Entries Comments

Friday the 13th: The Kickoff of A Mysteriously Popular Franchise

Friday the 13th (Paramount, 1980)
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
Written by Victor Miller

I’ve been thinking hard and long lately about what my next critical project/contribution should be to this lovely website. I had a lot of fun this past Halloween watching and penning my fitting tributes to the Halloween sequels (The Projectionist wrote reviews of the original and the 2007 remake previous to my endeavors). So, this being the time of nostalgic trips to summer camps (Although, admittedly I never attended a single one), I decided to throw caution to the wind and tackle the infamous Friday the 13th series.

The summer season is, however, only one of my reasons. The second inspiration is that a remake/reimagining/piece of shit bastardization that is being filmed as we speak under the lovely Platinum Dunes banner; you know that company headed by everyone’s favorite auteur, Michael Bay. They’ve been paying their own kind of greedy tributes to a slew of horror films over the past few years (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher, etc.). Maybe it will be good, but I have my doubts based on previous films under this banner; aka all of them.

My last reason was that I haven’t watched these films in god knows how long, which will ultimately, I’m sure, be something I should have been proud of and left alone. The last time I saw an F13 film was when the Projectionist and I decided it would be fun back in 2002 to spend an afternoon in the multiplex witnessing the Citizen Kane of this decade, Jason X. It was actually enjoyable, but that had more to do with the excellent batch of gummy bears I had scored at the concession stand. I really don’t remember a thing about the film.

I do plan on doing a Nightmare on Elm Street compilation closer to Halloween, so I will be saving the main event title, Freddy Vs. Jason until then. But enough with the preambles, let’s get down and dirty with my Summer of Blood campaign. I hope all enjoy.

Horror has always been easily identifiable by the decades. The free flowing seventies with the crazy kids and their hair, disco, and sexual flavors of the month scared the hell out of the religious sect and led to a slew of films focusing on demonic possession and the like. Movies like The Omen and The Exorcist were box office gold for the horror genre and introduced a slew of cheap knock-offs.

By 1978 the box office prowess of this type of horror film was dead in the water, so to speak, and then came along a young man by the name of John Carpenter (Who had crazy hair, and I’m sure loved disco and sex) with his little indie that could, Halloween. Argue with me all you want about Black Christmas (Which Halloween initially was going to be a sequel to) setting the stage, but Carpenter’s film made the money, so it gets the credit.

Halloween set the stage much in the same way The Exorcist did for the newly appointed king of horror, the slasher film. The “Slasher” should also be noted as the one sub-genre of horror that just won’t seem to die. Every few years it seems like it has run its last course, and then comes along a Scream or a Halloween (2007) oddly enough to put it back on track.

Enter Sean Cunningham, who with his buddy Wes Craven had reached some sort of critical prowess with their nasty remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left. Sean saw the success of Halloween, and decided he could make magic as well with a film title focusing on a date. He got a bright idea to put a full page ad in Variety exclaiming that a movie was being made called Friday the 13th, and even though he had no script, the ad did the trick; he got his investors, and he was off and running. Due to those money hungry investors a scriptwriter was commissioned (Victor Miller), but the fact that a script was ever actually written is debatable. Just watch the film and decide for yourself.

Friday the 13th tells the story of camp counselors reopening a campsite at Camp Crystal Lake and getting brutally murdered over the course of a day (Friday the 13th, of course). There really isn’t much more plot than that, but the idea of plot to Cunningham is simply a lack of imagination.

If you want more in the way of plot, I guess I can be so bold to try and give it to you. A young woman, Annie (Robbi Morgan), enters town looking for a ride to the soon to be reopened Camp Crystal Lake. She will get the luxury of being the camp’s new cook, and she is soon confronted by a creepy, old vagabond named Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney). He lets her know quickly in that creepy old guy voice that the camp has a “Death Curse!”

Annie finally finds a ride with an unseen driver in a Jeep. We never see the person or hear them talk, and judging by the looks on Annie’s face after a few minutes, this driver is apparently not giving off the friendly vibe. Annie decides to jump from the jeep while it’s moving, only to have the driver stop, get out, and slit her throat. And thus begins the fun that is the F13 series.

