Over the course of the month, I've discussed unoriginal films, unconventional films, horror movie cliches and clever subversion of them. We all know the basic tenants of surviving horror films: Don't have sex, don't drink or do drugs and never, ever say “I'll be right back”. But where did these rules come from in the first place? What are our codifiers? Our Ur-examples, if you will? Tonight we'll take a look at one of the original modern horror films, the movie that both set the tropes that we know today in stone, and also launched a franchise with the highest body count in horror-movie history. Let's slice into the 1980 slasher -classic, Friday the 13th.
Already the film sets it's quiet, unassuming atmosphere with a shot of the infamous Camp Crystal Lake, circa 1958. In the dead of night, a lone camera perspective creeps into one of cabins and passes over sleeping bodies of the young campers. Meanwhile, our yellow-shirted camp councilors are sitting together alone, strumming out a tune on the guitar and flashing each other do-me eyes over campfire songs. Okay, I've never been in the position to dispute or confirm this, but I sincerely doubt that any summer camp supervisor acts with the same mindlessly cheery, sing-along outlook that they do when they are around kids. I do however buy it when two of said supervisors sneak off for a little bit of dusty, splintery attic nookie. As they paw at each other, the Camera sneaks upstairs, surprising them both. The guy tries to explain what's going on, but the camera just lunges at him, with what I guess is a particularly sharp extended microphone and stabs him. As he falls back, the girl screams, the image freezing as the scream continues into the opening credits.
I'm going to take a second to talk about music again, specifically from the perspective of one of horror films. As we've seen with films like You're Next or It Follows, movies that attempt to pay tribute to the 80's slasher genre (A genre that actually started in 1978 with John Carpenter's Halloween) will often call upon the pulsing, buzzing synth music of the decade in order to complete the visual and narrative themes, sometimes more cohesively, sometimes a little more abruptly. You only need to hear the heart-racing beat from It Follows or the low, building tinkle of Stranger Things to go “oh yeah, that's the 80's alright”. But some of the very first slasher films of the decade, and even a majority of the films that people often think of when they hear the words “80's Horror” actually ducked a synthetic score in favour of a more timeless, orchestral theme. The original tension strings being sawed back and forth during moments of suspense or murder in Friday the 13th are a very memorable staple of the earlier films, and don't see a lot of repetition in this day and age, being both corny as hell and undeniable fun. Synth music was usually used less in the classic films (The occasional exception like the first Nightmare on Elm Street) and a lot more prevalent in the shlockier “slumber-party massacre” flicks that ripped off the more famous works like Halloween or 13th. It's an odd phenomenon when an homage to a style or genre actually pays a good deal of tribute to what people associate with the subject matter, rather than the subject matter itself. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, as I quite like the music in all of these movies, this is just a brief study of cultural perception.
The credits cut back to Friday, June 13th: The present day.
Damn, if that's the case then that original killer must be in their 70s by now, if not much older.
Okay, kidding., it's 1980's present day. Some backpacking ragamuffin is loping around the small town of Hope, New Jersey, starting conversations with dogs, asking awkward questions about the camp up in the woods that has a sordid history and basically doing whatever she can to make the locals seem uneasy. The residents of the diner all share a look when she asks about Camp Crystal Lake, even going so far as to call it “Camp Blood”. Subtle. Despite their misgivings, a particularly hefty trucker agrees to take the girl up close to the camp. She wanders back outside, the town's aging performance artist struts up to her like a drunken fop and rambles about how everybody is doomed and that she she should leave while she can. The trucker swats him off and Rufus smugly gets onto his bicycle with a bandy-legged flourish and cycles off with one long, drawn out “doooooooooooomed”.
That man is amazing. I wish I could bike off in any direction with that much gravitas.
This girl, Annie, says that she has been hired as a cook for Camp Crystal Lake and the trucker kind of goes back on his whole “Don't listen to that Crazy Old Codger” stance and recommends that she quit, citing the long list of nasty occurrences as cause to believe that the place might be jinxed: The murders of two councillors, a boy that drowned in the lake, some fires that occurred a few years after that, a previous attempt at reopening the camp that was cancelled due to bad water, and the fact that the former owner of the camp is now some burned out alcoholic. Annie responds by staring off vacantly and giggling at all of this. The clues all start to pile up and I realize that this girl's behavior is a lot more understandable if you imagine that she's whacked out on a shit load of ecstasy.
Back up at the camp, our menu for the night lines up, clearing the park and helping out. Oh, hey there young Kevin Bacon. Things are supervised by the new owner of the place, who looks exactly a 70's incarnation of Tobias Funke with those little cut-offs he's toting, and he's assisting Alice as she cleans the gutters. He mentions that she is a remarkable artist while also creeping up on her a little bit, and that's enough characterization for now. Steve sadly straps on some actual clothes and jets off in his jeep, promising to be back with supplies and making the kids pledge not to be picked off one by one by some shadowy threat hiding among the trees. Don't make promises you can't keep.
