31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 12

by kdlough

31.  Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)

This is it, the last movie of the month.  I’ve watched a lot of movies across a pretty wide spectrum of horror subgenres in the last 31 days; it’s a lot of ground to try to cover in any coherent way, but there might not be a more appropriate movie to cap things off than the original Friday the 13th (although the word “original” is a bit ironic in this case).  I say this because to me, Friday the 13th symbolizes so much that’s good and bad about horror films; why they can be the highest expression of film art and how they can be the worst sort of cash-in junk, often at the same time.

Friday the 13th is a patchwork Frankenstein of past horror movies like Halloween, A Bay of BloodCarrie, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Psycho, etc etc.  I find it pretty funny that the first thing we see is the title card “A Sean S. Cunningham Film,” since the movie is so anonymous.  Anybody with a bit of business sense and a camera could have made this.  It’s an openly mercenary film, an explicit attempt to make a few bucks by copying past successes.

And yet the movie was hugely popular, made a boatload of money, spawned an insane number of sequels, and even inspired it’s own subgenre of Summer Camp Slashers.  So… why?  What’s the appeal here?

Well, it’s all a part of its mercenary nature: it gives people what they basically want with as little trouble as possible.  There’s nothing much going on in Friday the 13th besides suspense and kill scenes. The exposition is swiftly spouted out in one scene (by a character who is then killed) and what minimal story the film has is totally linear, ceaselessly marching forward to the next death.

To the movie’s credit, you don’t really notice its dumb single-mindedness while you’re watching it.  In fact, one of the most surprising elements of the film is its naturalism, a real sense of characters hanging out and wasting time.  The shaggy filmmaking adds to this vibe; the shot where we see the motorcycle cop start his bike, wobble down the road, turn around, and ride away is way too long for such a nothing moment, but it makes the movie seem a bit more loose and real.  The mood is so effective it even distracts you from the fact that most of the “naturalism” is over-written and always comes off as totally unnatural.

And this relative looseness rarely adds dimension to the characters, since it’s assumed we don’t really care.  These scenes are used to give the kills (what the audience really wants to see) more impact.  Everything about the movie is dedicated to this principle, and there’s never a moment that isn’t in service of building to the scares.

“Okay,” you’re saying, “but aren’t most effective horror movies built like that?”  Well, yeah.  And to be sure, Friday the 13th is a very effective horror movie.  But there’s no thoughts, no content besides that.  It’s the movie equivalent of shopping at Walmart or eating at McDonald’s.  Is it a sin for a movie to feel too… convenient?

***

Here’s another track: the moment one of the girls hears a child calling for help outside her cabin, the movie drifts into a new, irrational mindset.  The two remaining counselors realize that everyone else has disappeared.  This is were the movie gets truly terrifying.  Soon, every major character besides Alice is dead.  We’re confused; the murderer’s identity is set up like a mystery, but now there’s no suspects left.  Instead, the killer is Mrs. Voorhees, whom we’ve never seen up to the point that she’s revealed as the killer; in fact, there’s not even any hint at her existence.

It’s possible to argue that this is another element of the movie’s money-minded primitivism.  Nobody really cares about the mystery (or at least they didn’t in Halloween), so instead of bothering with the troubles of plotting out the plausibility of a character we already know committing the murders, just introduce a new character.  It’s Scooby Doo plotting.

But it’s also unsettling.  It doesn’t feel right to have all this backstory dumped on us at the end (echoes of Psycho).  It makes us feel like we’ve missed something, which might not make for satisfying plotting but succeeds at making us uneasy.

The ending is what really seals the deal and sends the movie over the cliff into all-out terror.  When the rotting Jason leaps out of the water, it scares me every time, even though of course I know it’s coming.  The ending is so scary because of it’s ambiguity; we’re not really sure if it was a dream or not.  This is unlike Carrie, the movie Friday the 13th rips off for this effect; in the former movie, it’s kind of obvious we’re watching a dream when Carrie reaches out of her grave, and then it’s make explicit that it didn’t really happen.  Not so in Friday the 13th; we may see Alice wake up in a hospital as though it were a dream, but she remains certain it really happened.  “He’s still out there,” she says.

This is a scare that goes beyond the mere BOO it seems to be.  Like the reveal of Mrs. Voorhees, it’s unsettling because it causes us to question everything we’ve seen up to that point.  Does Jason haunt the lake?  Was his mother not insane, but actually possessed by him?  The sequels would attempt to rationalize this ending, but they’re never able to really make sense of it.  Ultimately, the mystery of it is far more satisfying.

***

A few final thoughts: it struck me when I watched it this time that Friday the 13th is just not very much… well, fun.  For one thing, there’s not really any humor in it.  No dark comedy, no dramatic irony, not much wisecracking; the “jokester” characters in these movies are never, NEVER funny, but this one is particularly so.  And it hedges its commercial bets so much that it never allows itself to let go and be vulgar.  There’s not even much of any Bad Movie laughs to be had.

Hopefully you were able to catch on that this kind of ties in with my Thesis about the movie: everything else has to be kind of dull and blah so as to not distract from the scares, which are all the movie has going for it.  For those who are expecting something closer to the later, campier Jason films, this is a bit discombobulating.  Besides a few pairs of maybe too-short shorts, there’s not even much in the way of amusingly outdated fashion.

So what we’re left with is a blandly effective cash-in/rip-off that, perhaps by accident in its eagerness to copy as many successful predecessors as it could, briefly becomes transcendent.  Over the years, I’ve swung everywhere on my opinion on this film from disdain to respect, and though I can’t say I’ve ever loved it, it’s never not scared me.

SCORE: 7 arrows to pin up a dead body out of 10

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