I know there are some naysayers who quibble with its quality, but the original Friday the 13th happens to be my favorite scary movie. And yes, even the people responsible for it admit that it was a rip-off of Halloween, which came out two years earlier, but while they copied the style, tone, rules, and the final girl idea, the rest of the movie is markedly different–allowing Friday to forge its own unique identity. If only most copycats were this creative.
Friday the 13th was a big box office success. While many critics praised its use of tone, cinematography, and it’s classic musical score, many others took issue with its violent content–which is kind of funny from a contemporary standpoint since (like Halloween) Friday doesn’t have all that much gore compared to modern horror movies. It does have moments, but most of the kills happen off screen.
The series quickly deteriorated in quality but the original is rock solid, so let’s get to it.
Friday the 13th (1980)
It all begins with a bunch of camp counselors singing around a campfire in 1958. Two of them sneak off to make love in a barn and are promptly killed by an unseen person. No gore, though–the boyfriend is stabbed below the camera frame so we only see his face reacting to it, and we cut away from his girlfriend just as she’s cornered.
Cut to twenty-one years later and plucky Annie is trying to hitchhike to Camp Crystal Lake, where she’s been hired as a cook for the camp’s grand re-opening, and she’s finding the townspeople very unhelpful. After a crazy old guy named Ralph warns her that she’ll never come back if she goes to “Camp Blood” because it’s got a death curse (classic line), a driver totally cops a feel on her ass while helping her into his truck to take her halfway. The driver advises Annie to run because Camp Crystal Lake has weird history–a kid drowned there in 1957 and two counselors were murdered the next year. The camp has been closed ever since. Annie says the driver sounds like crazy Ralph and ignores him, getting pretty snarky before the driver drops her at the halfway point and mutters about kids thinking they know everything.
Maybe Annie should have taken the hint, because the next driver (whose face is never shown) chases her into the woods and slits her throat in the first gory kill of the movie. The first time I saw Friday, I thought Annie was going to be our final girl–but it turned out she’s more like the opening scene victim to show the viewer that danger is afoot. I was tricked by, you know, the movie’s actual opening scene kills. I guess I should have taken her blithe dismissal of warnings as a cue to her actual role.
Next, we meet some counselors who actually make it to Camp Crystal Lake, for some reason to the tune of banjos on the soundtrack: Jack (played by a young Kevin Bacon!), Ned, and Jack’s girlfriend Marcie. Ned quickly establishes himself as the movie’s prankster character (there’s one in nearly every Friday movie) while Jack and Marcie establish the franchise’s recurring trope of a couple who are only really there to die and have sex (sometimes at the same time, but not in this movie). While these character traits become stultifying in the sequels, it comes off well here–mostly because this movie doesn’t treat the characters like they’re nothing but one sentence personality summaries.
When they arrive at the camp they dive in and help their creepy shirtless boss, Steve Christy, and get to work with the counselors who already arrived: Alice, Bill, and Brenda. In case you’re wondering who our final girl will be, we quickly narrow in on Alice, who has a conversation with Steve about how she needs some time away for a while and wants to split in the morning. It’s clear she and Steve have been at least sorta-kinda dating and she’s just not that into him, but he convinces her to stay for a week to give him and the camp a chance.
Hey, remember the supposed rule that final girls need to be virgins? We don’t know for sure that there’s been hanky-panky, but it sure looks like it–so maybe let’s retire that whole idea.
Steve goes into town for supplies or something and everyone else alternately works and goofs off–giving us some time to get to know these counselors before they start getting killed. Alice gets spooked by a snake in her cabin and while everyone else shrieks in an unhelpful manner, Bill takes a machete and kills the thing–letting you know he’s the dependable guy here. Meanwhile, Ned quickly wears out his welcome with his frantic, in-poor-taste pranks–pretending to drown in the lake so he can kiss Brenda when she gives him mouth to mouth and dancing around in his underwear and an Indian headdress like an idiot when a cop comes by to check on them–so it’s something of a relief that he’s going to be next to go. Oh yeah, he also nearly shoots Brenda with an arrow while she’s setting up the archery range because he really doesn’t understand how flirting works. But hey, it does establish that the archery range is there, and as you may have guessed, it will be back later.
We get to Ned’s death when everyone wanders off and Jack and Marcie have a tender moment on the beach, noting that a storm is coming. The storm talk prompts Marcie to tell Jack about a weird dream she’s had where relentless rain turns to blood. Foreshadowing much?
Feeling dejected as he watches the lovers from afar like a creep, Ned walks off on his own along the lake. When he sees someone moving in the doorway of a cabin, he goes to investigate. The last time we see him alive, he’s walking through the door saying “hello?” for another offscreen demise.
