Friday the 13th Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the R2 release of Friday The 13th, uncut in Britain for the first time. Warners have given us a very nice disc of one of their most popular films.

Friday The 13th wasn’t the first ‘Slasher Movie’. It wasn’t even the first of the cycle inaugurated by the extraordinary success of John Carpenter’s Halloween. But it was the first of that cycle to be a genuine popular success. Films such as Terror Train and Prom Night had been greeted with apathy by audiences and critics but Friday The 13th was not only a hit, it was a phenomenon. Although it was slow to find its feet, positive word of mouth began to ensure that it was to be the big horror movie of 1980, eclipsing more reputable genre releases such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It’s become so iconic, so representative of the sub-genre, that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not very good. Complaining that it lacks tension, that the characterisation is virtually non-existent and that the script is a collection of clichés looking for an anthology is, basically, missing the point. Taken as a whole, Friday The 13th works like well oiled fairground machinery; rather old, second-hand machinery admittedly, but certainly well lubricated.

I won’t trouble you with too much of the plot. As Stephen King once said, “The appeal of the movie was basically simple; see thirteen kids get killed in thirteen different ways and we promise you that all the girls will take their blouses off.” Erroneous as Steve’s analysis might be in specifics, it’s about as good a summary of the popular appeal of the film as I’ve ever heard. In 1958, at Camp Crystal Lake, a summer establishment for annoying brats, two counsellors were brutally murdered following the accidental death of a young child. This led to the place being closed but, in 1980, an enterprising chap named Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) decides to open it again. But, alas! As so often with enterprises of great pitch and moment, their currents run awry and it’s not long before yet more vacuous teenagers are being chopped up by a mysterious assailant. In the words of Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), mad overactor and all-purpose nutter, everyone seems to be “doooooomed!”. But who could be responsible for the carnage? And how many teenagers will be left to see the dawn on Saturday the 14th?

Basically, the film is a series of set-pieces in which various teenagers are killed in reasonably inventive ways. This might be a recommendation in itself for some, particularly those of us who can’t stand teenagers in films, but it also reveals one of the basic problems with the movie. The characters, even Jack played by a pre-stardom Kevin Bacon, are simply ciphers with the sole purpose of being butchered by the psychopath. Consequently, the only suspense which is created is in waiting for the next murder scene. We don’t care about any of the characters, with the possible exception of Alice (King) – and even then, that’s probably because she’s the one who lasts the longest. This is a major problem and one respect in which the film has misunderstood the reasons behind the effectiveness of Halloween. In John Carpenter’s film, an awful lot of time – almost half of the film – is spent establishing the characters of the three babysitters and we come to know them and, most importantly, like them. The actresses are given space to create memorable and distinguishable characters. Of course, this comes straight from Hitchcock’s Psycho, the real mother – in every sense – of all slasher movies, where forty minutes are devoted to establishing Marion Crane as a believable woman before the shattering eruption of violence. In the same year as Cunningham’s film was released, Brian De Palma did the same thing with Angie Dickinson’s Kate Miller in his own upmarket slasher offering Dressed To Kill. Nothing comparable is done in Friday The 13th. After the opening ‘past crime’ scene, which soon became obligatory in the slasher genre – even if, as in, say, Maniac, the past was about two weeks before – it’s only fifteen minutes before the first victim, an annoyingly cheery cook called Annie (Robbi Morgan), has her jugular vein ruptured. Aside from the fact that you’re very pleased to see the back of her so quickly, it soon becomes obvious, as the bodies pile up, that there is not going be any real suspense. I want to distinguish between the suspense generated by Carpenter and Hitchcock and that created here. The former directors take their time and create an atmosphere which becomes unbearably tense as you wait for something terrible to happen. Cunningham, in Friday the 13th, relies on sudden shocks following some first person camerawork to establish the presence of the killer. It works in the context of the film but it’s neither frightening nor disturbing. At best, it makes you jump and laugh – and there is a place for that kind of scare – but it’s the difference between fast food and a fine three course meal. On the other hand, sometimes a hamburger is exactly what you need and, if it is, then Friday The 13th is more than acceptable.

The roots of the film go wider than Halloween. You can go back to Psycho, as I’ve already said, it’s a broad generic influence rather than specific. More profitably, you could look at the influence of the giallo. The great examples of the Italian exploitation thriller, such as those made by Mario Bava and Dario Argento, often feature a group of people being decimated one by one at the hands of a psychopath whose motivations lie far in the past. The use of unusual methods of killing can be found in those films too with the blackly funny killings in Argento’s Deep Red particularly standing out. Some of the lesser giallos also feature characterisation as basic as you’ll find in Cunningham’s film. Mario Bava’s influence also hangs heavy around the film in the form of his magnificent 1971 thriller Reazione a Catena, better known as either Twitch of the Death Nerve or Bay of Blood. Although Bava’s film is infinitely more stylish, the concept of characters being gorily killed in a lakeside location seems obviously influential even if Cunningham and his writer Victor Miller might claim otherwise. Otherwise, Bava’s film seems a totally different animal, more influenced by Arthur Schnitzler than Alfred Hitchcock. My own choice of biggest influence would be the hand of Agatha Christie, the writer who was one of the biggest sellers in the yellow paperbacks which gave their name to the giallo genre. Her 1939 novel “Ten Little Niggers”, later retitled as “And Then There Were None”, is the origin of the whole thing, an terribly middle class orgy of violence in which ten people are killed for their supposed moral transgressions by a mysterious assailant on a remote island. Because Christie is an English writer, and always perceived as a rather genteel lady, her books – and the films based on them – aren’t classified as ‘slashers’ but if you look at them closely, they share an awful lot in common with Friday The 13th. In particular, the 1978 film of Death On The Nile seems a lot more similar than Halloween to the slasher films that came along – not least for the fact that, along with a one-by-one series of murders, it contains more on-screen bloodletting than Carpenter’s movie and has little suspense other than waiting to discover who will be the next person to cop it.

