Jan 23, 2012

Friday the 13th:

The Bloodiest Film Ever Made?


05/10
Friday The 13th
1980
Director:
Sean Cunningham
Screenplay:
Victor Miller
Cast:
Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King,
Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan,
Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby,
Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson,
Peter Brouwer, Rex Everhart,
Walt Gorny


"They were warned...They are doomed...And on Friday the 13th, nothing will save them."

Friday the 13th is a tangible example of the American dream come true. Starting from nothing and making buckets of money is possible after all. Other than a low budget, what did director Sean Cunningham have? Jason hadn't even been established yet. Well he did have a cool title and Tom Savini to do the special effects... but so do lots of things. A novel and clever script? Hardly. Friday the 13th is a workman like rehash of campfire tales and earlier films, including an extra helping of John Carpenter's Halloween. A stellar cast? No. A horseshoe up his ass? Possibly. This hypothetical horseshoe may have been instrumental in getting Paramount Pictures to back and distribute the film as if it were a major release. Friday the 13th opened on more screens than films of this type normally would. This combined with shameless pandering on the part of the film makers and some clever marketing guaranteed that the film would receive a lot of attention. Much of it not good. It's sometimes said that there's no such thing as bad press. In this case the statement holds true. Each voice denouncing Friday the 13th as too depraved for human consumption simply added to its allure. The trailer was just a series of quick clips from the film as an ominous voice counted up to the number thirteen. It implied that the film depicted thirteen explicit murders, each grizzlier than the last.

What with the film's promoters and detractors both trumpeting the same message, one might be forgiven for assuming that Friday the 13th was the bloodiest film ever made. That's how to make a $700.000.00 film that grosses $5.8 million in its' opening weekend without a pot to piss in. Yet, despite what the media machine would have had people believe, Friday the 13th is just another horror film. Though the film does boast a few shock effects, it contains about half as may murders as implied in the trailer and around half of those take place off screen. It was a no more shocking film than several that had come before it, preceded by both The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, it was an extremely fertile and influential one. Friday the 13th would spawn nine sequels, a crossover film and a remake in addition to serving as ground zero for the 80's slasher explosion. While it can be argued that Halloween or even Psycho are the true parents of the American slasher film, Friday the 13th added something new to the formula. It demonstrated that your slasher film could be a runaway hit without being very good.

The film opens with a prolog taking place in 1958. A couple of camp counselors are making eyes at each other. The sexual tension between the two is so thick you could cut it with a knife. They sneak off to have sex and bad things happen. We flash forward to the present, Friday June 13. 1980. We're introduced to Annie (Robbi Morgan) who has accepted a gig as the cook at the newly re-opened Camp Crystal Lake. She walks into a dinner to ask for directions but everyone looks at her like she's crazy. Camp BLOOD? Why the hell do you want to go there for? She's somehow able to talk a truck driver into giving her a ride part of the way. Outside the diner they run into a local crazy, the somewhat unimaginatively nicknamed Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney). He tells Annie that if she goes to the camp she'll never come back again because it has a "death curse." Unfazed she hops into the truck.

At least it's not Bible Camp.

On the road, the truck driver (Truck Driver Jim maybe?) fills Annie in on the camp's colorful history. He tells her about a couple of murders back in '58 and about a tragic drowning the year before that and about a series of fires set by an unknown arsonist during the 60's. Sounds like the place might have a death curse. Annie doesn't care because it's a really sweet gig. Foreshadowingly, she's dropped off in front of a cemetery and could have saved some time and bother by just staying there. Instead she cheerfully continues her hike to Camp Blood.

Meanwhile we are introduced to three other counselors making their way to the camp. First we have Jack (HEY THERE KEVIN BACON!) and his girlfriend Marcie and asshole third wheel comic relief Ned. When we get to the camp we meet Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) who runs the place. The first time we see him he's half naked and furiously chopping wood with an axe. There's also three other counselors Alice (Adrienne King), Brenda and Bill. A lot of characters to keep track of with not much in the way of character development to distinguish them. Don't worry though, keeping track of everyone gets a lot easier as the film progresses. They all have just a few days to get the camp in order before the kids arrive. Steve hops into his blue jeep to drive into town for supplies. Remember Annie? Well it turns out she doesn't have to hike to the camp because she's hitched a ride in a blue jeep. She prattles on for a while before the unseen driver gets tired of her and it turns out that Annie will not be our Final Girl.

"Sorry Ned. You've been voted off and Alice has immunity.
Guess you know what THAT means."

