Saturday, April 18, 2015

1980 Week: Friday the 13th

          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


Will Errickson said...

Agreed. The FRIDAY THE 13th films have always given horror a bad name.

Unknown said...

At least Cunningham has always been up front about it being a shamelss Carpenter clone and that he did it solely for the money (one goal being to put it towards his kids). Bacon, I believe, has completely disowned the film, despite having probably the most talked-about death in the entire franchise.

Anonymous said...

HALOWEEN was not a "massive commercial success" at the time FRIDAY THE 13TH went into production.
During the summer of 1978, it was turned down by every Hollywood major. Independent distributor Compass International was forced to self distribute region-by-region with all the financial difficulties that entailed.
The film was slow to make money and 18 weeks after release had generated approximately $2m pre-tax - a substantial sum for an indie like Compass, but not particularly significant in terms of the industry as a whole. The idea that the film was a great success stemmed from a report in an October 1979 issue of THE NEW YORK TIMES inaccurately claiming that the film was the most successful indie film ever. This claim was quickly inserted into marketing materials, picked up by jounalists and is still in circulation 36 years later.
HALLOWEEN'S influence on the first teen slasher film cycle has also been overstated. Its modest initial financial returns did not inspire "countless imitators". Eighteen months after release, FRIDAY THE 13TH was the only US cash-in being produced. There was no such thing as the "slasher film handbook" (whatever that is) at the time. Indeed, there was no such beast as the "slasher". The elements that were slowly turning HALLOWEEN into a success were as yet unclear. To safeguard their investment, the makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH had to be far more creative than simply "shamelessly steal from HALLOWEEN".
One of the only things FRIDAY THE 13TH has in common with HALLOWEEN is the story. The plot is different (a murder-mystery), as is the setting (a summer camp inspired by the Canadian film MEATBALLS which was far more successful than HALLOWEEN at the time and had also been picked up by Paramount). The victims in FRIDAY THE 13TH are a group of mixed sex teens rather than single-sex group in HALLOWEEN and the final girl is a boyish heroine who unlike Jamie Lee Curtis dispatches the killer herself.
Finally, FRIDAY THE 13TH is not "gruesome". This was a myth perpetuated by Siskel and Ebert to further their reputation in the newly conservative Reaganite era. In order to secure an 'R' rating (essential to their chances of being picked-up by a major), the makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH were careful to avoid excessive gore and violence. 3 out of the 10 murders occur out-of-frame, and the victims of each on-screen murder die after a single blow.
The makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH took a significant financial risk, and deserve more credit for their efforts.
For more information see BLOOD MONEY: A HISTORY OF THE FIRST TEEN SLASHER FILM CYCLE by Richard Nowell.

By Peter Hanson said...

While I admire the previous reader's obvious devotion to "Friday the 13th" and slasher cinema in general, I would caution other readers against giving some of the assertions too much credence. For instance, a cursory Web search unearthed this quotation:

As Manny’s Oprhans/Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller told Crystal Lake Memories, “One day in early 1979, Cunningham called me up and said, ‘Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office. Why don’t we rip it off?'”

As is true of general history, film history is impacted by subjective viewpoints, which can have the effect of making people doubt previously accepted facts. Put another way, it's possible for anyone advocating a particular viewpoint to present a persuasive version of history by carefully selecting appropriate tidbits of information.

Therefore, although I would never dispute anyone's entitlement to a different opinion (i.e., I personally consider "Friday the 13th" to be garbage, and the previous reader clearly feels differently), it's dangerous to twist reality in order to create an impression that's favorable to one's own opinions.

I always, always welcome readers who correct me on matters of fact and/or provide helpful illumination. But inasmuch as this blog serves some small quasi-journalistic function, egregious distortions merit a response.

Unknown said...

"Originality" and "a Sean Cunningham film" usually aren't found in the same sentence. I'm sure he's a super-nice guy and I'd love to meet him sometime, but look at most of his directorial efforts, each one a rider on the coattails of some earlier successful trendsetter. In some cases, he himself has openly admitted this.

Here Come the Tigers (1978) and Manny's Orphans (1978): THE BAD NEWS BEARS
Friday the 13th (1980): HALLOWEEN
Spring Break (1983): PORKY'S
DeepStar Six (1989): ALIEN, JAWS

While not particularly great, his kidnap thriller A Stranger Is Watching (1982) is the only film I can think of that not's a blatant wannabe.

Anonymous said...

Peter, I appreciate your response to my comments
I would never claim FRIDAY THE 13TH was "original", simply that at the time it was produced it was necessary to incorporate elements from other hits into its construction because it was too early to assert precisely which elements of HALLOWEEN were making Carpenter's film successful. Therefore, FRIDAY THE 13TH should at least be credited as more than simply a HALLOWEEN rip-off and the "slasher film playbook" cannot account for all the film's content.
And I still contest there is actually a restraint to the film's violence that its detractors continue to misrepresent

By Peter Hanson said...

Interesting points. To your queries about the "slasher film playbook," it's worthwhile to note that "Halloween" crystallized tropes that were churning through previous films, including "Last House on the Left" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," while also integrating elements from older films including "Peeping Tom" and "Psycho." Much in the same way that "Jaws" crystallized the the animals-run-amok formula (which manifested in such previous films as "Willard"), "Halloween" provided a veritable instruction manual for similar movies. Hence "April Fool's Day," "Happy Birthday to Me," etc. Once again, I appreciate your obvious devotion to "Friday the 13th," and I wholeheartedly concur that the first film is less obnoxiously gory that some of the sequels. Thanks again for sharing your opinions, because it's always enjoyable to hear different perspectives that are articulated well.