“Ma’am – we didn’t find any boy.”
THE TIME HAS COME. I’m finally going to write about all the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. I did one big review of the whole saga almost 13 years ago, so it’s time for a reboot. At long last I will review them separately, giving each one the focus it deserves – the type of one-on-one, individualized attention that the counselors failed to give poor Jason Voorhees while he was swimming on that fateful day, on account of they were having s-e-x. As far as I am aware no one else has shared opinions on these films before, especially on the internet, so I’m very proud to be breaking this ground, for the good of the community. At last, Jason’s story can be told.
Maybe part of the hangup in starting a series like this is that this first one is the hardest to write about. As a result of the weird choice to make Jason the killer in part 2, the smash hit cultural phenomenon original retroactively became somewhat disconnected from the rest of the series and much of what we associate with it. Like, when they said they were remaking FRIDAY THE 13TH, we knew that meant they were remaking the sequels to FRIDAY THE 13TH. In that favorite horror fan pastime of ranking the installments of a horror series, you gotta be a little hot-takey or at least personal-favoritey to not choose #1 as the best for the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, HALLOWEEN or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchises, yet very few would do that for FRIDAY THE 13TH. By definition, if you’re a fan of the series you’re a fan of Jason, right?
(SPOILERS for FRIDAY THE 13TH and the opening quiz of SCREAM: Jason is not the killer in part 1 he’s the motive, he was a kid who drowned at the camp in 1957 and his mom blamed the counselors and went crazy and keeps killing other counselors hired by the camp.)
When people say the first film is not that good I get it, but I disagree. I think for what it is it’s really well made. Director Sean S. Cunningham (HERE COME THE TIGERS, MANNY’S ORPHANS), having had horror success as producer of Wes Craven’s THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, tasked his regular screenwriter Victor Miller with ripping off the popular HALLOWEEN. Since Miller chose to lift the element of young people being killed after having sex in commemoration of a past tragedy, and since their movie ended up being just as influential as HALLOWEEN, it has in many ways become the Platonic ideal of a slasher movie.
It has good looking young people, they don’t have much to their characters, and they’re mostly there to drink beer and be in their underwear, but they give good performances, they have a strong presence, the movie looks nice, the suspense sequences are well staged and paced, the killer reveal, climactic battle and CARRIE-inspired epilogue are great fun, the gore makeup by Tom Savini (coming off of DAWN OF THE DEAD!) is top of the line and groundbreaking, and the score by Harry Manfredini – not just the famous KI-KI-KI MA-MA-MA, but also the PSYCHO-inspired orchestral dramatics – makes it feel much more legitimate than most of its imitators. Even the opening titles, with the great logo flying toward the camera and smashing through glass (the lens?), go the extra mile.
But yes, also you spend most of the time with normal camp stuff building up to the scary parts, and you only get POV and hand shots of the killer, so it’s pretty slow and simple by the later standards of the series, and I’m probly not alone in revisiting it less often than some of the other chapters.
One thing that holds up well is its ability to put you in the place of these people going out somewhere to start a summer job. If you compare it to, say, SLEEPAWAY CAMP or I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, I think you get a much stronger sense of reality to these people and this place. And you can relate to the situation of these six young people who seem to be friends coming together to start what they probly hope will be a pretty laid back weekend.
There are no kids yet, they’re just setting up, and their boss Steve (Peter Brouwer, As the World Turns, One Life to Live, All My Children) is mostly not around. So after some business like removing a stump, fixing the gutters, learning about the emergency generator and killing a snake, it’s closer to a vacation. A time to share a cigarette and a couple Budweiser stubbies, playing strip Monopoly by the fire. Obviously there’s dread involved, because we know danger is lurking, but it’s still kind of a hang out movie. There’s a lazy summer day before the stormy night.
To me the most vivid character is the one who never meets the others because she’s the first one to die in the present day. I’m not sure what Mrs. Voorhees was mad at Annie (Robbi Morgan, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?) for, unless it was hitchhiking? (She gets picked up by an unseen driver who pulls a Stuntman Mike and doesn’t stop at the camp, so she has to jump out of the speeding Jeep and somersault into the woods!)
