Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th (1980)

Since we have a Friday the 13th coming up next week, I thought I would, gulp, look at the series for the Summer of Slash series. Here we go...

I don’t really want to be that guy, so let me just get this out of the way: Friday the 13th took everything from other, better, movies. Setting, kills, style, everything. It’s only as famous as it is because it was the first American film to make a shit-ton of money using such a low-budget, exploitation-y premise; it’s not famous because it’s a good horror movie. There. This way I don’t have to spend tons of time invoking Bava’s Bay of Blood or other films of its ilk that American audiences didn’t know about yet, but that Friday the 13th cribbed from. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about these Friday movies, shall we. I’ve spent a lot of time this year and last talking about all of the films that were influenced by Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (primarily by the fact that thanks to all the money Friday made, more and more studios were willing to bankroll what would become known as the slasher film), but I haven’t taken the time to actually cover the film. Friday the 13th is probably the only film of its kind; meaning, it’s probably the only film ever to be this influential and spawn better movies of its ilk. Oh, don’t get me wrong, during the glut of slasher films (1981 – 1984) there were some doozies – some of the worst films ever made no matter the subgenre – but the good ones really showed what the subgenre was capable of stylistically and allowed for filmmakers to be creative with a subgenre of film where, all of a sudden (thanks to Cunningham’s film), all bets were off.

Just look at The Burning, released just a year after Friday: it only took one year for producers not only to understand the template better, but they now knew how to make improvements to it (and I wish to clarify here: I’m not including Halloween in this discussion because, let’s face it, no other slasher is as good as Halloween, so it’s hard to improve upon something that is absolutely perfect). Cunningham’s film was the first to make a boatload of money and to spawn a sequel, but it’s certainly one of the most banal entries of the series and although important to the context of the rise of the slasher film, it’s not even one of the 20 best slasher films I’ve seen.

The plot: Is there really a point? I mean, don’t we all know the beats by now. Here’s the short of it: We’re introduced to Camp Crystal Lake during the summer of 1958 where during one of the first of many scenes that take the point of view of the killer, we see two counselors – making out, naturally – murdered for messing around on the job. Later on in the film, we’ll realize this is of course because they have failed to keep an eye on a young Jason Voorhees who has drowned in the lake. Flash forward to present day Friday, June 13 where Annie (Robbi Morgan), a counselor on their way to recently re-opened Camp Crystal Lake (known to the locals as Camp Blood), is warned by the locals and the town crazy, Ralph, not to go to the lake because it’s cursed. Annie disregards the warnings, hitches a ride from a stranger in a jeep that proceeds to drive past the camp and not slow down at Annie’s behests, Annie jumps out of the jeep, runs through the woods, and has her throat slit in the first scene showcasing Tom Savini’s gore effects. And from there (both the historical context and the idea that killings are still going on) Friday the 13th becomes a movie that essentially goes like this: introduce character, introduce red herring, fake scare, kill character. It goes that way until all of the teens have been brutally dispatched and we’re left with our Final Girl, Alice (Adrienne King). Doing more of a plot synopsis for such a well-known premise seems futile, so let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t work.

Absolutely, unequivocally Tom Savini is the star here. The gore effects – hatchet killings and throat slashings and one amazing decapitation scene that was probably the best of its era – are the thing the made this little $500,000 movie into a major, multi-million dollar franchise (the first of its kind, by the way, but more on that when we talk about the sequel which in its own way is more influential than the original), and they’re quite impressive for 1980. Since death by bladed weapons had never been filmed so viscerally – you always expected to not be shown what was happening, yet for the first time ever, American audiences were seeing everything from the point of entry up to and including the blood spewing out (the scene where Kevin Bacon gets a spear through the trachea, comes to mind) – American audiences were genuinely shocked by what they saw; it’s not nearly as excessive as other Savini effects, but they lingered on the nasty bits longer than anything had before – and really no other American horror film prior had been so blatant in giving characters to the audience that were just fodder for the killer. What I mean by that is this: in Halloween the teens being murdered had a purpose for being where they were when they died, and in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it was more of hellish road trip that was a cruel tale of wrong place/wrong time. Nothing seemed as overt or contrived in those films about the characters and what their purpose was. Here, we understand that they’re all – with the exception of Alice – not meant to be anything; they’re just fresh meat for the gator, so to speak, and we’re just watching Cunningham shovel these indiscernible bits to the beast in the swamp.