One has to understand that 1980 was the predawn of home video rental. That wouldn’t become much of a fad for a couple of more years. So, unless you did a lot of overseas traveling or were lucky enough to be in a film class with some prints, it was unlikely that one had seen any of the Italian shockers that these films and future slashers’ were based on. So, in essence, Annie’s throat being slit was something that American audiences had never witnessed before so up close and brutal, and thus begins the lust for gore among young teenagers that the Reagan administration tried so hard along with the MPAA to put a stop to. They didn’t get very far.

I’ve always wondered what the likes of Reagan had against films of this type. Didn’t the ideas of being punished for unsafe sex and drug use fit nicely into his political campaign? Wouldn’t it have made more sense down the road to have big banners with Jason’s hockey mask adorned visage and something along the lines of “Vote for Ronnie” written underneath?

For the rest of the film, we get much of the same type of setups and executions. The storyline is trying very hard to be a mystery even though the rest of the cast doesn’t seem to realize they are in the middle of one. Our film’s final girl, Alice (Adrienne King), is so stupidly unaware that after she finds all the bodies she doesn’t think it odd that some random woman shows up by the name of Mrs. Voorhees to supposedly help her out. Mrs. Voorhees was played by Betsy Palmer, a semi-famous t.v. actress from the fifties that famously took the role because she needed money for a new car.

Good ole Sean loved Halloween, I’m sure. However, he must have felt that having interesting characters, creepy and visually arresting cinematography, and actual scary sequences were beside the point because F13 has none of that.

What F13 did bring to the fold were a series of interesting death sequences that would be copied and one-upped through out most of the first slasher boom in the early eighties, mostly in the endless sequels to his own film. We got arrows through throats and decapitations galore. The one thing that F13 got right, and cannot be argued, is the master F/X work of Tom Savini. Sean loved what he did on Dawn of the Dead (Understandably!), and coaxed him into doing this film. Savini became an instant star, one of only two from this film (More on that later), and even did appearances on David Letterman where he would display his latest gore set pieces.

What F13 also brought to the fold was terrible acting, shoddy camera work (although that does get a little better in the sequels, but just a little mind you), and the most uninspired “Slasher Motif,” the “Revenge Factor.”

Because, you see, the motives behind the killings in F13 are ones of simple revenge. Mrs. Voorhees’s semi-mutated son drowned in Crystal Lake many years ago due to imbecile camp counselors who were having sex and doing drugs instead of paying attention to the kids. She has vowed to kill any counselors who dare step foot on the campgrounds and try to start up another camp where this can happen again.

Because if you remember correctly, and this was how Drew Barrymore got her boyfriend with the ever-changing last name killed in Scream, it was Mrs. Voorhees and not Jason who does the killings in the first F13 film. And for you trivia buffs, the only reason it became Jason was because Palmer refused to be in any of the films after this one. Can you imagine what a series of films with Betsy Palmer as the killer would have been like, especially considering she wouldn’t have had a head after this one, but I digress.

I have said very little about the cast and what not, and I apologize. I promise to venture into that a little more with the sequels since I won’t have an overlong prologue before hand. But the one character you should know about, as I said I would get to that other star from the film, is the horny teenager, Jack, played by Kevin Bacon. It should also be noted that this is the only film on his resume that is not used in the “Six Degrees” game since barely anyone else in the film actually acted again. Bacon also gets the coolest death, the aforementioned arrow through the throat.

The immediate difference between the Halloween and F13 series can be noticed quickly in the first films of each franchise. Where Halloween had an honest to god classic film to kick things off, F13 had a derivative and stupid beginning that makes the continuation of the series all the more fascinating.

The thing that is great about the F13 films has nothing to do with the quality of the craftsmanship because besides great F/X on occasion and some interesting acting choices down the road, there isn’t a ton of quality to be had. But the series still has its fan base, and it is huge. The films should also be noted for having so much written about them. One of the best books I’ve ever read written on film is Peter Bracke’s tome, Crystal Lake Memories, where he dissects the entire series to the bare bones. It’s a fascinating study of a series of films that could have only existed in the decade they were committed to celluloid.

I still have to wonder, why F13? It’s not like there weren’t other pointless and endless franchises in the eighties like Police Academy. But I have yet to find the book, The Essence of Steve Guttenberg, although I would read that in a second.

Still, I’m adrift yet again. The fact is that the original F13, with the exception of a few nice gory moments, is a fairly pointless exercise and really quite boring, even for a slasher film. They can only get better from here, Right? Right? What the hell have I gotten myself into?

Next: Friday the 13th Part 2


Sam Loomis

Write a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.