Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Writer: Victor Miller
Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
Composer: Harry Manfredini
Production Companies: Georgetown Productions Inc./Paramount Pictures/Sean S. Cunningham Films
Principal Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Peter Brouwer
For more details on this title, visit the main EOFFTV site.
Back in the late 1970s, the horror genre was given something of a jolt when John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) picked up several threads left dangling by the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974) and the Italian gialli and wove them into what was then, the biggest independent film ever. Inevitably, it opened the floodgates - and one of the first to come through was Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th.
Although superficially similar - both feature maniac killers working their way through a pack of teenagers - there are far more disparities than similarities: while Carpenter set his film in leafy suburbia, Cunningham tapped a more primal terror by pitching up in the wilds of the countryside, echoing Cunningham's previous genre hit (producing Last House on the Left (1972) for Wes Craven) and paving the way for a whole rake of al fresco slashers (Mother's Day (1980), The Burning (1981), Just Before Dawn (1981), Prey (1984) et al); while Halloween plots a straight ahead thriller course, Friday the 13th plays more like a mystery, almost Agatha Christie-like in its determination to make the audience work for the identity of the killer - Halloween named its killer straight out, but Friday the 13th adopts the giallo approach of keeping its killer hidden in a shoal of red herrings; and perhaps most tellingly, it's a lot more visceral than Halloween, foregrounding Tom Savini's grisly effects often at the expense of the narrative.
The film was a massive success, far more so than anyone who was involved with it expected it to be and its exploitative mix of coy sex and extreme violence kept young audiences coming back again and again. It must certainly have been those two elements because in truth, it has precious little else to offer - the plot is minimalist in the extreme (kids turn up at summer camp and are slaughtered one by one by a killer whose identity is only revealed in the final act), the acting is never anything other than perfunctory and the characters are so unlikeable that we really shouldn't care whether they live or die.
The youthful cast are a largely undistinguished lot - leading lady Adrienne King had a cameo in the first sequel, then gave up on acting after a disturbing experience with an obsessed fan (she's since found work in ADR voice looping); Harry Crosby turned out to be Bing's son; and a fresh-faced Kevin Bacon turns up in an early role (the slasher films were a hotbed of early appearances - Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone (1980), Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Brad Pitt in Cutting Class (1989)). The real coup - such that it is - was casting Betsy Palmer, a minor "star" in the 50s and TV news reporter who hadn't been seen on the big screen for 17 years, as the maniacal Mrs Vorhees. She gives it her all in an over-the-top, gibbering performance that enlivens the final act and lends a certain warped class to the proceedings.
Yet for all that, it works, almost in spite of itself - it sets out to be an uncomplicated shocker, laced with then state-of-the-art gore effects, and that's exactly what it is. One can bemoan the crude mechanics (each shock scene is set up, telegraphed and delivered exactly in the same way as that which proceeded it) and it's lack of logic (from this point on all slasher movie victims would be required to venture out into the dark wearing only their underwear, have sex in stupid places and fail to notice that most of their friends have gone missing until it's too late) but there's no denying that Friday the 13th does what it says on the tin. It delivers, and how many films can we truly say that about?
Victor Miller's script pares everything back to basics, its simplicity making the already stripped-down narrative of Halloween seem complex by comparison. There's not an ounce of fat in the screenplay - there are no unnecessary characters, no extraneous dialogue and the only twist is the one we all expected, the one that closes the film, Carrie-like. And what a twist it is - not only is the sudden emergence from the depths of Crystal Lake of the hideously deformed Jason Vorhees a genuine shock, but it also introduced the genre to one of its most enduring characters. The primitive horror of Jason would be diminished during the seemingly endless parade of sequels that followed, but his brief appearance here is genuinely iconic and one of the most memorable images in the ignoble history of the 80s slasher movie.
Miller has professed to not having any real interest in horror prior to Friday the 13th, and claims that he learnt how to write a genre script simply by watching Halloween. Sadly, Friday the 13th seems to have derailed his career somewhat - although he's enjoyed several stints as a scriptwriter on the hit daytime soap All My Children (1970 - ), he has written no more movie scripts.
It's crucial to remember that although we've now seen the plot dozens of time, at least often enough for it to become tired and infuriating, in 1980, there hadn't really been anything like Friday the 13th. Although Cunningham is a clumsy and unpolished director, he generates a certain amount of suspense and leaves the task of delivering the payoff to Savini, whose elevation to Fangoria's god-figure was due as much to his work here as it was on George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). It's all totally devoid of atmosphere, pace or finesse, but it still packs a powerful punch.
One of the highlights of the film is Harry Manfredini's excellent score, famous now for its sinister, echoing main theme. It may lack the insistent, nagging electronic drive of Carpenter's Halloween, but the haunting, repetitive, almost guttural gasps and sighs are strangely mesmerising.
By no means a great film, Friday the 13th is still an important one - its success helped to usher in a new generation of genre fans, it proved to major studios - Paramount picked up the independently shot film for distribution - that there was money to be made from horror and it gave the genre a new pin-up boy. That it also helped to kick-start the slasher boom and lead to that increasingly ludicrous series of sequels is regrettable but that's no reason to look down on what it is, by any standards, a decent horror film that sets out to give audiences a cheap thrill and delivers in spades.