Friday the 13th was never really a good film was it? Watching it today it’s pretty indistinguishable from the countless other stalk-and-slash horror movies that emerged in Halloween‘s wake. Thanks to an impressive distribution spread from Paramount and a smart marketing campaign, however, Friday the 13th managed to rake in a shitload of money and ultimately spawn a franchise.
The acting is mostly terrible, the script is plain and the direction unoriginal. The whole thing is in sore need of some character. It’s thoroughly average and dated. In fact, there’s only three things I can pinpoint in this movie that make it worthwhile: Tom Savini’s make-up effects, Harry Manfredini’s score and Betsy Palmer. Savini was something of a rockstar himself in this genre and Friday the 13th is one of his earliest credits. Make no mistake about it, the kills are what make this movie. While Halloweenand The Texas Chainsaw Massacre put more emphasis on suggestion, sound design and the audience’s imagination, Sean S. Cunningham – perhaps realising he lacked the filmmaking brio of Carpenter and Hooper – decided to let the blood flow and wounds open right in front of us. Savini’s effects are great and the Kevin Bacon kill is still an all-timer. This is the first time I’ve revisited Friday the 13th having seen Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood and while Cunningham and co. claim to never have seen Bava’s film or even heard of the Italian filmmaker prior to this film’s release (I believe them) you can’t help but feel they were following in his footsteps. There are kills in this movie and the sequels ripped straight out of Bava’s film. My only guess is that Savini smuggled them in undetected. He seems like the kind of guy who saw every horror movie going.
Aside from Jason and his hockey mask (neither of which are present in the original film) the one thing that defines Friday the 13th is Manfredini’s signature score. Upon rewatch I was taken aback by how unique and inspired the soundtrack is. It really makes so much of the film watchable and effective where it would otherwise be flat as a pancake. Unlike the synth sound that defined most 80s horror flicks, Manfredini instead kept things totally orchestral but instilled it without enough weirdness and organic breath to be distinctive. It’s a shrieking, aggressive score with a brilliant “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” hook that is an instant classic. Without it the film would likely have zero identity or personality. It’s no surprise that even today Manfredini’s score is getting lavish treatment on vinyl releases.
Which brings us to Betsy Palmer. This time around I was struck by how unfairly the Mrs. Vorhees subplot is played. The character is never seen or even mentioned until she literally shows up out of the blue in the third act. I kind of like this about the movie though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Friday the 13th not knowing who the killer is so I never felt cheated by the payoff and, I’m guessing, that’s the case for most people catching up with it today. It has probably been a long time since the movie was seen as anything other than a Jason Vorhees origin story so, in a weird way, the inept plotting doesn’t really matter anyway. Palmer brings a welcome change of pace to the film precisely when it needs it and her cranked-up performance is a lot of fun. Funnily enough, this is therefore the first and last Friday the 13th movie to feature a villain with actual depth and personality. It’s no surprise that the first few sequels tried so desperately to keep her character a looming presence via flashbacks and corpses.
I was never a huge Friday the 13th fan (find me in Camp Freddy) but it’s still a franchise I enjoy very much. It’s been a long time since I revisited Crystal Lake so this rewatch was a bit of an eye-opener. As Cunningham himself has stated many times: this is not a great film and was made purely for financial gain. Yet as a case-study in how marketing, word of mouth and some visceral aesthetic USP’s (FX, score, an effective jump-scare ending) can make a film live longer than it rightly deserves, it’s worth a look. The greatest achievement of Friday the 13th is that it happened to initiate one of the most beloved and successful horror franchises of all time. Though I doubt even the hardcore fans would pick the original as their favourite. By all means and purposes, this is one of the least interesting entries in the entire series and even as a standalone horror flick it’s mostly disposable. Somehow though…the film lives on.