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Friday the 13th
Tonight's Feature Presentation

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Bartram

Written By: Victor Miller Directed By: Sean S Cunningham

The Short Version

Before there was a hockey mask, there was this genuine thriller.

Great direction and a largely excellent score set the creepy tone.

Over thirty years later, the makeup and gore effects are still amazing.

It was never meant to start a franchise, but you can see why it did.

Any self respecting slasher fan should own Friday the 13th, and everyone else should have a look, too.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR COLD PACK CHEESE FOOD.

Tasty comfort cheese that you can take to camp and spread on a cracker while you wait to hear ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma.

Pairs Well With...

BUDWEISER.

Even though they hide the labels as best they can, this is what the kids drink when they do go for a cold one.  Exactly what you’d expect any slice of white bread Americana to go for, really.  But hey, it’s cheap enough to haul up to camp by the case!

“I’m a messenger of God.  You’re doomed if you stay here!  This place is cursed!  It’s got a Death Curse!  …You’re doomed!  You’re all doomed!”

That’s the trouble with kids these days.  They think they know everything.  Don’t even have the good sense to turn tail and run when the town lunatic tells them that they’re all doomed.

Sigh.

It’s moments like that which, to the complete surprise of everyone involved, cemented the place of Friday the 13th as a classic of horror movie history.  Conceived as a simple rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween by the very admission of everyone involved, Friday the 13th not only earned over ten times its shooting budget over the course of its first weekend, but went on to make almost eight times that figure, and that’s before the thirty-plus years of home video that have followed.  Is it any wonder that despite the fact that the filmmakers intended this to be a standalone thing, the studio turned it into a franchise?

The story is as simple as it gets.  A man wants to re-open a summer camp that his family owns but which has been shut down for over twenty years.  A bunch of teenagers coming in to work as Camp Counselors show up a couple of weeks early to help finish fixing the place up.  The locals don’t approve; they know the camp’s history (a drowning followed by murders), and even the ones who make fun of the town drunk for saying so out loud think the place is cursed and refer to it as “Camp Blood.”  Come Friday the 13th, that blood starts to flow again, as the people at the camp get picked off one by one…

Though it may be been conceived as a Halloween takeoff, Friday the 13th serves up enough new elements of its own to stand as a work apart.  Instead of suburbia or the dorm room, Friday the 13th takes the action outside to summer camp, an environment that brings its own added dimensions of potential.  We all know that sex equals death in any slasher movie worth its salt; Friday the 13th is the flick that actually makes an effort to tell us why.  (Though amazingly, despite the reputation its sequels would bring, there is no real nudity here, even during the one on camera sex scene, and there are no showers, either.)  More than that, each death in Friday the 13th is a unique experience unto itself, with accompanying visuals that have become legendary for a reason.

Let’s start with those.

Tom Savini has become a true legend in the world of horror effects, and Friday the 13th is a true showcase of why that is.  The budget was small even for its day, and yet the effects he created back in 1980 still stand up as superb even more than three decades later.  The throat slash in this movie is still one of the most realistic uses of that effect that I have ever seen.  The decapitation sequence is nothing short of incredible; even after Savini tells you how he does it and show you the still photo to prove it (you find this in the extras of most recent prints of the movie), it still looks incredibly lifelike.  And then, of course, there’s the most famous death of all: the arrow through the throat from underneath the camp bed.  There’s a reason people still get chills talking about that one after thirty years, folks, and it’s not just because of who the victim is.  Every single gore effect in this movie stands the test of time.  Indeed, they even stand the test of time in high definition, which is often the kiss of death for older films’ effects.  Here, though?  Flawless.  There’s just no getting around this simple fact: Tom Savini is a genius.

Savini has the added benefit of having his work showcased by a director who knows how to make the most of it.  Slashers hadn’t come into their own as a separate genre yet; this is the film that ultimately turned the page.   Sean S Cunningham directs Friday the 13th as a serious suspense thriller, allowing tension to build over the first half of the film while the body count stays small.  The movie never feels slow at any point, even when the focus is on the “teenagers being teenagers” scenes or working at mundane chores around the camp.  In this, he’s undoubtedly helped by the fact that audiences of the time hadn’t yet been fully trained to expect more blood every ten minutes, but even to modern sensibilities, the pacing works.  Think And Then There Were None, with gore.  And when the time does come for that gore to arrive, he’s right there to dial up the intensity, making a simple run through the woods – even a slow one while the character being chased has an injured leg – feel like a dash for life, or making an already screaming player look all the more terrified.  The technique of giving the killer camera POV for most of the movie (the camera is the killer’s eyes) is also used to great effect, as is intentional misdirection so that the new viewer doesn’t realize where the expected scare is actually going to come from.  Direction is often one of the first casualties of a low budget, but that definitely isn’t the case for Sean S Cunningham and Friday the 13th.

The tension dialed up by Cunnigham’s direction gets a further boost from a legendary score by Harry Manfredini.  The hissed chant of “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma” that underlies much of the music (which I will not explain, since that would spoil some things) is one of the most recognizable cues not just in all of horror, but in all of film.  With a single exception, the music always feels like a perfect accompaniment to what’s happening on the screen, always enhancing the mood and keeping the audience ready for thrills.  (There’s also a nice nod to Bernard Hermann’s famous Psycho cue at one point, if you listen.)  The only time the music rings false is at the very end, during the moment when it seems to all be over, and then again during the end credits.  That particular piece of music – light, happy fluff that sounds straight off the shelf from just about TV production from the late 1970s or early 80s – sounds more at home at the end of Ordinary People than it does at the end of Friday the 13th, but given how amazing the rest of it is, I think it’s okay to let that one go.

By and large, the casting is also excellent.  Cunnigham has said that he was looking for “good-looking kids who you might see in a Pepsi commercial,” and he definitely got that: these folks are a true visual slice of 1980 white bread Americana.  This is not a bad thing at all, because it adds to the sense of realism.  The characters play so much like normal, everyday teenagers that it’s sometimes easy to forget that these are professional actors, and I mean that in a good way.  Everything here plays naturally; so much so that one doesn’t find oneself screaming the usual slasher cry of “Why are you acting so bloody stupid, you damn idiot?!”  I admit that there’s one character who came off as too smarmy for my taste, but I’ll actually compliment the actress for it, because she’s just doing that good a job of playing what’s written.

And what’s written is actually tighter than you’d expect, with very few wrong notes.  In the end, if I could take a red pen to anything in the script, the only thing I’d want to get rid of or alter in some way is the scene with the motorcycle cop, and really, that’s inconsequential stuff.  (Okay, maybe I’d have let the game of Strip Monopoly go farther, too.  Yes, Strip Monopoly.  How awesome is that?)  Where it counts, the script always hits, even delivering some surprises along the way.  Think you know who the heroine’s going to be from the very start?  So did I, but the script had other plans.  There are a few more twist questions I could put up, but for those people who haven’t see this movie yet (why the hell not?), I don’t want to ruin the surprises… one in particular.

Bottom line, Friday the 13th is a well-crafted, gory suspense thriller.  Independent of the franchise it was never expected to spawn, this movie delivers the thrills of a simple, yet satisfying script with tight direction, an excellent score, and some of the best gore makeup effects ever, up to and including today.  If you’re a slasher fan, you have no excuse: you must own this movie.  (And if you’re wondering whether or not it’s worth getting a thirty-plus year old movie in Hi Def on Blu Ray?  It is.  The transfer to 1080 is gorgeous, and the extras are well worth it, too.)  Even if you’re a casual horror fan who may not normally be into the slasher side of things, it’s still worth giving a look.  Hell, whoever you may be:  just watch this movie.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, October, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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