I wrote about Friday the 13th (alongside Halloween) for my inaugural No Sleep October series. That was eight years ago. At the time, I rarely watched horror movies, and the essay was written from that perspective. I noted the film was more comfortable than Halloween, more reliant on exploitative gore, scares and sex than creepy, everyday terror. I liked Halloween considerably better and wrote off Friday as its cheap cousin, a pseudo-Psycho ripoff and a weird artifact of a franchise that would grow beyond it.
So it was another half-decade — and a lot of other horror movies later — before I bothered watching the sequels to Friday the 13th (or Halloween, for that matter). By then, I was fully engaged with the genre, which shifted my perspective on them and their weird legacies. Of the three major 1980s slasher series — the aforementioned and A Nightmare on Elm Street — I think Friday the 13th and its sequels are the most consistent of the bunch. The series lacks the highs of the initial Halloween or even Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2, as well as Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. But none of the Friday the 13th movies are as unwatchable as Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Meyers, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child or, well, honestly, most of its contemporaries, beyond the original films and very occasional standouts.
In fact, the much-maligned Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, which generally seems ranked lowest on fans’ assessments of the franchise, ended up one of my favorites of the bunch — my feelings about it captured perfectly by Mitch Ringenberg’s assessment from our 2020 edition of No Sleep October. This series will include another take on Jason Goes to Hell from Dave Gutierrez, who has never seen a Friday the 13th movie. So check back for what will surely be a special treat.
So … this essay series. Back in 2018, I wrote an essay about the whole of the Halloween franchise, but there is no way to capture the bizarre, expanse mayhem of the Friday the 13th franchise in just 3,000 words.
“13 Fridays” is a 13-week look at the entirety of Friday the 13th series, starting on this appropriate date and running through Halloween 2021. It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week features an essay about one of the Friday the 13th films in chronological order, written by new and regular Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts.
Seeing as I sought help to chronicle one of my favorite franchises, it felt like my obligation to start things off with my reappraisal of 1980’s original Friday the 13th. Years ago, I called it comfortable, cheap and a ripoff of better movies. All those things are true. So what?
Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th found success as a perfect blend of tense filmmaking and immaculate marketing. The title is simple, invoking superstition and foreboding. The premise is even simpler: Teen summer camp counselors, running high on hormones and freedom from the adult world, find themselves stalked and murdered by an unknown assailant. It is, to quote Cunningham’s words in the incredible six-hour documentary Crystal Lake Memories, “profoundly simple.” Whenever I see Cunningham in an interview, he seems like a man who can hardly believe his luck that such a cheap exploitation exercise has become so successful … which is fair. Few of the characters stand out as people, and any characterization they have is thanks to committed performances from an amateur cast. Alice (Adrienne King) is a pretty decent final girl. Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) is immediately lovable. Kevin Bacon is the lone recognizable face in the bunch as Jack, a jock whose post-coital bliss ends with an arrow through the neck.
The shallowness is by design. Famous special-effects and gore wizard Tom Savini, whose many notable credits include George Romero’s zombie films, brought his expertise to the multiple graphic deaths seen in Friday the 13th. In interviews, Savini has described the original film as a porno, building tension to keep the story moving between money shots. It’s pure exploitation and fetish through and through — pretty teenagers at the heights of their powers meeting grisly ends at the hands of an adult who hates them. At least Halloween had philosophical notions about evil in its heart.
This original film lacks the supernatural elements of later stories. Even Jason, the iconic slasher star, is nowhere to be seen in his most recognizable form. Still, whenever I revisit the Friday the 13th movies, this original always goes up in my rankings. The absence of world-building and mythology render it a lean, mean gore machine. Jason is long dead, drowned as a child. The killer is, of course, his grieving mother, Pamela Voorhees (Indiana’s own Betsy Palmer) — a reversal on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that screenwriter Victor Miller insists was unintentional. Miller’s script also lifts Psycho’s iconic first-act fake-out, with Annie (Robbi Morgan) meeting her death before anyone else despite providing our main point of view for the first few scenes. It’s hard to believe Miller didn’t know what he was writing when he came up with Pamela, who, despite being insane, has a semi-sympathetic motivation for her killings.
Without Jason, Friday the 13th avoids the trap of turning into a stream of escalating kills at the hands of the franchise’s star. Although the counselors aren’t particularly multi-dimensional, their deaths are still depicted as horrific. These are real kids rather than hard-bodied blood bags or, in the case of Tommy Jarvis in later installments, heroes. The kills are undeniably the attraction. But everything in the first Friday the 13th feels a little more real. The camp itself, a real New Jersey camp at which the production filmed in September after the usual season had ended, takes on its own sense of character. Cabins look old, worn down and drafty. Pamela utilizes the archery range and other camp implements to kill the kids, but nothing as outlandish as Jason’s later, supernaturally enhanced murder sprees.
I’ve seen plenty of complaints that it’s boring and basic compared to its sequels. It definitely features less nudity, less gore and more time between death sequences. Friday the 13th Part II, directed by Cunningham’s protégé Steve Miner (who went on to a major horror career of his own), more than makes up for this relatively chaste entry. It retcons Jason’s death and brings in a new, slightly older slate of counselors who are even less concerned with propriety. Jason himself looks terrifying in Part II, even wearing a burlap sack. Part II even opens with the graphic death of Alice, the only survivor of the original. Part II is indeed the bigger, more graphic movie that sets the tone for the rest of the series. So, yes, Friday the 13th is an oddity in the context of the legacy it went on to leave, but it’s also much more grounded. It feels more at home with modern horror sensibilities except that, unlike Ari Aster’s bullshit, Friday the 13th is a relatively slow burn that ends up somewhere interesting.
Slashers have a reputation for being brutally moralistic about teenager promiscuity, in no small part due to the Friday the 13th series. Turns out that little Jason drowned because counselors were too busy goofing off; later, Camp Crystal Lake is shut down after two counselors are found murdered via mid-coital impalement. Throughout the movie, Pamela takes advantage of various characters’ love connections to murder them in their most exposed moments. But her motivation has nothing to do with sex. She’s just an opportunist who kills when her prey isn’t paying attention. Alice doesn’t survive because she’s pure. She survives because, unlike the other teenagers, Pamela is unable to get the drop on her while she’s occupied with another camper. Friday the 13th isn’t arguing that teenagers should be punished for sex. It’s just suggesting that you lock the door before you get down.
Of course, the morality of it all became text in later entries, and the rest is history. But I like the fact that the first Friday the 13th isn’t about punishing teenagers for being teenagers. Their idyllic summer trysts are just that — expressions of the perfect world that Miller and Cunningham build for the teenagers which is then upended by a graphic killing spree that ends their nascent adult adventures before they can even begin.
It plays like the first season of a TV sitcom. The patterns aren’t set, it’s a little dry and it’s certainly not what anyone vaguely familiar with the franchise’s legacy expects. However, that’s what I like most about it. It’s a short, mean movie that pulls from a variety of better ones. The camp setting is lived-in and shot well. There are no moralistic concerns, and it feels no need to live up to continuity or expectations.
When it gets down to it, I guess this whole essay is about how Friday the 13th is a comparatively basic movie, and I am just a really basic bitch.
NEXT WEEK: Heather Knight celebrates the stellar final girl of Friday the 13th Part II.