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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 25: Friday the 13th (1980)

friday01Director: Sean S. Cunningham

Writer: Victor Miller

Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Ari Lehman, Peter Brouwer

Plot: Camp Crystal Lake: a typical place of fun and frolic for children during the summer… and a typical place for the teenage councilors to engage in various acts of debauchery. Such was the case in 1958, when a pair of the councilors were murdered while having sex — the scandal shut down the camp, seemingly for good. Flash forward to 1980. Crystal Lake has earned the name “Camp Blood” among the people of the town, but a young girl named Annie (Robbi Morgan) is hitchhiking there to begin preparing to re-open. On her way, Annie learns about the camp’s history – the murders in ’58, the drowning of a boy in ’57, a series of tragedies and mishaps with no explanation. The rest of the councilors arrive (including a young Kevin Bacon) and begin pitching in on the repairs to the run-down cabins and facilities. One of them, Alice (Adrienne King) has a history with the camp’s new owner Steve (Peter Brouwer) and is unsure she wants to stay, but he convinces her to give it one more week before making up her mind. Annie, is picked up by a green jeep, but the driver races right past the camp entrance. Annie flees, but the driver captures and murders her. Unaware of this, the rest of the teens go about the equally-important tasks of fixing up broken stuff and engaging in copious sexual activities and the frequent smoking of “the pot.” During a rainstorm that night, a shadowy figure begins picking off the teenagers one at a time – an arrow here, an axe to the skull there, usually in moments right after they’ve engaged in some sort of unwholesome behavior.

Eventually, we’re down to two survivors – Alice and Bill (Harry Crosby). With the power out, the two begin investigating the camp, finding the bloody murder weapons and, eventually, the corpses of their friends. Bill is killed with an arrow to the face, and Alice is left alone, terrified. When a Jeep pulls up, she runs out of the cabin, thinking it’s (the now-dead) Steve. Instead, she finds Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). She tells Alice the story of a boy named Jason who drowned because the counselors that should have been watching him were having sex. Jason was her son, and today – Friday the 13th – is his birthday. Alice realizes Mrs. Voorhees has been killing her friends as some sort of mad retribution for her son’s death. Alice escapes, finding even more corpses, and getting caught in a game of hide-and-seek with Mrs. Voorhees. In the film’s climax, Alice beheads the old woman with an ax, seemingly putting an end to the horror of Camp Crystal Lake. Or does she? Even after she is rescued, Alice still has horrible dreams… not of Mrs. Voorhees, but of little Jason, rising from the water of the lake to exact his revenge.

Thoughts: Friday the 13th certainly didn’t invent the trope of using a slasher killer to exact vengeance on the sinners of the world (typically teenagers). We’ve seen it in several movies so far – Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, for example. But Sean Cunningham’s movie – and its endless chain of sequels – raised that idea to an art form. While the murderer (Mrs. Voorhees in this film, Jason in the sequels) is clearly a lunatic, there is an element of schadenfreude to the deaths of the teenagers who were engaged in Naughty Behavior: sex, drugs, even a game of strip Monopoly. On the other hand, the film subverts this concept slightly as well – at least one of the councilors, Brenda (Laurie Bartram) dies because Mrs. Voorhees plays upon her best instincts, imitating a child in the storm and calling for help, then murdering the girl when she tries to come to the rescue.

Considering how ubiquitous Jason Voorhees has become in common culture, it’s really easy to forget that he wasn’t the killer in this first film (and even easier to forget that his signature hockey mask didn’t show up until part three). So casting your brain back to 1980, when the movie first came out and nobody knew about it, the idea that the killer could be an old lady was pretty shocking. Having been weaned on to the slasher through those movies I mentioned before, where the killer was always a hulking, brutish man, it was nearly impossible to see the revelation coming. Cunningham increases the tensions by showing many of the death scenes in the killer’s point-of-view, or from other angles that hide her true identity. Looking through the eyes of the murderer, you never suspect it’s a woman, making the final reveal even more effective. Granted, some of the fleeting glimpses we see of the killer slashing seem to imply that Mrs. Voorhees has a serious case of Man Hands, but that’s something we can live with for the sake of a great revelation.

I’ve mentioned musical scores a lot over the course of this experiment, and I think that’s important. Music is an extremely effective way to set mood, and whether it’s used properly can make or break a film. Harry Manfredini did it well here. We do get moments of rambling, good-time music (such as when the councilors are on their way to the camp), but that’s reserved for scenes where such a mood is appropriate. When things get serious, so does the music – creepy and chilling, with a chanting undercurrent that’s supposed to echo the madness in the mind of the Voorhees family: Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma… You hear that six-syllable chant in any circumstance and it calls to mind a series of murders in the woods. (In the woods in the rain. How often have we seen characters in these horror movies die during nasty weather? It’s like nature itself is sending down the killer’s fury in their final moments.)

