I am over-critical of Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH, usually citing THE BURNING, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III as better "backwoods camping" slasher films. But having re-watched Friday the 13th on a rainy Sunday afternoon as part of a Friday the 13th marathon, I have come to a conclusion: Friday the 13th is a darn good slasher flick that has unfortunately been overshadowed by its long line of sequels and countless rip-offs.
Much annoyance with Friday the 13th comes from the film's final act, where a grief-stricken psychotic old woman named Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) attacks lone-surviving camp counselor Alice (Adrienne King) after killing off the rest of the counselors. There is a lot of filler during the climax that don't have much pay-off. Some might argue this builds suspense, but really it drags the plot. There are some suspenseful moments in the climax but it doesn't maintain the momentum of great chase scenes, like Laurie Strode and Michael Myers' showdown in HALLOWEEN or Ellen Ripley and the Alien's battle in ALIEN. The ending also loses the great atmosphere established earlier in the film - while Alice is still isolated with the maniacal Mrs. Voorhees, she has more at her disposal than being truly lost in the wilderness like Annie (Robbi Morgan) was earlier in the film.
Another problem with the ending is the character of Mrs. Voorhees. Yes, Betsy Palmer does an excellent job portraying the psychotic, schizophrenic mother of a drowned child. That is not the argument here. It is the build-up to her character that is completely lacking. Only once earlier in the film is the "young boy who drowned" even referenced, and for the entire motive to be built around him there has to be more of a connection to his death throughout the movie. It was a great idea to keep Mrs. Voorhees hidden throughout most of the film, but there is literally no build up to her character. Had it not been for her monologue, the audience would have no idea who Mrs. Voorhees is, or her relation to Camp Crystal Lake. Basically, Mrs. Voorhees and her motive just appear in the movie, making the build up to the motive very lazy.
But ultimately, Friday the 13th is a great slasher flick, and much of that is owed to its brilliant atmosphere. The quiet, lurking, shadowy trees provide a barrier from civilization where anything can happen. Anything! Sex, drugs... murder. The first act of the movie establishes the strongest atmosphere in the entire series, particularly when Annie walks through the small town of Crystal Lake en route to the camp itself, only to find out that it is still another 20 miles out! The roads are empty, and there's always that feeling that someone's watching. All in all, Friday the 13th and its first three sequels might have the best atmosphere of any slasher flick.
The character of Friday the 13th are also great fun, a tradition that would be continued throughout its 80's sequels and adds to the appeal of the movies. These kids, while young and clueless, are a real joy to watch. It's like viewing PORKY'S or ANIMAL HOUSE, only with bloody deaths. Alice is a good final girl. Sure, she would be surpassed by other final girls in the series, but respect has to be paid to the one that started it all. Her co-campers are great, too. One really nice scene involves Alice finding a snake in her cabin and calling for help - the others run in, and while hunting the snake it becomes an all-out frenzy and pillow fight. This is how these people bond, and this is why we care about them. Another memorable scene involves the kids taking a break from setting up the dilapidated camp to sunbathe, and one of them plays a classic prank on the others. What more could you ask for in protagonists than to care about them?
Of course, what Friday the 13th has become known for is breaking ground in mainstream American cinema violence - the death scenes. Friday the 13th was one of the first American movies to combine the stalking suspense of films like Halloween and BLACK CHRISTMAS with gruesome splatter death scenes of movies like TWITCH OF DEATH NERVE and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Some great make-up effects by the master Tom Savini include a slashed throat, axe through the face, arrows in the eye, decapitations, and spears through the neck - tame by the SAW-level standards of today, but in 1980 they were the real deal. And they were the main attraction of the film, leading to it's monster success.
I often view Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th as a movie that inspired a series of spin-offs rather than being the first film in the Jason-saga. It is more pleasing to give that crown to Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part II, as the real "original" movie of the series. Why? Because it was Part II that introduced the character Jason as the film's antagonist, and Jason has become the face of the series by appearing in (almost) all the sequels. To date, Jason has been the main villain in ten movies. That's more than Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger! And because of that Friday the 13th is his series. So this original movie that does not feature him as the antagonist can really be viewed as a stand-alone film that launched a spin off - Part II - that in turn started the trend of Jason movies.
The only screen-time given to Jason is a few quick seconds at the very ending of the movie, where his child-like corpse leaps out of the water and attacks Alice. The ending is shocking and scary, but was never intended to imply that Jason was alive. It was simply implying that Alice is haunted by Jason because of her trauma with his mother. You see, the original sequel idea for Friday the 13th was to have an entirely different plot than the first film, focusing on a different type of horror story about bad luck on Friday the 13th. Jason was only chosen for the sequel when producers saw how people reacted to the "last-scare" ending, and the success the slasher genre was having.
Friday the 13th has done many things to impact American slasher movies; aside from laying the groundwork to the "rules" of horror movies, it also dared to take things a step further than what had been seen before with its gruesome deaths. The movie is unfairly compared to Halloween, a superior film on all accounts but also a very different film. Halloween had a different story, a different setting, a different atmosphere, and a different approach. All that they have in common is a killer stalking teens, but that's about as far as the comparisons can truly go.
In retrospect, Friday the 13th has become unfairly lumped in with the dozens of trashier, less inventive forms of the slasher genre - including the rest of its franchise (you really can't look at Friday the 13th and JASON GOES TO HELL back-to-back and believe they are apart of the same series). If you need further evidence as to how far away the films got from the spirit of the original Friday the 13th, look no further than the 2009 remake: That film was a greatest kills hit-list starring Jason with no story. The first film tells the story of a "doomed" summer camp with an unlucky penchant for murder. If only the world would recognize what really worked in the first Friday the 13th, then maybe we'd get a worthy reboot of the legendary film after all.
The Burning (1981)
The Prowler (1981)
Sleepaway Camp (1983)