Crystal Lake Countdown: Looking Back on ‘Friday the 13th‘

There have been few franchises of any genre as popular, prolific or iconic as Friday the 13th.  What began as a quickly-produced cash-in on the then-nascent slasher subgenre started in full two years earlier by Halloween (1978) – which liberally borrowed elements from both it and Carrie (1976) to flesh out its story of a killer stalking camp counsellors in the days before the children arrive for the summer – soon morphed into a mainstay of its genre with arguably even greater staying power than the films that preceded and followed it.

Despite their enduring popularity, very few of the first cycle of slasher movies were any good.  Only the first two Halloweens (plus or minus the Michael Meyers-less third installment) made any sense at all.  Despite their increasingly inventive special effects and elaborate death scenes, only three of the Nightmare on Elm Streets (1, 3 and New Nightmare) were actually worth watching.  The Child’s Play movies weren’t any good until Bride of Chucky (1998), and then again with Curse and Cult of Chucky (2013 2017).  Meanwhile, only the last four Friday the 13ths were outright bad, with the six preceding movies being various stripes of “good” (not to mention the monster mash fun of Freddy vs Jason (2003) and the series’ criminally underrated 2009 remake).

Pound for pound, despite never reaching the heights of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) or Bride of Chucky – and despite legendary misfires like Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) and Jason X (2001), the Friday the 13th series is easily the best slasher franchise to grow out of John Carpenter’s shadow.  And with this Friday being a 13th itself, it only made sense to look back on the time-tested franchise and have a bit of fun along the way.

After a group of teenage camp counselors was gruesomely dispatched in 1958, Camp Crystal Lake, now nicknamed Camp Blood, was closed down seemingly for good.  But more than twenty years later, a new group of counselors arrive in the days before a fresh batch of campers is due to arrive in order to fix up the weathered old cabins in time for summer.  But what starts out as some well-meaning fun quickly devolves into pandemonium, as counselor after counselor is killed off by an unknown assailant who ensures that the infamous camp lives up to its ghastly name.

Whenever I return to these moves, I’m always shocked at just how fresh they really feel.  Despite Halloween establishing what a slasher movie was and wasn’t in 1978, the earliest slasher films – like Friday the 13th (1980) and Sleepaway Camp (1983) – came out before all the familiar tropes were firmly codified for the subgenre.  And while the film still closely follows the blueprint laid out by its storied predecessor, it nevertheless manages to diverge in interesting and satisfying ways (especially for modern audiences looking back from the present).

This is why, for instance, Friday the 13th remains a rare instance of a female serial killer hacking her way through her hapless victims; for this first movie, the murderess is actually Jason’s mother, Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer).  It’s why the identity of the killer is withheld from view until the final act, more in keeping with the proto-slasher Italian Giallo films – like Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) – and less like the celebrity slashers of their American descendents (Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chucky).  It’s also why our “final girl,” normally a bastion of virginal purity, does drugs and plays strip-Monopoly with her friends instead of abstaining “like good girls should.”  It does as much to subvert out modern-day expectations of slasher movies as it conforms to them, creating an interesting give-and-take that is simultaneously familiar and unexpected after decades of this and other franchises drilling “the rules” of the subgenre into our heads.

But beyond its deviances from the well-worn slasher formula, it actually is a well-polished horror movie in its own right.  Featuring both an early Kevin Bacon performance and the most memorable role from veteran actress Betsy Palmer’s career, it features a well-rounded troupe portraying a surprisingly resourceful cast of characters (many of whom prove themselves to be more capable in the face of their assailant than protagonists from much better remembered movies).  The film even managed to secure horror legend Tom Savini to do the gore effects, and although far from being the best work from his celebrated career, adds a layer of polish to the kills that similar movies simply lacked.

And although Friday the 13th could hardly be called “high art” by even its most ardent defenders, it never pretended to nor needed to be.  It’s a sometimes silly, sometimes scary, often unpredictable slasher film that satisfactorily sets itself apart from the crowd of early Halloween imitators through a solid cast, some solid kills and a few unexpected directorial and narrative flourishes that keep it feeling fresh nearly four decades after its release.

Rating: 3/5


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