This movie definitely takes more care with its characters than most of the sequels would do. Many of the subsequent Friday movies (and slasher movies in general for that matter) would reduce the pool of potential victims to a group of caricatures at best, with only the main Survivor Girl or Hero Boy getting even a cursory attempt at development. In this early effort, most of the characters are at least given an opportunity to stand out from the others. Granted, we don’t necessarily like them all – we’ve got the obnoxious prankster frequently making a fool of himself, for example – but that’s not a bad thing in a movie like this. You root for the characters you like, you have a brief, visceral thrill when the characters you hate get stabbed through a mattress. Alice, as expected, turns out to be our sole survivor, which again is a common horror trope today. Sadly, the sequel also participates in one of the horror tropes I like the least: starting a franchise horror movie by killing off the survivors of the previous installment. I hate that – it makes the character’s struggle in the previous film seem pointless. (For other particularly egregious examples, see Alien 3 and, worse of all, Halloween: Resurrection, which committed the unforgivable sin of killing off the greatest Survivor Girl in horror movie history, Laurie Strode.)

Speaking of Survivor Girls, Alice again manages to maintain the tone established by Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. She’s the “good girl,” even though she’s clearly had a sexual relationship with Steve in the past. In a way, she’s the “reformed girl” – she’s rejected him, although she hasn’t completely discounted the possibility of a reconciliation, but at the same time she’s trying to be part of the group. Even then, she doesn’t partake in the sort of devilish behavior that marks her friends for death. Even in the strip Monopoly game, she’s the only one still fully clothed when a burst of wind blows the door open and calls it quits.

In the early part of the movie, writer Victor Miller spends a lot of time on little scenes that don’t really add to the story – one of the councilors nearly drowning, the girls freaking out over a snake in their bunk, and so forth. This may have been intended to come across as building the tension, making us worry that the killer is going to choose that moment to strike, but few of those cases actually achieve that particular goal. There may be some parallelism – Jason drowned in the lake, the knife they use to kill the snake is similar to one used by Mrs. Voorhees, and so forth – but even that may be giving the movie a little more credit than it really deserves.

Things pick up really quickly once the bloodbath begins, though. At the 40-minute mark, less than halfway through the picture, we pan up from the bed where Jack and Marcie (Bacon and Jeannine Taylor) are having their fun only to see prankster Ned (Mark Nelson) lying with a slit throat. We didn’t see his death explicitly, so the exposition of his body is a shocker. These days, I don’t know if a filmmaker would be unable to resist showing him getting cut and ruining the shock, but in this case it works perfectly and sets the tone for the rhythm of chase sequence/death sequence that makes up the rest of the film.

Kevin Bacon’s death is particularly effective – he’s lying in bed, having just had himself a little teenage sex, when a hand reaches up from underneath and grabs him. He’s held in place and a point juts from his throat, erupting in a fountain of blood that reveals an arrowhead being driven into him from underneath. As far as horror makeup effects go, it’s extremely well done, looks very realistic, and kicks off the murder spree.

Mrs. Voorhees herself, once revealed as the killer, can come across a little hokey at times. In a way, she’s a reverse Norman Bates, speaking for her dead son as though he’s compelling her to commit the murders. The intent could easily have been that she was simply a woman driven crazy by her son’s death, although the dream sequence at the end seems to imply that even at this early stage, Miller and Cunningham were thinking of sequels, and the way “Jason” pops out of the lake at Alice hints at a shred the supernatural even there. Whatever the case, listening to Betsy Palmer talk to “herself” – first in Jason’s little boy voice than in her own – isn’t as effective as the assorted voices Alfred Hitchcock used for Norman Bates’ Mother during his own legendary run as a serial killer. The ending itself is also a bit too extended – Mrs. Voorhees is revealed as the killer with nearly 20 minutes left in the film, and only one potential victim left. The cat-and-mouse game that follows probably could have been more memorable if it was quicker, but instead you’re just left waiting moment after moment for the inevitable final confrontation.

The fake-out at the end works pretty well, though. After she kills Mrs. Voorhees, Alice drifts out onto the lake in a boat. We see her next in the morning as the police arrive, and we hear some music that seems to indicate the nightmare is over… until a decaying corpse leaps from the water and pulls her under. It seems like the terror is beginning again, but Alice wakes up in the hospital. Did Jason really attack, or was that just a dream? It’s clearly a sequel hook, in retrospect, but if there had never been another film (a laughable notion now) it would have been simple enough to write this off as the last moments of terror trying to resolve themselves in Alice’s dreams.

The franchise that eventually grew from this relatively simple film is remarkable. It starts off as a very down-to-Earth, effective creepy film about teenagers starring in their very own campfire horror story. Later on, we get a supernatural killer, a Superzombie if you will, that cannot be destroyed and winds up with a link to Hell. It eventually leads the way to Jason X, where the character is cryogenically frozen, thawed out in the future and kills a space station.Quite a long way from Crystal Lake, isn’t it? Still, the legacy of the original continues today, and if nothing else, the original Friday the 13th gives a bunch of actors who never really worked again an easy link in the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

We’re staying in the woods tomorrow, this time to a cabin that, itself, is a gateway to Hell. Join us for The Evil Dead.