Today is Friday, June the thirteenth, 2014; regardless of when you Fellow Fans read this, it’s on this particular day that this article was posted here. This is, obviously, no accident; a concurrence of some significance ties this little meandering of mine to this specific date. Tonight, you see, there will be a full moon; this celestial event coinciding with this ominous date is a fairly uncommon astronomical occurrence. It last happened fourteen years ago, and will not happen again for another thirty-five years…and in that dark cinematic world that you and I like to spend our time in, exactly the same circumstances happened in a little film that made a big splash some thirty-four years ago.*
I don’t have to tell you guys why I think this calls for a little celebration. 🙂
Following the success of John Carpenter’s landmark Halloween, writer/director Sean Cunningham hoped to catch some of that same lightning in a bottle of his own. Having The Last House On The Left (his collaboration with future legend Wes Craven) on his resume, Cunningham was seeking to make a truly scary movie, but one not quite so heavy; he wanted to break away from the starkness of that infamous 1972 film and provide fans with a movie that was more of a “thrill ride”. With a basic story in mind, he turned to screenwriter Victor Miller to craft the tale, and with a budget of only five hundred and fifty grand (not much, even back then) and a short shooting schedule, Cunningham got his film completed and ready to release upon the unsuspecting public…
Thus it was that in the spring of 1980, Friday the 13th premiered in the United States…and horror films (and we horror fans) have never been the same. Whether the impact was felt with that initial punch, or later through the many movies that this landmark film influenced, all of us Fellow Fans owe something to this first visit to Camp Crystal Lake.
The film opens in 1958 at that cozy summer camp, where the teenaged counselors are having a good ol’ singalong. The kiddies are all asleep, and a couple of the teens decide that they’re tired of “Michael Row The Boat Ashore” and slip away for a little different “music making”. Sadly, before they can get beyond the buckles of their uniform belts, they’re interrupted by an unseen intruder, who quickly and viciously dispatches the couple.
Flash forward to the present day (1980) on Friday, June the thirteenth, to the little town of Hope, near Crystal Lake. A young woman, Annie, stops in to a local diner for directions to the Camp, as it’s being refurbished and reopened, and she’s been hired as the cook. After a few jibes from the locals, she gets a ride from a truck driver, who then continues to talk about the “cursed” camp, regaling her with tales of a drowned boy many years ago, two counselors murdered the year after that, fires, bad water, and other sad tales. He drops her off at about the halfway point, and she quickly picks up another ride…that turns out to be her last. Back at Crystal Lake, Steve Christy is breaking in his new counselors (the archetypes got their start here: The Annoying Goofball, The Smart Girl, The Studly Jock, and The Quiet Heroic-Type Guy…staples forever after), pushing them to get the docks, archery range, and other activities set up, and the cabins and facilities cleaned and painted. He makes a run into town for supplies, and leaves the others there to continue with their work. After a little relaxation, the group sets about their tasks, getting a good bit of the cleaning and set up done before a rainstorm strikes the camp…but with the rain comes an ominous pall of doom, just as one townsman had said to Annie; lost in their good times and cravings for fun (and each other), one by one the counselors begin to be murdered in gruesome, merciless ways. As their numbers dwindle, the few that remain finally realize the desperate situation that they are in, but is it too late? Can they figure out who is killing them, and why? The answers were surprising as all hell at the time…
As what has often been called one of the first “true” slasher flicks, Friday the 13th is not pretty, glossy or glitzy; it’s a craftsman’s film…but that made it so much more like real life. Even Halloween, as cheaply as it was shot (cheaper than F13 ), had a kind of visual panache that Carpenter’s direction brought to the film that made it seem more of a high-end nightmare. F13 was down and dirty; however, I certainly don’t mean that it lacked anything that it needed. Hardcore fans of the genre can tell that it was strongly influenced by the works of Italian directors like Bava and Argento, and also the cheap, gory exploitation of early seventies Spanish and American films. As it was in some of these inspirations, the Crystal Lake killer wasn’t a prisoner of the night or the shadows, no sir; the first killing in this flick was in broad daylight, and often the bloody bits were in full light and grueling close-up…giving Tom Savini a much more spotlighted and colorful showcase for his skills, forever raising the bar by which these kind of films would be judged by gorehounds like you and me. The set was a real, functioning camp, and the surrounding forest and lake provided images that most of us could relate to ourselves, strengthening the power of the film to pull us into it as more than mere spectators (and probably inspiring years and years of phobias about summer camp). The film had very good performances as well; the acting was much better than should have been possible in a little indie outing such as this movie was. Particular standouts were Adrienne King, who turned in one of the very first (and most convincing) takes on the “Final Girl”; Betsy Palmer in a performance that was both powerful and surprisingly sympathetic; hell, we even have a young Kevin Bacon in a very early role. The remainder of the cast held their own, ranging from adequate to quite good, populating the story with believable and familiar personalities, complete with quirks and idiosyncrasies we could see both in our friends and ourselves.
The simple yet satisfying script and direction coupled with this competent acting made these characters so easy to relate to, so real; it wasn’t hard for the target audience of teenagers and young adults to put themselves in the place of the characters on the screen. This empathy, I believe, is what really brought the movie it’s greatness; these folks we were watching were just like us, for chrissakes; they wanted to have a good time, they wanted to get high, they wanted to get laid…still, these weren’t bad kids; hell, they were working, volunteering their time to help out young kids at a summer camp; a little pot or screwing around didn’t make them deserve to be brutally murdered, did it? I felt especially sorry for Annie; she didn’t even get the chance for some premarital sex or a toke on a joint…she never even got to the goddamn camp; no, she got terrorized and her throat slashed just for being on her way there…this shit was serious. Finally, I can’t finish up my analysis without mentioning the soundtrack; the music by Harry Manfredini, while derivative at times, was absolutely perfect for the film. The score he created hearkened back to other films in our collective memory to produce similar feelings of terror (Jaws and Psycho are those that most often come to mind), but it was by far original enough to stand on its own and become legendary in its own right.
All of these elements indeed became much more of that “lightning in a bottle” than Cunningham had expected; with Paramount, a major studio, purchasing release rights to the film, exploitation had come to the mainstream. As such, the gore now had to look more real, more gut-wrenching; the characters had to be sympathetic, prettier; more like us. What used to be shot cheaply in the Philippines or Mexico for display in seedy 42nd Street theaters now had to be something that could appeal to the masses, because this film brought those masses into the local multiplex…and left them wanting more. This is evidenced by the scores of imitators (some decent flicks, some cheap and shameless rip-offs) that filled the theaters for the next ten years, and to a lesser extent, fill VOD providers and the three-dollar bins in Best Buys still today.
After nine sequels, one collaboration with Freddy Krueger, a 2009 “reboot”, dozens of fan films, fiction, comics, video games and still further films in the works, Friday the 13th can definitely sit comfortably in its place as an icon; along with its spiritual contemporary Halloween, it can be said that it truly changed the face of horror films. Although it was inspired by greats, it touched something in we horror fans and grabbed a greatness of its own.
So, on this very special Friday the thirteenth, let’s all take a moment and recall this groundbreaking film…and for the six of you out there over the age of fifteen that are wondering why I haven’t mentioned Jason anywhere in this article save for the tagline, seriously; go right now and rent/download/buy/borrow this flick…you’ll be glad that you did.
Happy Friday the Thirteenth, folks.
*Nope, I’m not crazy (well, that’s debatable, but I do know my horror flicks): The date given near the beginning of the film is Friday, June 13th, and later on a deputy mentions to a character that it’s a full moon out that night.
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