Warning! This feature review contains massive spoilers.
Try to cast your mind back to when ‘Friday the 13th’ was released in 1980. Although obviously, some of you were too young back then to remember or were not even born yet but for those of you who are old enough you can get all nostalgic. For those of you who are too young just try to place yourselves in this period watching the film for the first time.
I was too young myself in the year of the movie’s release. I was going on just 2 years old then and did not get around to seeing it until 1989 when the seventh sequel the abysmal ‘Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan’ had just seen the light of day going straight to video in my native homeland of the United Kingdom. I had just become a horror fan after watching respectively Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) and then all their released sequels at the time. Therefore, I had seen all the Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers films and now I wanted to see my first Jason Voorhees outing… and this 11-year-old boy could not have been more disappointed. By this time the franchise’s major antagonist had become one of the most famous villains in modern horror and his hockey mask one of the most iconic images in popular culture. I had no idea that the character was not the killer here but his mother was and that he only played a minor role referenced in dialogue, featured in flashbacks and pops up in a final scare Carrieesque dream sequence as a boy minus the hockey mask. This was the terror before the mask.
The movie did frighten the hell out of me though. I had my parents rent it out for me from our local video rental store and it was a well used worn out dirty copy with the picture quality being much darkened and it was the BBFC censored cut, as the uncut version was not released in the UK until 2003. Even though at that tender age I was unable to analyse film well, even then I could see that it was not the greatest piece of filmmaking ever committed to celluloid but it was the little things that made it an effectively entertaining scarefest. This was a time before we were introduced to a hulking backwoods hermit psychopathic deformed man-child in a hockey mask and it was purely just about the spectacle of the realistically depicted brutal gory mean spirited murder set-pieces. This is something that up until this point had not been seen before in mainstream cinema.
This was the first slasher movie to be distributed in America by a major Hollywood studio with Paramount Pictures looking to cash in on the success of Carpenter’s main template innovator of the sub-genre ‘Halloween’ that was independently distributed as well as produced. This was a motivation shared by producer and director Sean S. Cunningham before even finding a distributor. Up until this time, the public could only watch a low budget nasty scuzzy film like this in the squalid surroundings of the grindhouse theatres in 42nd Street, New York or at the drive-in theatres. This was the first time that mainstream audiences had the opportunity to see such a movie of this kind in the more clean and luxurious surroundings of their local multiplexes. People were going with friends or taking their partners amongst the safer company of honest workers and high school and college students as opposed to the low lives of junkies, pimps, prostitutes, tramps etc. This is what makes the film so special. Not because it is a great piece of horror filmmaking, but it is a genre landmark for being a novelty. It was something that the masses had not seen before at that time. Even more, it was successful at doing this raking in a phenomenal $39.7 million at the domestic box office against its minuscule $550,000 budget (plus another million for Paramount’s advertising costs) and it took another $20 million worldwide making it a huge cult smash hit.
Audiences lapped up the special make-up effects by the genius of Tom Savini whose movie this is more so than Cunningham’s. When the success of a horror film is owed more to the work of its SFX artist than its director then it does not say much about the actual quality of filmmaking here, with Sean S. Cunningham just pointing the camera at the action of Savini executing his creations. This is in contrast to the artistry that John Carpenter employed in ‘Halloween’. This was a master class of skilled filmmaking with the emphasis purely on suspense and tension with hardly one drop of blood in sight. Cunningham does though pull off some very effective highlights with some well-paced stalking sequences and there are touches here and there that deserve more credit than they are given with some genuinely creepy moments.
Heavily influenced by Mario Bava’s ‘A Bay of Blood’ (1971) with not only the graphic visceral intensity of its death set-pieces (even Marcie’s gruesome axe in the face murder is taken right out of the Italian movie) it is also dripping with a dreaded giallo like atmosphere that would transcend though to the first three sequels. It is even set by a lakeside just the same and is the first entry into the slasher sub-genre to introduce the summer camp setting as well. It works to great strengths here as a terrifying isolated rural location in a night setting during a heavy thunderstorm with the electricity and telephone lines cut and all means of transportation off limits as an unseen assailant bumps off the likable cast of characters in grisly fashion. Harry Manfredini’s now iconic score that owes more than just a little to Bernard Herrmann’s composition for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960) and John William’s theme for Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975) heightens all this immensely with the added "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" effect whenever the murderer is present on screen. This represents Pamela Voorhees’ schizophrenic psychosis as she hears her son talking to her telling her to kill.
