By Adam Donato
Friday the 13th (1980) is directed by Sean S. Cunningham, an apparent genius. The film was conceptualized and marketed before the script was even written. Cunningham had the idea for the title and how giant block letters would zoom forward to break a pane of glass that would be the screen. He was given funding for a teen horror movie that would rip off Halloween (1978) by breaking it down to the bare essentials. The film stars Betsy Palmer with a cast of unknown young people, one of whom is the now household name Kevin Bacon. The massive success of the movie would spiral into what is one of the most iconic horror franchises of all time. The “story” follows a group of camp counselors trying to set up shop at a cursed campground. This is a spoiler review, so if you’ve been sitting at the bottom of a lake for the last forty years, stop reading now.
On the one hand, it’s unfair to compare Friday the 13th to Halloween, one of the greatest horror films of all time. The reason for the comparison comes from the blatant and admitted influence that Halloween has had on the Friday the 13th franchise. Jason Voorhees certainly belongs in the same group as Michael Meyers and Freddy Kreuger when it comes to horror icons, but the quality of their movies differs heavily. It’s said that the movie was going for the teen audience as the movie would be a cross between Halloween and Meatballs. A horror movie about teenagers who are cracking jokes and getting busy with each other. Regardless of the actual quality of the movie, it deserves credit for kickstarting one of the most successful horror franchises in history and standing the test of time so much so that #Voorhees starts trending on Twitter every time the thirteenth of the month ends up being on a Friday.
The movie is a horror classic, but it’s not very good at all. The story is weak and the characters are weaker. According to the producers, this was by design. Friday the 13th movie has been credited with establishing horror stereotypes concerning teenagers having sex leading to their ultimate demise. This puritanical theme has influenced horror films for decades, but apparently isn’t the intention of the movie. The director cites that he feels audiences are looking too far into it and the movie isn’t trying to say anything except “sometimes bad things happen to good people.” This isn’t a bad theme, but it’s also not as strong as what audiences think the movie has to say about the dangers of the ignorant youth of America. The negative reception from critics at the time only fueled the movie’s box office, which was a massive success making over $39 million off a $500,000 budget.
Okay, so the movie isn’t trying to make you think. Then where’s the appeal? The movie was said to purposefully have generic characters with no backstory so that the audience would be strangely unaffected when they died. The characters are boring and they have no arcs. Why do this? The film is meant to be enjoyed at base value. Stupid (and sometimes naked) young adults getting murdered by an overpowered psycho killer. One could say, the film is trying to make you laugh just as much as it’s trying to make you scared, but that’s giving the film too much credit. It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser for teenagers to enjoy good-looking people getting murdered. Whether it’s genuinely being scared of the villain, laughing at the ridiculousness of the kills, or just waiting until one of the girls takes their tops off.
Weirdly enough, the twist ending of Friday the 13th works better in retrospect. If you’re watching the movie in 1980, then the twist of the killer being Jason Voorhees’s mother is a mundane one, especially since the puritanical themes are misinterpreting the film. Somebody watching Friday the 13th today with all of the popular culture knowledge that comes from the franchise, one would expect Jason Voorhees to walk out wearing his iconic hockey mask at the end of the first movie. This makes the twist hit harder than originally because we have some kind of relation to the killer. The first movie wastes very little time talking about the background of why the camp is cursed. A boy drowned in the lake due to the negligence of the camp counselors. The mother doesn’t show up until the third act, so she is not developed at all. Watching it now, we know Jason Voorhees, even if you haven’t seen the movies. So when you watch this movie expecting him and it turns out to be his mom, then the twist works because of your attachment to the popular character and the expectations that come with a franchise like this. In a way, Friday the 13th ages like fine wine, but not intentionally. Also, the fake-out ending with Jason grabbing the final girl out of her boat is dumb. Apparently it was meant to be a joke, which is kind of funny due to its ridiculousness, but other than that it makes no sense. That’s a big tonal shift, because how he is still alive is ambiguous, and leaving it up to interpretation on whether or not it was a dream feels cheap. This makes it a very fitting ending as the movie is the definition of cheap.
This review would not be complete if some credit was not given to Tom Savini and Harry Manfredini. Savini was sought after for his special effects makeup work on Dawn of the Dead (1978). Most of the gore is very convincing despite the clear changes in skin tone when the characters have their necks sliced. Manfredini composed what is one of the most iconic horror movie scores of all time. The decision to only have music play when the villain is present is an inspired choice and elevates the film. These two aspects are what stop the movie itself from being devoid of value.
In trying to conclude this review, it’s hard to hate this movie. It’s charmingly old, undeniably iconic, and has such an independent/underdog spirit that’s hard not to root for. It deserves credit for its impact and what it did accomplish, but as a movie, it’s trash. The characters and story are nothing, which would be fine if the movie had some compelling themes, but according to the filmmakers behind the movie, it doesn’t. If you enjoy mindless killing, endless gore, ridiculous scares, or young Kevin Bacon, then you might like this movie. Watch it in the dark with a big group of friends and have fun talking over most of it.
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