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FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)

"You’re going to Camp Blood, aintcha? You’ll never come back again! It’s got a death curse!"


Sean S. Cunningham

Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Kevin Bacon, Jeannine Taylor, Mark Nelson, Robbi Morgan, Peter Brouwer, Walt Gorney, Rex Everhart

Victor Miller
Synopsis:  At Camp Crystal Lake, 1958, a pair of teenage counsellors sneaks away from a group singalong to make out in a barn. The two break apart, embarrassed, when someone else enters the room. The boy begins to apologise, but is stabbed to death. The girl screams in terror as the killer comes towards her…. Twenty-two years later, a young woman named Annie (Robbi Morgan) backpacks into a small town and enters a diner to ask directions to Camp Crystal Lake. The townspeople look shocked, but a waitress arranges for a truck driver (Rex Everhart) to drive her part of the way. On their way to the truck, Annie and the driver are accosted by Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), who warns Annie against going to the camp. The driver tells Ralph to get lost, but once he and Annie are on the road, he tells her of the camp’s gruesome history – a child drowned, counsellors murdered, mysterious fires – and advises her to quit her job. Annie laughs off the warning. After being dropped at the turn-off to the camp, Annie is picked up and given a lift by another driver. Three more prospective counsellors, Jack (Kevin Bacon), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) and Ned (Mark Nelson), arrive at the camp and meet their new boss, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), and fellow employees Alice (Adrienne King), Brenda (Laurie Bartram) and Bill (Harry Crosby). Steve drives into town to collect supplies, leaving the others to continue fixing up the camp. Meanwhile, noticing that they have driven past the camp’s entrance, Annie asks her driver to stop. Instead, they speed up. Frightened, Annie leaps from the moving car. The car screams to a stop, and the driver pursues Annie into the woods. The terrified girl runs for her life, but the driver catches her and slits her throat.… A motorcycle cop visits the camp to warn the kids that Crazy Ralph was seen heading their way. Shortly afterwards, Alice opens the pantry door and is shocked to find Ralph inside. He warns the kids that if they stay at the camp they will all die, then bikes away. Later that afternoon, as Jack and Marcie kiss by the lake, Ned wanders away. Thinking that he sees someone in one of the cabins, he goes in to investigate…. A violent thunderstorm breaks. Brenda challenges Alice and Bill to a game of "strip Monopoly". Jack and Marcie sneak into one of the cabins to have sex. Afterwards, Marcie leaves to go to the bathroom. As Jack lies in bed, drops of blood fall on him from the top bunk where, unbeknownst to him, Ned’s dead body lies. Before Jack can realise what has happened, an arrow is thrust up from under the bed and through his throat. A short time later, Marcie discovers that she is not alone in the shower block….

Comments: Nasty, brutish and short as it is, Friday The 13th is one of the most important horror movies of all time – a fact that is as depressing as it is incontrovertible. The film was by no means the first of its type. It had been proceeded in Europe by the work of Mario Bava, who produced a prototype model in Blood And Black Lace (which has the rare distinction of being even more influential for its beauty and artistry than it is for its violent set-pieces), and the real thing in Bay Of Blood, which later found itself on the British "video nasties" list. America, meanwhile, had seen the gore epics of Herschell Gordon Lewis, and films such as The Driller Killer and The Toolbox Murders, while the Canadians kicked in with Black Christmas and Terror Train. But Friday The 13th was different in that it managed to secure for itself the support of a major studio. The film’s most immediate model was, of course, Halloween, at that time the most profitable independent film ever made; a fact that clearly did not go unnoticed by Friday The 13th’s producer-director, Sean Cunningham. Deciding (correctly it seems, sadly) that the basis of Halloween’s success was its recipe of teenagers, sex and violence, Cunningham dispensed with John Carpenter’s thoughtful characterisations, black humour, and technical skill to produce a brutal little movie whose sole raison d’être is its gore effects. Detecting the sweet scent of money in the air, Paramount Studios picked up Cunningham’s calculated opus and, ignoring the howls of outrage from the critics, the MPAA and certain sections of the public, gave it mainstream distribution – and made a bundle. Consequently, the floodgates opened, and for years horror watchers were besieged with film after film in which, usually on an anniversary or some other special occasion, scantily clad teenagers were slaughtered by an unknown killer wielding an incredible array of household implements and/or gardening tools.

