Friday the 13th Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Friday the 13th Review

    “You're going to Blood Camp, aintcha? It's cursed, I tell ya! You're all doomed!

    In 1972, Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham bashed public sensibilities on the head with their outrageously nasty re-interpretation of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring in their notorious torture-porn classic The Last House On The Left. Both fledgling filmmakers went on to carve out careers in the horror genre with success and, indeed, further infamy. Yet whilst Craven, certainly the more talented of the two, went on to create some true genre icons with The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare On Elm Street and even send up the whole corpse-littered thing with his darkly satirical Scream series, Cunningham seemed to ditch his cutting edge in favour of the more marketable, yet more mundane and obvious slasher line and unleash the never-ending Friday The 13th franchise upon us.

    Although clearly inspired by the phenomenal success of John Carpenter's horror milestone Halloween, his modus operandi was actually influenced much more by Mario Bava's even earlier assembly-line carve-up, Twitch Of The Death Nerve (aka Bay Of Blood) from 1973. Many of the kills that made his teeny-bopper massacre a cause-celebre in the early eighties were lifted wholesale from Bava's bloodbath, and the set-piece assassination of victims in ever-more elaborate and gory ways was exactly the format that Cunningham guessed (successfully) would become the new cinematic thrill-ride. Carpenter invested time and character into his young victims, ensuring that when they were offed we were genuinely affected. Cunningham could never be accused of giving a damn about his conveyor-belt offal and the Friday 13th series would become nothing more than an excuse to see young flesh eviscerated in ever-more gratuitous ways.

    And before you sigh and mutter “Ah, the good old days,” it seems that his ADD-catering brand of pretty-teen execution has come full circle and is raking it in at the box office all over again, with studios raiding the slaughterhouses for inspiration for the current crop of genre overkill.

    Yet whilst effects and technology changes, the sheer idiocy of sexed-up oafs in dangerous situations has not altered one iota. They still go out into the night to investigate ominous sounds in the woods. They still think nothing of entering dark rooms when they know there is a deranged killer on the loose. And, worst of all, they still leave violently psychotic hulks lying unconscious on the deck without finishing them off properly! Halloween may have set this ball in motion, but Friday The 13th took the Myers rulebook and cut 'n' paste it into its own agenda, streamlining the concept to the point where dialogue and motivation simply didn't matter any more.

    But, we shouldn't get too carried away here. This first instalment in the mammoth miasma of the macabre actually does tell a story. Plus, it has a true element of mystery - unlike in the films that followed, we don't know who the killer is - and the revelation is both neat and logical. In part, Victor Miller's screenplay from Cunningham's initial idea, is a throwback to the chillers of the seventies, when the psycho killer ended up being the person you least expected and their reasons for doing-in ninety-nine per cent of the cast were recalled in dreamy flashbacks accompanied by floaty-weird lullabies on the soundtrack. But, in its most audacious and forward-thinking part, it sensed the growing requirement of films to provide mainstream audiences with something they had been denied before. Sex and gore. Hammer had done so, but were now considered quaint and genteel, their Gothic castles and undead aristocrats far removed from the gritty, Vietnam-torn society that had wrestled with its own conscience throughout the nihilistic seventies. The conjunction of titillation with destruction was, in many ways, the new Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn and Friday the 13th didn't so much as open the door to a decade of sleaze and death as rip it from the hinges. It may not have been as strong as the films it helped usher in but it sure pointed them in the right direction.

    The plot tells of Camp Crystal Lake and the chilling legend that surrounds its deceptively beautiful setting. After the tragic death of a young boy who drowned there seventeen years before, a double-murder and a spate of mysterious fires have plagued the place ever since, and it would seem somewhat foolhardy to attempt to reopen the vulnerable and isolated cabins for another crowd of hormonally-charged teenagers, but this is exactly what is being planned. Thus, the scarred Camp Crystal Lake - or Camp Blood as the locals call it - is soon beset with erstwhile young counsellors whose task it is to get the place ready for a new influx. Ignoring the Dad's Army-style warnings from the freakish town loony, Ralph, that they are “all doomed”, the squad of happy-go-unluckies take up residence and, pretty soon, death and dismemberment becomes the order of the day as they begin to get picked off by an unseen, but supremely vicious and stealthy killer. The rest, as they say, is history. With sequels now running into double-figures, the gore-soaked story of Crystal Lake is really just a very superficial hook upon which to hang the still twitching corpse of such a hackneyed premise. Once again, as I've said a great many times now in various reviews for the likes of Texas Chainsaw and Hills Have Eyes, for example, the basic conception behind all this seems to suggest America's deep-seated fear of its own secluded communities. The cities may be dangerous, but the ongoing fascination that Hollywood filmmakers have for people venturing out into the sticks and coming a serious cropper has served movies perhaps far more so than the notion of cowboys fighting Indians ever did.

