THE 13TH (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
A slasher film can be simply defined as a film with a body count, in which an attractive cast is slowly killed off one by one. Twitch of the Death Nerve and Black Christmas are often credited with creating the slasher film, and John Carpenter showed us slasher perfection with Halloween in 1978. But on June 13, 1980, slasher films blossomed into a money-making juggernaut when Paramount Pictures released Friday the 13th. On a budget of 700,000 dollars, it grossed nearly six million dollars in its opening weekend and inspired hundreds of knock-offs and wannabes (rumored to be over eighty in just one year). Halloween is a classic, but Friday the 13th started the great slasher boom of the '80s. Originally concieved as just a way to make a quick buck, Friday the 13th became a cultural phenomenon. It spawned ten sequels, a video game, comic books, novels, action figures, legions of devoted fans, and earned a spot as one of horror's most iconic movies.
So if you're unfamiliar with the series, here's a plot synopsis for you: We start at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. They never say exactly where Camp Crystal Lake is, but whatever the location, it just looks like the kind of place that I wouldn't want to visit unless I was backed up by the National Guard. The place is freaking creepy. Maybe that's just me, I don't know. It's a really suspicious looking place, and that's just the opening shot of the movie. When you're not five seconds into the movie and you know something is up, the movie's gonna kick your butt. That could be good, or that could be bad. This is one of those times that it's good.
So we're at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958, and the counselors are in the main cabin, rocking out to stupid campfire folk tunes like "Tom Dooley." Okay, so maybe "rocking out" is a bit of an exaggeration. Whatever. Anyway, two of them head off somewhere for a little moonlight romance. The kind of moonlight romance that spells certain doom, that is. Is there any moonlight romance that doesn't lead to certain doom in a slasher movie? Because if there is, where's the fun in that? Anyway, certain doom happens to discover the poor young couple, and Willie Adams and Debra Hayes establish their spots in history as the first two victims in a Friday the 13th film.
Flash forward to "the present," which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1979 or 1980. A girl named Annie (Robbi Morgan) shows up at this little hole-in-the-wall diner asking for directions to Camp Crystal Lake, and her request goes over like a fart in church. But a trucker at the diner (Rex Everhart) offers her a ride, and they head to his truck, bumping into Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) outside. He shouts an eerie prophecy: "Going to Camp Blood, ain't ya? You'll never come back again! It's got a death curse!" They blow off Ralph as a crazy hopped-up old drunk, and hit the road. This is where we get all the important backstory. Some dude named Steve Christy is reopening the camp, but the trucker thinks it's a bad idea because "Camp Crystal Lake is jinxed!" A camper drowned, two counselors were murdered, there was a rash of bad water, the cabins burned down, all in a span of a few years. The trucker suggests that Annie should quit, but she just blows him off. Nothing bad can happen, right? It's that sort of na´ve behavior that gets people a one-way ticket to Morgue City in these movies.
Meanwhile, Jack (a pre-Footloose Kevin Bacon), his girlfriend Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), and their practical joker friend Ned (Mark Nelson) arrive at Camp Crystal Lake. They're three of the new counselors, so you know they're probably gonna die violent and/or painful deaths sooner or later. We also meet the afore-mentioned Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), and three other counselors: Bill (Harry Crosby), Brenda (Laurie Bartram), and Alice (Adrienne King). On the other end of the world, the trucker drops Annie off at an intersection on his route, and she starts hiking to the camp. A Jeep picks her up, but drives past the entrance to Camp Crystal Lake like it wasn't even there. Annie gets spooked and jumps out of the still-moving Jeep, prompting the driver to pull over and give chase on foot. And once again, some poor character meets certain doom. Certain Doom really should have been in the credits. It's like a character all to its own.
