It’s Friday the 13th, and I have a confession; writing about the first entry of my all time favorite slasher franchise is undoubtedly daunting. This is a film that helped define a genre, and while it isn’t the first slasher I would see as a kid (that honor is held by A Nightmare on Elm Street [’84]), it would quickly become the one with the most clout. After all, this is a film that spawned 10 sequels, a crossover – something that I still can’t believe actually happened – and a remake that ranks high among the cesspool of 21st Century horror retreads studios churn out for profit. Friday the 13th may have only been a summer fling for some, but for many, it became a lifelong love affair. While the franchise has taken many shapes over the decades – its latest being an online cat and mouse game released by illfonic for the PS4 – its original form is a much simpler beast than the subsequent sequels would possibly lead on.
It’s the summer of 1979, and six young camp counselors set about restoring the dilapidated and now defunct grounds of Camp Crystal Lake. It’s a camp that saw a young boy drown in the lake years ago; coined Camp Blood by the town locals. Now, in between lake side siestas and flirtatious frights, the counselors begin being picked off one by one. Is it a murderous maniac or has the notorious death curse that plagues the grounds come to stop Camp Crystal Lake from once again opening its deadly doors?
It may sound tame and tiring in this day and age, but what keeps Friday the 13th so fresh throughout the 37 years it’s been hacking hormones to pieces isn’t its use of a specific recurring calendar date, or the fact that it helped establish one of the reigning slashers of the genre; it’s how bare and borrowing it is in its aesthetic and approach. This is an imitator without the imitation flavoring. A genre piece that adheres yet adorns preexisting tropes. It’s a film that rides the coattails of John Carpenter’s Halloween [’78] while separating itself through a constant sense of mystique and voyeurism.
Our killer is established within the first few minutes, though the who is left unscathed and unnamed. We witness the misconduct of counselors through this POV, but we don’t linger too long before our lecherous teens are dispatched. It plays off those early minutes of Halloween – establishing a sort of code of conduct through observation and motif – before setting out what it means to do. Except, unlike little Michael Myers, it never pulls its mask off, lending itself to the early days of giallos where the allure lies within the uncertainty of who and why over how and when. After all, this is an early slasher, one that doesn’t concern itself with when someone is going to be killed but how.
Through this we become acclimated to our wooded surroundings, getting to know our counselors in training. There’s camp cook Annie (the first to go and the films only real hint as to who the killer might be), Jack, Alice, Brenda, Marcie, Ned and Bill. They’re all as plain and vanilla as their names imply, but they’re written with an affable charm. Screenwriter Victor Miller – who would later collect three Emmy’s for his work in soaps – takes time in between establishing these characters and establishing shots of them through our killers perspective. In doing so, a deliberateness is secured by stretching our patience – albeit at times thin – in order to play off the tension surrounding our counselors deaths. Rather than witness the arrival of someone or something that begins picking off our oversexed teens, we realize that they are there and everywhere, crafting a natural suspense; whoever it may be, they are as intrinsically linked with the cabins and the surrounding woods.
When the bloodshed does fly – courtesy of Tom Savini, fresh from his work on Dawn of the Dead [’78] – we are forced to bathe in its immorality. A throat is sliced, a face is axed, and a ode to Mario Bava’s giallo masterpiece Twitch of the Death Nerve is made. Many of the deaths happen off screen, marking Friday the 13th as the tamest entry, though what we do see we are forced to do so. It’s a beautiful call-back to the giallo days of becoming the mystery and observing it through the lens of a killer. It’s just a shame director Sean S. Cunningham doesn’t offer more of a glimpse into who it might be, as our curiosity is never really satiated until that final, climactic reveal.
It’s a reveal that owes everything to Hitchcock’s Psycho – complete with killer psycho babble – marking Friday the 13th’s twist as one for the books. And how could it not, given the level of chaotic discomfort Betsy Palmer brings to Pamela Voorhees. This is a theater trained actress who, despite thinking the script was a “pile of shit”, came on and gave it everything. To this day, that toothy smile still manages to chill a hot pad, and when she does battle with final girl Alice (Adrienne King), the quiet calm of Crystal Lake is disrupted with enough force to capsize a canoe. It’s a climax that forces you to witness the slasher boom erupt, but also hear its explosion as Harry Manfredini’s score bursts from the mess hall with a chilling bravado that would make Bernard Hermann recoil.
Whether you’re attending Crystal Lake as a first time camper this Friday the 13th, or as a seasoned counselor, the impact of its success continues to cut like a machete. Despite owing much of its worth to its predecessors, Sean S. Cunningham’s film remains a landmark; one that continues to exemplify the basics of a genre that now feels bombastic more often than not. As we evolve into a faster more aggressive age – our general audience displeased with the genres skulking nature – Friday the 13th’s stripped down essentials feel fresher than ever, demonstrating what it means to never have an off-season.