Alice is taking care of dinner since the camp’s cook never showed up, and Jack and Marcie take the opportunity to head to a cabin for some rainy evening sexy times–completely unaware that Ned’s dead body is lying in the bunk above them with its throat slit. In the afterglow, Marcie gets up and puts her raincoat over her itty bitty t-shirt and panties to go pee. Now alone, Jack lights a joint (uh-oh) and gets impaled through the throat by someone who’s apparently been under the bed this whole time. It’s far and away the goriest kill in the movie, and it’s a horror classic.
We catch up with Marcie in the bathroom for another classic. The rain and lighting provide a great mood for the setting as Marcie washes her hands, hears a noise, and tension escalates as she investigates the shower area, where a shadowy figure lands an axe square in her face, which we only get a fleeting glimpse of before cutting away.
Meanwhile, Brenda convinces Bill and Alice to play strip Monopoly with her to while away the evening. Bill gets all the way down to his underwear while Alice (showing off her stereotypical final girl street cred) has almost all her clothes on. The storm blows the door open and the wind messes up their board, which reminds Brenda that she left the window open in her cabin. Disappointingly, she lets the very vulnerable Bill off the hook, ending the game so she can go to bed.
Brenda is probably my favorite character in this movie, so her wandering off on her own always makes me sad. Sure enough, just as she’s crawling into bed in her nightgown with a book, she hears a kid calling for help and follows the voice to the archery range. We last see her alive soaked to the bone in front of the targets she put up earlier as the lights from the archery platform come on, blinding her. But as we cut away, we do hear her screaming.
Steve’s absence this whole time has been something of a MacGuffin–misleading you into wondering if he’s the unseen killer, especially since he drives a Jeep, like whoever killed Annie earlier. Putting that notion to rest, we see Steve has been eating at a diner this whole time. He returns to Camp Crystal Lake but has some car trouble, which gives our unseen assailant a chance to approach him and–twist!–he knows who the person is, allowing them to get close enough to stab him just below camera.
Now it’s just Bill and Alice, who is starting to wonder where everyone is. They take a look around and find no people, just a bloody axe in Brenda’s bed. The phones are also disconnected and the cars appear to have been incapacitated. Alice wants to get the hell out of dodge but dependable Bill has taken an inexplicable turn toward ignorance and he won’t really believe anything bad is happening. He thinks there’s a reasonable explanation for all this. So when the generator conks out, Bill walks off alone to fix it. Alice has a little catnap and wakes up to find Bill is still gone. When she investigates, she finds his body pinned to the door of the generator room with arrows. His throat is also slit, so it’s hard to tell exactly what happened here. At least he managed to turn the power on before dying?
Alice runs back to the main cabin, where she’s menaced by the still-unseen killer from outside, who fucking throws Brenda’s dead body through the window and she’s so beaten, bloody, and bruised that it’s hard to tell what exactly happened to her out on that archery range. The end result, however, is crystal clear (just like the lake!).
While Alice freaks out over Brenda’s body, a Jeep pulls up outside and she runs to meet it. A kindly-seeming lady gets out and introduces herself as Mrs. Voorhees, a friend of Steve Christy’s. Alice tells her they need to get the fuck out of there but Mrs. V wants to investigate. Alice shows her Brenda’s body as proof that they need to split, but instead of running, Mrs. V reacts with a monologue that steadily reveals that she’s batshit insane. She starts by saying that no one ever should have re-opened this camp, then reveals she used to be the cook back when her son, Jason, drowned there in 1957 because counselors weren’t paying attention–they were off making love somewhere. She implies that Jason had some kind of disability but doesn’t get into it. Oh, and it’s his birthday (surprise!).
Then Mrs. V starts having a conversation with her dead son in her head in which Jason tells her to kill Alice. Alice says hell no, crazy lady, and we get a sustained sequence in which Alice is alternately chased by Mrs. V and the two beat the ever-living crap out of each other. Out on the beach, Alice finally gets the upper hand (meaning, Mrs. V’s machete) and fucking chops Mrs. Voorhees’ head clean off her body.
With that ordeal over, Alice grabs a canoe and floats out onto the lake for no apparent reason. In the morning, it’s suddenly fall for some reason and police show up on the shore. As she waves them down for help, a freaky decomposed-looking child jumps out of the lake behind her and pulls her into the water.
