You see, Jason was my son, and today is his birthday...
Some of my earliest memories as a child of four or five was being taken by my dad to the local video store and renting, over and over, the earlier "Friday the 13th" entries. Even at that young of an age, I was sold on horror films. I also would rent "Strawberry Shortcake" and "The Care Bears," just to give an idea of how varied my tastes were and how uncorrupted my little mind was. Back in those days in the mid-'80s, "Friday the 13th" was like the Holy Grail to me, and it wasn't until I got a little older and more discerning that its flaws began to show. As a nostalgic experience, watching the series twenty years later brings back fond thoughts of more innocent times. Judged on their respective critical merits, however, they really don't offer much more than any other garden-variety slasher film.
The original "Friday the 13th" is a skillful, if by-the-numbers, horror pic, its very existence resting upon the huge success of 1978's "Halloween
." That John Carpenter classic is acclaimed for a reason; it's handsomely mounted and shot, intoxicatingly suspenseful and scary, and almost poetic in its simplicity. In attempting to recreate the same formula, director Sean S. Cunningham adds one element that "Halloween
" didn't have, or need: graphic violence. The fact that "Friday the 13th" is bloody and more in-your-face doesn't necessarily lessen its significance in the canon of the genrewith ten sequels and a remake on the way, it has a firm place in the history booksbut it also doesn't truly separate itself from the spate of like-minded imitators that came out in the early 1980s.
At rustic, seemingly peaceful Camp Crystal Lake, prospective teen counselors Alice (Adrienne King), Bill (Harry Crosby), Brenda (Laurie Bartram), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Ned (Mark Nelson) have arrived to get the place into working order for the summer season. Before they have been there twenty-four hours, most of them will be dead, slaughtered at the hands of a psychopath who wants revenge for her son's drowning in 1957. The date: take a guess.
"Friday the 13th" features a premise about as bare-bones as they come, but it is capably made. The murder set-pieces are craftily set up and their payoffs (or lack thereof) not always as one expects. A scene in which couple Marcie and Jack make love in the bottom of a bunk bed, blissfully unaware that a mutilated corpse is lying above them, is morbidly clever, while another sequence in a dank bathroom makes stylish use of shadows and shower curtains to generate tension. Likewise, when Brenda is lured out of her cozy bed and into the rain by the mysterious cries of a little boy in the distance, the results are appropriately creepy.
The climax, for me, has always been the movie's weak spot. It really shouldn't be giving anything away to say that the kindly-looking Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is the perpetrator behind the bloodbath1996's "Scream" made sure that audiences remembered this tidbitand that Jason didn't show up until the first sequel a year later. As final girl Alice races around the camp, discovering the bodies of her friends while trying to outsmart and defeat Mrs. Voorhees, the film wavers into campiness. Veteran stage actress Betsy Palmer gives the villainous role her all, but her childlike whispers and repeated remembrances of son Jason slow down the momentum. Fortunately, the culmination of Alice's fight to the death with Mrs. Voorhees is gruesomely satisfying, and the shocker ending, with the tranquility of the soothing, vaguely mournful music score leading into a jump scare, is a doozy.
As heroine Alice, Adrienne King (who later went onto a voice-over career after some troubles with a stalker kept her off the screen) is strong-willed, vulnerable and cute. A tomboy who knows how to fix a rain gutter with a hammer and some nails about as well as she knows how to wear a bikini, Alice is an ideal match for a lunatic out to kill her. The rest of the performances are adequate for the material, with Jeannine Taylor, as Marcie, standing out. A story she tells early on about a recurring dream she had as a young girl involving pebbles of rain turning to streams of blood is indelibly and believably brought up, a harbinger of things to come. Also notable is Kevin Bacon (2007's "Death Sentence
"), in one of his first roles as pot-smoking, ill-fated beefcake Jack.
Shot primarily in the idyllic rural town of Blairstown, New Jersey, "Friday the 13th" is the first and arguably best in a long-running horror series that got sillier and more far-fetched the further it pressed on (2002's futuristic, space-set "Jason X
," anyone?). The film is no grandstanding work of art and its depth is akin to the shallow end of a swimming pool, but it does the trick as a killer-in-the-woods item that rarely moves outside the realm of clichés. For fans of the genre who have never seen "Friday the 13th" (for shame), it is worth a gander. And for those, like me, whose past with the picture goes all the way back to the age of single-digits, it's close to unforgettable.