Since the successful release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, the slasher horror sub-genre grew dramatically and made its mark in Hollywood. The 1980s saw the release of multiple low-budget films that shared lots of common elements with Halloween. Among them was a cheaply made flick (distributed by Paramount Pictures) that made almost $60 million worldwide.
The film was Friday The 13th which was released on May 1980. Unsurprisingly the Sean Cunningham-directed movie was poorly received by movie critics but moviegoers still flocked to the theaters to watch the cinematic horror unfold not in a suburb but in a summer camp.
This is my review of the movie.
The film begins way back in the past. The late 1950s to be precise. During one night at Camp Crystal Lake, a male and female councilor attempt to make love only to find out that someone had been watching them. Both councilors got killed setting the stage for Camp Crystal Lake’s dark legacy.
Decades later, an effort was launched to reopen Camp Crystal Lake. A cute lady named Annie (played by Robbi Morgan) travels alone to the camp and along the way, people in the small town warn her about the camp’s history of murder. After hitching a 2nd ride, Annie realizes that the driver (off-camera) did not take the path to the camp. Realizing that the driver has no intention of letting her go, Annie desperately jumps off the speeding vehicle injuring herself in the process. To her horror, the driver went back, got down the vehicle and chased her into the woods. After getting caught, the driver slashes Annie’s neck.
At Camp Crystal Lake, teenagers (including a very young Kevin Bacon) arrived to take part in the reopening. What they don’t realize is that someone vicious is watching them from a distance and stalking them.
In my honest opinion, Friday The 13th is not worthy of being called a classic even though its commercial success added greatly to the slasher horror sub-genre and led to the production of multiple sequels eventually establishing Jason Voorhees (a victim in this movie) as a horror icon. By today’s standards, this movie is generic at best.
The script written by Victor Miller is serviceable. The characters are, unsurprisingly, mostly written to be killed off. What makes the movie bad is that the story is dragging for the most part and what saved it from turning into a disaster was the use of suspense, gore and shock when Alice (played by Adrienne King) got isolated on-screen.
As mentioned above, Jason Voorhees is the NOT the cinematic killer here at all and those who discovered the character in the later films (and wanted to go back to the beginning of this film franchise) will be disappointed to realize how irrelevant he was in this old movie.
For the sake of those discovering this movie, I won’t say who the killer is but I can say that screenwriter Victor Miller’s concept of NOT using a masked killer is creatively unique.
In terms of performance, the clear standouts are Adrienne King as Alice and another actress (note: I won’t name her here due to spoiler potential) as the killer. Alice was decently built-up from the early part of the film while the killer, who arrived late in the film, was well presented to be evil, even psychotic (clearly inspired by a certain 1960 slasher movie).
With regards to stunts and kills, this movie is pretty tame when compared to its sequels. This should not be a surprise at all because nobody anticipated the movie would be a box office success to kick start a franchise. The film crew used a really small budget and they did what they could with it although they excelled with some of the gore effects (read: Tom Savini). The physical struggle between Alice and the killer was pretty raw which worked well in the context of the film since the protagonist was no fighter. The killer’s man-like aesthetic in terms of physical appearance added nicely to the suspense and horror as Alice struggled.
When it comes to cinematic concepts, Friday The 13th was written to emphasize how vulnerable people are to getting murdered in an isolated location far away from the reach of the local police and even farther away from the security of the American suburb. At Camp Crystal Lake, the teenagers had a whole lot of freedom to exploit the facilities, to engage in casual sex, make fools of themselves and the like. This is clearly the one factor that defined it and the film franchise went on to establish its legacy with the “horror at the summer camp” concept.
This is tricky. I would recommend Friday The 13th to moviegoers who are willing to endure slow-paced, mystery and suspense-filled horror flicks, and also to die-hard fans of the film franchise. However, if you discovered Jason Voorhees in the sequels and thought about watching this film (the very beginning of the franchise) to see him do what he is known for (read: killing), you will be disappointed.
As a horror movie, Friday The 13th is the product of its era and at the time of its release, the slasher horror sub-genre was just taking off. I would not recommend this movie if you are searching for more Jason but rest assured, you will get to know the complete backdrop regarding what happened to Jason, why the killings happened in the years that followed and so on. This movie also showed, in my opinion, one of the most definitive depictions of Camp Crystal Lake on the big screen.
Overall, Friday The 13th is serviceable. Not a classic, just serviceable. Nothing special at all. It’s a wonder why moviegoers back in 1980-1981 spent almost $60 million to watch this movie.
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