Next thing we know, Alice wakes up in the hospital. A policeman informs her that she’s okay now but everyone back at the camp is dead. Alice asks about the boy and the cop is confused. She insists Mrs. Voorhees’ son, Jason, was out in the water and is the reason she was dragged into the lake. The cop, clearly doubting Alice’s sanity now, says that there was no boy at the camp. Alice says he must still be out there, then, and looks dreamily off as if pondering the implications as the movie ends.
In many ways, you have to divorce this movie from the series that followed in your mind. The next movie introduces Jason as the killer, seeming to imply that he had been wandering the woods (alive somehow?) and growing up (what?) before witnessing his beloved mother getting beheaded. His mother’s death is what prompts him to go on his own murderous rampage. The original plays a little fast and loose with credibility but every movie that follows throws all common sense and reason out the window. Mrs. Voorhees will be referenced a lot but she only reappears as a prop severed head–never returning as the villain. Not even in the quasi-reboot from 2009, which dispatches her while the opening credits play so they can skip ahead to Jason.
In imitating the structure of Halloween, the makers of Friday the 13th picked and chose elements they deemed essential, leading to what has become the classic slasher movie format and thematic material. Ironically, Halloween didn’t actually intend to imply that only virgins can be final girls or that anyone who has sex, drinks, or does drugs is doomed–which is exactly the idea Friday ran with and perpetuated. In this movie, Jason literally died because counselors were having sex, which means the entire franchise will bring any characters who engage in hanky-panky to a swift, violent end. And while Friday took Halloween‘s cue that what you don’t see can be scarier than what you do see, it still amps up the gore–seeming to revel in the kills in a way Halloween didn’t, and forever moving the horror genre away from Halloween‘s subtlety.
In truth, I go back and forth between Halloween and Friday the 13th when picking my favorite scary movie. Halloween is scarier, more thoughtful, and more clever, but there’s something about Friday that makes me keep coming back to it. Maybe because I find it more entertaining since Friday walks the lines between seriousness, thrills, and camp so well–certainly better than any of its successors.
In many ways, Friday had just as much of an impact on horror as Halloween because it amplified the parts of Halloween that became canonical for the genre and–perhaps unwittingly–moved the villain character to the forefront. Halloween is Laurie’s movie just as much as it belongs to Michael Myers. Contrast this with Friday, where even though we don’t meet the killer until the very end, Alice feels a bit lost in the crowd. It also does so much to set up the character of Jason that perhaps it’s not so surprising that he became the central figure in every movie to follow. In Halloween, you root for Laurie. In Friday, you root for Alice, but you can already see the seeds planted for the sequels, which ask you to root for Jason as he mows through a bunch of cannon fodder.
Friday the 13th is generally defined by the series that it spearheaded, but in truth, it’s a strikingly different movie from the sequels. And even though it ultimately led to some of the genre’s more problematic aspects, I like it. A lot.
From the moment we’re introduced to her, Alice fits the Laurie Strode model for final girls really well. She’s smart, independent, a little serious, and far more reflective than the people around her–allowing her Spidey senses to get to tingling when things start going wrong. When it comes to fight time, Alice proves to be as resourceful as Laurie and also, since we’re early in the genre, just as prone to thinking that the bad guy has been vanquished before the movie is actually over. She’s a rock solid final girl but she loses some points because she kinda gets lost in the crowd. I mentioned earlier that the first time I saw this I thought we were being introduced to the final girl when Annie showed up, and even after Annie was killed off I was a little confused about whether Alice or Brenda was being set up to be the anointed one. I guess Brenda’s pot smoking and strip Monopoly instigating doomed her, but in another reality she would have been just as good of a final girl as Alice.
Jason has become so inseparable from the franchise that it’s surprising for many that he’s not the bad guy in the first movie. I mean, confusion around the matter is even a focal point in the opening scene of Scream. Unfortunately for Jason, his mother is a better baddie than he is in any of his cinematic incarnations–and she’s more interesting to boot. The absolutely unhinged performance from Betsy Palmer, who admitted to taking the role only because she needed a new car, certainly helps. She’s crazy, for sure, but she’s also vulnerable in a weird way (she is, after all, a grieving mother). She’s dangerous and deadly–proving that a female villain is just as effective as a male one, even if you don’t see her in action on any of the movie’s kills. Really, it’s a shame that the series worked so hard to move away from her going forward.
Ten people die in Friday the 13th. Half of those occur offscreen or just outside the camera frame, so even though this movie amplifies both the body count and the gore from its inspiration, Halloween, it doesn’t feel excessive or pornographic. That will start to change in the sequel, though.
And since evil never dies, we’ll be back for more soon. I’m going to explore some other series and movies for a while, but we’ll get back to Jason.