All this is what makes this simplistic film work so well in achieving what it sets out to do doing what it says on the tin. Victor Miller’s screenplay is just serviceable to these needs but it is slightly better writing than what it is believed to be as Miller genuinely does try to create a mystery for the first half of the proceedings. This would have remained relevant today for first time viewers if it were not for the franchise that grew from this mythology that the screenwriter unintentionally created. We open with a prologue in the period setting of 1958 with a double murder of a couple of camp councillors who is getting it on. John Carpenter already established in ‘Halloween’ that sex is a sin but here it is Pamela Voorhees’ direct motivation as the camp councillors were too busy fooling around when they should have been paying attention to Jason as he was drowning. It is specific to her grief and want for revenge as she punishes who she believes are responsible for her son’s death as they do what they were doing when he drowned. The couple here could feasibly be two of her son’s neglecters but in the present day, what she believes is delusional. Of course, at this point a first time viewer who might not know anything of the Jason mythology would not know any of this.
Flashing forwards to that present day of Friday the 13th June 1979, we meet hitchhiker Annie (Robbi Morgan) who gets a ride from local truck driver Enos halfway to the reopening Camp Crystal Lake that the locals have nicknamed “Camp Blood”. Walking to the truck they cross paths with the prophet of doom Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) the drunken town crazy who warns Annie about the camp exclaiming, “It's got a death curse!” In the truck after Annie tells Enos that she will be the camp cook he himself warns her “Camp Crystal Lake is jinked”. He explains out of chronological order that a couple of camp councillors were murdered in ’58, a boy drowned in ’57 and a bunch of fires happened not specifying the time and that nobody knew who did any of them. He also mentions that the water went bad. Purposely, Miller has Enos mention the most important event here that triggered the murders and other events after mentioning those murders to throw off the viewer so that the boy’s drowning is not made to be more important than the other tragic events and so it is not on a first time viewer's mind throughout the rest of the movie. Remember this is “the terror before the mask”.
The screenwriter’s job is done in setting up everything and now all he has to do is join the dots together. The film misleads the audience as so to maintain a mystery and introduces what would become staples of the slasher sub-genre with a summer camp setting and the old locals warning the young naive strangers to stay away due to past traumatic events. Now he introduces the rest of the camp councillor characters sticking them all in the location of the cursed Camp Crystal Lake for them to be slaughtered. These are made up of horny young attractive adults who although one-dimensional are likable fun characters with final girl Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) being the most fleshed out in comparison having a hobby of drawing.
Victor Miller throws in a red herring to add some mystery with camp owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer). He comes across as very creepy in a scene coming on to Alice that is then followed up with a POV shot behind a tree watching her as she talks to Bill played by Harry Crosby (son of Bing) and then we see Steve drive out into town in a jeep. A similar jeep that we see next pick up Annie who is still making her way to the camp on foot (has to be the exact same vehicle used for production though and note that the roof is up here whereas it was down when Steve left). We only see Annie from the driver’s subjective viewpoint once she is in the passenger’s seat as she explains to the driver that she is working at the reopening camp. This is where Annie meets her demise with a slit throat.
The movie then cuts to the rest of the group larking around at the lake of the camp with Annie’s murderer watching them from a distance. Another warning from Crazy Ralph this time to the whole of the group having sneaked into the camp signifies that their deaths are imminent. This is followed up by Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) telling her boyfriend Jack (a post-‘Animal House’ Kevin Bacon) about how she has always been scared of thunderstorms since she was little as this one is about to hit. She details about a recurring nightmare she has that sets the rest of the bloody night in motion describing how “the rain turns to blood and the blood washes away in little rivers".
What happens next is one of the film’s creepiest moments. They then make love in a nearby cabin in which group clown Ned (Mark Nelson) has gone into just before having seen their stalker go in there. While getting down to it in the bottom of a bunk bed the camera pans up to the top bunk and we see Ned’s throat slit corpse lying on it and we hear Manfredini’s “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” to tell us that the killer is present. This is signifying that sex = death. Eventually, Marcie leaves to use the bathroom in another location to meet her tragic fate. Jack is alone lying on the bed smoking a cigarette when a drop of Ned’s blood falls on his face from the top bunk and then a right hand grabs his forehead and a left hand rams an arrow through the mattress into his back going right through his chest with blood spurting out all over him. A horrific death and one of Tom Savini’s most memorable set-pieces, but it is more that the whole time Jack and Marcie were having sex the dead body of their friend was laid out above on the top bunk above them and that Jack’s eventual murderer was underneath their bed all of that time as well that makes me shudder. This is very chilling stuff.