It’s easy, even for a horror fan, to be snobbish about Friday The 13th. It’s cheaply made, predictable and often silly. But it contains some very good things which help to explain its ongoing popularity. The sense of atmosphere created by Cunningham and his cinematographer Barry Abrams is potent, using the claustrophobic surroundings of the decaying summer camp to impressive effect. There is something about woodland which is uniquely unnerving, as other filmmakers such as Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven have also demonstrated. It’s notable that the best of the later slasher films – Jeff Lieberman’s superb Just Before Dawn, Paul Lynch’s Humongous – exploited similarly rural locales. Cunningham is also very cunning about his use of shock and violence. Although Friday The 13th is a lot more graphically violent than Halloween, it looks pretty tame in comparison to films which came later. The death scenes, now seen uncut on this R2 release, are bloody but not gratuitously so and Tom Savini’s superb make-up effects seem functional and realistic rather than needlessly nasty. Thankfully, the ‘fake’ shocks which later became so popular, and unspeakably tiresome, in the genre are not used too frequently here. Victor Miller’s screenplay is sometimes clunky but also occasionally endearing, particularly in the surreal scene with the motorcyle cop. Where this film does stand out as considerably superior to its progeny, particularly the string of sequels which began a year later, is in the fact that the motivation of the killer has at least been carefully thought out and is, at least in relative terms, logical. The later films in the series simply rely on a hockey-masked killer without thought or reason other than a desire to kill, but that figure does not appear in the original. Friday The 13th, with its efficient direction, brilliantly effective music score by Harry Manfredini and enthusiastic performances, now looks like a minor classic which atones for not being all that good by being genuinely enjoyable.

The Disc

There was much disappointment in America when the Paramount R1 disc of Friday The 13th didn’t contain an uncut version of the film. It’s a pleasant surprise therefore that the new Warner R2 release of the film features the full uncut print, the first time this has been seen in Britain. Throw in a good transfer and a couple of nice special features and you have a disc which is well worth a look.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a very pleasing transfer. Considering the age and budget of the film, the image is remarkably clean and crisp and there are no serious problems with grain or artifacting. Colours look particularly impressive with the greens and browns of the setting coming across very strongly. The general impression is that some care has been taken to make the film look as good as possible and it looks even better when compared to the image quality of the sequels issued in the UK by Paramount.

The only soundtrack included on the disc is the original Mono track. Some will turn their noses up at this, especially those who don’t want to get anything which doesn’t turn their living room into some kind of wind tunnel, but I think it’s pleasing that we’re given the original version of the film rather than some souped-up creation of an over-enthusiastic sound mixer. The track is absolutely fine, although it naturally doesn’t have the low-frequency excitement that a 5.1 mix would have offered. The music score comes across particularly well on this DVD though, much more so than on the VHS version.

There are three special features, all of which are worth your time. The original trailer is included, a marvellous piece of old-fashioned showmanship which completely misrepresents the number of deaths in the film but still manages to get the tone and content across accurately. This is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. We also get a 20 minute fullscreen documentary, Return to Crystal Lake, which is brief but quite adequate for telling the story of the making of the film and the reactions to it. All involved make a strong impression, especially the writer Victor Miller and Betsy Palmer, who doesn’t look all that much different to how she does in the film.

Best of all, however, we have an audio commentary which is intelligent, thoughtful and well edited. It consists of separate interviews linked by Peter Bracke, a film critic who wrote “Crystal Lake Memories”. These are obviously the same interviews from which extracts have been taken for the documentary and they are uniformally impressive. Most of the talking is done by Cunningham, Miller, Bracke and Betsy Palmer. I prefer this kind of track to the ‘watch along with the film and try to be funny’ kind of track which has become so popular and tends to result in endless deadtime as the participants try to find something intelligent to say.

There are 27 chapter spots and nicely designed menus.

Friday The 13th is an important horror film more for its runaway commercial success than any artistic factors. It has aged reasonably well as long as you watch it with an indulgent eye but it has to be said that it’s more intelligent and atmospheric than I had remembered. This R2 DVD is a very good release indeed and fans of the film will have no hesitation in snapping it up.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Oct 13, 2003

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Friday the 13th Review | The Digital Fix