Friday the 13th

Thirty years on, Sean S. Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th looks … almost innocent. It doesn’t have the merciless style of Halloween, or the gnashing sadism of Last House on the Left, or the sweaty lunacy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a cash grab, with no particular vision, and if not for Tom Savini’s gore effects — which scandalized so many critics but play relatively tame today — we’d be looking at a made-for-TV movie, a piece of anonymous hackwork.

Still, there’s something there. Partly it’s the energy of the young cast, who all seem thrilled to be in a movie. (This wasn’t Kevin Bacon’s first movie, but it was his first substantial role.) Partly it’s the moronic, sub-And Then There Were None purity of the script. And partly it’s because it seems to tap into something elemental — the campfire tale, the cautionary tale about teens who got drunk and high and laid and dead. Friday the 13th was far from the first film to use the fuck-and-die formula, but it sure solidified it.

John Carpenter has argued persuasively that the reason sex equals death in Halloween is that if you’re making out, you’re distracted from impending danger. In Friday the 13th, on the other hand, the equation is very much moralistic. The whole saga, after all, begins when camp counselors back in 1958 are too busy having sex to save young Jason Voorhees from drowning. Sex, for teenagers, is all-consuming and wrapped up in countless fears. It’s terrifying and annihilating enough without a vengeful stalker looming over you with a machete. And then there’s the actual identity of the killer, who — spoiler here, though I’m guessing if you’ve read this far you’ve seen the movie — is like someone’s mom or grandma. Stated plain, Friday the 13th is about your mom catching you jerking off and doing terrible things to you. The subsequent films in the series, I don’t know. The sexual dynamic is different in those, and perhaps even weirder.

Everyone loves Savini’s blood gags. But DVD’s clarity shows you the seams, spoils the trick. I think Kevin Bacon’s death by arrow through the neck runs a little longer in the uncut version, and the added lingering does the makeup no favors: suddenly Bacon’s throat is a vividly different color from his face. Is that realistic? Savini, a combat photographer in Vietnam, might counter that a part of the body rapidly losing blood would become pale. It still looks fake. Savini had to jerry-rig a lot of this stuff, and the budget was not enormous. Somehow the effects add to the handmade, amiably average flavor of the piece. Maybe it’s just that Sean Cunningham didn’t know how to shoot effects sequences. Or much else. The shots are competently framed (by Barry Abrams) but will make no one forget the work of Dean Cundey on Halloween or Daniel Pearl on Chainsaw.

The film is boringly heteronormative; nobody has any kinks or quirks, they just want to fuck (one guy even says he doesn’t always think about sex, sometimes he also thinks about kissing a woman). The kids are more or less defined by the ways they kill time — strip Monopoly, smoking weed, getting laid. They’re pretty much interchangeable except Alice (Adrienne King), who seems a little older and more mature, and had something going with the camp manager. Alice doesn’t particularly want to be there, working alongside her ex, but she has more experience than the kids coming in, and she’s kind of like a den mother, or den older sister. She can let her hair down and smoke a spliff, but she wouldn’t have let Jason drown. Which makes her final showdown with Mrs. Voorhees all the more appropriate. Alice stands for balance between horny teenagers and the grown-up world.

Other than this sort of English 201 reading, there’s not a lot going on in Friday the 13th. The closest thing to a subplot is the dorky camp manager trying to get back to Camp Crystal Lake in a thunderstorm. Everything else is set ’em up, knock ’em down. Again, moronic purity. The only thrill is the variations in murder, and if you haven’t seen the film in a while, or if your memories of it have merged with your memories of the later films, you may be remembering more inventive gore than there actually is. What was notable at the time, in an R-rated movie, was the camera’s unflinching gaze at a throat-slashing or at Bacon’s death; the other murders are either rote stabbings beneath the camera frame or take place offscreen. The ax-to-the-face effect is achieved with editing; you may think you saw the ax hit the girl in the eye, but you didn’t — what you do see is the ax in her face a second later. (Again, you see more of it in the uncut version.) One character wanders into a cabin, and the next time we see him he’s stuck to a wall by several arrows. We’re not used to people dying offscreen in what’s supposed to be a go-for-broke slasher flick.

Michael Myers had a kind of sputtering career in the ’80s; he in fact sat out most of the decade, between Halloween II (1981) and his return in Halloween 4 (1988). Leatherface only had one film that decade. So the slasher genre in the ’80s, other than the innumerable rip-offs and one-offs, came down to Jason and Freddy (who of course had to share a film eventually, though not until 2003, oddly). Freddy was a cackling gargoyle whose quips became lovable; soon enough he was hosting shows on MTV. Jason, masked and silent, was Freddy’s opposite number, and since Michael Myers wasn’t around, Jason took over by default as the faceless, voiceless Boogeyman who’ll kill you because you happen to be there and it’s Tuesday. He became something of a camp (no pun intended) icon, too — laughably unkillable and unstoppable, a slasher version of the Terminator. (Jason X would finally just go all the way with this.) But in this first film, Jason isn’t around except as a memory, a ghost, a nightmare, a trauma animating the slaughter. In effect, it’s as though he directly killed these victims — his batshit mother thinks he’s talking to her, spurring her on to kill. But it’s not a Jason film; it’s an origin story, like the ones you find in comics or, of late, comic-book movies.

I can’t call myself a fan of the Friday the 13th series, yet I own the box set of the first eight films in the series, as well as Jason Goes to Hell, Jason X and Freddy Vs. Jason (though not the 2009 remake; I have standards). Why? I suppose I like owning big chunks of horror-film history; also, the idea of the Friday the 13th films is more fun than the actual films tend to be individually. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, yeah: this first Friday the 13th, not so great. The whole series is a kind of shabby epic of retributive pain, an After School Special on the perils of drugs and sex done up in a way that teens would actually respond to.

Is it a nostalgia trip? Partially. It hasn’t aged well; its nonstyle renders it pretty sedate these days, although I still prefer being able to see what’s going on to today’s smash-and-grab editing. Of the early slashers (I don’t really consider Halloween a slasher), I prefer The Burning, which has layers of perversity and genuine rage, and much better Tom Savini effects to boot. Ultimately, Friday the 13th isn’t good enough to stand with its betters, and not bad enough to be a beer-and-pizza hoot like the many Canadian-tax-shelter slashers that followed in its wake. It’s average, bland, more memorable for what it started than for what it is.

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