Pros: Music score; FX work; creepy atmosphere; shock ending(s)

Cons: Stereotypical characters; dumb, familiar script; hasn’t held up well over time

Being the film that established many of the now-cliche elements of the slasher movie (the summer camp setting, sexually-active characters getting killed first, body count formula, and notion of the twist ending to name but a few), the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th has to be regarded today not only as the quintessential ‘80s slasher film but also a bona fide classic. That this film would be regarded as such more than (gulp!) three decades after its release is a bit shocking considering it’s initial reception. In 1980, this was viewed as being one of the most reprehensible, worthless films ever made – renowned critic Leonard Maltin only updated his rating of the film from “BOMB” to “one and a half stars” due to the fact that the original Friday the 13th was better than parts 2,3,4,5,6 or 7. Honestly though, one can’t compare this (or most any horror film really) to the honest-to-goodness best movies out there: most horror films (particularly those of the slasher film variety) are made for minimal amounts of money, and their sole purpose is to create a scary, creepy, spooky, or downright shocking atmosphere. Audiences go to these films expecting to see copious amounts of graphic violence and maybe a bit of bare skin, and if one of these films provides those elements while keeping a viewer entertained and interested, I’d have to call it a success. It’s under those terms that director Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th has to be viewed, and can thus be seen as not only influential, but also surprisingly effective.

…and so the begins the legend of Jason Voorhees…

In the years following the drowning death of a young boy named Jason in 1958 due to the counselors neglecting the boy (the legend setting up the whole of the Friday the 13th film series), a remote summer camp at Crystal Lake has been subject to bad luck and a string of unfortunate circumstances, but a new owner named Steve Christy has come in to try and revitalize and reopen the property. After fixing up the facilities, he invites the group of prospective counselors to move in two weeks ahead of the camp’s opening to get the place ready to go. As it turns out though, the rumors about the “death curse” hanging over Camp Crystal Lake appear to be true since, over the course of one day and night (“Friday, June 13th, present day”), the counselors will find themselves in a life-or-death struggle with a prowler who’s killing them one by one.

Though it really is a model of efficiency, the story and script (by director Cunningham and Victor Miller) is mostly an excuse to have an ever-increasing number of people be murdered in semi-inventive ways. It’s also quite similar to the premise behind John Carpenter’s classic Halloween only set in a more remote area, but even if Carpenter could be credited with creating the look and feel of the modern slasher, Cunningham does a fine job of replicating that mood and adding a few touches of his own at the same time. Having previously raised the bar of the horror genre with his work as producer on Wes Craven’s debut film Last House on the Left, a film from 1972 that really can’t be overemphasized as a piece well ahead of its time that pointed the way that the genre would head from that point on (i.e. becoming more nasty and explicitly violent), Cunningham was a master of creating exploitation pictures that were able to be swallowed by the general public. Friday the 13th is a prime example of his talents: Cunningham not only crafted an undeniably scary and graphically violent film, but managed to sell the thing (extremely crude though it is) to a major motion picture studio. The not-entirely surprising success of Friday the 13th immediately set the slasher film craze of the 1980s into motion: within a few years, not only were cookie-cutter sequels being pumped out at an alarming rate ( I can vividly recall how Friday the 13th movies were all the schoolyard rage when I was growing up in the late ‘80s), but every studio and film maker around was trying their hand at this genre where cheaply-made pictures could become box office gold.


To his credit, Cunningham does a nice job of maximizing the scares in a film that quite clearly made very quickly and inexpensively. Throughout the picture, the camera often takes the viewpoint of an unknown prowler lurking just out of range of the counselors’ vision thus, it constantly seems like the main characters in the film are being watched and stalked. Barry Abrams was the cinematographer here, and he does a great job of capturing gorgeous location and scenery but also building suspense in his shot compositions. There’s a nice editing balance in this film between more quiet moments and thrilling suspense sequences, with glimpses of jarring graphic violence thrown in for good measure. I also liked how the “meat and potatoes” section of the film takes place in the rundown and somewhat decrepit campground during a nighttime thunderstorm – the locations are dark and dreary, with shadows (and also, potentially the murderer) lurking around every corner. Harry Manfredini’s famous music score (ch-ch-ch ha-ha-ha) only adds to the creepiness of the film, ratcheting tension to the extreme during key moments through its use of flatulent, low pitch string accents. His orchestral music during a chase scene through the forest, for instance, is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s wonderfully unsettling score from Psycho.