One of the girls, Brenda, is setting up the archery range when she gets a pretty effective little understated jumpscare by way of an arrow slamming into the target she's standing next to, fired by this chuckling shitstack, Ned. Oh Ned.
Annie gets dropped off another half-mile from the camp (Yeah, thanks for nothing, asshole) and manages to hitchhike onto another car, this one driven by the Camera. Oh no lady! That camera's dangerous! He conducts an entirely one-sided conversation wherein she fleshes out her backstory, only realizing that somethings up when the jeep speeds right past the camps entrance. The car begins to speed up and she bails, leaping out into a ditch and running through the woods, pursued by a mysterious flannel-clad figure. She somehow gets cornered by her pursuer, and her throat is slashed open, gushing (Or rather, trickling) blood as she falls to the ground.
Gotta admit, I actually didn't see that one coming so soon. Annie is easily one of the cuter characters, and the film did a decent job of setting her up as the protagonist with all the exposition being dumped on her. It's very Psycho and if not a direct rip-off, then at least a cunning use of the same trope. Always steal from the best.
Annie's killer lopes off towards the shore line to spy in on the rest of the kids as they go for a swim. We get to see most of the cast in swimsuits, Kevin Bacon in a distractingly tiny speedo and Kevin Bacon's distractingly large bulge. There is a brief note of tension as Ned seems to be having trouble in the water, but it turns out to be the old “Pretend to drown and play the 50-50 odds that the person to give you CPR is a girl so that you can molest her” trick that The Sandlot made so famous. Goddamnit Ned.
Meanwhile out in her cabin, Alice is fixing her hair hair when she is surprised by the presence of a sizable snake slithering around. She freaks out and calls in Bill, who just happens to be carrying a very unintentionally familiar machete, and asks him to kill it. Deciding that this requires their input as well, the entire cast piles into the same small room and absolutely trashes the place in an attempt to get to this lone animal. Lord, I'd feel better just keeping the snake as a roommate. Bill manages to chop it's head off, and the minor, relatively pointless crisis is averted. I suppose we were just setting up that machete.
Back outside the councilors are-
Jesus Ned, what the hell is wrong with you?
I'll bet the Cleveland Indians find all that whooping and hollering very offensive to the proud history of their sports team. His revelry is interrupted by a cop who bikes up to the place and starts pressing the kids about their purpose and if any of them have been smoking anything. He rattles off different names for weed so fast, I honestly expect him to actually hit them up for a joint at any second. He offers them a simple warning about crazy old Ralph before driving off to where he came from, leaving the group alone with Ned. That's never good.
Alice actually runs into Ralph first, finding him just crouching inside of the pantry like a pantry goblin. They exist. A lot of the jump scares in this movie are quiet, understated little things that are actually very effective, not in forcing that gut “HUAGH” reaction out the audience, but rather creating a sense of lingering unease with the knowledge that even the simplest thing can frighten you. Ralph peacocks around a little bit and lets them know that they're all doomed one more time before awkwardly cycling away. I really hope I can be like this man when I'm his age.
Bill switches on the power generator as the sun starts to hang low in the sky, and Bacon trots off with Marcie to feel each other up by the lake. Ned (For fuck's sake Ned) watches all of this, before he notices someone in a poncho sneaking around a nearby cabin. He goes to investigate and disappears from sight and the film.
Bacon and Marcie actually go in the same direction, conversing about their time at the camp and Marcie going off on a pretty random tangent about how she had dreams about the rain that turned into blood. Yeah, that'll get him in the mood for a little horizontal action. But fortunately Bacon is tuned out, clearly just nodding and smiling until it's time to bone down. They head inside the same cabin and start to strip down. Bacon discards his tanktop, and we're off to the races.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group is taking refuge from a coming storm inside of the rec hall and Brenda suggests some sexy shenanigans of their own, pulling out a board game and playing Strip Monopoly, which sounds ungodly tedious. Sure, it's all fun and games when you break out the board and titter the first time you land on a square someone owns and they have to take off a boot, but pretty soon it's three hours later, your feet are getting cold, your friend makes it around the board AGAIN without hitting any of your property, nobody wants to do the math on what the property tax means when it pertains to 20% of your clothing, a half-dressed opponent is napping while your girlfriend is mortgaging half of what she owns to buy back her shirt and you're considering getting naked right then and there if it will end this nonsense. That's when you remember why that painful boardgame was stuffed away in the attic to begin with and decide that you really have to talk your friends into playing Strippers of Catan next time. That game is way better. Just take an article of clothing every time a resource card is stolen.