Back at the camp everyone is just goofing off. Ned pulls a few unfunny comic relief stunts and we have to sit through a few fake scares before the film gets off its' ass and starts killing the characters in earnest. First a snake gets loose in one of the cabins. Snakes are kind of scary, right? I mentioned that the film makers were shameless and this scene qualifies. They kill the snake onscreen for a cheap shock. The idea that anything had to die for this movie is just depressing. Next Alice is puttering around the kitchen, opens the pantry door and is startled to find Crazy Ralph standing there inside. I don't mean hiding in the pantry in a creepy way but just casually standing there. The way this scene comes off it's like he wandered into the pantry, then the door shut behind him, then he forgot how to open it and eventually became cool with the idea of just standing in front of the pantry door all day. When Alice whips open the door it's like Crazy Ralph has been rescued. Perhaps in gratitude, he informs everyone that he's a messenger from God and that if they don't leave the camp they are all doomed. Nobody listens.

"It was dark in there...and kind of scary."

Things seem to pick up as Ned catches a glimpse of someone in one of the cabins. He foolishly wanders into the cabin providing the perfect opportunity for the film to showcase some of that depraved gore everyone has been going on about. But instead we cut to Jack and Marcie. A sudden thunderstorm prompts Marcie to tell Jack about a foreshadowy recurring nightmare she's been having in which the rain turns into blood. Her monologue is reminiscent of a scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One of the characters reads out a portentous horoscope early in the film noting that Saturn in retrograde does not bode well. There's nothing overtly supernatural in either film. Both center around a meat and potatoes crazed killer threat. But these allusions to premonition and fate tinge both films with an element of cosmic terror in addition to the physical danger the characters face. Crazy Ralph claiming to be a messenger from God warning of impending doom adds an apocalyptic touch. The film's title, aside from the connection to the date of the events which set the film in motion, implies a validation of a superstitious world view. Even when it dives head on into the supernatural, the series never really exploits this spooky aspect of the title. Other than in the most obvious way in that drawing the attention of an unstoppable zombie behemoth killing machine is rather unlucky. Jack tells Marcie not to worry about her weird dream and they go off to have sex. The rest of the gang is getting drunk and playing strip Monopoly. We don't learn a single interesting thing about any of them.

SPOILERS

We cut back to Jack and Marcie bumping uglies. The camera slowly pans up to reveal Ned's corpse on the top bunk. Finally. Marcie goes off to the bathroom leaving Jack alone to contemplate life. He won't have very long. What follows is probably the most effective shock moment in the film and rather gory. A powerful case for sleeping on the floor. The unseen killer then plants an axe in Marcie's face. Now we're rolling. The game of Strip Monopoly is going well until it starts to piss rain and Brenda remembers that she's left a window open in her cabin. She wanders out alone into the night and is eventually lured down to the archery range by what sounds like a child crying for help making Alice our Final Girl.

Bill and Alice get suspicious when they realize that everyone has gone missing and find a bloody axe in one of the beds. They try to call for help but the phone line has been cut and of course the truck won't start. So they are trapped. Remember Steve? Well he's been in town the whole time. Steve isn't the killer. If you've been keeping track this only leaves Crazy Ralph or the jerk cop character I neglected to mention as candidates. Steve heads back to the camp and is promptly murdered by the first person he runs into, somebody the audience can't see but that Steve recognizes. Bill goes off to check on the power generator and it's soon Alice alone at the camp with the killer.

Alice soon makes a grizzly discovery that clues her into the fact that there is a killer lurking around. It's at this point that the film approaches being suspenseful. We spend the first stretch of the film waiting for something to happen and when it finally does it's all rather abrupt. A couple jump scares but no real suspense. For the majority of the time none of the characters ever realize they are in danger. They are an uninteresting group to begin with and the audience isn't even given an opportunity to connect with them on a visceral level by empathizing with their fear. When Alice realizes that she is alone at the camp with an unseen killer and frantically arms herself and barricades herself in her cabin she becomes far more interesting. We finally have a protagonist to root for.

Crazy Lady
A blue jeep pulls up and Alice thinks she's been rescued. We meet Mrs.Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). Who's she? Just a character that pops up out of nowhere near the end of the film. She doesn't seem to care that Alice is freaking out about a killer running around. She's more interested in talking about the time her son Jason drowned because a bunch of camp counselors weren't doing their jobs. Man does she ever not like camp counselors. And we have our killer.

The next twenty minutes or so is a knock down drag around fight between Mrs.Voorhees and Alice. Both are tougher than they look. Alice keeps knocking the crazy lady down but she just keeps getting back up again. This goes on until Alice pulls a move that simultaneously lives up to the film's gruesome reputation and guarantees that Voorhees is going to STAY down.

END SPOILERS

Friday the 13th is on the o.k. side of average. A no frills body count exploitation flick that takes it's sweet time getting going, yet at the same time manages to avoid developing plot and character. It doesn't even try to present a mystery for the audience to follow, and just isn't well crafted enough to work as an exercise in minimalist horror. The things you are most likely to remember are Henry Manfredini's effective score and Betsy Palmer's entertainingly bonkers performance. And maybe Kevin Bacon's ass.

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