Friday the 13th (1980) (United States, 1980)

February 11, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Friday the 13th (1980) Poster

For those steeped in the lore of what Friday the 13th would become, watching the first movie can be a little surprising. Many of the long-running series' staples are either absent or toned down from where they would evolve. The gore is surprisingly tame. There's little sex and not much nudity. And, perhaps most noticeably, there's no hockey mask. For that matter, there's not much Jason. Only the core concept - a bunch of kids go into the woods, have sex, and are summarily dispatched by a lunatic - is evident here. Those in search of a hockey mask-wearing, machete-wielding mass-murderer have to fast forward to the second sequel.

It is generally accepted that the slasher genre started with Halloween. Cases can be made for other movies, but it was Carpenter's 1978 film that distilled the formula and established the template. However, while Halloween may have widened the trail blazed by the likes of Psycho and Black Christmas, it took Friday the 13th to pave the road. The filmmakers freely admit that the mission statement for this film was to "rip off Halloween." However, what director Sean S. Cunningham and screenwriter Victor Miller took away from Carpenter's work wasn't the cascading sense of tension or the white knuckle suspense but the concept that girls were penetrated below the waist by their boyfriends then through their necks by a killer. Friday the 13th is neither tense nor frightening (although, to be fair, it is at times creepy and atmospheric, due in part to budgetary limitations that led to a low-key style). The characters are paper-thin and the story exists merely as an excuse for carnage. Subsequent slasher movies, including Halloween II, became involved in a game of one-upsmanship trying to provide new and gorier deaths for the increasingly irrelevant human population of these productions.

Friday the 13th strands a group of six camp counselors - Alice (Adrienne King), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Brenda (Laurie Bartram), Jack (Kevin Bacon), Bill (Harry Crosby), and Ned (Mark Nelson) - at Camp Crystal Lake, a summer retreat located in Sussex County, New Jersey. Despite rumors of a curse and a decidedly unsavory reputation (it is called "Camp Blood" by some of the locals), the property's new owner, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), is determined to get things up and running. As the long shadows of afternoon deepen into the blackness of night, the protagonists start doing the sorts of things that unsupervised college-age kids do. Jack and Marcie sneak off to an isolated cabin to get to know each other better. Alice, Brenda, and Bill play "Strip Monopoly." And Ned goes walkabout. Meanwhile, there's a killer roaming the camp, eliminating the counselors one-by-one. And the survivors don't become aware they're in danger until there's almost no one left.

Jason, who would become the series' flagship killer beginning with Part II, is largely absent from the movie. He figures into the backstory and appears in a dream sequence but, other than that, he's not relevant to events. And he isn't the murderer. (This isn't a spoiler since the screenplay never views him as even a red herring.) His supposed death by drowning in 1957 is important only in that it provides a motive (weak though it may be) to the real psycho. Sadly, the figurative unmasking of the villain isn't merely anticlimactic; it's laughably absurd.

Friday the 13th can be divided into two sections. The first piece, which comprises about 75 minutes, is a rambling chronicle of what the characters do when left to their own devices in the woods. It's a little creepy, but not consistently so, and the dialogue is downright awful. The borderline-tedium is occasionally broken by the murders, but these are brief, bloody interludes. The exploitation elements are tame. For example, the "Strip Monopoly" game features no nudity; the only time we see any flesh is during the short Jack/Marcie sex scene. The viscera quotient is equally anemic. While makeup artist Tom Savini showed more than greeted our eyes in the nearly-bloodless Halloween, Friday the 13th (even the uncut, unrated version newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray) is not the gore-fest it is reputed to be.

The film's final 20 minutes is where most of the action occurs. There's a lot of running around. The killer is revealed. All of the bodies are discovered. And Adrienne King proves that she can let loose with one hell of a scream. The climax is so campy and moronic that it can be enjoyed on the proverbial so-bad-it's-fun level. The acting is excruciating and Cunningham proves that, whatever lessons he may have learned from Carpenter, keeping an audience in a state of tense anticipation is not among them.

Friday the 13th was not Kevin Bacon's first film, but it was close. He's not around for more than a cup of coffee, either. Jack survives long enough to have sex with Marcie, then he bows out none-too-gracefully. He's the only actor in the film who would go on to enjoy a long and prosperous career. Unlike Jamie Lee Curtis, however, he didn't have to claw his way out of the pit of low-budget slasher movie stereotyping. He put Friday the 13th behind him and moved on. His fellows did not have the same good fortune and, observing the quality of their performances, it's not hard to understand why.

Harry Manfredini's score deserves credit for upping the creepiness factor. Like many horror themes, it works because of its simplicity. There's more than a little of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho in it, but not so much that it can be called a cheap copy. The music plays only when the killer is around, so it's a good cue that something dire is about to happen. The score is not as chilling or effective as the one Carpenter penned for Halloween, but it is nevertheless one of the best things about Friday the 13th, at least on a technical level.

As a movie, Friday the 13th is unremarkable and unmemorable - an amateurish production of no lasting value. The same words, however, cannot be used to describe its impact upon cinema in the 1980s. If Halloween was the father of slasher movies, Friday the 13th was both the mother and older brother. When studio heads saw how much money those two films accrued, it became a fait accompli that theaters would soon be flooded by copycats and sequels. And so it was. The Curse of Camp Crystal Lake wasn't the deaths of innocent campers; it was the dregs of the slasher genre that would overwhelm drive-ins and multiplexes as the '80s matured.

Friday the 13th (1980) (United States, 1980)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1980-05-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1