Almost at the end of our Tom Savini retrospective, here’s Phil Fasso’s take on one of the biggest slashers of all time. Phil’s still asking himself that question below. Sacred cow, consider yourself slaughtered.
Why the Hell is this flick considered a classic?
There, I asked it. And I’ll take it several steps further. Why did this flick generate 9 sequels, a cross-over grudge match with a burnt dream demon, and just 2 years ago a remake? How did this film make the name “Jason Vorhees” synonymous with terror, keep people out of the woods, and down the franchise line popularize hockey goalie headgear? How did this movie generate a boatload of money back in 1980, so much so that copycat slashers started popping up right and left, trying to grab a buck? And most importantly, this:
Why did legions of horror fans devote themselves to this, their favorite horror film… when it’s just not that good?
Okay, full disclosure: Back when I was about 11 years old, this movie scared the Hell out of me. Summer of 1983 or so, I saw the first two flicks back-to-back at my aunt’s house with my cousins. They were older, and sat on the couch. I spent most of the running time hiding behind the couch. Good old HBO. The idea of a lunatic slaughtering people in the woods spooked me the whole ride home, and even more so when we arrived, because behind my house we had two acres of woods. We also had a cable box, and subscribed to HBO. A few weekends later, when they played the first three FRIDAY THE 13TH flicks… let’s just say I crawled into bed with mom around 3 a.m., and felt safe again when the sun rose. Oh, and I stayed out of the woods for a week.
As the 80s and I aged together, something happened that changed my view on the FRIDAY THE 13th’s: I started to develop taste. Exposed to Carpenter’s THE THING, and THE OMEN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, my joy of horror became much more refined. I began to favor supernatural horror (which I still do today), and moved away from my fear of slashers (also still true). But memories from childhood sometimes have a strong hold, and I was very happy when, at my request, my parents bought me the DVD box set of the first 8 films for Christmas one year. Looking at that box as I type, I’m astounded that it exists, given the first movie.
Anybody coming to a horror site named Death Ensemble knows this film’s plot, and its surprises. But let me speak to that 11 year old kid, who’s coming fresh to the series. I won’t spoil anything for him. It begins in 1958, with a sing-a-long at Camp Crystal Lake. When a young couple of counselors sneak off to make out, an unseen slasher stabs and slices them to death. Flash forward to summer 1980, when Annie tries to hitch a ride to her cooking job at the camp, which has developed quite a reputation. In the 22 intervening years, it’s picked up the name Camp Blood among the locals, including haunted townie Crazy Ralph, who’s kind enough to inform her, “It’s got a death curse.” Despite this, Steve Christy has decided to reopen the camp his parents once owned. The counselors arrive, with the exception of Annie, and sex, strip Monopoly and violent death commence. For you see, there’s a mysterious killer stalking those woods, rushing headlong with machete in hand toward a confrontation with the sole surviving counselor. And then there’s one more jump scare, and Jason Vorhees has arrived.
And then it hit theatres in 1980, and FRIDAY THE 13TH became a box office monster, and a classic. And I do not understand why.
A classic is almost always the product of a talented visionary, and let’s face it, Sean Cunningham isn’t one. His camera work is gaudy, and relies on four techniques: lurid zooms, annoying freeze frames, POV shots and slow motion. Much of it pulled me out of the movie because it kept reminding me I was watching a movie. Some of it comes across as borderline amateurish. For instance, the POV shots are supposed to be from the killer’s eye, but that doesn’t always bear out. And the slow motion doesn’t do the film any favors either, as there are points where it hurts the film’s effects. I’m sure the director tried to use the camera to build tension, but instead it betrays just how cheapjack a film this is. He’s said he wanted to emulate the success of HALLOWEEN, but solely in financial terms. This is evident straight from the start; Carpenter’s slasher is art, but Cunningham had neither the talent nor the pretentions for FRIDAY THE 13TH to be. I could teach a film class with HALLOWEEN. I certainly wouldn’t with FRIDAY.
