As a horror fan, I’m not fond of slasher films. But even I can’t deny the impact slashers have had on the genre. Like it or not, these films, often sparse on plot and heavy on gore and sex, have altered the course of horror movies, if not movies in general. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Black Christmas, and Scream are all slasher classics that have left an indelible mark on pop culture.
So of course, with today being Friday, July 13th, I had to revisit Friday the 13th.
It’s one of the most famous slasher films in history, capitalizing on the success of Halloween and spawning eleven sequels and countless imitations. Gloriously low-budget and stuck in late 70s style, the original Friday the 13th helped define the slasher subgenre before it the hockey masks or even Jason himself. Full of gruesome kills and scantily-clad, sex-crazed teenagers, the film expanded on Halloween’s treatment of sex and punched up the violence. Subsequent slashers would follow suit, but few could ever match the same grisly fun of Friday the 13th.
I wanted to be fair and rewatch the film for this post since I’d last watched it years ago during a late-night movie marathon in college, where a room crowded with my compatriots made the film feel cheesy and un-scary. With a fresh and sober critical eye, I’ve concluded that Friday the 13th is kind of a crappy movie, but a very effective and entertaining horror film. It promised a slasher about sexy teenagers at a summer camp, and by God, that’s what it delivered.
First, the good stuff. The choice of an isolated campground for the setting is an inspired choice since it infuses what was a mundane, safe scene with all sorts of menace and dread, forever altering how we think of campgrounds. People who don’t watch slashers still know about masked killers stalking campgrounds for unsuspecting teenagers. Like Halloween before it, Friday the 13th managed to leave an enduring mark on pop culture, moving far outside the boundaries of the film.
Much of the film’s legacy is due to the practical effects and makeup of Friday the 13th, which are excellent. I expected nothing less from a movie that hired the legendary Tom Savini, the makeup maestro behind Dawn of the Dead (1978), Maniac (1980), and The Burning (1981). Even as a jaded 21st-century horror fan, I was struck by the realistic and grisly nature of the practical effects. It’s no wonder the violence of Friday the 13th shocked audiences and critics. No matter how little sense the injuries made, they looked real.
The film also made some interesting points, such as the choice to have the killer be the grieving, crazed mother of a boy who died at the summer camp thirty years earlier. As has been pointed out by Victor Miller, the writer of Friday the 13th, “I still believe that the best part of my screenplay was the fact that a mother figure was the serial killer–working from a horribly twisted desire to avenge the senseless death of her son, Jason…I took motherhood and turned it on its head…Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I’d always wanted–a mother who would have killed for her kids.”
In a way, it’s an interesting reversal of the over-bearing mother trope that is far too common in film and immortalized by movies like Psycho. Even though she’s a vicious murderer, her stated motivations (which the film should have developed further) stem from a place of profound loss. She’s a selfless mother, embodying the notion that motherhood means setting aside a woman’s identity for her children. Mrs. Voorhees does that. She’s just a crazy person who believes that murdering sexually active teenagers who had nothing to do with her son’s death will make things right.
In fact, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) ends up being the best part of the movie. She chews scenery all over the place, unhinged and demented, and is a delight to watch. She does a reasonably good job of presenting herself as harmless before everything goes off the rails and she starts beating the crap out of Alice. As far as slashers go, I think the climatic fight scene between Alice and Mrs. Voorhees is one of the most satisfying renditions of the showdown between Killer and Final Girl, thanks in no small part both actresses commitment to the knock-down, drag-out fight.
That being said, Friday the 13th is not a good movie. The writing is awful. The script sketches its characters as shallow and unnuanced. Motivations don’t make sense. The film leans on characters doing stupid things to set up the next kill. Physics seem to behave differently in the world of Camp Crystal Lake. While slashers have never needed robust plots, it should make sense on a basic level. For example, if the killer is partially hiding behind a tree, watching a potential victim from eye-level, and said victim walks by not six feet away, how could the victim not see the killer? Or how is it possible for the killer to throw a body through a window, sprint away to their car, and then drive up as if nothing’s happened, all within the space of seconds? How does Mrs. Voorhees have lure away and pick off the teens, stage their bodies, and meet the camp owner at the entrance just as he’s driving up?
I understand that Friday the 13th is more enjoyable with my brain turned off, but dammit, there are limits!
The writing is not helped by the actors, many of whom deliver their lines in stilted, forced ways. Still, there’s some good chemistry in the group, both between the couples and among the group as a whole. I believed they were camp counselors, just as I believed the camp owner was a creep. Had the script allowed more characterization, the actors could have created relatable characters instead of bodies waiting to be murdered.
And speaking of murder, certain kill scenes are hilarious overwrought while others are weirdly understated. My favorite is the scene where Alice beheads Mrs. Voorhees, and her slow-motion hands grasp at where her head used to be. I laughed and laughed; it was so ridiculous. My second favorite kill has to be when the killer lures Brenda out onto the archery field, though it happened offscreen, which seems uncharacteristic given the other times the film showed bloody deaths. Nevertheless, her death got under my skin because it reminded me of my own summer camp experience. I remember loving archery, and the idea of being murdered out on the archery field at sunny Camp Waldemar is deeply unsettling.
All in all, Friday the 13th is not a masterpiece, but it’s schlocky fun. Just don’t forget to turn off your brain before you watch it.