A little before the release of the Friday 13th remake, I decided it was high time to acquire the full original series. Originally I intended to watch the entire eleven film saga before going to see the new version, but then it struck me that perhaps a better option would be to watch them afterwards. That way if I loved the new film, I’d have a boatload of Jason action to follow it with. And if I hated it there’d be the originals to console myself with. So effectively the ‘watch after’ option promised a win-win situation.
Plus, as I planned to write a retrospective, seeing the new film first would allow for some interesting critical angles. One of things which interests me about the Friday saga is how they developed; unlike a lot of other franchises the formula wasn’t delivered fully formed but gradually evolved through the series. So on this journey from Crystal Lake to deep space, we will be noting where key elements appeared first, and which of them the new film has picked up.
Now before we get started, a few words about my own relationship with this series. Now as a dyed-in-the-wool lover of the weird and macabre, obviously I have a soft spot for this series but I must confess it’s not my favourite horror franchise of all time. I was always more of an Elm Street man back in the day, but Jason does have special place in my heart – after all, like his arch rival Freddy, Mrs Voorhees’ son is a truly iconic monster. And as Freddy Vs Jason proves, they have become the modern equivalent to the classic Universal monsters.
Also I must point out that my previous viewing of these movies is somewhat patchy. Although I’ve seen them all and a few several times over, some I’ve only seen once, and others I’ve not seen in a long time. Plus some of these movies I only saw on worn rental video copies in a room full of people yakkin’ and messing about. Hence I’m looking forward to seeing them all back to back, in the proper order, and in some cases not through a hazy of smoke and ale.
There will be spoilers and there will be blood! So settle back in your armchairs, put Alice Cooper’s He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) on repeat and step back in time to a little place called Camp Crystal Lake…
FRIDAY 13th (1980)
Now this movie holds a lot of fond memories for me – apart from its huge impact, it was the first modern horror film I ever saw. Indeed it was one of the first movies I ever saw on video. Up until then I’d only seen old movies on TV but the dawn of the video age was about to change all of that. For younger readers, I can’t stress enough what a revolution video was. I know that in these days of downloads, DVD and TV on demand the following all sound like tales of when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but don’t panic, I’m not going to start offering you all Werther’s Originals! The humble home VCR changed everything - if you didn’t see a movie in theatres, or like in this case were too young to be allowed in to see it, you’d missed it and it would be a good few years before it was likely to turn up on television. So suddenly gaining access to movies, that only a few months ago were in theatres, was incredibly exciting. Even more thrilling was that video rental was being picked by garages, off licences and convenience stores - and most of them were only too happy to ignore a movie’s classification, and therefore kids everywhere were waltzing home with adult fare such as Dawn of the Dead, I Spit On Your Grave and Driller Killer.
So when ever I think of this movie, I still vividly recall the massive buzz I got when my mate rang up and said ‘We’ve just got a video player! Wanna come over and watch Friday 13th?”. Man that was so exciting – I was going to see an X film! Thank you space age technology and the lapsed morality of the local rental store!
And needless to say I loved the movie. I was somewhat surprised that generally the gore quotient wasn’t much higher than late Hammer flicks such as Hands of the Ripper, but I was totally blown away when Savini pulls out all the stops with Kevin Bacon’s impaling and the beheading of Mrs Voorhees. However what really impressed me was the atmosphere and suspense; there was a lot more to this film than just the much talked-about splatter, it had a story to tell and built to a truly thrilling climax.
So many years later, would the original hold up? It had been a long time since I last saw it, and I hoped this wouldn’t be one of those occasions where you revisit something from your youth and end up wishing you’d stuck with your original memories of it. And thankfully that wasn’t the case. In fact, I came away rather impressed!