I find Annie to be adorable. She hikes into the movie with a big smile and an equally big backpack and the first thing she does is stop to talk to a cat. Then she walks into the diner and asks about Camp Crystal Lake and gets the “Large Marge sent me” treatment. A guy driving an oil truck (Rex Everhart, voice of Belle’s dad in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST!) gives her a ride, which is nice, but also he tells her she’s good looking and pushes her into the truck by her butt. On the drive he switches from concern for her not having been warned what she’s getting into by the camp to lecturing her for wanting to go there, and she does a good job of brushing him off. (Although yeah, we know the jerk is right.)
Alice (Adrienne King, uncredited dancer, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER) is of course the heroine, the survivor, the final girl, and she’s good too. She’s kind of mysterious. We see that she likes to draw, she says she “may have to go back to California to straighten something out,” and we never learn what that something is. Steve convinces her not to leave right away and puts his hand on her face and hair – either implication of a past relationship, or inappropriate behavior by a boss. Or both.
Steve, by the way, doesn’t seem like a total jerk or anything, but the truck driver was right – it’s weird that he didn’t tell the people he hired that this camp is infamous and considered “jinxed” by the locals because of the drowning and then double murder and some unexplained water problem in ’62 and a “buncha fires.” Come on, Steve. They have a right to know.
It must’ve been cool at the time to have Betsy Palmer show up out of nowhere at the end, give off an uneasy vibe, then reveal the whole Jason story (including that it’s his birthday, a detail in the mythos I always forget, maybe because we don’t know what month it is) and get in a knock-down-drag-out with Alice, getting thrown around, yelping when she gets hit with a pan, grabbing Alice’s head and repeatedly banging it in the dirt. Then getting her own head chopped the fuck off. Damn!
I only know Palmer as Pamela Voorhees, but some people watching it back then might’ve known her from MISTER ROBERTS and THE TIN STAR and stuff, or as a frequent guest on game shows and talk shows. Seems like pretty good stunt casting. (She hadn’t done a movie in more than a decade and took the job to pay for a new Volkswagen.)
I saw her at a horror convention one time – it was the first year for this convention and attendance was low. She was sitting at a table by herself, wearing what looked like the sweater (or did she just have it on the table? It was so long ago) and smiling politely. I just thought that poor lady, I doubt she likes all this horror shit, and she’s just sitting there, she’s an icon, she doesn’t deserve this, also what the fuck am I gonna say to her (so I didn’t). That’s the image that comes to mind whenever I think of the awkwardness of conventions. But to look at it more optimistically, maybe it’s fun for her to have an excuse to travel around to different cities, and I’m sure people are nice to her. and maybe she just thinks it’s an interesting thing to do. (Maybe?)
It’s weird that the one actor who became better known for other things, Kevin Bacon, happens to get the best death. It’s brilliant the way the blood drips on him from above, causing him to look up, and completely misdirecting us as the arrow bursts from his chest. Savini was so good at that magic trick shit.
And it’s not only the gore that’s well-crafted. Though I certainly wouldn’t put this on the level of its predecessors HALLOWEEN or THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, it has real directorial choices in it, it’s not at all the point-and-shoot crap that many of its imitators were. One example: the way the camera floats outside of the cabin and follows the phone line, revealing a cut in it while we hear her in inside trying to make a call.
Many of the copycats may have recognized that they wouldn’t be able to match the masterful execution of HALLOWEEN – following the FRIDAY THE 13TH formula seemed more attainable. That attitude underestimates just how right Cunningham got each of those ingredients. It’s a well made movie and so many things fell into place in a way that we don’t get in all the similar movies, and that we tend take for granted.
I hope I’ve done okay in discussing this most famous of movies without just stating the obvious. To wrap up I would like to discuss some elements that I haven’t really seen talked about, or that weren’t really picked up on in the sequels, but to be honest I didn’t come up with much. Maybe I better do a numbered list so it seems like more.
1. Was Camp Crystal Lake a Christian camp? In the opening flashback to 1958 we see the counselors leading the kids in singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” It’s specifically the lyrics popularized by The Highwaymen, but it comes from an African-American spiritual about the Archangel Michael crossing the River Jordan. Maybe that’s just meant as ironic that they’re maybe singing about death. But I feel like you wouldn’t be singing “Hallelujah” so much unless it’s a Christian camp, and if it is I suppose that underlines why Mrs. Voorhees is such a zealot about fornication, and extra enraged at the counselors, who I suppose could be considered hypocritical for not living up to Christian piety or whatever.
