Friday the 13th (1980)

There is one reason, and one reason only, that Friday the 13th exists.  That is because Halloween, on an extremely low budget, made a ton of money.  It also helped further the career of John Carpenter as a director, but producer and director Sean S. Cunningham wasn't worried about that.  He was already a known for turning out cheap knockoffs and exploitation films, and most well-known at the time as the producer and co-writer of Wes Craven's debut film, The Last House on the Left.  Like most people earning money in that area of the industry he was doing just fine making decent profits off of small investments.  

Thus, he knew what he was doing when he announced he was making a movie called Friday the 13th.  He had a logo - a three-dimensional title with glass breaking - but no script, no cast, not even a story.  He just had the confidence that if he announced that this movie was being made he would get money to do so, and he was right.  He eventually raised the 500 thousand dollars to make it and, with a script by Victor Miller, hired a number of largely unknown Broadway actors - the most recognizable being Kevin Bacon, from his role in Animal House - that were good looking and could at least deliver lines correctly.  With Tom Savini along to do the make-up work, Cunningham inadvertently started one of the biggest horror movie franchises of all time.

In 1958 two camp counselors are killed by an unknown assailant at Camp Crystal Lake in rural New Jersey.  A series of other tragedies have left the camp abandoned, but Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) is determined to reopen it as a summer camp for inner city children.  Alice (Adrienne King) is assisting him until the arrival of the other counselors, who are immediately put to work renovating the rundown camp and getting it ready for its first group of kids. 

The reopening, unfortunately, has attracted the attention of whoever did the killings 22 years prior, and soon the new arrivals are killed off one after another.  Alice and her fellow counselor Bill (Harry Crosby) start realizing too late what is happening, and soon Alice is the only one left to face a maniacal killer out for revenge for an act of negligence that took place a year before the original killings.  

Pretty much after all these years it is known who the killer is, but I still run into instances where no one has seen the original.  Upon rewatching it after all these years it's amazing how little information is given before the movie is almost over, particularly about what happened to Jason Voorhees and why the killings are happening.  To be clear, Cunningham made Friday the 13th with no intention of carrying on the story; Halloween II hadn't even come out yet, and in fact was pretty much made as a result of the success of this movie.  A sequel, let alone multiple sequels, never crossed anyone's mind.  It was just supposed to supply the gore and sex that was implied in Halloween while borrowing part of its plot from Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and throwing in a Hitchcockian twist at the end.  It also used giallo techniques to build up tension.  It's a mishmash of mystery and horror tropes that managed to work.

What helps Friday the 13th immensely is that the actors performed as Cunningham expected: naturally and professionally, with not as much of the clunky line reading found in many other similar horror films prior or afterward.  Betsy Palmer, perhaps the most experienced actress on hand, is great in her brief role in the film as well.  A good portion of the movie makes sense, even with body placement, as the killer has time enough to do such while Alice is asleep.  The wandering in the woods or going into dark places is kept to a minimum because typically most of the victims are dead before they even know the killer is there.  Tom Savini's work, along with his assistant Taso N. Stavrakis, is among some of his best.

However, I have a major issue with this first entry, and, as much as I love Savini's work over the years, it is one thing that he should be ashamed of and was completely unnecessary to the film.  That is the killing of a live bull snake on screen, after leading the owner of the snake to believing it would not be harmed.  As famous as the movie is, it is something that both Savini and Cunningham should have been taken to task for the same way Ruggero Deodato has been for the animal killings in Cannibal HolocaustGive me all the fake blood and gooey makeup effects in the world, and I'll even accept that accidents happen, but in this case they intentionally murdered someone's pet.  

That scene is a dark, festering blemish on what, despite Cunningham's intentions were, turned out to be a pretty decent horror film.  Critics predictably hated it, with plenty of handwringing and wondering what the world was coming to, and Gene Siskel going as far as to spoil the ending and publish what he thought was Betsy Palmer's home address so that people could write her in protest.  Keep in mind not one of these moral warriors was concerned about the real on-screen death, but more concerned about fake deaths orchestrated with special effects.  While the legacy of Friday the 13th is questionable - personally, I enjoy the second film more than the first, or any other entry in the series - what is not questionable is the fact that it is a good film that provides some bloody good entertainment for about 99.9 percent of its runtime. 

Friday the 13th (1980)
Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Harry Crosby, Kevin Bacon, Jeannine Taylor, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Robbi Morgan
Director: Sean S. Cunningham



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