Savini is the reason the film still holds up and why, I think, so many think it’s one of the better slasher movies despite it being boring and ineptly made. For the first time ever in an American horror movie (and this is what really struck a nerve with the critics that panned the film), the camera almost dares you to watch a throat being slit or a head being cut off – as an audience member in 1980, it’s almost certain you were expecting the camera to cut away to something else. The visceral rush one must have felt when they realized the camera wasn’t cutting away, thinking, “Holy crap, are they really going to show us this?” 

That’s the only energy the original film has, and sadly the following films in the series paid a hefty price for the non-cuts made by the MPAA (and really I’ve always found it odd that such an obvious movie never appeared on the DPP’s radar when they were adding movies to their Video Nasties list because really a lot of films paid the price for how easily Friday passed through the censors), but still, it’s a tribute to just how good Savini’s effects were (though looking at it, the gore here is not nearly as nasty as the bits in The Prowler or The Burning). And audiences flocked to the film because it was something shocking and thrilling and new, this gore; it was all contained within a film that was released on the cusp of the home video boom, so it’s more than likely that only the hardest of the hardcore horror fans knew about films from Italy (specifically Bava, Argento, and Fulci and the way their cameras, too, didn’t move away from the gore during moments where camera traditionally cut away) and other cult films that were known for the visceral violence and gore.

The score is such an obvious knock-off of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, yet it’s probably the second reason the film is so fondly remembered (and one of the reasons why some of the tension-less scenes actually have a little bit of tension to them). Everyone knows what the Psycho score sounds like, so just amplify that by a hundred and add one of the most iconic and important bits of echoing in the history of horror movies: this of course is the now iconic, “ki ki ki ma ma ma,” (most commonly mistaken as “ch ch ch ha ha ha) which Harry Manfredini claims was him saying very deliberately and creepily, “kill, mommy, kill” which is what Mrs. Voorhees, channeling her son, says throughout the end of the film. The score is the only, and I mean only, thing that creates any kind of tension – kind of a low rent Jaws effect – and keeps the audience a little on edge because of how jarring it is and the fact that we know what it represents. Manfredini wanted to make sure that during all of the false scares his score was never used and instead, and this is where it reminds one of Jaws, it would always be obvious that when the music played, it was the killer’s point of view or the killer was around (this theory was abandoned after the second film).

Cunningham certainly didn’t come up with the first Dead Teenager/Disposable Meat movie, and he certainly didn’t come up with the idea that sex = death, but he was influenced – like any good producer – by the numbers.  You see, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, made for mere peanuts, were big success based on their budgets. That kind of thing jumps out to a producer, and Cunningham not only noticed the potential for exploiting the demographic flocking to those movies, he also noticed Savini’s work on Dawn of the Dead and decided to mix the two together. So, again like any good producer, he went found all of the elements to make a successful film; hell, he even paid for an ad before the script was finished to simultaneously get the buzz out about his film and make sure no one else had copyrighted the title (the original title was A Long Night at Blood Camp, which I think has a much cooler exploitation movie title).