Anyway, time goes on and a storm comes. I have a theory that storms and Certain Doom are like a tag team or something, because it seems like whenever there's a storm in a horror movie, Certain Doom tags in and wreaks havoc with great vengeance and furious anger. I also wonder if Certain Doom is any relation to Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, because they both have cool names and all kinds of crazy stuff happens when they're around. Anyway, the storm subsides after the majority of the cast has been killed, and a familiar looking Jeep pulls up. A middle-aged woman gets out, introducing herself to Alice as Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). This, my friends, is where the fit really hits the shan. It turns out that Mrs. Voorhees is not only a raving nutjob, but she's a loving mother too. Y'see, her little boy Jason was the one that drowned in Crystal Lake all those years ago, there's only one way she can cope: homicidal rage. It all comes down to Alice and Mrs. Voorhees; only one will leave Camp Crystal Lake alive.
Director Sean Cunningham had just finished the 1978 film Here Come The Tigers, a soccer version of The Bad News Bears. He was preparing to start a TV show based on the movie, and after seeing Halloween, Cunningham decided to make a similar film as a way to make a little money to fund the show. So I guess we can blame the whole thing on Halloween and a Bad News Bears rip-off? Anyway, Cunningham (whose prior horror experience came from Wes Craven's 1972 cult classic The Last House on the Left and Case of the Full Moon Murders in 1974) assembled a cast, crew, and a script by Here Come The Tigers scribe Victor Miller, not expecting Friday the 13th to become anything more than a detour on the way to bigger fame and fortune. But when the movie was picked up by Paramount and released, it started raking in money like gangbusters. It even dethroned The Empire Strikes Back for the number-one spot at the United States box office. Says Cunningham, "I thought the big hit I was gonna have was gonna be a TV series, but it was Friday the 13th. The TV series never got picked up, and Friday the 13th put my kids through college."
So Victor Miller's script isn't all that groundbreaking, and the acting seems a little contrived at times, but that's probably to be expected. I mean, a group of twenty-somethings at a summer camp in the middle of New Jersey in 1980 would probably act like that. I hadn't been born yet, so don't quote me on that. With the exception of Kevin Bacon, the majority of the cast would eventually fall off the face of the earth, so I guess I really shouldn't be bothered if they gave crappy performances or not because at least they didn't do much of anything afterwards. Despite the cast full of mediocre no-names, Betsy Palmer proves herself to be one of the two true stars of the movie. She makes you really believe that she really is a homicidal maniac fresh out of the asylum. I'll admit that a tiny woman in her 50s committing nine horrific murders is a bit of a stretch, but she pulls it off to perfection. I think it's worth noting is that when the film was released, the late Gene Siskel encouraged readers of his newspaper column to write letters to both Paramount and Palmer herself to express their displeasure with the movie. It was less than successful. "Somebody showed me the review," Palmer said in an interview, "but I didn't get any hate mail. He [mentioned] the wrong place. He [said I lived in] Connecticut, but my real hometown's in Indiana." But in all honesty, I think Siskel overreacted big time. A horror movie is only as good as its villain, and I've always thought that Palmer was absolutely wonderful in the role. She brings a very fun level of intensity to the role, and with a lesser actress in the role, I don't think it would have worked.
The other big star in the movie isn't even a member of the cast. Tom Savini did the makeup effects, and he did a smash-up job. He'd just come off George Romero's classic zombie movie Dawn of the Dead, which the MPAA slapped with an X rating due to his makeup effects, and with the fame he got from that film and Friday the 13th, he became the hottest makeup man in the horror industry. He even joined the press tour on the 1981 slasher movie The Burning. Not counting Stan Winston's work on the Terminator trilogy, how many makeup/special effects guys do press for movies? It's also worth noting that Savini can seen as a stunt double (look for him as a body getting thrown through a window, and a hand that grabs Kevin Bacon from under his bed), and he also came up with the idea for the brief-yet-famous appearance of Jason (played by Ari Lehman) at the end of the film. And in watching the film, I can't help but touch on Harry Manfredini's hauntingly awesome score. It reminded me of Bernard Hermann's classic score for Psycho, so it can't be all bad, can it?
Countless imitators and nearly three decades later, Friday the 13th still holds up as one of the true classics of the horror genre. While those that don't appreciate films like this view Friday the 13th and films like it as a joke, I do appreciate it and I do enjoy it. So I'm going out on a limb and giving the movie four stars and a hearty recommendation. Go check it out.
Final Rating: ****