I Watched This On Purpose: Friday The 13th
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Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: When I first proposed a Halloween-themed first-time viewing and write-up of the original 1980 slasher film Friday The 13th, a great hue and cry went up around the A.V. Club production-meeting table, as other people who'd never seen it, or hadn't seen it since childhood, argued its merits or lack thereof. The issue: Should it be a Better Late Than Never column? ("Oh my God no, it's supposed to be awful," Scott said.) Should it be an I Watched This On Purpose column instead? ("But isn't it sort of a horror classic?" asked Josh.) The confused consensus seemed to be that it probably wasn't good enough for BLTN or bad enough for IWTOP, but no one at the table seemed to know for sure.
That alone was enough to convince me that I had to watch the movie, regardless of how we framed it. Here's the film that launched a thousand sequels (okay, 10 sequels so far, with a remake scheduled next year, directed by the same dude who helmed the 2003 Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboot) and a million satires and parodies. It was the first slasher film released by a major studio. It was an indie film that cost $550,000 to make and grossed $40 million. It helped kick-start the age of the studio-bankrolled exploitation film, it was one of the foundational pillars of today's thriving horror-film industry, and most of the stalwarts in our little enclave of media oversaturation had never actually watched it? That alone was an excuse to watch it on purpose later rather than never.
Besides, I saw Nightmare On Elm Street back in the '80s, and I finally watched John Carpenter's original Halloween for the first time last year when the remake came out. It was clearly time to complete the horror-movie franchise-starter trifecta, if only so Jason X—the one Friday The 13th movie I've actually seen—would make a little more sense.
The viewing experience: As it happens, Friday The 13th wasn't as bad as Scott thought or as good as Josh vaguely remembers from seeing it in his misspent youth. It was made in 1980 as an indie movie over a few weeks, and that shows throughout. It wears its influences heavily—normally, when a nearly 30-year-old, highly influential movie feels clichéd, it's because of all the followers that borrowed from it in the interim. In Friday The 13th's case, it's because it was ripping off the horror classics that preceded it. But we'll get to that.
The film's working title was A Long Night At Camp Blood, which would have been more accurate—for the most part, Friday The 13th feels like a long, draggy day and a night as bored people sit around waiting for the killer to show up and dispatch them already. And that killer isn't in any particular hurry. [A note on spoilers; I'd never seen this movie, but I've known both of the big twists for a decade now. I'm assuming readers do too, largely since without getting into the killer's identity, there isn't a whole lot to discuss here. Read on at your peril.]
The movie starts in 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake, where a bunch of achingly wholesome, apple-cheeked counselors are having an indoor sing-along around a fireplace.
Meanwhile, the camera is lurking ominously around the sleeping campers in the cabins. Eventually, two counselors sneak off for a makeout session—never, ever a good idea in horror movies, and this film series was one of the biggest reasons that rule came into effect—and the camera follows them. When caught, they seem to recognize whoever's confronting them, but that doesn't do them any good:
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Throughout most of Friday The 13th, a handheld camera stands in for the murderer's point of view, creeping around the camp, watching the characters from behind trees and through windows, and eventually facing them down as they die. Director Sean S. Cunningham has said in interviews that this style was inspired by Jaws, which also keeps the villain of the piece largely hidden for most of the film, but Carpenter also used it effectively in 1978's Halloween, another film Friday The 13th practically owes royalties. In theory, it's an effective tactic that lets the audience feel the killer's power; the victims are right there, practically within arm's reach, completely oblivious to the doom that's examining them and planning exactly where to stick the knife, axe, or arrow. In practice, though, it often means watching the victims doing a whole bunch of nothing. Remember the long, talky, go-nowhere segments in Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse entry Death Proof? This is the kind of movie he was remembering. In the space between its opening double-murder and the eventual kill-fest toward the end, Friday The 13th feels like one of the slackest movies of the '70s slack era.