So then the biggest flaw of the film is definitely the fact that Cunningham thought he should direct the movie. Obviously he knew what he was doing as a producer, but director’s gig been given to, say, Wes Craven (the man he previously worked with on The Last House on the Left), then there may have actually been some tension – some semblance of how to light and shoot and pace a scene. There are so many frustratingly awful red herrings that any viewer in their right mind – any viewer that is actually trying to watch the movie for something more than just the gore, that is – can’t help but constantly feel like they’re getting jerked around by a bunch of people that had germs of ideas for a how horror movie should work but no way of knowing how to string those ideas together into some kind of coherent, well-paced, scary movie.  Cunningham said he wanted his film to be more of a fun time than the films that inspired him to make a buck; that he wanted his film to be more like a rollercoaster ride. The only problem with his theory was that the rollercoaster ride he had in mind sucked; it was like one of those old, rickety roller coasters that go up and down a few times and all you can think about is how long before you can get off. However, because he hired Savini, the film’s gore pieces act as loops and corkscrews and all kinds of other goodies people anticipate when they’re on a rollercoaster.

Cunningham has said in interviews that he knew he wasn’t making “high art or anything” and that because of the lack of budget he knew he wasn’t going to be able to tell the backstories of these characters and that everything was going to have to be stripped down. Well, that’s not the problem with the film, and in fact, that stripped down mentality to making the film is what became known as the template for all slasher movies post-Friday. I mean, the characters in Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre weren’t well developed, either, but those films were a hundred times more effective. No, what made the film not a piece of “high art” (what a stupid term, too. You’re making a horror movie on a low budget, and even though horror can be high art, I don’t know what he thought he had here that would even cause him to differentiate…but I digress) was the fact that Cunningham didn’t know a thing about film aesthetics; budget or no budget, there’s no excuse for how horribly lit and framed and paced and written so many of the scenes are.

Yet, the film struck a nerve; it touched on something when it was released. Even though audiences flocked to the see film, critics panned it. None more vocally or publicly than Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who dedicated an entire episode of their show "At the Movies" to the subgenre of the slasher film and its so-called degradation of the medium. In his print review, Siskel famously called Cunningham a "despicable creature" that infested the movie business. I think that's way too harsh a statementl; yes, Cunningham was a hack, but it's all about tone and the film comes off the way it does because Cunningham doesn't understand the basic horror premise of establishing tone. I mean, it's not as if Siskel and Ebert (and other critics) were averse to the slasher movie (they both loved Halloween), but there was something about Friday the 13th that struck a nerve within them; something that compelled them to spend a lot energy verbally beating the film down. So yes, Cunningham is an inept director, and I can see why Siskel felt the way he did because the only thing Cunningham does well as a director is get out of the way of Savini's effects so they can take center stage, but to call him a "despicable creature" is so far beyond sanity: it seems to me that Siskel was disturbed by the violence, and his only reaction was to be as extreme as the people who would begin censoring films in Britain four years from then. I think Siskel and Ebert were overreacting to the violence in these films (especially considering what would come out over the next decade), but that just shows how viscerally unsettling this film was in 1980. I think if you can elicit the kind of response within major film critics like Friday the 13th did, then you're probably doing something right because usually critics of that stature don't waste their time talking about such movies. But the success of Friday the 13th kind of allowed the film to force its way into the zeitgeist, and before long, the entire thing was bigger than anyone could have ever imagined it being.

So to recap: just because Savini’s gore effects are top-notch doesn’t mean the movie is watchable (see: the difference between The Prowler, a bad movie with great gore, versus The Burning which had great gore and tension and pacing and character development); Cunningham knew what he was doing as a producer understanding how to exploit a demographic eager to give their money to see sexy teens being dispatched by a psycho killer; Cunningham’s direction is inept and leaden; the musical score is memorable; the acting is terrible; and the film spawned countless others that are better examples of what a successful slasher film looks like. Finally, it’s one of the first films that had no intention of being more than just a one-off (a common mentality, aside from things like Star Wars or The Godfather, at the time) but acted on its (very famous) surprise ending (Savini said he only threw the scare in because he saw Carrie and figured he needed a final jump-out-of-your-seat moment for the audience). So again, everything about the film’s success can be attributed to Savini; sure it all seems old hat to us now, but in 1980 there absolutely was nothing remotely close to the cash-in sequel. So Friday the 13th is the first of its kind in many, many regards; it’s not the best example of the slasher, but the fact that it’s so influential (and that so many hold it in high esteem) makes sense to me. Without Friday the 13th, we don’t get The Burning or maybe even A Nightmare on Elm Street (and we definitely don’t get the superior sequel to Friday), so as much as I dislike the film, I can’t deny that which it paved the way for.