Although director Sean Cunningham and write Victor Miller have both admitted that they conceived this movie as purely as a cash-in on Halloween, in the end they delivered far more than just a cheap knock-off. The easy route would have been to simply to recreate Halloween in a different location, with the biggest creative choice being the new killer’s mask. But Miller’s decision to keep the killer’s identity secret until the finale adds a whole different dynamic to the film. In Halloween we not only know who the killer is right from the start but also his motivations, but in Friday 13th we don’t know the killer’s identity or why it’s all happening. So while Halloween creates its tensions and atmosphere with shocks and jump scares, Friday 13th builds up suspense with its mysteries. The whodunit plot allows Cunningham a broader directorial palette than just rehashing Halloween’s cat and mouse antics. In fact, the film actually owes more to Psycho than Carpenter’s opus. In terms of plot and structure there are many similarities; both are whodunits, Mrs Voorhees’ derangement is pretty much an inversion of Norman Bates’, and Harry Manfredini’s score more than echoes Bernard Herrmann’s famous music to murder girls by.
And although he may be just borrowing from Hitch and Carpenter, I was impressed with Cunningham’s direction. And I didn’t expect to saying that! Not only does he deliver a film with a solid accumulating pace, he actually delivers a fair few shots that go above and beyond the call of duty for an exploitation film. Particularly whenever Crystal Lake is in view, Cunningham has gone out of his way to frame some simply beautiful scenes using the reflections in the water. And considering the low budget and short shooting times you really have to give the guy a lot credit for making the effort. It’s true that Cunningham isn’t a world class director and you could say his motivation for making this movie was purely commercial, if not actually cynical, but in spite all of that the film shows that he approached the actual direction with some artistic vision.
The famous end sequence of the film showcases both this visual flair and his ability to craft a story. A real hack wouldn’t have bothered giving us the memorable set-up shots of the drifting canoe against a backdrop of trees displaying the first touches of autumn, never mind considering to catch the reflections. Equally other journeyman directors would have been content to close the film with the jump scare of Jason leaping out of the water. Cunningham however continues and follows this final scare up in great style with the hospital scene and the “Boy? What boy?’ routine. Again I really didn’t expect to be saying this, but the film’s conclusion shows considerable directorial finesse. He’s delivered a Carrie-inspired final shock to get you jumping out of your seat but then with the coda he attempts something more ambitious; he wants to give the audience one last unnerving chill that will have them nervously looking over their shoulders after they leave the theatre. He pulls in closer and closer through the hospital scene until Adrienne King’s eyes are filling the screen as she delivers the last haunting line “Then he must be still out there…” and dissolves back the placid lake.
It’s not only brilliantly eerie but it also lends weight to the Jason scare as it quite cunningly opens the door for audience interpretation. Although Jason’s appearance was conceived as a nightmare sequence, the coda doesn’t just write it off as ‘it was all a dream!’ which always diminishes a scare. Instead the audience is left wondering “was it a nightmare?” or “Was it Jason’s ghost?” or even “Holy Jesus Living Fuck! Is there a scabby slaphead kid living in that fucking lake?!?”
It’s also important to remember that no one was expecting this movie to be that successful, let alone make enough money to warrant making a sequel. When this movie was made sequels were generally not nearly as common as they are today, and at this point no one was even talking about a follow-up to the mighty Halloween - indeed it was only the slew of imitators that kick-started the development of a sequel. So Friday 13th’s ending was constructed this way purely for the sake of freaking out the audience.
And I’d suggest that it’s the finale that really made this movie. In his epic ramble through the horror genre Danse Macabre, Stephen King defines three categories of scares:
"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..."
Now the climax of Friday 13th scores a triple whammy. First we have the gross-out of Mrs Voorhees beheaded, then the horror of Jason rising from the depths and finally the terror of the “what if?” close. Cunningham and Miller not only hit all three, but got them in the most effective order too, ensuring that their movie would linger in the minds of the audience long after the countless other Halloween clones had been forgotten. And as we’ll see later, subsequent movies in the series attempted to replicate the success of this ending but failed to grasp the key elements that made it work so memorably.
And speaking of key elements, what is established in this first film? To begin with the most important thing is the bare bones of the formula laid out here –
teens + killer x gore + nudity = box office hit
This is the template not only for the rest of the series (including the remake) but for the slasher genre as a whole. But note that there’s still a key phrase in the equation missing. Can you tell what it is yet? We’ll come back to this in Part II…
Admittedly the amount of flesh on show here is coy by today’s standards and even tame compared with the grindhouse pictures of the time. Quite possibly Cunningham had his eye on the mainstream market and so resisted the temptation to shoot as many bare breasts as possible, but the concept is still definitely there.