Cut to "Friday June 13—the present," when porn-stached do-gooder Peter Brouwer is planning to re-open the camp for a wave of inner-city kids, even though there's apparently no good way for them to get there. In the nearest town, people shut up and stare ominously when the camp gets mentioned, and it's clear that there's no transport to the area. Pretty young camp cook Robbi Morgan marches into town toting a backpack and asks what bus to take to Camp Crystal Lake; a waitress badgers a trucker into giving her a ride halfway there, but before they can take off together, town crazy Walt Gorney confronts Morgan and announces that if she's going to "Camp Blood," she'll never come back, because the place has a death curse. The trucker chases Gorney off, but later, in a typically draggy, pause-filled conversation, he offers up some doom-saying of his own:
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Between her half-committed acting and his overacting, it feels like the cab of that truck is about to give in to dramatic overbalance and tip over at any second. Alas, the trucker drops Morgan off when their roads diverge, and she hitches a ride from the traveling POV killer-camera and never even makes it to the camp. Meanwhile, a bunch of other counselors—including a larval, feather-haired Kevin Bacon—are on their way to Crystal Lake, or have already arrived. There, Brouwer subjects one of them to mild sexual harassment while shirtless and wearing weirdly porny cutoff shorts, no shirt, a neckerchief, and matching socks. (For the most part, the characters dress in pretty generic clothing, which means the film doesn't look nearly as dated as many 28-year-old movies. But occasional style choices, particularly in the hair, serve as a stark reminder that 1980 was practically a closeout sale for '70s fashions.) Eventually, Brouwer heads off to town, and the waiting begins. The counselors talk, swim, make dinner, and walk around in the woods, oblivious to the killer camera. (In another '70s nod, one of them dons a weirdly Godspell-influenced no-shirt, white-pants-and-red-suspenders outfit.)
The killer still hasn't shown up. The characters freak out when a snake gets into one of the cabins; the actors do actually hack it apart onscreen. One of the counselors (Mark Nelson) plays obnoxious pranks on the others, and in the process becomes the only one with a noticeable personality. A cop arrives, acts like a cheap stereotype, and leaves. Gorney appears, says God sent him, tells the counselors "You're all doomed!", and bikes away. (He was likely meant as a red herring whom audiences would suspect was secretly the killer.) The counselors mess with the generator. Larval Kevin Bacon and his girl have a weird talk about a recurring nightmare she has, which proves to be non-startlingly non-prescient, as it really has nothing to do with her impending death.
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And so on and so on, as if everyone's watching the clock, waiting for the film to hit feature length. At times, it feels like a loosely observational film, but since there's nothing terribly interesting worth observing, it's mostly just draggy. As it happens, by this time, characters have already started to die, but none of the living ones are aware of it yet, because half of Friday The 13th's killings occur offscreen, or look like that opening clip, where the camera looks away as soon as the fatal blow is struck. Cunningham focuses on bloody, mangled corpses—the shots of carefully posed counselors found later with bloody implements stuck though their heads recall 1977's Suspiria, among other things—but not so much on the actions that made them corpses in the first place. Only a couple of the killings happen onscreen, and they're both very brief shocks, without the loving looks at rending flesh and spattering gore of today's movies. Probably the most gruesome one occurs when a post-coital Kevin Bacon gets an improbable arrow through the throat while lying in bed.
One of the most interesting things about Friday The 13th for me was that the movie doesn't focus much either on the violence or on the victims' fear, the two main foci of horror features today. Most of the murdered counselors get a moment's warning at most that the axe is about to fall; others are dead before they know it. Only the final survivor, Adrienne King, really winds up with enough time to understand what's going on and try to save herself. The focus is more on audience suspense, as we sneak around the camp inside the killer's head and try to figure out who's going to die next. The camp counselors having tame, fakey sex? Top priority. The ones playing a PG-rated game of strip Monopoly? Don't worry, they're on the list. Brouwer and his awful '70s porn-stache? Eventually. Apart from slack plotting and the fact that the characters feel interchangeable—and, sadly, just as disposable as the killer decides they are—Friday The 13th feels like it wants very badly to be a Hitchcock film. It isn't about sudden starts and shocks and bangs, it's about the audience anticipating and dreading the inevitable, deliberately foreshadowed horror.
