‘Friday the 13th’ (1980) Review

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“You’re doomed! You’re all doomed!”

It’s Friday the 13th – so what else could I do, really?

I spent way too much of my youth watching slasher flicks. Part of it was just that it was the 80’s, and that was the heyday of the slasher. Especially the early years of the decade when you couldn’t go to the theater without rubbing shoulders with Michael and Jason and their horde of imitators. Not that I got to see a lot of those films in the theater – no, I wasn’t able to see an R rated film in the theater until long after Freddy and the ‘rubber reality’ horror trend had upended the parade of nubile campers/sorority girls/cheerleaders and those who stalked them.

No, I had three things to thank for my interest and experience of the slasher film. The first of these was, as it often was for all things horror, Fangoria. (Has anyone checked out the magazine since they were purchased by Cinestate?) Many an afternoon was spent going over my friend John’s copies, marveling at the newest Tom Savini makeup effect. The second thing I had was the occasional (possibly pirated) access to HBO. I saw a lot of things on HBO that I probably shouldn’t have (including far too much of Kirk Douglas in Saturn 3). The third – and probably most important – thing that fed my diet of decapitations, throat slittings and stabbings was the advent of the VHS rental.

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I hate to be that Gen X’er that waxes poetic about the video store, but man… that was a magical place. Chain stores eventually made them a more corporate experience – a GameStop for movies – but when they first appeared they were all mom & pop shops in weird locations with mis-matched shelving, stacks of cheap rentals near the door and VHS players for rent that were heavy enough to cause back problems. Early video stores – and some small shops that kept up the tradition long after Blockbuster and Movie Gallery had bought out everyone else – were where you could find the imports, the weird films, and the horror movies. Yeah, maybe they were stocked in the back under a flickering fluorescent light next to the curtained doorway that led back to the ‘adult’ section, but they had ’em. And mostly what they had was slasher flicks.

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That’s how I saw Slumber Party Massacre and Sleepaway Camp and Prom Night. That was how I saw Hell Night, My Bloody Valentine, and The House on Sorority Row. And that was how I saw all the Friday the 13th movies. (Well, not all – I didn’t end up seeing Jason Takes Manhattan or Jason Goes to Hell until much later.) You might have had to be 17 to see those movies in a theater, but in the early days of VHS rental you could rent pretty much everything but porn, as long as you had cash. (And maybe even that, if someone you knew was running the register that day.)

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To be honest, I barely remember most of the slasher movies I saw in the 80’s. They were a dime a dozen and even the blood and nudity couldn’t make most of them memorable. Halloween and Friday the 13th were different, however – the bad guys, the faceless and nearly mindless killers of teenagers, became the main characters, somehow. Jason was the reason I ended up renting Friday the 13th movies – not Kevin Bacon, not Corey Feldman, not that guy from Return of the Living Dead. I kept coming back for the monster – the modern version of Frankenstein and Dracula. That’s the thing Wes Craven got immediately with Nightmare on Elmstreet. Make the monster interesting and that’ll carry you through all the pretty corpses you can stack up in the sequels.

Amongst my horror watching friends you were either a Michael fan or a Jason fan. If I had to try and sort them I’d say that the Michael Myers fans tended to be a bit more cerebral, a bit more likely to watch a horror movie like Scanners or Hellraiser and talk about the cool concepts in Videodrome. Jason fans tended to like films with titles like Blood Hook or The Woodchipper Massacre and rate films on how many decapitations there were or how many pairs of boobs.

I was a Jason fan.

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To be clear, I also loved Scanners and Hellraiser and Videodrome, but to me Jason was always the winner in that matchup, hands down, because he was just a better monster. And as the series progressed and he went from malformed child to malformed redneck to malformed zombie he became an even better monster. When I was a kid Michael Myers bored the shit out of me – which is why I ended up seeing something like seven Friday the 13th films and only three of the Halloweens.

All this rambling boils down to this – I love the Friday the 13th movies the way that I love old black and white monster movies, 50’s giant bug movies, and 60’s science fiction. Through a haze of nostalgia and an appreciation for what they were at the time I saw them – an escape and a thrill when I really could use them.

The Medium
I’ve got a bunch of the Friday the 13th movies on DVD. I’ve never gotten around to picking them up on Blu-ray, and I’m not sure that’s something you really need. While not as bad as the old VHS tapes, the DVDs retain a bit of that grimy, well-used feel I associate with 80’s slasher flicks.

For streaming options you’ve got SyFy (yeah, they have an app) and it’s available for rent or purchase on most of the services you know of and probably a few you don’t.

The Movie
You know this story. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know the basics. A group of young people go to a remote location and do young people things (smoke weed, engage in pre-marital sex, play strip monopoly), then they’re murdered one by one by some maniac until a final survivor – the ‘good girl’ – has an extended confrontation with the bad guy and defeats them. This is followed up a ‘stinger’ (or ‘chair jumper,’ as director Sean Cunningham refers to it) which suggests the nightmare isn’t over.

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This first film in the series, the slasher that launched a thousand on-screen teenage deaths, is not my favorite of the bunch. It’s not even the first of them I saw. That would be Friday the 13th Part 2 – a film I enjoy more in almost every way. I don’t even think the first one is very good. The acting ranges from decent to terrible. The second half of the movie is so dark at times that you can’t even tell what’s going on. The plot ‘twist’ is completely unearned – the murderer is a character that’s never even introduced until after most of the cast has been killed! The scares are generally of the cheapest sort of jump-scare variety. Most egregiously for me – Jason’s not even the bad guy! The few moments that he does appear are in flashbacks or a dream sequence. He’s a far cry from the imposing presence that he’d become in later films.

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However, there is something about it. A certain almost innocent energy. It’s not trying to be self-aware, it’s not even trying to make much sense. It just wants to make sure you’re good and comfy before jumping the shit out of you. (There’s only one person killed in the first 40 minutes.) When the action does really start up it keeps a fantastic pace – building suspense and executing (literally) on that buildup with great timing.

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We’re all inured to this kind of movie now, of course. It’s such a part of pop culture that Wes Craven made his second fortune with a series of films that’s just a deconstruction of the slasher genre. Fox had (has?) a TV show called Scream Queens. White Wolf put out a roleplaying book in their Word of Darkness line called Slasher. Friday the 13th is no Frankenstein, though – it’s effect on pop culture is all outsized to the film itself. Sean Cunningham just wanted to cash in on the success of Halloween – and ended up making the distilled version of what made Halloween work with half the style. It’s the cheap beer to Carpenter’s… well, to his less cheap beer.

The Bottom Line
Look, Friday the 13th is only a step above the classic exploitation flicks of the 1970’s. It features a cast of varying ability, a script which could charitably be called ‘thin,’ and lets dim lighting, gore and (admittedly awesome) music do most of the heavy lifting. I freely admit that much of my enjoyment has to be put down to nostalgia.

But I did enjoy it. God help me, yes I did.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.