Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Writer: Victor Miller
Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannie Taylor, Robbi Morgan, and Kevin Bacon
Hot on the heels of the original Halloween, director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller got to work on their own slasher, with the title Friday the 13th. Sean S. Cunningham actually took out a full page advert for the film, even before the script had been finished. He was worried that someone else would have the copyright for the name and thought an advert would bring them to his attention before the film was properly marketed.
Now considered a classic, at the time of release Friday the 13th was met with mixed to negative reviews. It was seen as being overly gory, stealing too much from Halloween, and not being scary. There was some praise, and rightly so, for the unusual score and cinematography. Over the years opinions have softened and it’s now considered a horror classic, mainly due to the many sequels it spawned.
The opening sequence is completely stolen from Halloween with a first-person perspective slowly moving around and finding two camp councillors who are then murdered as we watch from the killer’s perspective and with little explanation. The film then skips twenty-two years into the future to the present day, so 1980. The camp where the killings happened is being re-opened and a new group of councillors are finding their way there, just in time to help finish the renovations. One by one they are murdered by an unknown killer, without any motive being given until the final revelation.
For the most part, not a lot really happens in this film. We get to see the councillors getting on with their chores, messing around, and then getting butchered. There’s next to no tension for well over the first half of the film, as none of the councillors even notice that others are missing, and when they encounter the killer, they’re dead in seconds. It’s close to an hour when the survivors, at that point only two of them out of the original seven, suspect something is going on. It just takes way too long to get going.
Before we get to see the camp, there is a good amount of build up with Annie (Robbie Morgan) being warned by locals not to go further and to turn back now, similar to the opening to the novel Dracula, but all that build up is wasted with the repetitive killings that aren’t scary or tense. We don’t know anything about the characters, so there’s just no reaction beyond shock at the gore (which is beyond tame forty plus years on). It feels very hollow. Maybe at the time this would have been scarier, but it’s dated really poorly in this sense. The characters don’t feel real, and it doesn’t help that the acting is really bad as well.
Thankfully, the final twenty or so minutes are absolutely excellent. Once the killer and motive is revealed everything picks up. The film ramps up the terror and manages to keep it up right until the closing moments. You almost forget the borefest of the first two acts with how engrossing the final one is. Without spoiling anything, just in case you don’t know the story, it works really well and the actor playing the killer does a fantastic job of being sinister and genuinely creepy.
One of the most iconic parts of the original film is the effects from Tom Savini. While some look dated now, they still hold up. The biggest highlight is a moment when an axe is used to kill one of the councillors. You don’t see the axe actually going in, but you see it sticking out of their face and it looks incredibly real.
The biggest crime the film commits is killing a real snake early in the film, for absolutely no reason. The scene adds nothing to the film but offers a quick cheap shock. Reportedly the snake’s handler didn’t know what was going to happen and had to be held back by members of the crew and was really upset about it. Watching the moment now, it really takes you of the film with just how pointless it is.
Despite being iconic, the original Friday the 13th is a pretty poor film in all honesty. It takes way too long to actually get going, and while the final act is absolutely brilliant it doesn’t make up for the dull seventy minutes leading up to that point. Still the film spawned one of the most successful horror franchises as all time so it deserves respect for that.
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