Bacon and Marcie start laying into each other, and for an exploitational slasher movie, there is very little nudity in this sex scene. We just get a flash of an ass, that by the logic of their positioning, I can only deduce is Kevin Bacon' ass. How's that for a side of pork? Somehow in all of their wanderthrusting, these two doomed fornicators completely miss Ned's bleeding corpse on the top bunk, his throat also slit open. Oh Ned.
Spent and sweaty, Marcie wanders off in nothing but a rainjacket while Bacon reclines in bed, pulling on his shirt and putting a final nail in his coffin by lighting up a spleef. In a pretty well-timed moment, Bacon just notices a drop of blood fall on him as an arm darts out from under the bed and an arrow pierces through his neck, one of the more impressive and memorable deaths of the film, brought to us by Tom Savini himself. Also, was the killer just lying flat under the bed while those two were nailing each other right above them? It's amazing they didn't get a face full of sagging mattress.
Marcie doesn't fair much better, scrubbing up at the bathroom before investigating an odd noise and taking an axe to the face, all while she sort of stands there and weakly screams. Meanwhile back at the riveting Monopoly game, they call it just as it starts to get interesting and Alice seems to cement her status as our chaste, boring heroine by managing to not so much as flash her bra. None of the women in this movie seem all that interested in wearing clothes as Brenda pulls a raincoat on over her underwear and streaks off into the night. She has a brief encounter in the bathroom, narrowly avoiding the discovery of the killer and heads to her cabin, none the wiser. Back at the diner in town, Steve's record breaking 9 hour lunch finally comes to a close as he expresses his intentions to head back to camp despite the storm. He runs into engine troubles halfway there, but it seems whatever jinx or death curse everybody is talking about seems determined to get him up to the camp as a passing police officer gives him a lift. Man, these locals sure are eager to drive people up to a cursed campground that they are just as eager to warn people away from.
Not to be thwarted by her initial escape, the Flannel-clad Camera stalks up to Brenda's place, peering in on her. Brenda hears a noise and heads out to investigate in not much but her night gown, following what sounds like a crying child out to the archery range where she lets out a scream and...
Well that's it. I suppose she suffers some sort of shockingly visceral death off screen. We don't see her again for the rest of the film. Back at the Rec hall, Bill notes that he has no idea where Brenda actually went and they set off in search for her, not really aware of the fact that they are really the last two standing in all of this. They check her room, but only find a sizable wood axe in her bed. What the hell is that supposed to mean, is it some kind of ominous message? You could leave someones severed head lying around if you wanted to, but you just give your murder victims an axe that they could potentially use to defend themselves with. If I was a crazed serial killer (Again, there is no proof that I am) I would sweep the camp ahead of time and try to nab all the potential deadly weapons that I could. I'd have plenty of variety to choose from and it would encourage my victims to get creative with their self defence. Remember when Laurie Strode fought off Michael Myers with a coathanger? That was awesome.
Alice and Bill try to use the phone in the office, with Alice resorting to busting down a window almost immediately, only to find that the lines have been cut and all of the trucks have been ripped apart. See now, I'd be incredibly worried at all of this, but these two actually calm down, deciding that all of this shoudl be fixed by morning. Um, yeah. No. You're gonna die. A lot.
Steve gets dropped off at the entrance to the campground by the cop who gets called away on a report. He trudges up to the sign, before getting blinded by a bright light and offering a brief “Oh, it's you” to the Flannel Camera before it...gets him? I dunno, by the expression he's got, it looks as though he's getting sack-tapped.
Then the power goes out.
At this point, I would be halfway into my dead sprint for civilization, but Alice and Bill still seem to think that everything's okay
Bill heads outside now that the rain has stopped, thinking that this is all just an issue with the generator, leaving Alice all on her own. We are treated to what seems to be a three minute-scene of her making coffee, and it's arguably the best scene in the movie. It's almost silent, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way the camera pans back and forth to follow her movements from the pantry to the stove. We've already seen someone jump out of that exact pantry at her, and we as an audience know that the movie isn't going to pull the same trick twice, but the seed has been planted in our heads. Alice has no idea that she's probably the only person left alive at this point, and we're expecting SOMEthing to happen. But nothing does. And it's brilliant. Once the power comes back on, Alice heads back out to the shed and shit starts to get real when she finds Bill's body, throat slashed open and nailed to a very sturdily-hinged door by arrows. What, did the killer actually stick the arrows straight through his body and into the door, hoping that they would support his dead weight? Or maybe they just hung him up and then got a little target practice in. I really want to get into the head space of this killer. Alice naturally freaks out and hides in the common room, barricading herself inside and having the wherewithal to grab a baseball bat and lantern.
But the windows remain untouched, which the killer takes advantage of by throwing Brenda's brutalized corpse through a window. Oh, that's what happened to her. She just got kinda...roughed up? Maybe got a little strangled by all that rope she's wrapped in? Okay then. Alice freaks out about this for about twenty seconds before fleeing outside, where she sees headlights approaching the cabin. The driver gets out...and it's a middle aged woman in a big sweater. She smiles, offering to comfort Alice and investigate the problem. This is Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, a friend of Steve's.
