Clearly, the team behind “Friday the 13th” expected at least to make a reasonable profit out of it, but I seriously doubt that anyone involved in the making of this film even considered the possibility of it becoming the cult classic that it is today. Victor Miller, who wrote the story, openly admitted that he was riding off the success of Halloween (1978). The late actress Betsy Palmer even claimed that, after reading the script, she thought the story was trash (well… she actually used another word), but she took the job because she needed a new car. Little did she know when she took the role that her character would immortalize her as one of the biggest horror icons of all times.
Yes, it is evident that Victor Miller and Don Mancini capitalized on the success of Halloween (1978), but the truth is that “Friday the 13th” manages to stand out on its own, and in the end, other than being two slasher films about a killer who prowls around murdering teenagers; these two films don’t really have that much in common. To this day, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is considered a more “serious” horror film (for the lack of a better word), while “Friday the 13th” remains a classic, but is still seen as a less underappreciated respectable flick. Why? Probably because, even though I absolutely love it, I will admit that “Friday the 13th” certainly has a campy nature (no pun intended). In my case, I don’t mind the campiness, I actually enjoy it.
In “Friday the 13th”, the story begins in 1958, in a summer camp named Camp Crystal Lake. We see two young camp counselors who are about to have sex, when someone appears out of nowhere and murders them both. We don’t get to see who the killer is, since the murders are shown in a point-of-view shot, and the reason behind the murders is not yet explained either.
The story then jumps to 1980 and it focuses on Alice, a young and sensible girl who, along with other kids of her age, is hired as a counselor by a man who attempts to reopen Camp Crystal Lake. Unfortunately, someone doesn’t seem too thrilled about the reopening of the place, which will lead to a series of gruesome murders. Could it be the same person who killed those two counselors back in 1958? In the end, it is Alice who will have to come face to face with the killer and fight for her own life.
Plot-wise, “Friday the 13th” may not be too remarkable, but it doesn’t really need to be either. I could be wrong, but I believe this film first introduced the formula that consists on: a summer camp as a scenario, a pinch of mystery, plentiful gore, creative deaths and a gratifying reveal towards the last minutes. Just like this film attempted to ride off the success of a previous slasher, ironically, “Friday the 13th” itself ended up generating a bunch of (arguably) inferior clones as well. Of course, commercial success doesn’t necessarily imply quality, but I do think “Friday the 13th” has a certain something that makes it appealing to a lot of people.
For the most part, the characters in this film seem somewhat generic and one dimensional, which is a common attribute in slasher films. There really isn’t much of a character development, and we don’t get to know them very well. Most of the victims are young boys and girls who seem to be in the camp to have a good time themselves, rather than working hard to make the children happy. Surely, these characters don’t really deserve to die for being immature and silly, but at the same time, it is hard to feel too bad for them either. However, the first character that gets killed after the time-jump seems genuinely sweet and caring, so one obviously feels bad for her when she is brutally murdered, just for being naïve enough to trust a stranger. I think this death after the time-jump was a perfect move, because it sets the tone perfectly for what is going to happen later: a bunch of innocent young people will be brutally murdered without having done anything to deserve it.
The acting in “Friday the 13th” is mostly plain or, in some cases, over the top, which, along with the silly dialogs and lines, provides the film with an enjoyable campy nature. The late Betsy Palmer, who played the role of Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, was nominated for a Razzie Award, and while I love the character of Mrs. Voorhees and I felt bad to hear about Palmer’s passing, I can understand why she was nominated. It’s true, Betsy’s portrayal of Jason’s mother is over the top and it can appear as unintentionally funny during her delivery of some of her lines, but at the same time, I’m not sure if I can imagine the character being played differently at this point. Then we have Crazy Ralph, literally jumping out of a closet, telling the kids to leave, because they’re doomed and that Camp Crystal Lake has a death curse. This character, aside from being called “Crazy” Ralph, (in case anyone didn’t notice that he was crazy in the first place), is perhaps one of the campiest characters in the slasher subgenre, which earned him an iconic place in the franchise and even a small part in the first sequel.
“Friday the 13th” offers a nice variety of gory murders, with Tom Savini in charge of the makeup effects, which is an undeniable seal of quality. The legendary “axe in the face” death scene is perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the film for many fans. In this scene, Sean Cunningham and Tom Savini not only offer a morbidly satisfying and shocking on-screen death, we also get a lot of tension and suspense preceding the murder, which creates a feeling of panic and desperation.
The final confrontation between Alice, our final girl, and Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s vengeful mother is really extensive for a good cause, as it helps to build a lot of tension that culminates with a gruesome murder. To some extent, when Mrs. Voorhees suddenly appears out of nowhere and begins to tell the story of what happened to that “poor boy”, it is easy to assume that she is responsible for the carnage, or at least, that she is involved to a certain degree. Up until this point, we had never seen her before throughout the entire film, so why is she popping out now? There are no other supporting characters left to blame for the murders and Mrs. Voorhees shows up the exact moment when things got really ugly? What could she be doing at Camp Crystal Lake in the middle of the night, other than murdering boys and girls? Of course, our final girl, even though she is not unintelligent, seems to be somewhat oblivious of what is really happening and this is what makes up want to scream “Get out of there!”. Mrs. Voorhees is basically explaining the whole story to the audience, but at the same time, she is subtly revealing herself as the killer, before going into a weird trance, in which she starts talking as if she is possessed by Jason, her own son, who drowned at the lake (I always considered this like a switched version of Norman Bates and his mother).
As mentioned before, the acting in this final confrontation is not exactly brilliant and the audience ends up getting more than they probably needed to understand the story, since Mrs. Voorhees’ monologue basically goes into detail of what happened, just to make sure we get it right (just like when they make sure that we understand that Ralph is a crazy old man, by calling him “Crazy Ralph”). Regardless of the over the top acting and the spoon-feeding to the audience, the confrontation is full of tension, and it is still considered one of the most memorable “killer reveal” moments in the history of horror for a good reason.