June 19, 2014
Friday the 13th – US, 1980
You have to love horror films. I say this not because I see in them a quality that other, more critical viewers do not or because I see in them signs of society’s present-day fears and trepidations - although those can be seen in many of them. Rather, I say this because to do otherwise is to take them far too seriously. Simply put, horror films exist to provide audience members with momentary feelings of dread, to cause people to gasp involuntary, and to fill them with the sudden need for human companionship, for a hand to hold or a shoulder to bury one’s head in. If a horror film achieves this, it can be said to have succeeded on at least a rudimentary level. The best horror films, however, do more than this. The fright they generate is earned not simply by ratcheting up the scary music or adding moments of realistically colorful gore; instead, it is earned by creating characters that the audience relates to and comes to care about and by creating villains that exist in a world that has consistent, yet supernatural rules. Unfortunately, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th does very few of these things.
Most people will need little introduction to the series, but for the uninitiated, I will provide a small summary. The film is set near a place called Crystal Lake, which has a history of horrific events dating all the way back to the late 1950s. The lake has been closed for a while, yet is now being reopened as a camp for young children, for what parent doesn’t want to send their children to an area where a series of unsolved murders occurred. In any event, a camp needs camp counselors, and so the beginning of the film is used to show the type of person willing to take on the challenge of doing such things as camping, swimming, and hiking. They come, they party in a way that young people always do in movies – irresponsibly – and then the murders begin.
The film has all of the normal elements of a film of this genre. There are the early warnings of creepy neighbors who for some reason continue to live near a serial killer. Here, these come in the form of not-so-subtle warnings for the counselors to “Quit now!” and that they are all doomed if they stay. There are also the early indications that the killer is around them. In this film, the killer’s presence is conveyed through the camera’s jerky movements as it moves toward the more innocent characters, as well as in long shots shown from the point of view of the hidden monster. And then there is the film’s final act, in which the killer is revealed and the last of the survivors fights to avoid become a victim.
In many ways, Friday the 13th just lazily goes through the motions. Its cast is at the B-film level, and with the exception of a young and obviously talented Kevin Bacon, there is little in any of the performances to write home about. The film has its fair share of campy characters (pardon the pun), one of the best of which is a police officer who utters these silly words: “We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.” However, it is never a good sign when these characters are more memorable than the ones that are being picked off. The film was made at a time when the youth sex comedy, a genre that focused on the sexual exploits of young people out to have a good time by shedding their youthful innocence, was increasing in frequency. Perhaps this is why every single young character in the film seems fixated on either drugs or sex. During one scene, one of the young ladies suggests a group of them play a game of strip monopoly to pass the time, and even the most conservative character in the film becomes practically giddy.
In fact, as portrayed in the film, every generation of the camp’s young counselors has three kinds of people: There are the ones obsessed with sex, the ones who exist to create humor, and the ones who are supposed to set an example, but are always absent at the most inopportune moments. Within these established groupings, there are a few other rules: The men must all be buff and walk around with their chests exposed; and the women must all talk in high-pitched voices and be able to wake the dead with their ear-piercing screams. Also, there must be at least one character that can do spot-on celebrity impressions, even if the impressions are of people that no one from their generation would likely do impressions of.
But I digress. A horror film is only as good as its monster, and the monster in Friday the 13th is a rather amazing one. Really. This is a killer who drives, can outrun some very young and agile individuals, has expert marksmanship and electrical knowledge, and is able to do eerie impersonations in falsetto. In addition, the killer is clever enough to remove dead bodies without leaving a trace of blood behind and strong enough to hoist said bodies onto higher elevations, yet petite enough to slide under a bed and hide there completely unbeknownst to the couple getting it on literally inches above. Is it believable that the person the film reveals as the killer could do all of these things? Of course not. So the film creates a second alternative, a being that has superhuman strength and a grudge against the world. It is no surprise just who this person is, yet the way he is introduced is at least somewhat intriguing. However, it takes only a moment for knowledgeable viewers to start having thoughts that begin with that regrettable phrase, Hey! Wait a minute.
Friday the 13th is ultimately a disappointment, yet it has its moments of campy fun and an ending that is a vast improvement on what precedes it. Watching it for the first time now is like stepping back in time and seeing the birth of the modern-day horror film, one filled with abrupt moments of ridiculous hilarity, irresponsible young people who are in constant danger and have a habit of doing exactly the wrong thing, music that tries too hard to reinvent the sensation of hearing those unforgettable chords from Psycho, a series of murders involving killers who defy the laws of physics, and victims so bland that audiences feel not even a tinge of sadness at their violent demise. Therefore, I have to add a caveat to my earlier statement: You may have to love horror films, but you also have to wish they were more than what they’ve become. (on DVD and Blu-ray)