Once she sees the body inside, she sighs a bit too melodramatically and bemoans the nature of Camp Crystal Lake, especially the death of the young boy back in '57. He drowned in the lake while the inattentive camp councillors were busy having sex. She becomes more and more unstable as she goes on, revealing that the boy was never a very good swimmer. She should know after all, being his mother.
His name was Jason, and today is his birthday.
Admittedly this plot twist comes a little out of left field. Any suspense of “Who's the murderer?” turns out not to really have a payoff when it turns out to be a character that is introduced five minutes before the big reveal. And yes, Pamela Voorhees is the killer in Friday the 13th. It's one of those fun little facts that horror movie buffs love to flaunt in front of people who naturally associate her hulking, goalie-mask wearing son as the face of the franchise. I actually love the idea of this nonthreatening, matronly woman as the cunning killer that has been slicing through the entire cast. The big reveal is done quite well and gives her character a hell of a motivation. She certainly doesn't want this place opened AGAIN. I'm not entirely sure why she revealed herself to Alice like this, but what the hell, we had to bring her in somehow.
Alice manages to outmaneuver Pamela and flees, running past an obstacle course of corpses (an obstacle corpse?) while Pamela mutters to herself, clearly off the deep end and hallucinating her son's voice goading her on to continued murder. Alice again uses her head and grabs a hunting rifle from the office, but doesn't have any ammunition, which is locked away. Damn these responsible gun owners! Pamela catches up and waylays brutally efficient murder in favour of slapping her around a bit. Alice beats her back again and flails off into the night. This cat and mouse game continues for the rest of the third act, with Pamela occasionally hacking through a door or grabbing Alice. It kinda undercuts the menace of your already subversive killer when they keep getting brained in the face with frying pans and rifle butts. That said, Betsy Palmer has one hell of a creepy smile
The fight finally makes it's way to shore, where Alice counters Pamela's large machete with a swiftly diminishing oar until it's down to bare knuckles and GOSH this is undignified. As Pamela struggles to her feet, Alice grabs her machete, and in one almighty swing, lops Mrs. Voorhees's head right off.
DAAAAAMN Alice, you hardcore.
Clearly exhausted and done with all of this, Alice pushes herself off shore in a canoe onto the dark lake, taking refuge in the middle of open water. She awakens the next day, the much less intimidating Saturday the 14th and waves down a squad car that has come to investigate all this talk of teen murderin'. It seems like the danger has passed, but we've got one more freakout for you folks:
Alice wakes up screaming in the hospital as doctors assure her that the zombie boy leaping out of the lake at her was all just a bad dream. Cool, can we write off all of the other films starring Jason as an extended hallucination as well? All eleven of them? Oh well. Alice asks about Jason, the boy in the lake, and the doctors reply that they know nothing about any boy. She hazily remarks that means he's still down there, as the scene fades to the smooth surface of Crystal Lake, which ripples ever so slightly...
It's a little slow for a horror film, and some of the camera effects have not aged well, but I think that overall, Friday the 13th has held up remarkably well. It has a solid plot and while the characters aren't exactly likeable, they have enough quirks to stand out. One of the major selling points is for the relatively unpredictable plot structure and the exquisite visual effects courtesy of Mr. Tom Savini. That arrow through the neck still looks great. Friday the 13th is an interesting beast, considering the franchise that followed it from such simple beginnings. It can be even downright chilling to people who know about the rest of the series when a character mentions things like Jason's birthday or when Mrs. Voorhees picks up that machete....
While later movies revolved around Jason, the focus of this one isn't really about the killer, or any specific character, but rather the site of Camp Crystal Lake itself. Many characters and even Mrs. Voorhees herself all note that the place is just where bad things happen. It's unlucky. The idea of the location itself being a major threat in the series is a neat concept that was never really explored once Jason slapped on his hockey mask and started knifing up fornicators. Pamela's dear son would go on to spawn a sequel-ridden franchise that would see Jason head into Manhattan:
To being pitted against other horror-movie icons:
To being shot into space and turned into a cyborg:
But I don't think his mother gets enough respect. The idea of a vengeful mother's grief turning into madness for her dead son is a very cool idea for a slasher, and Betsy Palmer really sells it. I also appreciate the almost entirely visual storytelling concerning Jason himself, in the brief flashes he is seen where there is clearly something...off about him. His deformed face speaks to some possible disability and makes his death all the more tragic, and Pamela's vengeance even somewhat justified. It's an interesting bit of character work that seems downright subtle for a horror movie. This film actually uses it's understated tone quite well, generating more unease and paranoia that straight up scares, and is still worth a look if you're feeling lucky