Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday the 13th

I've had a curious history with the Friday the 13th series. I remember coming home from trick-or-treating to find at least one of the movies on TV, but I was afraid of horror movies, so I tried to avoid watching them. When I got older and fell in love with horror, I regarded the series and other 80s slashers as everything wrong with the genre, artless exploitation that gave critics all the ammunition they needed to peg fans as dumb, easily amused perverts only interested in tits and gore.

In recent years, I've mellowed out my stance. Jason Voorhees, the varying quality of his movies aside, is a horror icon, and when one of his flicks are on, I catch myself watching at least some of it and enjoying it. Maybe it's because so much of today's horror fare has become rather tame, watered down, and corporate, the Friday the 13th movies hearken back to something a little more raw, a little more sleazy, and more unapologetically drive-in fair. You can't hate them for being what they are.

This is where it all started, Friday the 13th (1980), directed by Sean Cunningham, a former producing  partner of Wes Craven. I think even non-fans of the series are aware Jason is not the killer in this one. Oh he's important, but he's the back story, the motivation for the vengeful Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), angered at the counselors of Campy Crystal Lake for letting her son drown. This is all revealed in the climactic revelation. Before that, it's a bunch of teenagers working to reopen the camp, indulging in all sorts of vices, and getting picked off one by one by an unseen assailant.

Yeah, plot not especially a strong point for this one or any slasher really. Tom Savini provides a a few of his iconic gore moments (notably when Kevin Bacon gets an arrow in the throat), and the film has a strong, creepy atmosphere. Camp Crystal Lake is suitably isolated and wooded. It looks they really filmed this in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization, and Cunningham uses a lot of POV shots to suggest these counselors are being watched and stalked. The music by Harry Manfredini is perfect for the film and goes a long way toward making things scary. No one can forget the ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma. or the frantic string pieces. And more so than in the sequels, the counselors are somewhat likable for a bunch of dopey teenagers.

The last third doesn't work for me once we meet Mrs. Voorhees, who's nowhere near as intimidating in person as Jason is. The fights between her and final girl Alice (Adrienne King) aren't the most convincing, and the final blow, delivered in slow-mo, is kind of funny in an overwrought way. The film is also packed with slasher conventions and cliches, or at least tropes that have really been overdone since then that they're hard to look at with fresh eyes.

Is Friday the 13th a classic? I don't know. It's certainly a must-see for horror fans. I think this material was done better by the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Tobe Hooper, but its impact on the genre can't be denied, and it still has some effective power and scares. I can't help but feel nostalgic about it. A simple setup - teens in the woods with a killer - that was made in the right place at the right time, free of the post-modern cynicism or jokey tone we've seen since the likes of Scream. The special effects are practical, the locations aren't on a blue screen, and the actors don't all like photoshopped Hollywood models. It's a relic of a bygone era.

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