Over the years, Friday the 13thhas been called many things. Upon its
release in May of 1980, critics who reviewed the low budget, independent wonder
called it everything from a blatant Halloween
clone (which director Sean Cunningham never denied it was) to an overly
violent dead teenager movie made with no apparent talent or intelligence.
Gene Siskel was so outraged by the film
that he called Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest
the movie business.” Siskel even went so far as to publish the home address of
actress Betsy Palmer (who gives a magnificent performance in the film) and he
encouraged fans to write to her and express their disappointment in her taking
a role in such a ghastly film.
Why did this creepy little horror film
strike such a negative chord in critics all over the country? To answer that
question, we must go back to 1978. The Alfred Hitchcock/Italian giallo-inspired
Halloween was released that year and
was not only loved by the movie-going public, but the near perfect film was
universally praised by critics including Roger Ebert, who rightfully called it “A
film so terrifying that I would compare it to Psycho.”
Critics and audiences alike were in awe of
the way director John Carpenter masterfully built suspense and the amazing film
became an instant classic as well as a box office phenomenon.
Fast forward to 1980; Director Sean
Cunningham decides to make a horror film and very wisely comes up with the idea
to combine two of the most current and successful scary movies: Halloween and George A. Romero’s classic
1979 zombie epic, Dawn of the Dead.
Cunningham would use Halloween’s structure (he would also borrow from Mario Bava’s
groundbreaking 1971 giallo film, A Bay of
Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve)
while adding Dawn’s amazingly graphic
and realistic gore effects. He would even engage the talents of the man
responsible for Dawn’s innovative gore,
special FX maestro Tom Savini.
This is primarily what outraged critics of
the time. In their eyes, Cunningham could not match Carpenter in masterfully
building terror and suspense (and there is much truth to that), so, instead,
the filmmaker would rely solely on realistic and bloody effects in order to
scare his target audience. The film was also accused of equating
sex/drugs/alcohol with death as well as being both misogynistic and illogical.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that when it
comes to the art of filmmaking, Friday
the 13thcannot hold a candle to Halloween, but I refuse to agree with anyone who calls Friday worthless, misogynistic and
illogical junk whose only talent can be found in its gore content.
Yes, the blood flows and Savini’s effects
are still as astonishing now as they were 33 years ago, but the entertaining
film works for many other reasons which I’ll list right now.
First of all, just like Halloween, the film has a
documentary-like feel to it. Cunningham simply shows us a likeable group of teenage
counselors (one of whom is a young Kevin Bacon) who are hard at work fixing up
Camp Crystal Lake a few weeks before the noisy children are due to arrive. The
characters have no Hollywood-esque dramatic motivations or conflicts. They are
just a very normal, happy and realistic group going about their daily business.
As viewers, we almost feel as if we’re eavesdropping on their lives.
This technique is greatly aided by the more
than competent writing of Victor Miller who wisely avoids stereotypes such as “the
jock” or “the bitch” and creates a pleasant group of normal and realistic kids.
The wonderfully natural acting of the kids themselves also helps. We like this
group and when the killer’s POV shots interrupt these normal, quiet scenes, it
really has an impact.
Next up is Sean Cunningham’s directorial
style. (For those who have said this film is little more than a gore-fest,
listen up.) Cunningham uses tried and true techniques such as showing us early
on the horror that the killer is capable of, then showing us exactly where the
killer is and, finally, having his likeable characters enter the killer’s space
one at a time. Naturally, this technique produces a fair amount of tension,
suspense and scares.
I won’t reveal the killer’s identity, but I
will say that it’s not our hockey masked pal, Jason. (Jason’s reign of terror
begins in part 2 and he doesn’t don his iconic mask until part 3.) However, once
you know who the killer is and learn the motivation behind the murders, you
will be petrified by the killer’s terrifying personality. Not only that, but upon
repeat viewings of the quieter, early scenes, knowledge of the killer’s
personality creates even more eerie, goose bump-like scares.
Cunningham also creates a nice moody
atmosphere by having half of the film take place during a nighttime thunderstorm.
Combine that with the quiet, isolated camp location and a moving POV camera
which suggests a creepy, violent and vengeful presence always lurking nearby
and you have not only a very scary little film, but a real feeling of almost
I can’t go on about the film’s scare factor
without mentioning the frightening musical score by the great Harry Manfredini.