  1. I don't dislike the film as much as you do, as I've seen it again recently (after my whole marathon of all the films with my brother about 2 years ago) and I held it up as a slowburner, a film that fills you with dread and doesn't run after the killings and the blood, but when it gets there... oh, how it pays off, with what might be one or two of the best killings in the history of film ever.
    Sean S. Cunningham wasn't the best choice, and this is not my choice for the best horror films of all time or anything even near that, but it's good enough, and maybe for me on the top 5 of the whole series.

    1. Okay -- So I'm thinking now that you and Tim have chimed in (and I've around the blogosphere to see what others think of the film) my reaction to the film may have been a bit strong because it was only my second time watching the film, and I watched it back-to-back with Part 2 which makes the first film look the amateur film it is. Yes, there's something to the roughness of the film, and I am obviously not one to be anti-dodgy horror films; I just felt that the film's reputation as being the only film worth a damn in the series is a false notion. It has a reputation as a legitimately good slasher flick that I'm not quite sure it deserves.

      It's important for other (most financial) reasons, but being a well-made horror film is not one of them (I realize you and Tim aren't saying this, but this is what I had in the back of my head when I wrote the review).

      Perhaps in another 5 years I'll look at the film again and be a lot kinder to it, but the good stuff really comes with Part 2.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Having spent June in a foggy, not-reading-blogs haze, I only just today found that you brought back the Summer of Slash, and it totally made my afternoon to play catch-up. Thanks for that.

    As for the subject at hand: I have to agree with Jaime, that I don't dislike it nearly as much as you, though God knows that I can understand why you feel the way you do.

    It's clearly an incompetent piece of filmmaking - the night exteriors are like a sick joke about how not to light a movie - but after watching it more times and thinking it about longer than I really wish I had, I can't get away from the thought that it's utter crappiness is its saving grace: it's so rough and crass that it has a more beaten-up "found" quality than a functionally well-made movie would. Most of the nasty feeling the movie leaves me with comes from how crude it is.

    1. Yeah, I just got done reading your review of the film -- and like I said to Jamie, perhaps in about five years I'll look at this again and be a lot nicer to it. I think watching Part 2 immediately following the first film killed it for me. All I could focus on was how Part 2 was essentially the same movie only stylistically better in setting, tone, pacing, et al IN EVERY POSSIBLE WAY. The only exception (and I realize it's a big one) is the gore effects. But even that's an unknown since all of the gore was left on the cutting room floor thanks to the MPAA.

      But that'll be explained in the post that goes up tomorrow. As for the first film: you're right about the lighting, and I wish I would have spent more time explaining just how terrible it is (I should have thrown some screengrabs up of those scenes where all you can see is the head of the flashlight).

      I suppose the "found" quality of it, as you say, comes from Cunningham having an idea -- and not just running but taking off in a full sprint with that idea -- he knew would work and having the mentality that everything else would work itself out. Yeah, there's something to watching the first entry of the series and thinking, "my God I wonder what people thought of this in 1980. Oh, to be in that theater." But I can't help think about what could have been had a better director been behind the camera. Certainly Cunningham knew about this "found" aesthetic from his work on Last House on the Left, but he seems to have misunderstood everything Craven did stylistically (I suppose I should use that term loosely when talking about Last House) to make that aesthetic work as well as it did.

      Perhaps I'm getting hung up on something that I should be letting myself get hung up on. After all, I'm not averse to crappily made slasher films.

      Thanks for the comment and for checking this out.