a first person point of view – which is fine as there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of mystique to start. The only issues with these aspects are that as the film goes on, the mystery of who this killer is becomes tiresome, and the music being continuously similar to Bernard Herrman’s Psycho score becomes tedious and starts to reek of unoriginality.

Following the title sequence we’re taken into a modern setting: Friday June 13th, 1980 and are introduced to Annie (Robbi Morgan) who’s looking for directions to Camp Crystal Lake. Her questions lead to some concerned looks and this allows us to realise the camp’s reputation as an evil place for even more tragedies than the one we’ve just watched. These include a boy drowning in 1957, fires, and the water being bad when the camp was reopened in 1962. The ramblings of Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) sum it all up: “you’ll never come back, it’s got a death curse“.
My issue with Annie and the rest of the young cast in this film is that they’re incredibly unlikable and not worth rooting for. Annie is portrayed as sweet and kind, but it comes across in such a forced manner that she’s more irritating than anything and because of this, when she gets her throat slashed really early on (again, similarly to Psycho in that we’re both misled as to who the main character is and unaware of who the killer is) it’s more of a victory for the viewer that they don’t have to watch this character anymore. That’s even more so the case for Ned (Mark Nelson) who is one of the most annoying film characters I can ever recall watching – he makes Franklin from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre likeable, that’s how insufferable he is.
For a horror to really work, you’ve got to at least care about one of the characters, and Friday the 13th struggles massively with this.

One thing Cunningham does do quite well is mislead us into thinking the film’s going one way, only for it go another. When a policeman comes looking for Crazy Ralph, it allows us to think he’s the killer, or at least the one watching them through the trees. This is then used to give us a right shock when he pops up out of a cupboard, preaching again about the camp having a “death curse” and how he’s a “messenger of God.” He proceeds to ride off and that’s the last we see of him, which is a shame because he’s one of the few interesting characters in the film.

At this point of the film only Annie’s dead, but when Ned wanders off into a cabin all on his own, the killings are properly kickstarted, with Jack’s (Kevin Bacon) death scene being the highlight of them all for its suddenness, gruesomeness and for the fact its one of the few scenes to feature good music that doesn’t sound like a Psycho rip-off. I would have said the scene where Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) meets her fate is a good one as well, because the creepy, isolated shots of the shower curtain, and the impressive cinematography of the shadow of an axe rising behind her is awesome, but unfortunately this scene is ruined by her terrible attempt of screaming. It’s worse than something you’d see in a B-film and even the brutal image of an axe to the face can’t redeem it.

The final act of the film sees Alice as the lone survivor of these camp-mates. The big problem here though is that Alice is given little screen time throughout and because she hasn’t been built up enough to be cared about, it’s difficult to be interested in whether she lives or dies. I had no reason whatsoever to root for her against the killer, who is revealed to be Mrs Voorhees, the mother of iconic horror slasher Jason.
In regards to the reveal of Mrs Voorhees, firstly, it’s an interesting twist to see an elderly woman as a sadistic killer, and it does make it understandable why she isn’t revealed until this act, as I doubt you could take an elderly woman chasing after and killing a bunch of teens seriously and realistically had we seen her from the start.
Palmer is very good at being a genuinely sinister and demented character, paranoid to the extent that she blames all camp counsellors for the death of her son who drowned in the Fifties (the call-back here to Enos’ conversation with Annie is a nice resolution), and the scene where she stalks Alice who is hidden in a cupboard is the best example of that. It also helps that Cunningham decided to give her a machete as a weapon to increase her threat, but I still can’t help but feel Alice should have had no trouble defeating her a lot earlier.

Cunningham, to his credit, tries to keep us invested with a will she / won’t she ending fight between Alice and Voorhees, where it seems like our protagonist has won only for the killer to pop back up – again very reminiscent of Halloween. It’s a shame because for as poor as the film is, there’s almost a satisfying ending here with Alice brutally killing Mrs Voorhees, drifting out into the lake while triumphant, peaceful and heroic music plays, only for Jason to emerge and pull her under. It would have been great to end the film here, but Cunningham, for no reason other than to set up a sequel, decides to have Alice wake up in a hospital with police unaware of anyone or anything else being in that lake.

There’s not much of note to this film. There are characters who aren’t likeable and who we don’t really care about getting slashed by a killer we can’t see for 95% of it. There’s some good moments such as Jack’s death scene and the set up to Marcie’s. Cunnigham doesn’t hesitate in showing his audience a good amount of gore and brutality, which is great if that’s all you’re looking for in a horror, but if you want an original, tense horror story with characters you can be invested in, I’d strongly advise you to give Friday the 13th a miss.

Rating: 3/5



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