On the downside, the script has some dumb moments, no doubt about it. I was simply not able to suspend my disbelief any more at a certain point in the film – so you’re telling me the killer sets up a sort of real-life Mousetrap game with all the corpses just to provide obvious “jump” scares during the climax??!? Additionally, the whole “phone’s dead, power’s out, car won’t start” routine grew tiresome. Characters are ridiculously stereotypical (most of the young people come across as frisky goofballs – do you suppose that the one female not trying to get laid will wind up being the proverbial “final girl?”), and the acting isn’t all that hot. Though the cast (which includes a very young Kevin Bacon) is obviously having a great deal of fun, Betsy Palmer, who’s in the film for all of fifteen minutes or less, is the only cast member who truly stands out.

Wait a second…who’s THIS woman??!?

The potential problem with the film I noticed most though was the fact that, given its reputation, this film seems VERY tame by modern standards. Tom Savini (make-up and FX man on the hideously gory original Dawn of the Dead) did the special effects here, but the film almost shies away from showing them and isn’t nearly as “wet” as other films Savini worked on. Though this is especially true in the theatrical R-rated version, even the originally X-rated “director’s cut” of the film (which includes more lingering shots of blood flow and spurt) doesn’t hold a candle to what would pass for an R-rating today. Additionally, although slasher films try and come up with clever ways of killing people, Friday the 13th seems rather uninspired in its murder methods. Specifically, several people are killed by bow and arrow, and most every victim here has some sort of knife or stab wound. To be fair, some of the aforementioned issues may simply be due to the fact that the slasher formula was done to death in the years following this film (and even up until today), thus, Friday the 13th doesn’t seem as original and fresh as it did playing in 1980. Viewers without some level of appreciation for the history of the horror film though may be genuinely disappointed by the relative lack of outrageous bloodshed.

summer camp
This summer camp fun time quickly comes to an end.

Even if the film doesn’t quite hold up to modern standards though, I’d have to say that Friday the 13th is a lot of fun to watch, having that appealing ‘80s vibe that (for me anyways) instantly equals a good time. This film has gotten a bad rap over the years, as if people blame this flick for the deluge of slasher films that came in its wake, but I would declare that Sean Cunningham’s film is not just the product of talented collaborators, but is also inventive and innovative – a virtual “how to” in constructing a slasher film. It obviously hit on something to not only make a killing at the box office but inspire eleven sequels (to date) and hundreds of imitators . Friday the 13th may seem like utter rubbish when compared to the likes of Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind, but it is a defining film that was extremely important in the history and development of the horror genre. A must-see for horror movie fans.

Re-released many, many times over the years on video, so there are numerous ways to see this film. The may be preferable – this set contains ALL (and I do mean all) the Friday the 13th films, with extended versions (the director’s cut of part I for instance, is included), and a batch of special features. I watched Friday the 13th as part of the DVD box set – a decent, widescreen presentation of the R-Rated theatrical print. This box set includes parts I-VIII of the series, with a nice bonus feature package of its own (including extended gore sequences cut from the theatrical versions). Not confused enough? The original Friday the 13th has several stand-alone releases on either DVD or Blu-ray with varying technical specifications and special features.

8/10 : Though this film was seen as being pretty extreme (and even X-rated) in 1980, it’s quite tame by today’s standards of excess. That said, there are some very gory scenes here, including several throats being slit, an arrowhead through the larynx, and a blood-spurting decapitation. It may be too much for some people not used to typical horror movie violence, but I’ve seen worse…

5/10 : Some profanity, but hardly the barrage one might expect. There’s also some sexual and drug content in the dialogue – as well as brief drug use.

5/10 : Young adults getting frisky on camera, with brief topless nudity seen. Quite a few females scurry around in their skivvies, and one sports a see-through top. Nevertheless, this film is, again, fairly tame by the standards of ’80s horror.

9/10 : This is arguably THE ’80s slasher classic.

“You’ll never come back alive…It’s got a death curse…”

Leave a Reply