The story goes that Sean S. Cunningham, producer of low budget movies (mostly horror, including Wes Craven’s first movie, The Last House on the Left) had an idea for a movie called Friday the 13th. He had no story, no characters, nothing else in mind except for the title. So he went to a graphic designer and had an ad designed with the title smashing through glass. The kicker was the tagline: The most terrifying film ever made. Then he placed the ad in Variety. The feedback was immediate. People–teenagers and young adults, mostly–wanted to see this movie.
Victor Miller wrote the story and Cunningham took on directing as well as producing. You know the story already: After being closed for 20 years because of murders, Camp Crystal Lake is being reopened as a place for inner-city youth to experience nature. A group of young people join Steve Christy in preparing for the reopening. Someone attacks and murders them one-by-one until the lone survivor, Alice, wins. There is a shock ending and an implication that a sequel could be made.
There is a gradual build-up to this first film. Miller and Cunningham start off with a young couple being murdered in 1958, but then allow some time for the characters to arrive at Crystal Lake and hang out before the killings really start up. There is the sense that they actually want the audience to know the characters.
Peter Brouwer as Steve Christy is pretty good, though he is hardly in the movie. He’s the “old man” of the group, in his mid-to-late-twenties, yet is young enough to have a thing for Alice (Adrienne King). There’s an implied romance there that is never developed.
Betsy Palmer is priceless as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees. Her arrival at the end of the movie is sudden but you instantly like her, and then fear her when she goes nutty. Her revelation that she’s the killer and her motive, the drowning death of her son Jason, is well done for a melodramatic scene. It looks as though she’s having a blast playing the crazed killer.
Tom Savini’s makeup is another thing that’s always fun to watch. His makeup never really feels polished yet is always believable. His strength as a makeup/special effects guy is in the roughness of the final product and helps the movie achieve a shock-value that the other early slasher movies lacked.
The music by Harry Manfredini is also really good. It’s very Psycho-meets-Jaws in its execution and sound. When the famous Friday music begins, you know to hang on to your armrest.
The overall feel of the movie isn’t serious. Sean S. Cunningham wasn’t trying to create a horror masterpiece, but rather was trying to make a fun, scary movie. Obviously inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, he moves away from his work with Wes Craven to something meant to sell a shitload of tickets, barrels of popcorn, and make kids scream and laugh. And it does. More than 30 years later it’s like opening a time capsule, but it’s fun.
And the last good thing about this movie is Kevin Bacon. He does a good job in this movie. Hell, all of the “kids” do a good job in this movie, but it’s Kevin fuckin’ Bacon! And this is where the passage of 33 years really counts. To see someone who has become more than just a really good actor but an icon in an early role like this is fun. It’s like seeing Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, there’s a major difference between the two. I’ll get to that later.
The characterization is crap. With the exception of Mrs. Voorhees, none of the other characters have a history. The only “kid” who seems to have lived at all before this is Annie (Robbi Morgan) whom we first meet hiking into a small town on her way to Crystal Lake. She is thumbing her way there and gives a little insight into her life. There is an attempt at giving Steve Christy and Alice a little bit of characterization but it never really gets off the ground. Whether it was Victor Miller’s writing or Sean Cunningham’s lack of caring is for the individual viewer to decide. I think it’s a combination of both. Considering the slower build-up to the killer’s spree, this is a shame.
Because of weak characterization, the acting never really gets off the ground. As I said before, all the “kids” do a decent job, and I’ve already acknowledged Brouwer and Palmer (and Bacon) but for the most part the kids are given very little to do. They are caricatures more than people. Alice is the nice, smart one who Steve wants but may want Bill (Harry Crosby) instead. Jack (Bacon) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) are boyfriend and girlfriend and go to the camp with their friend Ned (Mark Nelson), who is a bit of a jokester who takes things too far. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) is a little risqué but…not…? And to try to go any further is impossible, because that’s all these people are. They’re played adequately enough, but there’s no meat. They’re given nothing to really do but go through the movie and, well, die.
This is the biggest problem of the movie. Because we’re never really invested in the characters, we never really give a damn about who lives and who dies. One of the strengths of Halloween, the thing that made it a classic, is that John Carpenter and Debra Hill crafted teenagers who one could relate to and care about, so when the faceless killer goes after them, you give a damn.
The revelation of the killer at the end is also a misstep. Yes, Betsy Palmer plays Mrs. Voorhees with gusto and has fun in the role, but because she shows up out of nowhere, she’s meaningless to the audience. Miller gives her a throwaway line (“I’m a friend of Steve Christy”) to throw the audience off and make them think she’s safe, but considering they’ve never seen her before it doesn’t matter much. Perhaps if she’d been around throughout, it might have more surprising. Even if she’d been in the town at the beginning, trying to warn Annie off, it would’ve worked. Instead, here’s this nice lady from out of nowhere who must be the killer. (Let’s not go into the question of how she can lift some of these dead bodies and throw them through windows even though they’re larger than she).
Saturday the 14th
Overall, Friday the 13th is a fun movie with no pretensions. Cunningham wanted to make a movie that would sell tickets and popcorn and he did. The film has been picked apart by critics and naysayers since its debut in 1980 (which, being three years old, I wasn’t really aware of). It is not, and never should be, mistaken for a work of art, or even a good movie.
The biggest problem from an adult point-of-view is that it exists only to watch people die in various ways. It’s surprisingly tame considering the later movies and its reputation. There are gory scenes, but the gore is minimal and is cut away from quickly. And there is, surprisingly for a slasher movie, an innocence that comes through. Despite the depravities, it’s somehow a very innocent movie and worth watching now if, for no other reason, only to see it as a popular classic movie, bad as it may be. I had fun.
With the template set, and box office being huge, there was no wonder Paramount wanted a sequel.