Friday the 13th (1980) Retrospective Review and Analysis

WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS IMAGES AND DESCRIPTIONS OF FICTIONAL PEOPLE BEING STABBED, BEATEN, AND OTHERWISE MURDERED. IF THIS UNSETTLES YOU, JUST TRY YOUR BEST TO STOMACH IT AND KEEP READING.

Title card for a film review on Friday the 13th
Background: © Paramount Pictures

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Friday the 13th (1980) stars the likes of Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Harry Crosby III, and Kevin Bacon, who were unknowns at the time shy of Palmer. Despite this, the film earned over ten times its shoestring budget of $550,000 in it opening weekend alone, which helped it expand into the massive franchise we know today that includes ten films, a crossover, and a reboot.

Seriously, this franchise is harder to kill than Jason himself.

Oh, and speaking of Jason, don’t expect him to be in this one because he’s not. (Not in any real way, at least.) You gotta watch the sequel for that, and the third if you want to see him with his iconic mask.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

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When Camp Crystal Lake reopens after being closed down 20 years ago for being cursed with death, would-be camp counselors Alice, Bill, Jack, Ned, Marcie, Brenda, and Annie find themselves stalked by a unseen killer, who hunts then down one-by-one on the night of Friday the 13th.

REVIEW

SPOILER WARNING STARTING HERE! GO WATCH THE FILM, THEN COME BACK! OTHERWISE, SKIP DOWN OVER TO THE CONCLUSION.

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Acting-wise, the film had a number of scenes where the actors’ performances ranged from barely decent to downright cringe-worthy. The absolute worst shot in this entire film is with Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) when she screams while looking like she’s about to have the biggest dump of her life before she gets killed. And not to mention, Ralph (Walt Gorney), the town crazy, who delivers his lines like he’s just learning to read for the first time.

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Also on the bottom end of the spectrum is Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees. I don’t know if they purposefully had her say her lines like she was dragging nails up and down the chalkboard, but that’s what it sounded like. I can imagine the director saying, “I need you to say these lines with your teeth shut firmly together the whole time.” while he was directing her. It was needlessly unsettling and not in a good way.

The film struggles with many things such as plot, acting, character development, and tone. But for all the bad things that could be said about the original Friday the 13th (i.e. no Jason), the one thing is should be praised about it is its brilliant use of musical score.

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Musical score is important in film, particularly in horror films.

Harry Manfredini, the film’s composer, had to make a score that spoke for the unseen killer, that stands in place of them, and he had to do it on a budget. He came up with the idea of having music play only when the scene was framed from the killer’s perspective. This gave the audience a sharp contrast between each scene.

Going from silence and gradually building up the film’s unsettling score generated tension for the audience. But just before something happens, the music always abruptly stops for just a moment; reeling the audience into a brief but false sense of security before the axe swings and the music suddenly returns. It was a brilliant and creative use of a sound that basically just ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma.

ANALYSIS

Friday the 13th as a film and a franchise has become nearly synonymous with the slasher sub-genre of horror, along side the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Halloween (1978). Taking the tropes established and popularized by the slashers that came before it, namely the tropes of “The Final Girl”, “The False Protagonist”, “The Unseen Killer”, and “Death by Sex”, Friday the 13th takes these devices and oversimplifies them in the campiest of ways.

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As the movie opens to present day 1980’s after the introduction set in 1958, the very first character we’re introduced to is Annie (Robbi Morgan), a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, would-be camp counselor who you instantly get attached to because of her drive and her dream to work with children. If you’re watching this movie for the first time, right of the bat, you come to believe that Annie here is our supposed final girl… until she gets her throat slit in the first 20 minutes.

“The False Protagonist” as a plot device is effective because it gives the audience a sense that no one is safe, that no one is wearing plot armor. You can see this used in movies such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). It truly adds a sense of mystery and thrill, especially when it’s paired up with “The Unseen Killer”.

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Movies like It Follows (2014)and, again, Psycho (1960) make use of “The Unseen Killer” well, by placing an established mythos to the killer, a rhyme and reason to why they kill or how they kill, if only barely, as way to fill in the void of not having a physical antagonist. Friday the 13th does the same, but to not as great an effect. The characters and, by extension, the audience are merely told that there’s something not quite right about Camp Crystal Lake in an exposition dump by friendly truck driver guy. Is it simple? Yes, and that’s not a bad thing, especially since that’s what the filmmakers were going for. Is it interesting? Maybe. But, is it impactful? It wasn’t back then and it certainly isn’t now.

The film, however, does make use of the device in an interesting way by showing the killers movement almost always from a first person view. This reinforces a theme consistent with slashers – voyeurism. Slasher killers are stalkers, like predators in the night waiting for the most opportune time to strike at their prey. That kind of voyeuristic behavior presents the victims as the spectacle and the killer as a spectator, much like how we’re forced to spectate over Friday the 13th‘s many gruesome deaths in a way that almost sexualizes violence.

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Sex is another major theme in many slashers. “Death by Sex” is a consistency that was popularized by Halloween (1978) and ironically dissected by Scream (1996). It plays a far more major role in Friday the 13th, however, as the sort of catalyst that ignites the events of the movie. Jason drowned because the camp counselors who were supposed to be keeping an eye on him were busy having sex. The couple from the introduction died just as they were about to have sex. Jack and Marcie both die after having sex. Horny teenager Ned, creepily horny camp director Steve with the porn-stache, vaguely horny Brenda with her strip Monopoly, and maybe-not-as-horny Bill who lost the most clothes during strip Monopoly all died just because they thought about sex.

Safe to say the only person who didn’t die from sex was Annie, who probably would’ve had sex if she ever stuck around long enough to actually arrive at Camp Crystal Lake.

There’s a rule in slashers and that’s “Virgins always survive.” And although Alice wasn’t explicitly stated to be a virgin, she is (outside of Annie) the most far removed from any sex-related activity throughout the entire movie. She didn’t even take her shirt off during the strip Monopoly scene. And this, because of some weird slasher movie logic, makes her impossible to kill.

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The term “The Final Girl” was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993). It refers to the last person, usually a woman, who survives a horror film, the one left to tell the tale. In this case, that’s Alice. According to Clover, whereas slashers begin from the perspective of the killer, identifying with them, it gradually shifts to identify with the final girl through the end of it.

This is particularly relevant in Friday the 13th, which, as sated previously, frames the events from the eyes of the killer. But by the end, we’re introduced to Pamela Voorhees, who is revealed as the killer. This reveal sparks the shift of perspective from killer to final girl. No longer are we seeing the film from the eyes of a faceless hunter, but now we’re left to identify with Alice as she runs, hides, and eventually, fights back against her assailant.

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The role of final girl is a call-to-action for Alice, as it was for Ellen Ripley (Alien), Sally Hardesty (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Laurie Strode (Halloween) that pins them against the corner when all hope seems lost. It at this point that they evolve from the hunted to the hunter, overpowering their counterparts through ingenuity or careful planning.

CONCLUSION

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Friday the 13th owes much of its success to films such as Psycho (1960) and Halloween (1978). It capitalizes on slasher movie tropes in their simplest form. It’s formulaic, it’s predictable, and it’s hella campy. But it’s fun. It’s as much a popcorn flick as it is a slasher. And I doubt that the filmmakers made this with the complexity of an Alfred Hitchcock film in mind. It was never meant to be dissected. It was meant to be enjoyed. Simplification isn’t bad… but bad acting is, and that’s the real horror here.

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