Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Horror Classic Review: Friday the 13th

I probably never saw the original movie until after I'd seen a few of the others for the simple fact that it was long before my time and it was not widely available on cable. Certain images from the film always stayed with me like Mrs. Voorhees in that awful sweater and her short blonde her and of course her decapitation at the end. I also always remembered that scare at the end when Alice is attacked on the lack by the boy Jason leaping out of the water. The series as a whole had a profound effect of fright on me throughout my childhood. Even as a teenager watching some of these films made me nervous to have to turn all the lights off and go to bed.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

People often forget that the killer in the original Friday the 13th was not Jason, but his mother Mrs. Voorhees. Wes Craven’s self-aware horror film Scream even calls attention to this fact by having the killer use it as a little-known piece of trivia to taunt a victim. Jason is nothing more than a sad story of a boy drowning in a lake, the result of negligence on the part of his camp counselors. Probably what people don’t forget quite so easily is that Friday the 13th is a not very competently made slasher film that is not all that scary to boot.

It starts rather inexplicably in 1959 – the year after Jason’s drowning – to depict a young couple caught in flagrante delicto during the throes of passion. It’s clear by their reaction to the point of view camera that their assailant is someone they know to be some kind of authority figure. Flash forward 20 years and Camp Crystal Lake is set to reopen for the first time since the grisly murders. But this is nothing more than an excuse to put a group of young people in harm’s way before they get hacked up one at a time during the course of the first night.

That’s all fine and can even be a decent premise for an effective horror film, but director Sean S. Cunningham can’t muster a tiny fraction of the dread that John Carpenter achieved two years earlier in Halloween, this film’s most obvious source of inspiration. Both films feature stalking killers and lots of point of view camera work. Carpenter knew how often to use that device and how to place the camera for maximum suspense. Cunningham’s camera, by contrast, takes on the POV stance so often it almost becomes self-parody. There are also moments that beggar credulity when it seems the characters should undoubtedly see their stalker behind a tree or some such, but don’t.

If there’s a lead role it’s Alice (Adrienne King) but only because she survives through the end and dispatches Mrs. Voorhees through a vicious beheading. The other characters are too thin to even call one-dimensional. They can’t even be described as stock types. They are just fodder for the death machine. It’s Victor Miller’s screenplay that starts the assault on decent filmmaking. He’s got the makings of a halfway frightening story, but he has no ear for dialogue and no sense of characterization. Most of his subsequent work was on daytime soaps, not exactly paragons of great writing. The acting also leaves a lot to be desired which explains why, with the notable exception of Kevin Bacon, no one moved on to a significant acting career. Betsy Palmer (playing Pamela Voorhees) was meant to be the big star in this low budget production. Prior to the film’s release she had a string of TV and film credits going back to the 50s.

Any tension the movie manages to build is completely deflated when the killer is revealed as a seemingly benign middle-aged woman. Until then she remains a specter, something unknown that induces fear. Once we’ve seen her face the movie transitions from horror to thriller with a physical struggle between Alice and Mrs. Voorhees. Composer Harry Manfredini’s staccato strings rather purposefully evoke Bernard Herrmann’s great Psycho score. And makeup artist Tom Savini created the gore, which is really one of the best aspects of this first installment. Savini would later go on to an enduring career as a horror makeup effects artist.

Probably the one scene that really still produces a chill is when Alice, drifting serenely on the lake in a canoe the next morning, sees the police arrive before being pulled under the water by the demented and deformed boy Jason. But then there’s a lack of logical consistency as the film attempts to present this scene as something between dream and reality. The police are on the lake shore when she’s pulled under, yet the sheriff looks surprised when Alice asks about the boy in the lake. Either it really happened in front of the police or it was a dream, in which case why did the police pull her out of the lake as the sheriff claims? Obviously the intention was to leave the possibility of a sequel open, but then why include a shot of the police pulling up to the lake?

This movie might play well to pre-adolescents looking for a classic scary movie for a sleepover party, if they can get past the dated special effects and (to their eyes) antique fashions. But once a person has passed beyond that place in life where he’s still not entirely sure whether or not psycho slashers really exist, I can’t see how Friday the 13th can hold much appeal apart from an academic examination of the 1980s’ horror craze.

Deaths (with my rating out of 10)

Total deaths: 10 (7 on screen)
Average rating: 3.3/10
Highest rating: 7

Ratings are based on my personal reaction to the killing taking into account factors such as shock, surprise, and fear, as well as the creativity involved and how graphic it is.

1.       Barry is stabbed in the stomach. The stabbing is not shown (2).
2.       Claudette is killed in a freeze frame zoom shot. Her death is off screen (1).
3.       Annie jumps from a moving vehicle being driven by Mrs. Voorhees. She’s chased through the woods and has her throat cut by a hunting knife (4).
4.       Ned’s death is not shown. His body is shown later in a top bunk, his throat cut (3).
5.       Jack takes an arrow through his throat from beneath the bed (6).
6.       Marcie takes an axe to the head in the shower room. We don’t see the axe strike, just the aftermath (4).
7.       Brenda’s death is not shown. Later her body is thrown through a window (1).
8.       Steve is stabbed in the chest. The penetration is not shown (2).
9.       Bill is killed off screen. His body is found later with several arrows sticking out of his face and torso (3).
10.   Mrs. Voorhees is decapitated by a machete (7).

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