Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Franchises: Friday the 13th. Friday the 13th (1980)

The Friday the 13th franchise. What can you say about it? It's one of the most beloved horror film series ever created (to fans, at least; not so much to most critics), and Jason Voorhees has become one of the most famous movie monsters ever. I knew about the hockey masked killer and the series of movies featuring him long before I actually saw them. Two cousins of mine watched plenty of those movies many times when they were young but I wasn't allowed to see them until I was well into my teens. I was fifteen when I finally saw many of the films all the way through and became a fan of the series myself and while these movies may not be considered technically good, at least not when compared to the classier Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, as purely exploitation-style, fun slasher movies, they work just fine and many of them actually are well-made in many respects.

Long before I saw the original Friday the 13th, I knew that Jason wasn't the killer in that film, although I can't say exactly when I learned that or how for that matter (it was likely from one of my friends who had seen it). As I'm sure is true for most fans born in the period from the late 80's onward, I'd seen several of the sequels before I saw the original, which I finally saw when I was sixteen... and when I did see it, I couldn't believe how bad of a film it was. Many may consider it a classic but while I love the series as a whole, this first one is far down on my list. In fact, I'm actually surprised that it was successful enough to spawn a franchise, although, if I really think about it, it's not hard to see why it did. Even though there had been similar films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween before it, Friday the 13th is the prototypical slasher film. It got much a wider release than those other films and it was the first movie to introduce the basic rules of the slasher genre (don't have sex, don't do drugs, the last surviving girl) to a wide audience. The gore effects no doubt stunned audiences back then as well, and all the movies that followed ripped it off instead of the movies before it (which is interesting considering that Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller, the respective director and writer of the film, have admitted that they basically ripped Halloween off). So, in that regard, it does deserve its place in film history. But, that said, as I stated before, I don't think it's a very good film and for me, many of the other films in the series outdo it.

Most people probably know the basic plot but I'll state it anyway: in 1958, two horny teenage camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are murdered by an unknown killer. Twenty-two years later, in 1980, Steve Christy is opening the place back up despite the townspeople saying the place is cursed. He and a group of teenage counselors are getting the place ready to open when the killer returns and picks them off one by one until Alice Hardy is the only one left.

Sean Cunningham, the director of the film, has admitted that he knows he's not the best filmmaker and it's good that he does because it's clear that this is the work of an amateur. Now, there are good aspects of this film that I will talk about, but both he and Victor Miller are clearly not fans of horror films, especially Miller, and that works against them here. Neither of them know how to build characters, keep tension and pace, or to properly pull of what are meant to be surprising twists. Plus, if you try to name any other movies that these two directed or wrote, you might have a hard time since this is by far the most well known film either of them have ever been involved with.

My biggest problem with the film is the pace. It's extremely slow and while that usually works in building tension, the characters, while mostly likable, are so unremarkable and the technical aspects often so amateurish that it really hurts the movie. I've always said that if it weren't for Tom Savini's kill scenes, which are too far in-between each other for my taste, this movie would be unwatchable. The gore effects are what keep the viewer's interest enough to see how the next person is going to get slaughtered. Other than that, the movie doesn't have that much going for it.

Now that I've said what my biggest problem with the movie is, I'll discuss one of the perks: the location of the movie is beautiful and is used very well. The lake and the surrounding woods are a very nice setting and are well photographed. In fact, they remind me of the woods around my house. It also sets a very nice atmosphere. Barry Abrams, the cinematographer, does a good job of moving the steadicam around the woods and the campsite,
setting a mood that the killer could be anywhere or we could even be seeing her point of view. I'll admit that many of the other films in the franchise didn't know how to do that. I also like the way the film actually looks. It looks very lush and has a rawness to it that the other movies, which had bigger budgets and were more polished, don't have. As I mentioned, the steadicam is often used as the killer's point of view and the scenes were Mrs. Voorhees is standing in the woods, watching the counselors, or standing outside a window and doing so, are rather eerie. One creepy image for me is when Brenda goes into the shower-house to brush her teeth and you can see Mrs. Voorhees' fingers come around a nearby shower curtain and move it ever so slightly. Also, when Brenda leaves, the shot of the dark shower with the overhead light slowly swinging back and forth always gives me a creepy feeling.

However, while I've just praised the photography, there is one big problem with it: the darkness. The night-scenes that make up half the movie are very dark and at some points, it becomes a problem because you can barely see what's going on. Whenever I watch the film, I often have to turn up the brightness on my TV so I can see what's going on. I understand that the movie was low budget and it was a fairly inexperienced director and crew but the darkness is a big problem nevertheless.

As would become the case for many slasher movies, the characters here are secondary to the kill scenes and while most of the actors do their jobs fairly well, they don't leave much of an impression. Adrienne King is often remembered as Alice, the girl who is ultimately the only survivor but honestly, while she does come across as nice, there really aren't that many scenes with her where we get to know anything about her. There is
one interesting scene early in the film between her and Steve Christy, suggesting that the two of them were having some sort of relationship, although it's never made clear if they were lovers (when he comments on her drawing of him, she says he looked like that "last night") or just really close friends. They also hint that Alice isn't happy with the job of being a
camp counselor and Steve offers to put her on a bus back home if she still isn't satisfied within a week. Nothing is made of it, which is typical of slasher movies, but I was intrigued enough to want to know more about it. Peter Brouwer as Steve Christy honestly doesn't have much to do and he leaves for most of the movie, so he's two-dimensional to the extreme. Kevin Bacon is undoubtedly the best known actor here as Jack but except for that fact and his infamous death, there's not much to him.
Jeannine Taylor as his girlfriend Marcie is okay and they do seem to be the typical horny couple (though nowhere near as horny as those in future movies) but there's not much to say about her either. Harry Crosby as Bill is suggested to be another lover for Alice and the scene where he's whacking away at weeds with a machete I think is supposed to make you suspect him to be the killer. Robbi Morgan as Annie, the
poor girl who never makes it to the camp, does come off as a very sweet girl despite her limited screentime and her death is a memorable one. The late Laurie Bertram as Brenda I think is supposed to be a tomboy girl who works at the camp and is also a bit kinky since it's her idea to play Strip Monopoly. Mark Nelson as Ned is not exactly an asshole but he is a prankster and troublemaker, coming off as annoying in some spots. He, of course, doesn't last long.

I actually find the townspeople to be the most interesting characters, believe it or not. I don't know why but I like Enos, the man who drives Annie to the road leading to the camp. Rex Everhart plays him as gruff but nice nonetheless. I love when he tells Annie the sordid story of Camp Crystal Lake and when she turns down his advice to quit, he blatantly says all kids, including her, are dumb. Ron Millkie as Officer Dorf, who appears in just one scene, is also memorable. He's the typical Barney Fife-esque cop who acts all tough and authoritative but in reality is a complete moron. His weird facial expressions and attitude towards Ned kill me. I love when he speeds off towards the lake before he takes off (I
thought he was going to go flying off into it). The most memorable local, of course, is Crazy Ralph, played by Walt Gorney. You just can't help but love this crazy old man who tries to warn everybody that Camp Crystal Lake is cursed (and according to the following movies, he was right). I wonder why he hid in the pantry in the main house instead of just showing up and telling everybody to leave. Did he want to half scare Alice to death?

Of course, we have to talk about the legendary Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, who is definitely one of the most well-known characters in horror film history. When Alice first runs into her, she seems like the kindest, warmest woman and it's startling how she's able to so easily turn threatening. As every fan knows, she killed everyone because of what happened to her son, Jason. And I do agree that even though she's insane, she's a great mother because she'll both kill for her son and die for him. But I do have some problems with her. First, when she talks in a high-pitched voice meant to be Jason, I never found it scary. I've always felt it was silly. (It was scary, though, when Brenda heard it off in the distance, which drew her to her death.) Second, the entire last section of the film with her is one that I've always felt has a really bad pace. It has a start/stop feel where she attacks Alice, Alice injures her, Alice runs off, and Mrs. Voorhees chases her again. It repeats several times until the final fight between the two of them on the lake shore and it starts to get repetitive. I know she isn't meant to be supernatural but still. (I do like the scene where Alice is hiding in the pantry and that final fight, especially Mrs. Voorhees' memorable death.) Finally, the biggest problem with her is what really shows off Cunningham and Miller's inept story-telling abilities. It's supposed to be a big twist that Mrs. Voorhees is the killer but when this person whom you've never seen before suddenly shows up, driving the very jeep the person who killed Annie was driving, you know it's her. Cunningham argued that due to Betsy Palmer's public persona at the time as a wholesome person, she wouldn't seem like a threat, but as I've said, it doesn't work; they should have had her appear before if they wanted to make her an unlikely suspect. But still, problems aside, she is a memorable aspect of the film.

Tom Savini's gore effects are the main reason for seeing this film and while they are few and far between, they're very realistic and effective. The prologue kill in 1958 of the two counselors Barry and Claudette is nothing to write home about: Barry's is an off-camera stomach stab and Claudette's death isn't seen at all. I do think, however, that it's a great build up to the gory kills to come. Poor Annie has the first really graphic death: Mrs. Voorhees slices her throat open. It's a kill that we've seen many times in other slasher movies but this one always gets me because Annie did come across as sweet and naive and the look of pain on her
face as she dies is disturbing. Jack's death is probably the most famous one in the film. I'd seen the trailer where it showed Mrs. Voorhees' hand come up from under his bunk and grab his head but I didn't see what happened after that until I actually saw the movie. That looked like a pretty painful kill: an arrow slowly getting pushed through the back of your neck and out the front. Ouch! My favorite kill, however, is Marcie's death that comes right afterward: she gets an axe right in her face. To
me, that's the one that really had to hurt like a son of a bitch! Brenda and Steve die off-camera, although their bodies do show up randomly. Bill's actual death is also off-camera but the aftermath that's seen looks like it had to be very unpleasant. The arrow that's sticking out of his eye makes me cringe. And finally, we have the death of Mrs. Voorhees herself, with Alice slashing her head off. Not my favorite but it is eerie to see her hands come up after she's been decapitated.

Even though Jason isn't the killer in this film, everyone undoubtedly knows about the scene at the end where he suddenly erupts out of the lake and drags Alice down into the water with him. Ari Lehman has made a living going to conventions and banking on that less than thirty seconds of fame. I knew about the scene thanks to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which I saw long before I saw this movie, so it didn't scare me but I can see how an unsuspecting person would jump out of their seat (that includes my aunt, heh heh). And without that scene, I don't think there would have been any other movies because that must have given the screenwriters the idea of making Jason the killer. Cunningham and company have always said that they never intended to make sequels and that Jason was always supposed to be dead but honestly, the ending dialogue between Alice and the sergeant and the final shots of ripples on the lake make you wonder if that really was the case. Either way, it is a memorable ending scene.

Harry Manfredini's well-known score for this film, as well as almost all of the other movies in the series, is another key ingredient. Everybody knows the ki ki ki, ma, ma, ma sound (although it does often sound like chi, chi, chi, ah, ah, ah,) and how it's meant to be Jason's voice in his mother's head telling him to kill. It's undoubtedly a creepy sound and adds considerably to the atmosphere. Manfredini's other music, while pretty basic, is also effective and it is the sound of Friday the 13th. The creepiest bit is the music that plays when Alice and two others encounter Ralph in the pantry as well as when he gets on his bike and rides away. It's very creepy. I also like the bit that plays when Marcie is trying to find the source of strange sounds in the shower-house and the music that plays when Brenda is unknowingly being watched as she brushes her teeth and combs her in that shower-house. The music along with the gore manages to elevate this movie from being unwatchable.

There are two moments in the film that I've always felt are completely unnecessary. One is a scene where Alice finds a snake in her cabin and everybody else crowds inside searching for it. Eventually they find it and Bill hacks it to bits with his machete. Not only does this scene add nothing to the plot and could have easily been dropped, it's cruel because they apparently killed a real snake on-camera. I always hate it when a real animal is killed for the sake of a movie. This case may not be as appalling as what Ruggero Deodatto resorted to when filming Cannibal Holocaust but it's still cruel. I know the movie was low budget but would it have honestly have been that hard to get a fake snake and light it so that it looked real? The other pointless moment is when Marcie tells Jack about a weird dream she tends to have where she's in a thunderstorm and the rain turns to blood. After that, they go back to their cabin and it's never mentioned again. I've always been like, "What? Where did that come from?" I'm guessing they were trying to build up Marcie's character but I just don't get it. You could also argue that the scene with Officer Dorf is pointless along with the scene of Steve at the local diner but those two really stuck out to me as just being completely pointless and seem to be just filler.

Despite what I've said, I want to make it clear that I don't hate the original Friday the 13th; it's just not an entry in the series that I watch that often. It may be the catalyst and it does have some inventive and memorable deaths scenes but, as I've said, it's not very exciting, the actors are fair but don't have much to do and ultimately come off as two-dimensional, and some of the filmmaking techniques aren't well executed. But still, as I said at the beginning, there's no denying the movie's place in history and without it, we wouldn't have had such a great series of slasher movies to enjoy. That's about as much of a compliment as I can give it.

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