‘Friday the 13th’ May Be No ‘Halloween,’ But it is Better Than the Average Slasher Movie

Friday the 13th movie poster

Look, no one is going to mistake any “Friday the 13th” movie for cinema at its best. It started out as a rip off of “Halloween” with a little bit of “Psycho” thrown in for good measure, and it soon became a never-ending franchise which, to this day, still won’t die. We had two of the sequels with the word “final” in them, and each turned out to be a flat out lie. Just when it looks like this franchise has breathed its final breath, it is resurrected once again. Perhaps the world is overpopulated with too many horny teenagers who need to be dealt with in a messy way. In the end, these films touch on our deepest fears and exploit them for all they are worth. We know they’re not good for us, but we can’t help ourselves and want to see what nasty crimes will be perpetrated next.

The “Friday the 13th” movies are essentially the equivalent of a fast food meal, the kind which has an obscene amount of cholesterol in them. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep coming back for more. It’s not just tapping into our deepest desires, but into our willingness to be bad and rebel against what our parents don’t like. Film critics never stopped attacking these movies and continually bashed them to pieces, and yet they made so much damn money on such low budgets. It represented horror being taken to the next level for the children of the 80’s. Our parents hated the movies, and that made us all the more curious about seeing them. Jason Voorhees eventually became as familiar to us as Santa Claus. I remember when “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (LOL) came out when I was in the second grade, and none us had ever looked more forward to a movie none of us would be able to see (nor had we any business to). Yes, these slasher flicks bring back a lot of nostalgia for me.

The original “Friday the 13th” seems much better in retrospect. This is especially the case when you compare them to the sequels, let alone all the endless knockoffs, which came after it. What surprised me is how some of the murders which occur in this movie actually happen off screen. We have no idea they have occurred until we see the carnage put on display right in front of our eyes. It’s pretty vicious what is perpetrated in this film, and this was back when an arrow through an eye actually felt shocking. For the most part, “Friday the 13th” and a couple of sequels felt very real. You have to give the filmmakers credit because none of the slasher movies made today can’t even touch that feeling of reality. We all know we’re watching a movie when it comes to the sequels, but the original was experienced more than watched.

I’m sure we all know by now what Drew Barrymore should have known at the beginning of “Scream;” Jason was not the killer in this one. Instead, it was his mother, played in an over the top performance by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Voorhees is basically what Norman Bates’ mother would have looked like, had Norman not have killed her off. Those moments where she is clearly schizophrenic and acting as if her son is actually telling her to kill people are both chilling and hilarious at the same time. This is far from a convincing performance, but Palmer is so much fun to watch in her deranged state to where it really doesn’t matter.

The cast of actors were basically hired not so much for their acting talent, but because they resemble, as director Sean S. Cunningham put it, those kids who came out of a Pepsi commercial. In many ways, this casting choice helped give “Friday the 13th” a stronger feeling of reality as they are people we recognize from our own lives. They are not models who have enhanced themselves with endless plastic surgeries (those would appear in the sequels). The ladies look very sweet and fetching, and the men look down to earth and not like those guys who spent way too much time at the gym.

“Friday the 13th” also was the movie which started the cliché of how if you have premarital sex with your boyfriend of girlfriend, you would die. The last person left standing was always a virgin, or the one too shy to ask a boy for a date. As a result, many people think there is some highly conservative Christian value system in place in these movies which one must follow in order to survive an experience with a masked maniac. Some will say Carpenter originated this with the original “Halloween,” but he made it clear in the DVD commentary he was not trying to spread religious dogma. Carpenter said the characters got killed because they weren’t paying attention, but ever since the first “Friday the 13th,” it’s been open season on kids who don’t practice safe sex.

There is also the crazy old man Ralph (Walt Gorney) who warns everybody of how they “are all doomed.” Of course, it’s always some crazy guy no one ever listens to. God forbid it’s some normal person people take the time to listen to. But if everyone were to believe this guy, then there would be no movie.

Of all the actors in this film, let alone the entire series, Kevin Bacon is the one who came out of it with the most successful career. “Friday the 13th” may not show off his best talents, but he does have one of the coolest death sequences in horror movie history. Bacon also gets to have one of the sweetest love making scenes any horror movie could ever hope to have. His character and his girlfriend actually do make love. It’s not one of those humping and pumping moments you can find in so many other movies where one person is doing all the work and the other is not having enough pleasure. It makes their inevitable deaths feel kind of sad. Even if we really wanted to see these two get bumped off, we don’t look forward to it.

Sooner or later, we were bound to see this movie because people couldn’t stop describing the more graphic moments in it. I remember my brother telling me about the scene where Kevin’s girlfriend does finally get it:

“You see her looking into the shower stalls and no one’s there. But while she is looking, you can see in the background the shadow of an ax being raised up. When she turns around, you can see the ax going into her face!”

My reply to this at the time was:

“Whoa! Cool!”

Then you have the unforgettable Harry Manfredini music score which basically sounds like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score on speed. Never have woodwind instruments been as thoroughly pummeled as they are here. This is not to mention the “chi, chi, chi, ha, ha, ha” sound (it’s actually “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) which is so clearly identified with this undying franchise. When you hear it, you know Jason is not far away with a rusty machete in his grasp.

Cunningham is no John Carpenter, and he is a better producer than a director, but he does keep the suspense quota of “Friday the 13th” at a high level and generates a number of good scares. This one does not focus so much on the killings as it did on the messy aftermath. While you did see characters gutted in the most painful places imaginable, there were a couple of others you kept wondering about until you saw their bloodied corpses. The later sequels would get a little more creative with the murders.

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