    Famously, Kevin Bacon made his big screen debut in this - and it is hardly wrecking the plot to mention that he doesn't make it to the end credits. Other notables would include Bing Crosby's son, Harry, and, cast extremely against type, TV-favourite Betsy Palmer as the nicely obliging Mrs. Vorhees. The rest of the cast seemed to sink quicker than a severed head dropped into that accursed lake, but their purpose was just to do and die. Adrienne King was the Jamie Lee Curtis of the film, her beleaguered Alice resourceful enough to survive much of the maiming and eventually do battle with the killer in a ridiculously-devised cluster of pitched skirmishes. But there were genuine surprises nestling in what was, otherwise, a pretty bland series of killings and this was, perhaps, the first and last time that a mad murderer was not actually known to us right from the beginning - which, in such a genre as over-stuffed as this, has to be applauded.

    Even with so many stupid scenes - such as the massed attack on a poor snake in a cabin, the fake drowning in order to get a kiss, Laurie Bartram's repeated strolling through mud and heavy rain, barefoot and in a nightie, and the painfully irritating voice and antics of Mark Nelson's camp clown, Ned - it would be churlish to heave too much criticism at the film. Whatever its dubious position in the pantheon of the horror genre, and its notoriety for conservative views and an overtly sexist attitude to female performers, it does exactly what it sets out to do. The fact that when held up against its peers, or even many of the copycats that proliferated during that blood-soaked decade, it actually comes up short on so many levels - too many corpses can be seen breathing etc - is also not enough to rob this first instalment of its immortal status. What is strange, however, is the inarguably cosy vibe that the film now gives off. To many of us who saw this when it first came out - well, in my case, when it first came to lawless home video - it was bolstered by infamy and cited by many as a classic of horror and blood-letting. Whilst even to my younger mind, this was no “classic” - I was weaned on Universal horrors, early Carpenter, The Haunting, The Omen and Romero, when all said and done - it even seemed poor compared to the inept schlockers from Italy that were storming the shelves at that glorious time. Harry Manfredini's score was immediately laughable - and still is - and Cunningham's direction is all set-up and cheap pay-off. The screenplay, as penned by Miller, is dire even by such lowly, generic standards as those that the makers set themselves. The acting, whilst certainly not the worst in such fare, was mediocre at best and the plot was pitifully threadbare.

    But, in its inescapably childish way, Friday The 13th was still great fun. Even to a kid back then, the film was best viewed as a comedy-horror, where you could literally shout at the screen and hoot with derision when fools seemed to fall over themselves in their haste to greet their own demise. Though, naturally, what came to pass is that people would flock to this and its brethren in order just to witness ever-more outrageous means of human decimation. Yet, far from being a sick twist for a generation of movie-goers, Friday The 13th and its add-ons often came to be viewed as simple cathartic pleasures and FX-showcases - like live-action copies of Fangoria, if you like. Even the censors came to regard them as little more than cinematic pranks. Oh, there were some truly depraved offerings out there - Scavolini's Nightmares In A Damaged Brain springs to mind and even Tom Savini's most maligned movie, Maniac, with Joe Spinell and Caroline Munro (!) - but, by and large, the slasher trend was superficial and bizarrely non-threatening. It's sheer longevity and bankability proof of that.

    The gore - seen uncut in America with this edition for the very first time, though completely familiar to those of us in the UK, where it never suffered a BBFC snip - was obviously one of the grandest elements of the film. Make-up supremo Tom Savini - the god of latex wounds, blood-tubing and fake machetes - had already made a name for himself in creating the colossal and still unprecedented number of gore-gags for Romero's Dawn Of The Dead and Martin, before that, and was an obvious choice for this project. Anyone wanting to look into his “kills” for this movie should check out his excellent “how to” tome, Bizarro, but there was certainly some good stuff on show here. Whereas Carpenter eschewed the grit and gristle - at least in the first Halloween - Cunningham wanted his audience to see the flesh sliced and diced up front and personal. Savini's work - running the gamut from slashed throats, arrows in the eye, faces bisected by axes, heads removed altogether to the still-awesome disfigurement of a character who would come to loom large (very large) throughout the rest of the series - was swiftly improved-upon with the slew of productions that he would work on in the wake of this. Somehow, his effects, though perfectly enjoyable, seem primitive even when compared to the much earlier Dawn Of The Dead. The budget may be partly to blame, but also the lighting and the matter-of-fact filming of the death scenes do such weird artistry no favours either. Following on almost immediately from Friday 13th, Savini would become the Go-To man for stalk 'n' slash mayhem, and things like The Burning, The Prowler and Maniac would really showcase his gruesome talents at their best. What is worth mentioning though is that the level of his creative input was already becoming a force to be reckoned with. Having been given virtual free-reign by George Romero to come up with as many and as bloody deaths as he could for the zombiethon of Dawn, Savini would accept any challenge without qualm, and even expand on Cunningham and Miller's ideas - the audacious arrow-thrust-through-the-neck of Kevin Bacon was one such example. There is a sense that Savini was pushing back yet another boundary with this type of work. Slaying zombies and taking random skulls apart with bullets was something slightly removed from the audience, but once individuals - innocent individuals - began to fall prey to a blade-wielding maniac, then suddenly the threat was more overt and more personal to us. Friday The 13th and its ilk - courtesy of shocking gore effects like Savini's - were soon to become vilified for the sensationalism of violence and this particular franchise, especially in the States, would suffer enormously at the hands of the censors before the afore-mentioned “acceptability” of the medium came about.

