In the fittingly cutthroat world of Hollywood, sometimes the line between art and business isn’t quite as fine as some would have you believe – take Friday The 13th for example….
Taking the concept of John Carpenter’s peerless Halloween and reconfiguring (or bastardizing, if you will) the already lean concept down into it’s barest form, you’d be hard pushed to admit that the plucky little slasher could be considered art, but you can’t deny that it’s damn good business.
It’s summer, and years after a string of suspicious circumstances which have left the surrounding townsfolk convinced it’s cursed, Camp Crystal Lake is being reopened for business. The brain child of owner Steve Christy, various red-blooded American teen’s hired to get the place ready descend on the camp and engage in fun, frolics, unfunny pranks and a smattering of energetic, pre-martial sex. However, once more the curse of “Camp Blood” will strike again and we’ll get to see exactly just how red blooded these teens really are as a murderous assailant stalks and kills the unsuspecting kids one at a time in increasingly gory ways. Armed with various tools including a knife, and axe and an unhealthy amount of POV shots (even for a slasher film) will this mysterious, murder claim the lives of everyone in camp who can they be stopped like an episode of Scooby Doo where the dog has been replaced by gore and nudity…?
Before I get started, I kind of want to clear something up concerning this review that I’m currently writing. It’s gonna sound like I’m being incredibly negative about a movie that’s considered a classic by many, but while I include myself in that group, Friday The 13th is hardly a classic in terms of nuance, character arcs or anything even approaching subtlety. No, what sets this grotty little slasher apart is how expertly it takes an established sub-genre in it’s infancy and whittles it down into it’s most pure and basic form in order to make money.
Director Sean S. Cunningham previously changed the face of horror cinema by producing Wes Craven’s genuinely upsetting Last House On The Left and inspired by the success of Halloween, put out a full page ad in Variety Magazine advertising that a terrifying new picture called Friday The 13th was coming to rock our collective worlds. However, in an act of classic Hollywood flim-flam, a title and an ad was actually all Cunningham had as work on the script was still in development stages, but he banked on the hoopla to work due to the relative guarantee on profit that low budget horror flicks tend to have. Sure enough, it did and Cunningham and co. were off to the races and subsequently set in motion a franchice power house that ran for another 11 movies, a TV series and a merchandising empire that beggars belief.
There is a brutal simplicity to the script that’s almost admirable, the characters, while admittedly cardboard cut outs and as dazzlingly whiter than a snowstorm, cover a basic range of archetypes that sets them apart. The jock, the joker, the good girl – they’re all here, just not as obvious as the many sequels and ripoff would portray them as time went on. The only character whose character arc doesn’t peak with “dead” is Alice, a quintessential rustic, girl next door type who is the only one of this gaggle of pheromones who has even the remotest emotion that isn’t permanently locked on partying or strip poker but, importantly she isn’t a prude either – just slightly more sensible.
The plot, and I use that term extraordinarily loosely, is literally just the kids going about their business with the occasional spike in their day caused by a suspicious motorcycle cop, a visit by local town looney Crazy Ralph (a doomsayer of Fraiser from Dad’s Army proportions), a marauding snake and the massive inconvenience of having their major arteries severed by the shadowy maniac. The vague “whodunit” plot doesn’t even really count as it’s someone we don’t even meet until they reveal themselves on the final act and the final battle between the sole survivor and the killer goes on for so long it veers into unintentional hilarity.
So what the hell has endeared this little movie to generations of horror fans for nearly 40 years? For a start, at the time, the removing of anything pretensions of art or subtlety means that Friday The 13th was as an effective scare machine like no other with it’s basic stalk – slash – stalk – slash template working wonders with the baying 1980’s audience while even today – even though it’s old school frights have long sinced morphed into camp laughs – people class it as a high point of a sub-genre known for plumbing the lowest common denominator and a blueprint for countless future successors.
The other major factor that insured it’s success and the TRUE star of the movie, is special effects demi-God Tom Savini who, fresh off Dawn Of The Dead continued to pioneer on-screen grue with his spectacular glorified (or should that be “gore-ified”) magic tricks which stunned audiences with axes in faces, slashed throats and most impressive of all, a very young Kevin Bacon having his neck impaled on an arrow thrust through his mattress.
Truly, the most impressive thing about Friday The 13th is surely how much of a following it’s managed to obtain despite not having a single solitary orginal idea of it’s own (even it’s magnificent and masterful jump scare ending is ripped off part and parcel from the end of Carrie) but even though is pales in the shadow of more, artist and ferociously original horror movies at the time like Halloween, The Exorsist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s still the little blue collar fright flick that could and should be saluted for it’s strengths, even if it’s strengths are a little mercenary.