The contemporary marketing for Friday the 13th (1980) is quite interesting. The blu-ray copy I bought recently has cover art heavily emphasising the franchise’s iconic hockey mask, a mask that does not even feature in the film for one second. It’s a strange franchise where the first film is not the most iconic of the bunch. After watching the film, I can sort of see why they have fallen back on this marketing strategy, as there is not all that much to be overly enthused about in this first entry in the series.
Friday the 13th takes place at Camp Crystal Lake, which is just about to reopen after a number of strange and deadly incidents saw it shut down. As a group of horny young teens work to get the camp ready to welcome new kids, they start getting violently knocked off one by one. One of the concepts that determine how successful the narrative of a horror or thriller film turns out to be, is the way the villain or threat is revealed. In terms of mystery, there is obviously a big benefit of masking the identity of the killer as long as possible. But the downside of this approach is that it makes it harder to build a sense of that character and therefore the menace at play. Unfortunately the balance in this film is not quite right, veering to the latter of these two. There is so little character developed, no clues as to who is on this murderous rampage, that the audience becomes too disassociated from the threat. In addition to that, the core narrative is weak and neither builds any sense behind the crimes, or sense of character to make you affected in the slightest when yet another of the teens is murdered. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) was clearly a big influence on the film. The score feels like tracks that didn’t quite make the cut for that classic, full of screeching and pace to ratchet up the tension. The ending of the film, definitely the strongest section of the film for me, is essentially a reverse Psycho, cleverly inverting elements of that film’s iconic closing sequences. Throughout this period there is a richness in plot that was totally lacking up until then and it also puts the two best performers onscreen together. Whilst the conclusion was an improvement on the rest (including a great, but somewhat cheap shot near the end, which scared the shit out of me), it also presents some illogical moments that I found hard to let slide. The killer is so inept at the end, so weak and slow, that it seems inconceivable that they could have so easily killed so many other people.
Just like relatively close contemporaries Halloween (1978) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Friday the 13th would launch a massively profitable horror franchise, which continues more or less to this day. Despite those similarities, this film falls short of those two classics on a number of levels. For starters, even though they are of a similar vintage, there is something timeless in the first outings of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. This film, with its cringeworthy 80s teen dialogue, does not hold up anywhere near as well on that front. Probably the one aspect of the slasher that this film does better than those ones though is the gore and kills. Throats are cut, axes meet heads and arrows fly. At times it does seem like the rest of the film is just filler before Tom Savini gets to weave his warped, bloody magic onscreen. Just as it shows its age, the film also shows its low budget roots as much of it feels like an episode of a TV show in the way it is shot. This is not totally true, the prologue shows some of what could have been, with a stylish kill incorporating slow motion, point of view shots and some cool use of stills. Overall though, outside of the use of point of view shooting, which is actually utilised better here than in most films which utilise the technique, there is little stylisation through the rest of the film. This film pushes the whole promiscuous teenagers getting killed cliché more than other films I have watched. I was looking for some sort of insight or commentary for this. But I couldn’t really find any. Sure it is explained from a plot perspective. In terms of connecting it to anything broader though, there was little evidence. Obviously a film does not have to make any broader point, but I think that some sort of commentary around the choice of victims would have perhaps made this a more satisfying film.
The star of this film is undoubtedly Tom Savini and it is plain to see why his reputation as a premiere ‘gore guy’ remains to this day. Unfortunately the rest of the film was pretty middling for me. The marketing suggests I need to wait around until Jason appears rocking his hockey mask. Hopefully he brings more than just a cool prop with him though.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught