At Camp Crystal Lake, 1958, the summer evening lulls young campers to sleep while the counselors enjoy some light singing in one of the cabins. Outside, someone is watching, and we the audience are his eyes. Walking through one of the camper cabins, we move silently among the cots, eyeing the youngsters tucked under blankets, and then out the back door where we watch the counselors through a half open door. Following two young lovers who stroll away from the singing, we follow as they head upstairs and lay upon the slats, embraced in a lustful tryst. We move closer and the boy hears our approach but does not run. He knows us and smirks, explaining they were only fooling around. We repay this with a knife to his belly and then mark the girl for next.
Jump ahead to “present day” and Annie (Robbi Morgan), a young woman laden with a heavy camping backpack, inquires at a local diner where she can find the newly-opened Camp Crystal Lake. The elders are squeamish with reply, but a friendly truck driver offers her a lift halfway and tells her the tale of a drowned boy and a series of murders at the camp. She laughs, and then, after he drops her off, is picked up by an unseen driver. Again, we see though his eyes as he drives her past the camp into the woods where she temporary escapes, but is caught and viciously killed. Meanwhile, back at the camp, counselors prepare for opening day, painting and cleaning. Not long after, one-by-one, they are picked off and for those remaining, it becomes a horror of survival against a machete-wielding madman. Or is it?
The first film in the series, Friday the 13th is low-budget and schlocky, but lots of gruesome fun as it invents and perpetuates horror tropes. Designed to be a mix of jump scares and humor, the film relies heavily on the killer gaze, putting the audience in the role of the murderer throughout the movie. Widely considered one of the first of the “slasher” genre (with respect to Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre), it packs a solid punch at times, while saving the best for its intriguing, though slightly absurd ending.
That Moment In: Friday the 13th
Setup: Jack and Marcie have just had sex and Marcie goes to clean up in the nearby shower’s cabin. She doesn’t know it, but the killer has already dealt with her boyfriend and now he’s after her. Alone in the darkened room, she hears a sound and believes Jack is teasing her. She’s very wrong.
Why it matters: This seminal slasher scene is ground zero for a host of teen horror movies. A young teenaged girl, nearly nude, post-coitus, alone in the dark, naive and more apt to walk toward creepy sounds than run away, Marcie’s death is a grisly, beautiful cinematic slice of fun. Its influence is easy to see and has been duplicated countlessly, from the camera work and lighting, to the angles, editing, and tone. While the special effects (by the talented Thomas Vincent Savini) may seem obvious compared with modern cinema techniques, it still holds up well and for aficionados, is poor joy.
More: Once more, here’s a slasher film that leaves most of the violence off screen, though there are a few moments of shocking gore that, though tame by today’s standards, were pretty horrific back in the day. The producers made a great effort to be shocking and employed some rather convincing special effects considering the relatively low budget. Following the mold made popular in the previously released Halloween (1978), we see the killer gaze, viewing what thee predator sees.
Friday the 13th is an unbelievably low-budget poorly-made film that superficially should never have been successful. At the time, it had only one “known” star, mostly recognizable for her stint on the long running TV game show I’ve Got a Secret and some scattered film and TV appearances. Betsy Palmer was always the nice girl, the pleasant and friendly one on TV. Not so here. By the film’s end, we learn that all this time, it was a middle-aged mother offing the teenagers, hell-bent on revenge for a tragedy twenty years in the past and not some crazed madman in the woods. Palmer has publicly stated that when first reading the script, she found it distasteful and believed no one would ever see it. She took the paycheck so she could buy a new car. What it also bought was a second act in entertainment for the actress and more fame than she’d ever had before, which she didn’t fully embrace until decades later.
Of course, the real surprise in all of this is Kevin Bacon. After a minor role in the classic Animal House (1978), he found himself cast in this campy killer flick. He’s one of the early victims and takes an arrow to the throat (at least he got to get with Marcie before he meets his end), but it left a strong impression and opened the door for Diner (1982) and then of course, Footloose (1984). Out of the entirety of the young cast, who mostly “act” in states of undress reciting awful dialog, it’s not easy to pick him as being the one with the brightest future, but it is fun to look back and see where it all began.
Friday the 13th was designed in every way to be a jump scare film, with lots of gruesome attacks that don’t necessarily fit with the killer’s methodology, but at least are clever. If we step back and look at each kill, we have to wonder about the strategy, as most rely on coincidence. What if Jack had never laid back down on the bed? Mrs. Voorhees (Palmer) had been lying under the damned cot for the whole time he and Marcie were, um, enjoying each other. What was she waiting for? She always uses a wide array of weapons, which is meant to seems like random “camp” things, but is really just an excuse to gut people with sharp objects and make the audience wince. It succeeds in that respect.
We’re told, in the one and only well-acted scene, at least by the film’s standard, about the killer’s motivation, how decades earlier, two young camp counselors were, er, otherwise engaged, while her son was drowning in the lake. We of course never saw this but were given a clue in the beginning. It comes feeling rather tacked on as a motive, though Palmer delivers a nice speech and with some wonderfully campy glee turns from savior to stabber with just the right amount of icky.
This brings us to the end, in a canoe, on the lake.
The movie’s “final girl” escapes getting butchered and makes her way to the center of the lake. There, she waits out the night and in the morning, as the cops come racing to the scene, she relaxes, as do we, as rescue arrives. Except there is one more surprise, which comes out of nowhere and is both incredibly well conceived and, given the fate of the franchise, utterly absurd.
Directly after, we see her in the hospital, recovering. Police are there along with her family. She inquires about the boy in the lake, but they say there was no boy. She then famously replies, “Then he’s still there” and looks into the camera. This oddly mystical ending was not what the writer, Victor Miller had envisioned. His story was about tragedy and he had always wanted Jason, the drowned boy, to remain a victim. He lost his life because of negligence and it was his mother that brought the horror. The filmmakers decided to add the ending as a twist and it opened the door to the now (as of this writing) 11 sequels or tie-ins. Hollywood. Go figure.
The incredible influence of Friday the 13th cannot be denied. It honed and invented a host of tropes that have populated dozens upon dozens of slasher films. While the series has gone on to be a gore-fest, each becoming more and more over-the-top, even involving the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and going to literal Hell and space, none have been able to duplicate or even respect the fun and campy thrills of the first. The simple, relatable frights of the original, while undeniably cheesy, make for a great time if you’re in a horror movie mood.