Unfortunately, it's also about the filmmakers putting it off for so long that some of the tension defuses. When Bacon's girlfriend Jeannine Taylor heads off to the bathroom in her underwear and spends what feels like an hour alternately doing her Katharine Hepburn impression into the mirror and just standing around, the film loses any semblance of the life that would make her death seem remotely real. What real-life person—particularly one largely defined by a scary dream about raining blood—stands around alone and mostly naked in a strange, cold place, in no particular hurry to get back to her lover no matter how many strange noises or unsettling movements tip her off that something's going on?
Most tellingly for the cheapie Hitchcock knock-off argument, Friday The 13th tries to rely on psychological motives and a twist rather than garden-variety hack-n-slashy psychopaths. When the killer finally shows up, it isn't the hockey-masked, machete-wielding, indestructible hell-monster Jason, who later became the series' icon. It's his mom, Betsy Palmer, a polite, matronly lady in a sensible sweater and a dykey haircut. She actually attempts to befriend King and chat her up before dispatching her. She even sort of tries to explain her motives before the act of talking about it seems to bring back all her frustration and send her off into the kill-zone. It seems that back in the '50s, her young son Jason drowned in the lake because the counselors were "making love" rather than keeping an eye on him. Clearly, since then, Palmer has hated the camp, or counselors, or sex, or all of the above. While telling this story, she apparently remembers she's at the camp and talking to a counselor who may have had sex at some point in her life, and she goes berserk again.
For a heretofore omnipotent, invisible, super-strong villain, Palmer proves disappointingly ineffectual once she shows up onscreen. When she corners King, she dispenses slaps instead of throat-slittings, and the two of them repeatedly wind up rolling around on the floor, fighting for the upper hand, or control of a weapon. The extended chase gets fairly silly; apparently the one power Palmer didn't sacrifice by becoming visible is the power to magically appear wherever King goes. At one point, gripped by madness, Palmer snarls in Jason's little-boy voice "Kill her, mommy. Kill her. She can't hide. Nowhere to hide." Bullshit! It's a vast camp full of cabins, a lake, and the deep woods. There are a million places to hide. It's just that wherever King goes, Palmer appears.
And this is where the film's influences become a serious problem. It's passably creepy watching Palmer lurch around, her face twisted in a rictus, talking to herself in the voice of her dead son who bids her kill. But it would be a lot creepier if the entire shtick wasn't basically a reversal of the parent-child roles from Hitchcock's Psycho. When the soundtrack goes to a thumping "da-dum, da-dum, da-dum" rhythm during the chase, it might prompt tension if it didn't sound so much like the Jaws soundtrack. (The familiar Friday The 13th signature theme, with its chanted "ki ki ki ma ma ma" syllables, fares better, though it still sounds an awful lot like one of John Carpenter's homemade scores.) And the scene where Palmer hacks her way through the door of a storage closet and peers in at King would be a lot scarier if that wasn't such an iconic moment from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. (Both films came out the same year, just a month apart, so it's unlikely Friday The 13th stole the image from Kubrick, though it is right there in King's book, which suggests the people behind this film might have been hoping to tap into the bigger film's scares. Either way, it's hard not to think of Jack Nicholson's far scarier performance while watching Palmer leer through the hole in the door.)
Eventually, the long chase scene ends in a slow-motion yet still very brief death (apparently heavily censored for DVD, if the IMDB has it right), a surprisingly beautifully shot denouement, and one last big scare, which is pretty creepy even if you know exactly what's about to happen. The plaintive last lines of the movie recall the big reveal line from The Ring ("You helped her?"), as it becomes clear that there's still a monstrous evil on the loose. But that doesn't pay off this time around; it would have to wait for the many, many sequels.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? A good 40 percent or so, actually—not enough to quality it as a Better Late Than Never entry, but enough that I never wished I was off doing my Hepburn impression into the mirror instead. For a quickie indie, Friday The 13th is surprisingly beautiful at times, particularly when it watches the incoming thunderstorm, and during the dreamy idyll on the lake toward the end. The people are generally indifferently shot, but the dark green woods are lovely, and the colors are sharp and effective. The film is pretty tense at times, when something's actually happening. Mostly, though, it's a landmark movie, and even if it isn't always fascinating on its own, it's interesting to see the nascent beginnings of America's horror-film industry, the exact point where super-cheapies like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Last House On The Left began edging toward the mainstream. Just because this particular chapter of film history is coated in fake blood doesn't make it any less significant.