By Andrew Jenck
I have a confession to make: I haven’t seen a lot of famous movies. People always consider me a movie expert, but there are dozens of classic movies and filmmakers that I am unfamiliar with and only watch them when I’m in the right mood. So with Friday the 13th falling in October this year, I figured to finally watch, well, Friday the 13th; the start of a franchise that has become synonymous with the date. And…really, this was the start of a cultural touchstone? While Friday the 13th isn’t an awful movie, having some merit, I found myself bored, underwhelmed, and uninvested throughout most of this endeavor. That’s not to say I don’t see why it struck a cord, though probably for the wrong reasons.
Though I haven’t seen many slasher films of the 1980s, I am well-aware of the trends associated, and being released during the decade, it was one of the first. You’ve got a group of horny teenagers in the woods that are killed because they had sex or made really stupid decisions, and all terror comes from jump scares accompanied by loud screeches. Still I enjoyed IT despite its jump scares thanks to its likable characters, so maybe this one can offer a similar experience, right? Well, unfortunately no. While no one is unlikable per se, none of them are worth investing. The story is so straight-forward, that it never allows for any time to flesh out its characters beyond the roles of the virgin survivor or the comic-relief, if even that.
I pondered why the film gave such bland heroes to root for until I came across renowned critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s editorial on the slasher films of this time: audiences love to root for the killer, not for the teens’ survival. Similar to how tweens just wanting to see Optimus Prime blow up stuff without any substance, audiences of the 80s cared more about the gore and vicious imagery that the killer would display. I get that some people are into that, but this is a horror film, in that I should be horrified for what the killer is doing to these kids. While there are some effective death scenes, it’s lost much of its shock value, considering today’s standard of horror. No matter how violent you make a film, the human mind can still think of something more gruesome subconsciously, even a good Catholic boy such as me.
Having gore isn’t enough for horror; your film needs a chilling atmosphere, great direction, and a thrilling score to be effective, and that’s where Friday the 13th falls disappointingly flat. Having an isolated summer camp is a great setting for a film, but it’s never taken advantage of here. The lighting and cinematography are unimpressive, with most kills taking place in well-lit rooms to, again, showcase the gore. Aside from one or two impressive shots, the direction is pretty bland and uninspiring. Even the score is disappointing, being a blatant rip-off from Hitchcock’s Psycho, a much better slasher. As a result, you’re just waiting for these teens to get sliced, accompanied by loud SCREECHes to make you jump, none of which sticks with you.
I know I’m being harsh to this film, but it does have some merit. Two kills are particularly effective, its watchable, isn’t particularly offensive, and yeah, I could see it as decent date night film when it came out. The best part, however, is the villain. Interestingly, Jason (the hockey mask guy) isn’t the big bad in this film, but instead a plot twist that’s actually pretty scary. I won’t spoil the reveal, but it is unique choice, even by today’s standard, and the performance makes the character unnerving. Unfortunately, the character itself isn’t introduced until the last fifteen minutes of the film, so you’re left with only 1/6th of a good film, and I don’t think that’s worth renting. Overall, Friday the 13th isn’t a terrible film, and I can see why some remember it fondly, but it has little value today. One could attribute it to its low budget and being one of the first of its kind, but there is a film that came before this that holds up incredibly well, and I’ll tell you all about it…