Sometimes, the first film in a franchise is the best and all sequels are just watered down retreads. Other times, the first film is merely a rugged blueprint for future installments to build upon to create better films. I believe the original Friday The 13th fits into the latter category. That is not to say it doesn’t have admirable qualities, but the formula and execution is not as refined as some of the other films in the franchise later became. There are numerous elements that downgrade this even in comparison to the first sequel, and the difference in who the killer is does not factor into my opinion here.
Camp Crystal Lake used to be an idyllic summer camp for kids, but for over twenty years, it has had a supposed death curse upon it. Camp counselors found dead, the water gone bad, and various accidents of sorts have plagued it. Even the local prophet of doom, Crazy Ralph, tries to warn all comers to the danger ahead. However, Steve Christie is determined to re-open the camp and mend its reputation. The teenage counselors feel safe and comfortable in the deep woods, but soon, on this Friday the 13th, an unseen killer stalks them all intent on seeing their bloody corpses litter the campgrounds.
First off, the positives. You can never deny the high quality talents of Tom Savini. He’s a master make-up effects artist, and he had honed his skills most notably on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead prior to this film. Here, he created some of the best gore effects and special make-up of the series. They are seamless, and that only enhances the surprise elements of the movie. I believe the success of this Friday The 13th owes a lot to what Savini accomplished as it raised the bar for gore very high, and that gave it something different than the more atmosphere-driven Halloween. This film really started the bloody slasher film craze, and it is due to the effectiveness of these physical effects.
The score by Harry Manfredini has always been a divided issue for me. In some ways, it is suspenseful, but in others, it is just wild strings shrieking on the soundtrack with no sense of tension or rhythm at all. However, it rarely feels like a Friday The 13th movie without his signature style, but there are exceptions. For what Manfredini offers, his first foray with the franchise is a solid effort. It creates a good atmosphere that services the film’s style of horror.
The acting from our two leads is very admirable in a subgenre known for a lot of cringable performances, to say the least. Adrienne King is a fresh faced, likable talent here, and reflects a lot of vulnerability and sympathy. Yet, she is able to demonstrate some strong will in the more intense fight-for-your-life sequences. The other talent I mention is who portrays the killer, and that acting talent really elevates the film above its unrefined shortcomings.
What truly detracts from this movie are two things. The first is the pace. Even by my patient standards, the film drags along at a very slow pace. By modern cinematic standards, it’s terribly sluggish. This is mainly due to the fact that very little occurs in the story. People slowly arrive in town, and it goes along like a slow, calming weekend until the killings really pick up the pace. That doesn’t start happening until about halfway through the movie. The characters don’t offer up much personality or charisma to maintain interest or momentum in the first half of the movie. By the time the film really gets a good stride going, it’s almost over.
The second issue is that Sean Cunningham is not a very inventive or dynamic filmmaker. There is nothing outright bad about what he does, but there’s also nothing exceptional or impressive about it either. The incessant use of the killer’s point of view shots tend to take away from the tension and mystery since you always know where the killer is, and who the killer is stalking. Some sequels would lay off of this idea, and create suspense and tension through more clever methods. Here, it works for a little while, but ultimately, it overstays its welcome by wearing thin quickly. It’s almost as if Cunningham saw the opening scene of Halloween, and wanted to recapture that idea and feeling for this entire film. I don’t feel it works to that extent. Hiding the killer’s identity was key to the story, but better filmmakers later demonstrated a more diverse approach to maintaining that idea.
If, by chance, you have not had the identity of the film’s killer revealed to you by now, I won’t be the spoiler. Let’s just say, it is an unexpected twist in the story that is probably the most intelligent part of the screenwriting and casting. This is before Jason Voorhees began his killing spree under a burlap sack or a hockey mask. So, it has a different sort of ending as we get a killer with dialogue who can showcase their madness without a mask. There is a further twist ending beyond this that captivated and terrified audiences in 1980, and gave the franchise a jumping off point to actually become a franchise. It truly is nightmarish.
Friday The 13th does deliver some good scares that remain effective to this day, and again, Savini’s work has been key to maintaining that effectiveness. However, there’s little beyond that to hold the film together through its run time, and even then, the scares are not spread out enough to keep that heightened tension going for the majority of the film. It was not a film written with compelling characters, and not vastly cast with charismatic acting talents. So, it shouldn’t have been plotted out where the performances or characters needed to carry the movie for a hefty distance before the horror aspects took over. Again, this works as a template for future installments to build upon to make more well balanced and tighter films. The Friday The 13th franchise is my favorite slasher film series, and just because Jason is not the killer in this film does not affect my opinion of it. At one time, I had hoped that a remake could take this film, and re-manufacture it into a more evenly paced and tighter movie. Bring it up to the more intense and entertaining levels of the better sequels. Sadly, the 2009 remake from Platinum Dunes was an utter failure, and like many horror remakes, put a death nail in the franchise. I will give credit that this 1980 film was a horror milestone, and it launched the entire slasher subgenre that ran rampant through most of the decade. However, it was not the best of the genre, and there are better films within the franchise than Sean Cunningham’s original.