HALLOWEEN also had Laurie Strode. It looks early on that Steve Christy will be the film’s protagonist, with his ties to the camp’s bloody past and his fervent desire to bring the place back to relevancy. But no sooner do we meet the guy, and he’s off in his jeep to go into town. And it’s not a short trip; he’s absent for most the running time. Without him, it’s just a bunch of teens, sun tanning, eating burgers and trying to drive a snake out of a cabin.
None of these characters take the movie and march it forward; they just kind of hang out, and the movie hangs out with them. None of the actors are bad—there are decent performances all around –but none of them do anything to make a character stand out either. Even Kevin Bacon, who would go on to do solid work for 30 years after, isn’t anything special here. That falls on writer Victor Miller and Cunningham, respectively, for not giving them much to do, and not coaxing anything exciting out of them.
If not direction and protagonist, is it the gore? Fans still talk about how the film opened up the floodgates and let the blood flow. But this is hardly the case. Of its 10 deaths, only six of them happen on camera, one of which is a simple throat slash; and technically two of those happen below frame. I decried the underuse of Tom Savini in THE PROWLER, but here it’s even worse. The guy was just coming off DAWN OF THE DEAD, where he blew off a head with a shotgun! Give the man something to do.
Sure, there’s a sweet gag with an arrow, established earlier on the archery range, and a nice axe through the skull. And there’s the one kill everybody talks about to this day, the decapitation. For years, I was in line with everyone else. And then I made the mistake of watching it tonight. Watch when the machete strikes, and you will see that the head breaks off from the other side. To rob Savini of most of his power, and then end on a bad effect, in slow motion no less, is unforgivable. Worse, many of FRIDAY’s kills are derivative. They’re hardly as “innovative” as many would lead you to believe, as Miller and Cunningham stole from Mario Bava’s far superior A TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE.
As for the slasher, people tend to forget that FRIDAY THE 13TH is supposed to be a whodunnit. The identity is supposed to be a secret in films of this sort, right up to the big reveal when we find out which of the characters we’ve earlier met is actually the killer. But with about 19 minutes left, this film cheats its audience by exposing the murderer to be someone we’ve not only never met, but who hasn’t even been mentioned once. Miller obviously either didn’t understand how a whodunnit functions, or didn’t care. Either way, the plot of any classic should hold up; Miller’s botched finale doesn’t come close.
Even given all this, there’s still some stuff I love about the film. Harry Manfredini’s score is both effective and distinctive. His “ki-ki ma-ma” still chills my spine, and his use of strings is superb. Walt Gorney’s performance as Crazy Ralph, full of goofy life and rotgut, is all too brief; he’s the best character in the film, and gets things kicking just by walking out from a food pantry and spouting crazy religious stuff. But he’s only a one on the crazy scale, compared with the slasher. It’s a tour-de-force performance of the unhinged, with scenery chewing, line spouting and ass kicking. Even though it’s a cheat, it’s well worth the wait. And no, I won’t reveal the actor or the killer’s motivation, for the sake of that 11 year old.
What I can’t reveal to that kid is why FRIDAY THE 13TH is considered a classic. Look, I’ve spent most of this review telling you why it should fail to be a classic. But audiences flocked to this thing in the summer of 1980, and multitudes of horror fans still revere it today. Maybe it goes beyond the film, to what the film generated. Its cultural value may come from a hockey mask that was two years off, and all the imitators it inspired. And there’s Jason, who wouldn’t start flaying teens until 1981. Maybe we’ve grafted him onto the original, as many fans, just like Drew Barrymore in SCREAM, seem to forget he’s not the killer here. Or maybe a lot of us are more in touch with their inner 11 year old than I am.
Whatever the reason, FRIDAY THE 13TH stands as a classic. It’s not good filmmaking by any means, and there have been plenty to do it better. But people hold it up high. Maybe someday, some geeked-out worshipper will write it up as an entry for Death Ensemble’s revered Hell of Fame. I can guarantee one thing: it won’t be me.