    Of course, another element that the film can claim as a feather in its bloody bonnet is that final shock sequence. Hailed by many as one of the greatest “jump-out-of-the-seat” moments in genre history, the chunk of celluloid gasp-inducement is, indeed, a jolt of terrific proportions. Sitting alongside Carrie's grave-erupting hand, Ben Gardner's lolling head in Jaws, those Marigold-covered demon hands smashing through the door to throttle Ash in the original Evil Dead, Michael Myers suddenly rising up behind Laurie Strode, Freddie blasting through Nancy's mirror-door and Papa Jupiter smashing through a window to snatch his own father up in Hills Have Eyes (a serious heart-stopper that Friday 13th Part 2, itself, would imitate) and American Werewolf's nerve-shredding dream-within-a-dream Nazi-nastiness, this is one of those classic popcorn-spillers that, against all the odds, still works today. But the atmosphere elsewhere has now been reduced to one of only middling menace. In actual fact, the film can often seem quite slow, the editing and the staging of the murders horribly languorous and pedestrian and far too many of them taking place off-camera. By today's standards, even the once revolutionary gore seems tame. You only have to look at what came out the following year to see prime examples of state-of-the-art FX that still hold up even now, with Rick Baker's astounding work for An American Werewolf In London (see HD review and let's keep our fingers crossed for a BD release soon, eh?) and, after that, in 1982, Rob Bottin's superlative gloop and gore for The Thing. But it is still disturbingly delightful to see just how real Savini was trying to be with his wounds.

    By now it is hardly a spoiler to state that this first entry in the series is not a Jason Vorhees movie. I won't say who the killer is, and, in keeping with the seventies thriller vogue, it is probably unlikely to guess it until the big reveal as, in true Dario Argento-style, every effort is made to distract and deceive you via shadowy silhouettes, ambiguous attire and barely glimpsed figures on the edge of the frame. But, even with this in mind, if newcomers to the tale haven't sussed it out by about the third casual clue dropped, then, hey, I envy your lack of genre instinct. This isn't Agatha Christie's “And Then There Were None” and, even by this stage, much of the scenario revolves around out and out cliché. Jason, of course, would thrive throughout the ensuing episodes - breaking through the 3D barrier, taking on Manhattan, battling Freddie Kruger and even jetting off into space for some futuristic fury - and I'm looking forward to delving into his saga with reviews for the forthcoming Parts 2 and 3 (out on UK BD in Feb). Thus, this entry actually seems quite charming when compared to the blatant excesses that were to come.

    Paramount had a sizeable worldwide success on their hands with Friday The 13th, and soon most other studios would be casting their nets for other lucrative low-budget shockers. The next year's haul would include Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Terror Train, Motel Hell and Happy Birthday To Me - any occasion and any place, it seemed, would prove advantageous to the splatter goldmine - and the cycle would only run out of steam in the latter half of the eighties ... only to be regurgitated again for the current crop of remakes. Prom Night made a lacklustre return, whilst My Bloody Valentine has proved to be a vital stab in the genre's arm with its 3D mayhem. And then we've even got the revitalised Friday The 13th as well. It seems you just can't keep a good maniac down, can you?

    Cunningham would also go on to create the popular House franchise, as well, with director Steve Miner, and, here, he sort of redeemed himself in critical eyes. If his Jason movies were considered incredibly juvenile in all but the sex and violence stakes (well, perhaps, even in them, too, come to think of it), then the House films deliberately took such expectations on board and, as a consequence, wisely pandered to a younger market. But, within their more fantastical framework, Cunningham found much more freedom to allow his imagination to run riot and the results, certainly in the first two, were quite daftly rewarding. Whilst his reputation may not have reached the uber-cool credentials of his partner-in-crime from long, long ago, Cunningham is a likeably down to earth character. He senses a quick buck and clearly loves the rock-bottom exploitation field, whereas Craven, who definitely has got a seething intelligence going on behind the scenes and a scalpel-sharp wit, can be seen to sell-out all to easily, lending his name to all manner of dross and cash-in drivel. Cunningham, never one to stray too far from his roots, is actually producing the remake of his own hell-spawned franchise.

    Watching Friday The 13th now makes you hanker for those halcyon days of successful under-age sorties to the video library, when actually getting a title such as this held a sort of shivery delight. I miss those times, to be honest. Things like The Exterminator, Cannibal Ferox, Tenebrae, Inseminoid and Bloody Moon, or anything from Lucio Fulci were like notches on the bedpost, little nuggets of kudos once you'd seen them. Friday The 13th was definitely considered more lower-key than its nastier cousins on the shelves yet, as transparent and dim-witted as it is, there will always be a soft spot in my gorehound's heart for its shrieks in the woods and that infernal “Chi-chi-chi ... ah-hah-haaah” soundtrack. Although best enjoyed from a nostalgic point of view, this is still an important release and one that is warmly welcomed. However, it is the far bloodier and more dumbed-down sequels that I can't wait to see in full 1080p! It's not art ... it's just gleefully gruesome fun.

    The Rundown

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