Friday the 13th (1980)

★★★

Friday the 13th PosterDirector: Sean S. Cunningham

Release Date: May 9th, 1980 (US)

Genre: Horror

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.

Friday the 13th - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures

The Following

When I first saw the The Following advertised on Sky Atlantic, I knew I would be hooked. Two intriguing characters pitted against each other in that ‘good versus evil’ format that we are so used to seeing on television and at the cinema these days. In my opinion, the format still works — although it is no longer enough just to have a straight up ‘good guy’ and a straight up ‘bad guy’. As an audience, we have been completely saturated in this genre and modern day television characters cannot just have one layer: they must be like ogres, because as Shrek says, “Ogres have many layers”. Okay, I may have added the “many”. That is what made season one of The Following so compelling and consistently interesting — the main characters (particularly the two leads) were completely multi-dimensional in their thoughts and actions, and as a viewer I had no idea what was coming next.

Ogres + Onions + Layers = The Following. It all makes sense.

The show follows FBI agent Ryan Hardy, played exceptionally well by Kevin Bacon, and his desperate attempts to recapture serial killer Joe Carroll, portrayed wonderfully by James Purefoy, after Carroll’s escape from prison and subsequent unification with his cult of followers. From the outset, these were the two characters that kept me returning to the show each week — as it should be as they are steering the ship. Kevin Bacon is a very accomplished actor (he should probably ditch the EE adverts though as he is entering Go Compare Man territory) and his representation of a worn down, broken — both literally and figuratively — FBI agent who has hunted Carroll for years was spot on. However, the real shining light in season one of The Following was the scary, psychotic and yet fiendishly charismatic serial killer Joe Carroll. This is James Purefoy at his very best, and his very best is exceedingly good. Both Purefoy and Bacon play off of each other with ease, and their chemistry is the driving force behind the shows haunting atmosphere. Even as the surroundings change, the dynamic between the two stays the same.

“Dude, these pages are completely blank.”

As a result of running for fifteen episodes, season one was not over-encumbered with storylines, instead just scratching the surface of what the show can become in the coming seasons. The 15 episodes enabled creator Kevin Williamson to begin to develop effective supporting characters like Carroll’s estranged ex-wife and Hardy’s lover Claire Matthews (played by Natalie Zea) and Jacob Wells, a fairly young and inexperienced member of Carroll’s cult. Other actors who have each added to the show in their own unique way include Shawn Ashmore (of X-Men fame), Annie Parisse, Warren Kole (who is terrific in his role) and Valorie Curry. For me, there is no weak link in the cast thereby avoiding the sometimes detrimental effect that can have towards the likeability of a show in its premier season.

The cast of season one.

Each episode adheres to a consistently high quality set by those prior to it. The use of flashbacks throughout episodes is a very effective method of allowing the audience to understand who each character is and how they got to where they are. In particular, the flashbacks involving Hardy meeting Carroll back when he was a professor of English literature are well done. Time is given to various characters during each episode in order to keep the proceedings fresh and mobile, and enabling the actors to portray their respective characters in the light they wish to.  One of my biggest qualms about television shows is their misuse of actors and in terms of The Following, this is not the case.

Boasting consistently high ratings in the US and with a final episode which ended on an enormous cliff-hanger, The Following looks in good shape as it prepares for its second season. Going forward, the key to this shows success will be its ability to maintain the inescapably hostile atmosphere and creepily poetic dialogue.  If you have not watched season one, I recommend you check it out before season two hits television screens.

The Following Season Two will begin airing sometime at the start of 2014.

The Following Season One is available to pre-order on DVD and Blu-ray.