Friday the 13th (1980)
Rated R (unrated version reviewed)
Score: 3 out of 5
Psycho, Peeping Tom, Black Christmas, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the Italian giallo films all helped build the various pieces of the slasher genre back in the '60s and '70s, and Halloween was the film that assembled them into their final form, but for my money, it was Friday the 13th that truly made the genre what it is. It was the first slasher movie to be a big Hollywood studio production (for a certain standard of "big"; its budget was still $550,000). It placed the focus on the violence and the body count, with ten people dying over the course of its runtime and makeup designer Tom Savini crafting a number of simple, but brutal and well-executed kills for many of them, leading the slashers that followed in its wake, including Halloween's sequels, to play up the exploitation film angle. It popularized the remote campground/cabin in the woods setting that has been a staple of the genre since, such that, when Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard made a feature-length takedown of modern horror movie tropes, they flat-out titled it The Cabin in the Woods. It wasn't the first horror film to have a shock ending, but a lot more movies had them after this one. While it may be an oddball in its own series, lacking many of the elements that people identify with the Friday the 13th name (above all, the hockey mask-wearing killer Jason Voorhees himself), when taken as its own movie you can see in it the DNA of virtually every slasher made over the course of the '80s and for some time after.
Unfortunately, this also turns around and becomes its greatest weakness: when compared to the many films that followed in its wake, it doesn't entirely hold up. Many of the things on display here have been done better since, including by some of this film's own sequels. The plot is an afterthought, especially the "twist" in the third act, and the kills, even in the unrated version, aren't really that gruesome in a post-torture porn age. I was reminded of The Simpsons' very first Treehouse of Horror episode where Lisa reads the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Raven", only for Bart to complain that it's not scary, comparing it to how this film has grown tame compared to those that had been made in the ten years that followed -- and not just in terms of bloodshed. That said, it still has its charms to this day, from director Sean S. Cunningham's grasp on suspense (something that many of its imitators lack) to some fun dialogue to the violent payoffs. As both an important milestone in horror history and as a pretty good "don't go in the woods" slasher in its own right, Friday the 13th still delivers.
The plot is timeworn but also timeless: over twenty years ago, a young boy named Jason Voorhees died at Camp Crystal Lake thanks to neglectful counselors. Now, the camp is being reopened, and a new owner and group of young counselors have set out to prepare it for the coming summer season... at least, until they all start "disappearing" one by one as a mysterious assailant stalks the grounds. The killer's identity isn't much of a twist these days, having been the subject of a famous moment in Scream, and even if you don't know it in advance, it is remarkably easy to figure out once a certain character enters the picture. Rather, this is a movie that, much like the Strangers films, is less about who the killer is and more about the fear of being chased by somebody who's marked you for death. Cunningham makes great use of the rural New Jersey woods that this film is set in, having the killer watching the characters from across the lake or behind some trees in a number of effective POV shots -- another thing that everybody else stole from this film. Some of the deaths are still genuinely horrifying, ranging from an arrow driven through somebody's neck to an ax delivered to the face to a machete decapitation, and even the off-screen kills worked for how they were used; one of them works to set up a great reveal of the body later, and another one cuts to a very ominous scream. Harry Manfredini's iconic score works wonders over the proceedings, building suspense in the slower moments where the killer is watching over the hapless teens and panic when the killer finally strikes.
The acting ranges from decent to hokey, but I wouldn't expect anything less. Adrienne King as Alice and Betsy Palmer as Pamela are the best of the bunch, with King making Alice into a final girl worth rooting for, a badass, tomboyish survivor who gets the only real character development in the film, and while to say anything about Palmer's part would be spoilers (though if you're a fan of the series in any way, you probably know what that part is), she does it well as a woman consumed by grief and anger. I found myself wishing that both of them had received more focus and development over the course of the film, that Alice's hinted-at relationship with Steve was fleshed out more and that Pamela wasn't just dropped into the movie towards the end. However, the actress playing Marcie nearly ruined her otherwise impressive death scene with a half-hearted scream, the actress playing Brenda had a hard time staying dead when her corpse was on screen, and the actor playing Ralph, the town local who's there to warn them that "you're doooooomed!!!", went so over-the-top that he felt like a parody. Even with a fairly high body count, much of the first hour of the film can feel slow-going and meandering, failing to really get me invested in the characters. Friday the 13th may have popularized the slasher film, but it did so warts and all, as many of the most common complaints about the genre, most notably the Eight Deadly Words ("I don't care what happens to these people") and the "twenty minutes with jerks" form of slasher character development, also plague this film.
The Bottom Line
A key progenitor to the slasher genre for better and for worse, I'd recommend other slashers before this one, including some of its own sequels. As a standalone film, however, it's still worth checking out whether you're an enthusiastic horror buff or just getting into '80s slashers.