Despite its ample cinematic merits, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had an insidious influence on the film industry, because the film’s easily replicated narrative formula—combined with Halloween’s massive commercial success—inspired countless imitators. Of those subsequent films, Friday the 13th is the most significant for one simple reason: It proved that deficiencies in imagination and quality were not impediments for repeating Halloween’s box-office performance. After all, similar 1980 releases including He Knows You’re Alone, Prom Night, and Terror Train all made money, but none of them inspired deathless franchises, perhaps because none stole so shamelessly from Halloween. Twelve movies, one TV series, and innumerable ancillary products later, the Friday the 13th series and its signature monster, hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, are still going strong. All that being said, the original Friday the 13th, produced and directed by the singularly unimpressive Sean S. Cunningham, is a dimwitted, gruesome, puritanical, repetitive, trite schlockfest.
Copping the basic shape of Halloween—without matching that film’s unique power, style, and themes—Friday the 13th follows the slasher-film playbook of a psycho systematically killing horny teenagers until a final showdown occurs between the killer and the inevitable lone survivor. What makes Friday the 13th so uninteresting is that the film contains nothing but the slasher-film playbook. This is paint-by-numbers horror cinema. Literally the only distinctive element of the picture is Henry Manfredini’s score, which steals bits from the work of Bernard Hermann and John Williams but also adds signature vocalizations (“ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma”).
The plot, such as it is, begins with a brief prologue set in 1958. Two young counselors at Camp Crystal Lake leave a party to have sex. Then an unseen individual kills them. Two decades later, several young people converge on Camp Crystal Lake, which is set to reopen for the first time since the tragedy. The same unseen individual kills these newcomers, usually while they’re in the midst of having sex, until the murderer’s identity is revealed. (Spoiler alert!) Although Jason Voorhees emerged as the main antagonist in the series during Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), he’s not the main culprit here, meaning no hockey mask—that prop didn’t show up until the godwaful Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982). On a technical level, Friday the 13th is passable, with competent cinematography and some half-decent acting. (Watch for a young Kevin Bacon as one of the horny victims.) More than anything, however, Friday the 13th is just plain dumb, the film’s brainless rhythms offering hints of just how stupid later entries in the franchise would become.
Friday the 13th: LAME