Friday the 13th (1980)

Posted: September 17, 2013 in Favorite Films
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18. Friday the 13th (1980)

Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Starring: Besty Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon, Robbie Morgan

Every once in a while, intrigue and word-of-mouth will triumph over substance and intent. 1980’s “Friday the 13th,” which its creators have testified was a blatant rip-off of John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” started off as little more than a quick cash-grab project. Newspaper ads with a title card were printed before there was so much as a script! Yet, this same little $550,000 horror movie, once completed, would become so popular that it would spawn ten sequels (seven if you’re only counting the ones produced before the series changed hands from Paramount Pictures to New Line Cinema) and a 2009 remake. Not only that, but “Friday the 13th” also has dictated the course of big screen horror in general for the last 30+ years.

I first became aware of the existence of “Friday the 13th” during the twilight of its run, with the TV ads for 1989’s “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” (not one of the series’ best entries). By that time, the character of Jason Voorhees was so well-known that there were actually kids in my own neighborhood dressing up as the hockey masked serial killer for Halloween! Think about that for a second. As for myself, I waited until after graduating from high school to rent “Friday the 13th” from my local Blockbuster Video store (now a casualty of the Netflix age). Going in not expecting very much, I came out of the experience pleasantly surprised.

I’m not going to gloss over the fact that the acting and writing, as with most of these kinds of movies, leans in the direction of amateurish. Even Kevin Bacon, who was making just his third big screen appearance, still had a lot to learn at this point in his career. Yet, with “Friday the 13th” and its sequels, these are aspects I find endearing. I also dig the now primitive-looking makeup effects (courtesy of one of the true masters of the business, Tom Savini). Yes. When it comes to slasher movies, do please give me actors I’ve never heard of before and never will again, cheap makeup over CGI, and late 70’s/early 80’s fashion and hairstyles. I love all of these things dearly.

The plot is an incredibly simplified one: Seven counselors who are trying to reopen a dead summer camp wind up getting picked off “Ten Little Indians”-style. You know without having to think very hard that the character which we learn the most about is going to wind up the most likely candidate to survive the ordeal. What’s not revealed outright is the character who will be shown as the killer in the last twenty minutes. This is hardly a mystery anymore, as anyone who pays even the smallest amount of attention is bound to have heard at some point that it is not Jason, but his mother (Betsy Palmer) who is the psychopathic killer here. Knowing this information beforehand didn’t hinder my enjoyment, and so I am comfortable in saying that it shouldn’t for anyone else. Within the context of this first film’s story, Jason is to have tragically died, drowning at Camp Crystal Lake as a child in 1957, and his mother has been seeking her revenge ever since.

Side note: Jason Voorhees, although this is never explicitly stated on-screen, was born with a condition known as hydrocephalus. Short explanation, it’s what happens when your cerebrospinal fluid isn’t getting the proper circulation and gets trapped in the skull, causing swelling. Like Jason, I also was born with this condition, but I was diagnosed and treated early enough that no lasting damage either to my brain or my physical appearance took hold.  Jason was not as fortunate, as his appears to be one of the more extreme cases, the sort that causes swelling of the skull on a horrific scale and almost certain mental retardation.

Being a camp counselor in “Friday the 13th” is like wearing red while standing in the line of sight of a charging bull. You might not have personally done the bull wrong, but he’s determined to take you down regardless. Speaking of the color red, it serves as the most dominant color in the movie, and not just owing to the occasional spurts of blood. Shirts, backpacks, curtains, parkas, and even the doors on the cabins all are tinted in the same vivid shade. In Chinese culture, red is supposed to symbolize good fortune. Apparently, the opposite applies to Crystal Lake. Another portent of doom, which carries over into the sequels, is a change in weather patterns. Once the thunder hits and the rain starts pouring, the stuff’s about to hit the fan.

Because there were certain flexibilities with the script, it allowed for the actors to improvise a little. That’s Bing Crosby’s son, Harry, as Bill. Wouldn’t surprise me if playing the guitar was his own contribution to his character. It also turns out that Adrienne King, who as Alice draws portraits in her spare time, is a rather talented artist in real life.

My favorite part of “Friday the 13th,” which none of the sequels have been able to match in intensity, is the climactic showdown between Mrs. Voorhees and lone survivor Alice. It’s very satisfying to see Alice successfully defend herself on the moonlit shores of Crystal Lake. Maybe Adrienne King was never destined to win any awards of any kind, but I think it’s a damn shame that she had to take an almost 30-year break from acting due to a real-life stalker who emerged following the release of the movie. I also adore the song “Sail Away, Tiny Sparrow” that plays in the diner, as well as its instrumental version (entitled “Sail Away, Little Sparrow”) that plays once during the “jump scare” moment near the end, and again over the closing credits.

“Friday the 13th” remains my one exception to the rule that suspense is preferable to the roller coaster ride variety of horror. Rarely am I able to watch this movie without setting aside the time to run a marathon including most of its sequels. There is a certain “they don’t make ’em like they used to” quality to “Friday the 13th.” You could say that this is a large part of what makes this and other movies in the franchise so special to me. As a horror fan, I find a deep sadness in knowing that the experience of taking part in the slasher film movement of the 80’s (which I missed out on) can never be accurately duplicated without having lived as a teenager/adult in those times. This is why, at least for me, “Friday the 13th” and its time-in-a-bottle nature will never lose their charm.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Made me cry a little, too. I will watch this movie with you one day soon.

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