It also would give the movie a little subtext commenting on religion. I suppose Jason’s drowning could be blamed on lack of adherence to stated principles (counselor’s doin’ it), but Mrs. Voorhees’ zealous enforcement of the anti-fornication agenda is the larger ongoing problem, causing far more death. Because of Jason/Mom’s judgmental murdering, people have often described the series as having conservative or puritanical values. But couldn’t it also be read as the filmmakers’ critique of such values?
2. Like many actual summer camps (maybe not anymore, but back then), Camp Crystal Lake seems to have vague Native American theming to it. One of the cabins is called “Comanche Cabin,” there are some totem poles, there’s a Chief’s headdress available for goofballs to wear. So, you know… somebody ROOM 237 that shit.
3. When she’s getting a ride in, Annie tells the truck driver that the campers will be mostly “inner city” kids. That’s interesting and something that’s never explicitly picked up on in the sequels.
4. Don’t tell Freddy, but dreams are a theme in this one. There’s a whole discussion about a thunderstorm dream. I don’t really understand the significance. And then the famous ending, with Alice drifting in a canoe, soothing keyboard and drum ballad on the soundtrack, only to be accosted by the ghost or whatever of little Jason, is designed to feel dreamy and is dismissed as a dream by everyone besides her.
5. Let’s talk about Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney, TRADING PLACES). He’s the drunk who creates awkward social situations and/or warns everybody they’re going to die, also declaring himself a “Messenger of God.” I assume Miller got the idea from the “you laugh at an old man” drunk in the cemetery in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and just between those two characters I think it’s fair to call this sort of doomsayer a slasher trope. But what I want to note here is the part later on where the cop tells about Ralph’s pattern of getting drunk and out of line and then getting arrested, and that his wife worries about him. The point I’m trying to make here is that this guy has a wife.
As they say on Twitter, let that sink in. That poor lady.
The success of FRIDAY THE 13TH was somewhat unprecedented, because Paramount distributed the independent production and took the gamble of releasing it wide. It was #18 in the year’s box office and the studio’s second most profitable movie that year (after AIRPLANE!), so they immediately got to work developing a sequel, correctly believing it could become an annual-ish event for young moviegoers.
Though Cunningham produced many of the sequels and retains rights to the characters, he stayed pretty hands-off and never directed any of them. None of his subsequent films matched FRIDAY’s success, but they include the sex comedy SPRING BREAK (1983), the enjoyable teen thriller THE NEW KIDS (1985) with Lori Laughlin and James Spader, and the underwater monster movie DEEPSTAR SIX (1989). In 2017 he directed a documentary called THE NURSE WITH THE PURPLE HAIR, about a hospice worker, which I think is an interesting development for a director so associated with simulating death for teenage entertainment.
Victor Miller wrote one subsequent Cunningham movie, A STRANGER IS WATCHING (1982), plus Doug Liman’s first film GETTING IN (1994), the Pauly Shore movie JURY DUTY (1995), and a few others. He and Cunningham have engaged in a long legal battle over his share of the proceeds to the series, which is why there haven’t been any new installments in quite a few years.
P.S. The FRIDAY THE 13TH series was obviously one of the biggest influences on my horror-action novel Worm on a Hook, and I’m very proud of the book and would like to promote and/or discuss it. So for anyone interested this review series will include notes about each FRIDAY movie’s influence on the book, when applicable. (There will be book spoilers, of course.)
WORM ON A HOOK NOTES:
My mission with Worm on a Hook was to create an organic amalgam of the type of action movie stories I love and the traditional ‘80s slasher, specifically the FRIDAY THE 13TH series and its imitators. So I looked for ways that the tropes of the two genres overlapped or could be combined, and one of those ways was to include a Crazy Ralph type doomsayer who turns out to have another action-related purpose. (I establish more of those colorful local characters in the beginning, but most of them don’t stay in the story for long.)
I gave my heroine Florence a hobby of painting, but until rewatching this now I did not make the connection that the very first FRIDAY THE 13TH final girl, Alice, is also an artist. Instead, I wanted to give her a Badass Juxtaposition (my concept that the badassness of action heroes is made more potent when contrasted with a sensitive passion such as playing jazz piano or carrying a pet bunny). So it was an accidental homage, but Alice is worthy of homage.