Historically important it may be, but the question of whether Friday The 13th is a good film remains. Judged purely as a "film", no, it is not; but judged against most of what followed it, it’s not too bad. Advertised in some quarters under the disarmingly frank tagline of "Come! Watch them die!", Friday The 13th makes no pretence of being anything other than a showcase for Tom Savini’s gore effects. To that point, Savini was best (and rightly) known for his work in Dawn Of The Dead; but that, being released unrated, had played only to specialised audiences. Friday The 13th took Savini into the mainstream, and secured his position as the King of Gore. Another notable thing about the film is Harry Manfredini’s score, which is more or less the downmarket equivalent of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. (At any rate, it’s been copied almost as much: the first time I watched this film, I recognised that creepy electronic chh-chh-chh-chh hah-hah-hah-hah instantly.) Apart from these contributions, the film has few claims towards quality. The acting is weak (although better than that in most other slashers); the script is banal; the cinematography – the final lake sequence aside - flat and uninteresting. There are also more continuity errors than you can poke a stick at. Objects, and even people, come and go in a quite mystifying manner. (My personal favourite glitch, however, is chirpy Annie’s announcement that she hates it when people call children "kids" – about a minute after explaining she’s been hired to "cook for fifty kids.") Still, these flaws pale into insignificance beside the realisation that by the time Friday The 13th’s end credits rolled, the rules for all future slasher films had been set in concrete. To wit:

  1. Character development is a waste of time and money.

    There are eight major characters in this film, not counting the killer. Ninety-odd minutes later, what do we know about them? Annie always wanted to work with kids. Alice "has a problem" with someone. Marcie’s scared of storms. That’s it. These aren’t people, they’re walking targets. Nothing underscores the misanthropic nature of the slasher film better than its utter disregard of its characters. If we doubted the fundamental cynicism of this entire cycle of film-making, we only have to consider how carefully its scriptwriters avoid creating any characters that the audience could actually care about. After all, if the audience made any kind of emotional connection with the people onscreen, they might not like the fact that they end up butchered. For the gore scenes to have their desired effect, it is important for the people on the receiving end to be as uninteresting or as unlikeable as possible. Which brings us to the next rule:

  2. Slasher films are populated by idiots.

    Nowhere else will you see such breadth and depth of utter stupidity than in slasher movies. The characters behave in ways that no-one in the real world would consider for an instant. Knowing there’s a killer on the loose, they go into basements and attics, they wander around in the dark, they take time out to have sex, they do everything, in fact, but turn the goddamn lights on and stay put. Idiot #1 in Friday The 13th is Steve Christy himself, who not only invests a large sum of money in the re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake (is running a summer camp really that profitable?), but hires a pack of idiots even bigger than himself to be the counsellors (don’t you need qualifications for a job like that?). Idiot #2 is Ned, the "funny one". He’s a joker, all right. First of all he gets Brenda’s attention by shooting an arrow at the target she’s standing by, missing her by about a foot. Incredibly, she laughs (making her Idiot #3). Later, Ned pretends to drown, so that Brenda will give him mouth-to-mouth. When he suddenly "recovers", they all laugh! (Idiots! Personally, I’d’ve whacked him on the spot. Apparently our killer agrees, because Idiot #2 is also Victim #2.) In another display of Group Idiocy, when Alice finds a snake in one of the cabins, instead of running away, the whole crowd piles into the cabin and shuts the door! And if that isn’t enough, having chased the snake under a bed, Alice and Bill lie on the floor and stick their faces under there! IDIOTS!! Towards the end, Alice and Bill know something’s badly wrong. Do they lock themselves in and stay where they are? No: Bill goes out into a storm to check the generator. Does Alice stay where she is? No: she goes out after Bill. IDIOTS!! When Alice, our Final Girl, finally discovers that her friends are dead, she barricades herself in a cabin. Ah, at last, you might think, a smart act. Yeah – except that when a car pulls up outside, she tears down the barricade and runs outside without even waiting to see who’s out there! She thinks it’s Christy – well, what if it is? How does she know he’s not the killer? IDIOT!!!! If the slasher film has any real virtue, it would have to be its ruthless Darwinism: moronic these people may be, but at least most of them will never have the chance to reproduce. And speaking of which:

  3. Have sex, and you will die.

    Perhaps the most pernicious thing about the slasher film is its constant invocation of this particular rule. Although the real motive for these scenes is probably just to get as much skin onscreen as possible, the constant juxtapositioning of sex and bloody death finally becomes intolerably distasteful. Friday The 13th is more restrained in this department than most of its progeny (including, unforgettably, Friday The 13th Part 2), but inevitably, it’s there. The film opens with the rule being invoked: an unseen assailant knifes a snuggling pair of counsellors to death. This scene is distinguished by its lack of nudity: both victims are fully dressed. Later on, Jack and Marcie have sex, but grant the audience nothing more than a quick flash of butt and boob. In this world, however, discretion counts for nothing, and immediately afterwards the two become Victims #3 and #4. The Jack/Marcie sequence is most remarkable for the fact that it invokes three Slasher Film Rules simultaneously. Apart from Have Sex And Die, it is also one of the best ever examples of:

  4. Psycho killers are not bound by the laws of nature.

    Over at Jabootu’s, they call this the Offscreen Teleportation Rule, wherein cinematic killers can be anywhere they need to be to carry out a killing, no matter how impossible it is. In the slasher film, the rule broadens to include the control of dead bodies, which come and go with startling rapidity, and any physical evidence, likewise elusive. Thus, when Jack and Marcie enter the cabin, Jack lights a candle and the two of them climb onto a lower bunk. The top bunk, as the audience soon sees, is occupied by Ned’s dead body – but neither of the others sees it. After Doing It, Marcie leaves Jack to go to the bathroom. As Jack rests, an arrow point thrusts up from underneath and through his throat. Now, let’s think about this: this scene requires that the killer knew: (a) that Jack and Marcie were going to enter the cabin; (b) that they’d have sex; and (c) that they’d pick that particular bed. On top of this (d) you couldn’t fit an arrow under a bed; or if you could (e) you wouldn’t have enough space to drive it with sufficient force to make it (f) go through a bed and a throat, while (g) having it emerge at just that point. Ah, well, never mind…. Psycho killers can do anything. They do have some rules governing the way the do things, though, and the main one is:

  5. Boys die in shock effects, girls get stalked.

    Friday The 13th is an excellent example of this particular rule. Consider the male deaths: Ned and Bill die offscreen; while the counsellor in the opening scene and Steve Christy are both knifed fairly discreetly. It is the discovery of their dead bodies that provides the real shock. Only Jack dies a gruesome, protracted, onscreen death. That’s because he’s just had sex, and has to be punished for it. Now consider the girls’ deaths. We don’t see the initial female counsellor die, but we see 20 seconds of her being backed into a corner before the we freeze on a shot of her terrified face. Later on, Brenda hears a voice calling for help and goes out into the storm. She is also allowed to die offscreen (probably because she was trying to do the right thing), but first we watch her being terrorised for a good 30 seconds. At the beginning of the film, we watch Annie realise her danger; then we see her running, shrieking, terrified. Then her killer catches her. The sequence takes 1 minute and 43 seconds. The post-coital Marcie gets the worst of it. From the moment she realises that she is not alone to the moment she takes an axe between the eyes is a whopping 2 minutes and 13 seconds. The corollary to the "stalking rule" seems to be that there is an inverse ratio between the extent of the stalking and the amount of clothing the victim is wearing: T-shirt and panty-clad Marcie suffers much more than fully-clad Brenda and Annie. This again is probably just about onscreen skin, but it is also the point at which exploitative nudity tips over into outright misogyny. The stalking rule reaches its apotheosis in the last section of any slasher film, as the Final Girl battles the killer. Here, the time from Alice realising that she is the only one left alive to the final confrontation is a full 17 minutes. Given her important role in any slasher film, there must be something that differentiates the Final Girl from her less fortunate sisters. And indeed:

  6. Behavioural differences mark out the Final Girl.

    To put it crudely, what usually separates the Final Girl from the rest is the presence of a hymen. The flipside of the Have Sex And Die rule is, of course, Don’t Have Sex And Survive. They don’t always spell it out – the Final Girl can be "quiet", or "shy" or "studious". But the implication is fairly clear. (This, naturally enough, was one aspect of Halloween that was adopted unaltered by its descendants.) Friday The 13th is actually much more liberal in its interpretation of this rule than most of its ilk. Alice is permitted to drink beer and smoke dope, and even to play "strip Monopoly". However, she also repulses Steve Christy's advances (unlike Annie and Brenda, who giggle and simper when come on to), she doesn’t have sex, and being good at "strip Monopoly", she doesn’t take her clothes off (she is on the point of removing her blouse when the game breaks up. Phew! – that was close!). She may or may not be "quiet", "shy" or "studious", but she is artistic, as we see from her sketchbook at the beginning. In addition, she’s reassuringly domestic: the first time we see her, she’s carrying a bucket and a broom, and she spends a high proportion of her screentime fussing in the kitchen. Thus, it is no surprise when we find that Alice is Last Girl Standing. Besides, she understands another important Slasher Rule:

  7. If it ain’t pointy, it don’t work.

    The 1980s, as someone (I can’t remember who, I’m sorry) rightly observed, was The Decade Of The Knife. Guns, blunt instruments, even hands just didn’t rate a mention. To be a true instrument of death, a weapon had to have either a blade or a point. Friday The 13th not only gives us death by knife, axe and arrow, it refuses to give us any other kind. Twice in the last section of the film, once when armed with a baseball bat, once with a frying pan, Alice gets the drop on the killer and fails to finish the job. One good whack would settle everything, but in both instances she backs off and gives the killer another shot at her. It is not until she gets a machete in her hands that she stands her ground and forces the final showdown. After which, she drifts out into the middle of the lake in a canoe, apparently the night’s sole survivor. But, as we all know:

  8. It’s never over.

    Halloween was unique in that it simply ended, and had no obvious set-up for a sequel. Sequels did finally appear, although not until after the runaway success of Friday The 13th, by which time suspense was jettisoned in favour of gore effects. Almost every other film of this genre has opted for the kicker ending: either the killer isn’t dead, or if s/he is, someone else is so traumatised that they take over where the killer has left off. The ending of Friday The 13th is strange inasmuch as it works beautifully as a shock scene/hallucination, but is completely senseless if intended realistically. Of course, there had to be a sequel, so "senseless" was allowed to rule; and Friday The 13th Part 2 is based on a premise that makes a complete nonsense of the original film. But when was a little thing like "logic" ever allowed to get in the way of a profit?

Thus, the rules in place, a whole flood of copycat films were produced, most of them falling into one of two categories: the "occasion" films (Bloody Birthday, Happy Birthday To Me, Prom Night, New Year’s Evil, Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Hell Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night) or the "Don’t" films (Don’t Answer The Phone, Don’t Go In The House, Don’t Go In The Woods). Then there was Don’t Open Till Christmas, which managed to have it both ways. After frantically cannibalising itself for a number of years, the genre faltered and finally began to die away. Something so formulaic was ripe for parody, but unfortunately, most of the parodies that appeared were almost as bad as the films themselves (Student Bodies and Pandemonium both come to mind. The swift appearance of these take-offs [1981 and 1982, respectively] is evidence of the degree of slasher film saturation reached in just two years). Eventually, there was Scream, which purports to satirise the very rules listed above, while actually perpetuating most of them instead. Incredibly, the success of Scream has spawned a new generation of genuine slasher films, most notably the feeble I Know What You Did Last Summer and its even feebler sequel. There seems to be a message here, but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps that people who make slasher films are not over-burdened with either imagination or a sense of humour….

Want a second opinion of Friday The 13th? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting.

Footnote:  We take a closer look at Kevin Bacon’s contribution to this film in "Skeletons Out Of The Closet".