FRIDAY THE 13TH, the definitive slasher movie, remains one of the most effective and important films in the history of horror cinema, still outshining the countless imitators it has spawned since its release over a quarter century ago. A simple tale of murder and revenge at a newly-reopened summer camp, this film changed the face of the horror genre and continues to be the benchmark by which all slice-and-dice movies are, and should, be judged – even in this age of big-budget remakes, green screens, and CG effects.
In its initial release, FRIDAY THE 13TH drew the ire of civic and parental groups and filled theaters nationwide due primarily to word-of-mouth regarding Tom Savini’s graphic, shockingly realistic make-up effects. While the gore scenes are still convincing and grisly today (particularly the infamous “arrow through the Adam’s apple” shot), it is not the film’s liberal (for the time) bloodletting that gives it its power. At the heart of the narrative is the concept of isolation – young people unfamiliar with the great outdoors placed in a remote setting and stalked by someone or something that knows its way around the forest. Producer-Director Sean Cunningham creates a pervasive feeling of being miles from civilization with excellent use of natural light and shadow, rich and authentic sound (including many moments of unnerving quiet), and a voyeuristic camera that is constantly stalking and closing in on the unsuspecting victims like the eyes of the killer. There are lots of handheld and killer’s POV shots and ultra-slow zooms, and many shots filmed through windows or doorways to create the unrelenting sense that someone is watching our hapless teens at every minute. The cinematography is so alive and leering throughout that it quickly becomes unclear what is a point-of-view shot and what is just a simple dolly or pan, placing the viewer in the uncomfortable position of stalking the victims right alongside the killer. Added elements like a local drunken prophet named Crazy Ralph, a snake in one of the cabins, and a sudden thunderstorm that plays havoc with the phone and power lines helps reinforce the notion that these kids are truly cut off from the world they know, and are thus in terrible danger. While John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN brought death to the streets of our neighborhood, FRIDAY THE 13TH yanks us out of suburbia and drops us off right in evil’s backyard.
Some of screenwriter Victor Miller’s attempts at youthful banter are clunky at best, but the acting here is solid and most of the characters are far more interesting and believable than those in subsequent hack-and-slash films. No one in the cast has that polished, “Hollywood” look that can undermine a performance so easily in a film like this. The kids are likable and attractive in a natural, youthful way, and the locals are as genuine as you’re likely to see in a big studio release. Even glamorous screen veteran Betsy Palmer manages to shed most of her Tinseltown glitz (and future star Kevin Bacon hasn’t quite found it yet) in the film’s most important role. The only two weak links in the ensemble are Peter Brouwer as beleaguered camp owner Steve Christy and Robbi Morgan as the ill-fated cook Annie. Brouwer’s delivery is flat throughout and he never manages to convey the intensity that the character’s history calls for. Morgan (now the wife of TV host Mark L. Walberg) is just plain bad.
Palmer delivers one of the most chillingly memorable performances in film history as the vengeful Mrs. Voorhees, mother of a boy who drowned at the camp years earlier. Though she doesn’t actually appear on-screen until the final minutes of the film, she is so intense and so malevolent that even the most hardened horror fan will shudder during her pivotal, terrifying “Jason should have been watched!” speech. Palmer reportedly hated the script when initially offered the part, but thankfully took it and delivers her maniacal monologue (as well as her schizophrenic “conversations” with her long dead son) with a zeal equal to Colin Clive in the original FRANKENSTEIN and emotion on a par with Robert Shaw’s haunting “USS Indianapolis” tale in JAWS. Mrs. Voorhees doesn’t need a hockey mask or a grotesque physical deformity to be frightening, because she is completely off her rocker and seething with murderous rage. Not since “Mrs. Bates” grinned into the camera and observed that she wouldn’t even harm a fly in PSYCHO has there been such a convincing and bone-chilling movie maniac.
Harry Manfredini’s musical score may be somewhat derivative of Bernard Herrmann’s work in PSYCHO, but it packs a hell of a wallop and is an essential part of the tension created during the film’s most frightening moments. In one scene, heroine Alice (Adrienne King) hides in a pantry while Mrs. Voorhees searches the house for her. Just as Alice thinks her pursuer has left, the knob on the pantry door begins to turn. Manfredini expertly punctuates that turn with a high, sharp note that doesn’t let the viewer miss what is happening for even a second. He is also responsible for the now iconic “Ch-ch-ch, ah-ah-ah” vocal cues that are as much a trademark of this film as Savini’s make-up effects or the final scare scene in which Alice learns she isn’t the only one to survive the night at Camp Blood. The entire score is a harrowing, well-crafted masterpiece that deserves its place alongside the themes to HALLOWEEN, THE EXORCIST and JAWS as the greatest pieces of horror film composition of the last 40 years.
FRIDAY THE 13TH did not get much respect from critics when it was originally released, and many filmgoers today look on it as little more than the first in a series of cheap, carbon copy gore flicks that long ago lost their ability to frighten. It is a shame that casual viewers and critics alike haven’t taken the time to re-examine this influential gem and discover for themselves just how atmospheric and creepy it still is. The film isn’t really about bloody deaths, but rather about being just inches away from death and miles away from help. It’s about the danger that waits when we leave our element and head off into the unknown, and how that danger is always lurking in the shadows, waiting to bring us face to face with our own mortality. Like Tobe Hooper’s original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the quintessential slasher film is really about the hopelessness and terror of running into evil on its own turf. In that context, it’s every bit as shocking and scary as it was in 1980.