Similarly the gore is pretty restrained compared to the splatter that soaked subsequent movies. Now this wasn’t just down to the advances in special make-up effects pioneered in the ‘80s; Tom Savini had already provided some jaw dropping gore in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. But Romero’s movie had gone out unrated by the MPAA – a risky proposition for any film-maker. So considering that the point of making Friday 13th was to emulate Halloween’s box office success, you can understand why there wasn’t more gore.
Also it’s worth noting that the actual kills are fairly straightforward in this movie. They are mainly all slashings and stabbing and even the standout deaths, such as Kevin Bacon’s impaling and the beheading, though stunning are still treated as realistic murders. It’s only in later films do we get the gimmicky set-piece kills with odd implements being utilised and Jason punching holes in people.
But despite these qualifiers the formula elements are definitely in place, including the most iconic of all – the use of the killer’s POV. This is one of the biggest steals from Halloween, although to be fair it wasn’t exactly new when Carpenter got his hands on it. But it is one of the defining structures of any slasher movie. And aside from it’s ‘straight’ usage to, this first movie uses it to toy with the audience – sometimes when we think we are being shown the unseen assailant stalking the shreddies, it turns out that it’s actually just one of the other characters. It’s a classic fake-out, one that ranks right up there with the spooky noise turns out to be the family pet routine, and we’ll see it turn up many times later in the series and indeed countless other slasher flicks.
The next key feature is isolation. As Victor Miller explains in His Name Was Jason the camp deep in the countryside provides a plausible reason for the kids to be alone and for the authorities to be too far away to save them. And more generally, a small band of characters cut off from the rest of society is a classic trope in not only horror movies but thrillers and action-adventure films; any plot threat soon loses its credibility if the characters can just hop on a bus and get the hell out of there.
This feature is well set up in the first movie. As well as the afore mentioned artistic shots of the surrounding landscape emphasising the remote location, other features such as the hitch-hiking girl’s death also establish how far away from the rest of civilisation Camp Crystal Lake is. Later films didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the plot’s geography – indeed as the series progresses Crystal Lake becomes a very crowded place. But love it or hate it, one thing the remake got right was recreate the same sense of wilderness of this first film.
Finally we come to the last key element – Jason himself. This movie sets down the classic mythos for the series, establishing the origin story. Interestingly though, considering how Part 2 and subsequent sequels have Jason as the killer, it could be argued that in terms of narrative that this movie feels more like a prequel. Considering how this year’s reboot chose to set up the mythos, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are tentative plans to do a straight remake of the original as a prequel at some point.
However the big fan-divider with the story presented in the original is whether Jason is alive or dead. And to be fair, the series as a whole isn’t sure itself – the earlier films are going with the idea that he was only presumed dead, but once we have zombie Jason the later films seem to switch to the idea that he did die and rose again with the death of his mother.
This was one aspect of the saga, I was very intrigued to see how the reimagining would handle. As it turns out, they fudge the issue – when we get the camp fire retelling of the tale, all that’s stated is “that Jason came back” – so we still have the same question of whether he died or survived. Presumably these details were left vague to allow narrative room for future resurrections but I’d also suspect they were trying to please all the fans of the franchise – after all Friday fans can be divided as to whether they prefer Jason as mutant mountain man or rotted revenant. I’m just glad there’s isn’t a sizeable fan base for the death worm from Hell variant…
However to get back the original, I think the ambiguity works well in context. Although in the terms of the series it leaves the kind of continuity holes that drive fanboys round the twist, looking at this film in isolation, it doesn’t matter whether he’s alive or dead, and it adds a pleasing final mystery to the conclusion.
So then to wrap up at last … Bet you didn’t think I’d find so much to write about did ya? No, nor did I! But that I think is testament to how good this movie actually is. Although it may seem slow moving compared to modern films or even later entries in the series, I think this works in its favour - remember it’s actually a more of a murder mystery than the usual slasher fare, so the extended focus on the characters and the slow build towards the climax is very fitting for this type of story. And it’s refreshingly different from what you expect from either the franchise. In many ways, it’s only in Part 2 that the series ventures fully into the slasher genre…
JIM MOON, 10th March 2009