His instantly recognizable “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” has become a part of horror
music history and now stands tall alongside other immortal horror themes such
as Bernard Hermann’s magnificent score for Psycho,
John Williams’ often imitated, but never duplicated score for Jaws and John Carpenter’s iconic and
terrifying Halloween theme.
Last, but certainly not least, is the final
scare of the film. Without giving away too much, I have to say that it is one
of the most shocking and unexpected scares in horror movie history and second
only to the brilliant ending of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). It’s a magnificently crafted scene that can be
credited to Sean Cunningham’s solid direction, Victor Miller’s imaginative
writing, Adrienne King’s subtle and naturalistic acting, Tom Savini’s
magnificent makeup work and Harry Manfredini’s frightening music all working as
one to give audiences the fright of their lives.
Australian release poster.
And that’s just the final scene. All those
elements work together throughout the entire film and help to create a fun,
scary rollercoaster ride. The gore effects work more as a punctuation mark at
the end of a sentence. It usually caps off a tense and frightening scene. It is
not the only technique at work here. As a matter of fact, take the very minimal
amount of gore out of the film and you still have an extremely eerie,
claustrophobic and terrifying film.
As far as being misogynistic, equating
sex/alcohol/drugs with death and being illogical goes, critics couldn’t have
been more off base.
Let’s start with misogyny. First of all,
there is an equal amount of male and female deaths, and Kevin Bacon’s death is
probably the best and most graphic death scene in the film. Second of all, and
don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film, the killer is female. So, if the
filmmakers hated women, the killer would’ve been a man. Saying that this film hates
women is ridiculous.
Next up is the idea that the kids were
punished by death for engaging in sex, drinking and smoking pot. Well, if that
were the case, then why does the final girl survive? Midway through the film she
indulges in both beer and marijuana. It is also revealed that she was in a
relationship with the head of the camp and, although it isn’t shown that they
had sex, the dialogue strongly suggests it. Much like Halloween (the female survivor of that film also smokes pot and
clearly wants to be in a relationship with a boy), this idea of
sex/drugs/alcohol being punishable by violent death is not a part of Friday the 13th, but would be
misinterpreted by future slasher filmmakers thereby beginning that slasher
Lastly is the ridiculous idea that all of
the characters in this film do completely illogical things before getting
killed. This never happens. First of all, the characters are silently killed
off one by one in a Ten Little Indians manner.
The remaining characters have no idea that there is a killer among them, so it
makes sense that they would go about their business as if everything is normal.
Also, once the last two characters sense that something is wrong, they both do
completely logical things. Unfortunately, they are thwarted by the intelligent
killer who is always one step ahead of them.
For example, when they can’t find anyone,
they try to call for help, but, unbeknownst to them, the line has been cut.
(They believe that it’s just out of order due to the storm.) Next, they find a
bloody axe in one of the cabins and immediately decide to leave, but their car
has been sabotaged. Their last idea is to just hike the ten miles to
civilization and get help, but it’s pitch black outside and a thunderstorm is
With the exception of the heroine knocking
out the killer a few times and then either not continuing to pummel her or
throwing the weapon aside, the characters all act logically/intelligently in
every situation, but still get killed which is one of the reasons why the film
is so scary.
So, is it a masterful piece of cinema like Halloween or Psycho? Certainly not. However, it’s far from worthless junk and it
totally works without the effects which, by the way, take up less than sixty seconds
of the film’s 95 minute running time. At the time, those amazing gore effects
were the only things that were new in this type of film, so that’s what critics
mainly became fixated on. Unfortunately, they missed much of the wonderful
craftsmanship that went into the rest of the film.
Friday the 13th may be a dead
teenager movie, but it’s one of the best of its type. While not in the same
league as its predecessors, it’s a much better film than it’s been given credit
for. It’s also an important film in that, along with Halloween, it created a very successful subgenre/formula of the
horror film and, due to being released by Paramount Pictures and becoming a
huge financial success, it gave up and coming filmmakers a chance to break into
the Hollywood system by producing their own low budget slasher films which
utilized the same structure and similar techniques.
To date, the film has spawned ten sequels,
one remake, countless imitations and the character of Jason has become an icon
of fright. Entire books have been written about the series and at least one
book was wholly devoted to the groundbreaking first film. There have also been Friday the 13thcomic books,
novelizations, video games, action figures and conventions. Not bad for a little
movie that has been wrongfully dismissed as an illogical, misogynistic, incompetent
spectacle of gore.