Savini’s practical effects work here is very effective and still stands up well today. Although they do come across a tad bit dated compared to some of his later and very finest work in the slasher sub-genre with such entries as The Prowler (1981) and of course the best of this series Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). Moments that do not feature any of the SFX maestro’s work though as I have described above are what have really stayed with me over the years even more so. Slasher fans might not be too keen on off screen kills but Brenda’s stalked and killed sequence makes for one of the movie’s most frightening and memorable moments easily being one of Cunningham’s best directed scenes here and is one of the very best off screen deaths in slasher history.
While alone in her cabin Brenda (the late Laurie Bartram) is lured out by the disturbing sound of a child’s voice crying out for help accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of Harry Manfredini’s score. This is obviously Pamela Voorhees mimicking Jason’s voice but it does sound authentically like a child’s voice. This boy's voice is heard the whole time she is out searching with a searchlight in the thick of the thunderstorm at night. It stops when she finds herself at the archery range where her stalker then puts on the lights and as the movie cuts to the cabin Alice and Bill are in, we hear here scream as she is murdered. This is truly harrowing and made all the better for it that it is not capped off with a gory set-piece as it is left up to the imagination how Brenda is killed. An earlier scene at the archery range in which Ned is messing around shooting an arrow at Brenda hitting one of the targets she is setting up foreshadows this sequence in which she is backing up against one of those targets as the lights come on so this is a strong hint as to what happens.
By this halfway mark of the runtime, Miller has gotten lazy with the mystery aspect throwing it out of the window by showing us Steve at another location in a local diner while these horrid events transpire. A group of young carefree people mucking about having a good time in such a wide open isolated backwoods environment completely oblivious to the fact that someone is stalking them and we the audience are the only ones let in on it is truly terrifying. In addition, up until this point there was a little mystery to coincide to add to our fears. Now though it has been completely removed and it just left up to a character that has not even been introduced yet to reveal themselves over the next 45 minutes.
When it is down to the final girl Alice then the killer reveals themself. Pamela Voorhees just turns up out of nowhere and has not even been referenced before in the film and reveals her entire backstory and motivation to Alice for what she is doing - losing her only child due to the negligence of the camp councillors and we see Jason drowning in her flashbacks. She also states that today is his birthday. Now the viewer remembers the dialogue from Enos about a boy drowning in ’57. This would have worked well if Steve’s diner scene had been omitted and with rewrites to keep the character alive have him confront Alice at the end when he makes his way back to the camp with suspicion from the audience still aimed at him only for Pamela Voorhees to then turn up.
All is left now is for Alice’s nerve shredding standoff against the deranged vengeful mother and the inevitable one last jump scare with the aforementioned Carrieesque dream sequence. While the soothing tranquil music the composer employs puts off the audience tricking us into believing that everything is going to be okay now for our heroine as she sits in a canoe on the lake the suggestive camera zoom tells us otherwise. Seeing a decomposed deformed young boy jumping out of the lake grabbing Alice and pulling her under the water from her canoe remains one of my most vivid memories watching horror during my misspent youth. This was actually Tom Savini’s idea from watching Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ (1976).
It is almost impossible to watch this as a standalone slasher. The mystery element is already ruined well before the screenwriter messes it up halfway through the movie due to the massive success of the franchise it gave birth to with the popularity of its star villain Jason Voorhees and his famously recognizable hockey mask and his much-discussed origins. Only viewers completely ignorant to the series and its iconic character can appreciate the filmmakers’ original intentions here, as the mythology created was not supposed to be elaborated on. There was never a Jason, as he only existed as a dead child serving as the motivation for the antagonist. It was Ron Kurz and Steve Miner the writer and director respectively of the superior 1981 sequel and close second best of the franchise Friday the 13th Part 2 that retconned all of this.
While being the lesser of the three primary influences on the slasher sub-genre in terms of technical achievement when compared to such superior filmmaking as Bob Clark’s ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ (1978) the film is no less an important innovator. It actually played a bigger role in popularizing the sub-genre by delivering us its blood drenched early 80’s golden age bringing us the gore, the much used summer camp setting, the obligatory older generation’s warnings to the young folk, upping the T & A factor and being the first piece of exploitation proper to be given such mainstream exposure. The studios followed suit by hiring production companies and giving them small budgets to go out and shoot what they would hope be another geek show money spinner with new slice n’ dice flicks opening every weekend. A few were great a fair share was really decent and some of these were even better slashers than this movie. Most were terrible however.
For better or for worse though ‘Friday the 13th’ helped shape modern American horror and in spite of itself, what it does get right makes it an effective unpleasant grimy little slasher. “The terror before the mask” will always be a regular fixture for me every Friday the 13th until the day I die.
*** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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