Friday the 13th (1980)


*. 1980 was the end of a sort of golden age of horror that planted the seeds of many different horror franchises. And when it comes to franchise horror I don’t think any film had such a long and surprising run as Friday the 13th.
*. Surprising both because it was so prolific (a dozen titles as of the time of this writing) and because it got off to such a lame start. The original was nowhere near as good a movie as Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Alien, but, speaking in terms of cultural evolution, it enjoyed a much greater reproductive success.


*. How did this happen? In part because, as Kim Newman observes, it “is a jackdaw of a film,” put together out of bits and pieces borrowed from other successful films. In part because “reproductive success” was its mission from the beginning. Producer/Director Sean S. Cunningham (producer of The Last House on the Left) wanted a project that would make money, a goal that this generation of horror directors was very in your face about. A commercial project would give Cunningham the freedom, in turn, to make more movies. He used that freedom to make more Friday the 13th movies. (He did other stuff too, but the Friday the 13th series stands out as his only significant achievement. Which, as I like to say, tells you something.)
*. Another contributing factor was that this movie, as cheap as it looks (and indeed was), actually came out under the aegis of a major studio (Paramount in the U.S.). This was something new, and it meant the money poured in.
*. Very little else was new, and this was by conscious decision. Cunningham wanted a rip-off, specifically of Halloween (with the ending from Carrie tacked on), and that’s exactly what he got.
*. There does seem to be a reductio at work with these franchises though. This is a lesser film than Halloween. Sleepaway Camp was a rip-off of this film. And as bad as this movie is, Sleepaway Camp . . .
*. Psycho DNA is spread throughout. How many times have we seen that swinging light bulb? It’s almost obligatory now.


*. The revenge of Mrs. Bates: an old woman seemingly controlled by the ghost of her dead son, who speaks and even kills through her. I like it. Betsy Palmer’s toothy Mrs. Voorhees is so much more interesting than the mute beast in the hockey mask. And tell me you saw the scene of her getting hit in the crotch with the rifle coming!
*. It seems relevant in some way (though probably unintentionally so) that we never learn Mrs. Voorhees’s first name, even when she introduces herself. She’s a mom. Just a mom.
*. In case you’re wondering, her first name is Pamela. But we only find this out in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter when we see her tombstone.
*. The score, with its jarring strings, seems to me at times to be violating Hermann’s copyright. Harry Manfredini states on the commentary track that every horror movie rips off Hermann, which probably isn’t true but you can’t blame him for thinking so.
*. The ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma of the Jason theme, however, is one of the few really original contributions to the genre.
*. I don’t buy the argument (made a couple of times on the DVD commentary) that compares this film to an Agatha Christie mystery (most obviously And Then There Were None). The killer, for one thing, is not a character we are introduced to or know before she reveals herself at the end. That is not how mystery works.
*. Many other arguments and interpretations have been thrown at the movie, treating it as some particularly significant piece of contemporary cultural mythology. I don’t think many of these hold up. Cunningham saw the only point to the mayhem as being an illustration of the idea that bad things can happen to anyone. The killer he specifically likens to the shark in Jaws, just a force of violence out looking for lunch. Which leaves us with precious little when it comes to a guiding philosophy or theme.
*. It’s not quite an idiot plot because most of the victims have no reason to believe that something strange is going on before they are killed. Still, why doesn’t the one girl at least put on her raincoat before running out into the storm in her nightie? It’s hanging right by the door!


*. Of course there is no longer any outrage much at horror. I can still remember Siskel and Ebert railing against the depravity of this franchise. That seems like the nineteenth century now. We even take the excesses of The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film for granted. But with no shock value attached to this film, what value does it have?
*. It was very cheaply made but Tom Savini’s special effects hold up reasonably well given the budget. The arrow through the throat and axe in the face are pretty good. The action proceeds along at a good clip. The character of Mrs. Voorhees makes for an effective twist. Jason’s theme music is great.
*. It isn’t scary at all now and I don’t remember it being very scary at the time. But it is effective as a thriller and met the low expectations of its audience. While I acknowledge that, when it comes to having success in Hollywood, the golden rule is still William Goldman’s “nobody knows anything,” I think there are a couple of fairly basic principles that should be followed: (1) give people exactly what they pay for; and (2) try and do at least a couple of little things right. That’s all Friday the 13th manages, and it turned out to be more than enough.


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