Release Date: May 9th, 1980 (US)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King, Peter Brouwer
It would go on to spawn nine awkwardly named sequels, a cash driven remake and horror’s first modern crossover but Friday the 13th’s greatest influence has always been contained within the lore of the genre itself. Part of a thriving gore group with strands etched through the seventies and early eighties, Sean S. Cunningham’s outing is fairly camp by today’s standards (no pun intended) but also an entirely palatable effort. Should we be thanking the director for his contribution to an occasionally riveting genre, or cursing him for his ‘how to’ guide on making a easy buck? Probably a bit of both in truth, but we definitely shouldn’t be ignorant.
You probably all know the story by now. In 1957, a young boy drowned in Crystal Lake. In 1958, two camp residents were brutally murdered. Twenty one years have passed and the summer retreat location is re-opening, its renovation being undertaken by owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and a bunch of other counsellors. Of course, a blade-wielding killer has decided to pitch up for the night too.
Clichés are abound in Friday the 13th, but given the film was made so long ago a degree of slack-cutting ought to be implemented. It’s true that we can namecheck all of the hackneyed genre norms even before the end of the prologue, a trend that remains throughout and — looking back many years later via eyes worn out by forest chases, old creaky barns and loved up teens — is ultimately a bit disengaging. Then again, who’s watching a thirty-four year old slasher romp with a view to criticise when the local loony shows up? We’ve seen it all before, yes, but there is still stupidity fuelled fun to be had.
Such is the general nature of the slasher brand, the film isn’t all that frightening. The formula on display dictates what winds up being a fairly kooky tone; having settled on the joke-making, characters find themselves separated from the group — either through lust, sheer idiocy, or both — and are picked off innocuously. That’s not to say creepy moments are completely benched. On the off chance we do get see some post-death imagery that is quite unsettling, though by and large the kill scenes themselves are silly. (And, to be fair, quite admirably executed given the tiny budget).
The same plot would see the light of day a few years later, this time under of the guise of Sleepaway Camp, and Friday the 13th could have made use of that film’s shocking conclusion. At ninety minutes long, Victor Miller’s screenplay really does begin to feel the weight of repetition, particularly as it approaches its final act. More time should be filled with scary suspense, and absolutely would be in a more serious affair. The comedic underbelly (one that has no doubt felt the effects of age) taints any tension and, despite serving up the occasional moment of light relief, sticks the knife anything attempting to divert away from light froth — a silly interaction with a snake effectively sums up this quandary, especially as the pay-off gag is funny.
The cast, comprised of good looking kids you might see in a Pepsi commercial, are nothing more than genre pawns resistant to backstories and peeled straight off the slasher victim conveyor belt. These days they’d most certainly be chopped to pieces by the force of modern critical consumption. (Rich coming from a film blogger, admittedly). There is no central character, nobody who is distinguished outwith the cloak of ‘last person standing’, and it is therefore difficult to care. A youthful Kevin Bacon shows up looking peculiar in his iffy speedos, though he’s not the worst offender. Peter Brouwer plays camp owner Steve Christy, a guy I’d have been scared away by upon arrival at Crystal Lake — topless, moustached, prone to face stroking… he is the definition of a dodgy customer. A wary truck driver sums the characters up rather efficiently: “Dumb kids, heads full of rocks”.
Having said all that, the film should be acknowledged for its role in inspiring an often lively genre and it is here through which the franchise as a whole thrives. Part of the Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street crop, Friday the 13th is a significant contributor to a pack that would go on to influence a new form of popular mainstream cinema, a whole new genre in essence. Director Sean S. Cunningham shifts from a conventional shooting framework to one with flavours of today’s abundantly utilised found footage style. It works too: we collaborate with the killer’s point of view, adding a more primal dimension.
Other moments usher in previous genres knowledges, such as Hitchcockian shadows, Janet Leigh-esque screeches and Carrie-like drenched gowns, suggesting a semblance of directorial nous. The piece is also an introduction to one of cinemas most recognisable baddies in Jason Voorhees, though here his form is somewhat diminished. Moral issues such as revenge are timidly hinted at but not worth their inclusion.
Indeed, Friday the 13th couldn’t be cornier if it was on a cob. Characterisation — or the lack thereof — is at an unfathomable premium and the horror outing isn’t really all that spooky. But it’s not really horror. Three decades ago the picture was one of the first in a less weighty, more dainty subgenre whose cleaver would end up spurring on the likes of Scream, one of the 90s’ best and a favourite of mine.
For my money, that’s pretty good going.
Images credit: IMP Awards