Thursday, 12 December 2013

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980)
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham; Starring Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Betsy Palmer

Rating: 3/5

Friday the 13th was one of the first films to follow the formula laid out by Halloween (1978), and writer Victor Miller has admitted that he was ‘inspired by’ (read: piggybacking on the success of) the earlier picture. It’s even got a title which bears little relevance to the plot beyond providing a suitably spooky date for events to take place. Surprisingly, this film would spawn the most sequels (eleven). It is the equal of Star Trek and second only to James Bond in the sheer number of cinematic releases for a single franchise.

No prizes for guessing that a group of teenagers (including an early film appearance by Kevin Bacon) are stalked and picked off by an unseen adversary. Slightly unique is the setting: deep in the woods, ten miles from the nearest junction, let alone the nearest town, lies Camp Crystal Lake, site of a brutal double murder in the fifties. Some twenty years later, the curse rears its ugly head when a new generation of entrepreneurs decide to reopen the venue.

Summer camp is a benchmark of American culture, bringing a level of isolation almost unfathomable for anyone who has spent their entire life less than six miles away from three major towns (that’s me). It has long been the inspiration for ghost stories and campfire tales, but Friday the 13th helped cement the setting as a staple of backwoods horror.

The otherwise forgettable Sean S. Cunningham directs, with little of John Carpenter’s subtlety. Aside from involvement in later Friday the 13th films, Cunningham produced a number of other horror pictures, including the controversial Last House on the Left (1972) directed by Wes Craven (who would go on to make A Nightmare on Elm Street).

Like Halloween, pacing is slow, highlighting the intensity of the murders by comparison, but Friday the 13th is slightly more boring than its predecessor. In other ways, Friday the 13th is more extreme – the body count is higher, and the deaths are more gruesome.

Nobody dies off screen save the penultimate victim, and Kevin Bacon’s demise stands out as particularly gory. Cunningham does make effective use of point of view throughout, forcing the audience to inhabit the voyeuristic killer, as they peer through leaves and branches.

Also intriguing are times when victims greet the killer with recognition, letting their guard down before being murdered. A continuing exercise in misdirection, the choice is made to follow a decoy protagonist during the opening scenes. Her demise provides an effective shock, but also underlines how undeveloped the other characters are.

An interpretation of these early slashers is that they are a criticism of hedonistic 70s and 80s youth, and their weakness for drink and drugs and particularly sex. Thus the various killers punish the teenagers, yet fail to defeat the more celibate final heroine.

Psychologists have written more academic analyses of this than the overviews that I can offer, but in this vein, Friday the 13th is no different and the thematic ground trod in films like Halloween is more explicitly covered. The flashback murder is once again inspired by sex, and later murders are indeed post coital.

Slasher film makers are rarely vocal about their true intentions in this regard, usually preferring to deny or remain ambiguous about their themes. But with franchises so long, and each film so subsidiary to its predecessors, it’s easy to lose sight of what the original statements may have been.

More practically, the less promiscuous could be argued to survive merely through virtue of not being distracted while a killer’s on the rampage. At any rate, the juxtaposition of a sexual scene with a violent one provides effective mood whiplash, maintaining high emotion throughout the film.

Apologies if I’ve already revealed that some characters die, but stop reading if you don’t want the big twist spoilt. For while the enduring horror icon of the Friday the 13th franchise became the hockey masked machete wielding Jason, this first instalment features his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) as the killer.

Locked in a kind of reverse Psycho arrangement – although she was not responsible for Jason’s death, she channels the spirit of her son through asides in his voice. It becomes clear what the chilling musical score was foreshadowing with its echoing vocal chorus: “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma

This film is thus unique amongst the genre for featuring a female murderer, with a general vendetta against camp counsellors, specifically those who would dare to tread upon the hallowed ground where she lost her son all those years ago. She believes Jason drowned whilst his counsellors were distracted having sex, and thus punishes the frivolous shirking of responsibility.

It’s ridiculous and over the top, and while there are some genuine jumps and scares that make Friday the 13th an entertaining thrill ride, and enough unique material to prevent it from becoming a simple Halloween clone, it ultimately falls slightly flatter than its spiritual predecessor.

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