Friday the 13th is one of the seminal horror franchises, among the ranks of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Unlike those three, however, Friday’s first film differs from the rest of the series.
First off, let’s talk about the story. In the 1950’s a boy drowns at Camp Crystal Lake while the camp counselors are busy making love; soon after, there is a double murder, and the camp is shut down. Flash forward thirty years, and Steve Christy is hard at work trying to reopen the camp. Counselors are riding in, ready for shenanigans, but none of them know what’s coming for them.
Friday the 13th (1980) is a whodunit slasher, unlike most of the other movies in the series. When the film begins, if you somehow have avoided spoilers or haven’t seen Scream (1996), you have no idea who the killer is. They don’t even mention Jason Voorhees until the final fifteen minutes of the film. That’s what sets this one apart from the rest of the storied franchise. This aspect is hit or miss for people, as some appreciate what the filmmakers were going for and others are unimpressed.
Surprisingly enough, the characters in Friday the 13th are some of the most likable of the slasher genre. A lot of times in these films, even within this franchise, the teenagers are insufferable, but not here. Led by the incredibly capable Adrienne King as Alice, our heroine, the cast puts on some really fun performances. They feel like real teens; they mess with each other, they play crude games, and they have premarital sex when the adults aren’t around. Obviously, this is partially due to the dialogue, which is surprisingly natural. These teens have an authenticity to them. They mess with each other in ways that I mess with my friends, and they have that spark of young love; it all fits to create a good portrait of that age. Even with limited development, we still care about these characters because we can identify with them. These people might have been us at one point or another.
Another thing that works in Friday the 13th’s favor is its cinematography. Make no mistake; this is a low-budget film. But the killer POVs and the framing for some of the death scenes is actually surprising in quality. There are also a good deal of gorgeous shots of Crystal Lake that have stuck with me since first seeing the movie. These shots really put you in that setting: dead of summer at a lake, no pun intended. I wouldn’t say it has the best cinematography in the horror genre, but it has a good aesthetic nonetheless. The lighting is also top notch, as night scenes feel real. This is definitely the upside of the low production value; it makes the forest around Crystal Lake feel all the more dangerous after dark.
The plot of Friday the 13th isn’t the best in the genre, but it does a solid job constructing its whodunit framework. I will say that Friday the 13th doesn’t really plant any red herrings; instead, it keeps the killer hidden. You could argue that having Pamela Voorhees show up in the final act tips the film’s hand too much, but the real reveal is the motive behind her madness. Seeking revenge for her son, who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake, is a good one; it doesn’t justify her actions, but it does put them in context. They successfully convey how much Jason’s death psychologically broke her. In the finale she imagines herself talking to her son, but she speaks as both herself AND Jason. It’s bizarre and very off-putting, in a good way.
Let’s talk about Harry Manfredini’s score for a second. Honestly, like Halloween (1978), the music makes the film SO much scarier than it would have been. The sharpness of the high pitches, the rapid-fire strings section, and the now famous ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma all make for a score that keeps the audience completely on edge from beginning to end. It’s not one that I hear a lot of praise for outside of the Friday the 13th fanbase – not the way Halloween’s is talked about, at least – but Manfredini’s score is definitely one of the best in the genre.
The kills in Friday the 13th are pretty darn good for the time. This was Tom Savini’s heyday, after he had done the gore effects for George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). He was very accomplished at delivering quality, realistic looking gore because of his tenure in the Vietnam War. In Friday the 13th, he delivers throat slits, arrows through the throat, an ax to the skull, and some off-screen kills. Like I said, for the time, these look fantastic, but with the advent of high-definition video, the imperfections of some of these effects are starting to show. For example, when poor Kevin Bacon gets penetrated by an arrow to the throat post-coitus, you can see the skin tone and fake torso with the cleaned up visuals and clearer picture. The same is true of the throat slit earlier on in the film. This was bound to happen eventually; effects can’t stay perfect forever. I still think that, overall, they function really well (aside from the skin tone inconsistencies), but it’s something to keep in mind, especially if you are in the market to upgrade to the Blu-Ray or digital HD versions of these films.
Do I have any other complaints? Sure. The ending with Jason pulling Alice under is a cheap sequence because they don’t commit to it. This is something that has dawned on me as I have grown up, heard various points of view and had discussions about the franchise. I think the ending of the film would have been stronger and more interesting if Cunningham hadn’t chocked it up to being a dream sequence. Other than that, and some of the points I’ve made above, nothing else really bothers me.
Friday the 13th is a rock-solid opening entry into this storied and blood-soaked slasher franchise, with good cinematography, solid kills, and a killer musical score. It falters in poorly aged makeup and the lack of a real mystery for its killer. However, I still recommend the film to any slasher fan who, for some odd reason, hasn’t experienced it yet.
What did you think of Friday the 13th (1980)? Let me know in the comment section below! Stay nerdy everyone!