John Carpenter's Halloween is undeniably one of the most influential films of all time, doubling as one of the most ripped off as well. In reality, one can make the claim Halloween ripped off a 1974 indie horror flick called Black Christmas, but that's an article for another day. The fact of the matter is Halloween is the movie EVERYONE saw, and the one everyone attempted to emulate. Sean S. Cunningham, a producer and director, was one such person that viewed Carpenter's classic and thought “Hey, why not me too?”.
Cunningham already had some minor success with his own knockoff versions of the hit 1976 film Bad News Bears, Here Come The Tigers and Manny's Orphans, so he was no stranger to emulating superior movies. Cunningham and his writing partner Victor Miller set out to directly copy all of the signature techniques that made Halloween so original: their film would use a first person view to put audiences behind the eyes of their killer, the killer would get a signature theme that would play whenever he was about to kill, the cast would be a bunch of unknown teenagers that would get killed off one by one with the exception of the Final Girl, pretty much everything Carpenter thought of, they imitated.
Their ONE innovation in the script was to include bucket loads of blood and gore, because Halloween is actually one of the most bloodless horror films ever made. In this aspect, Friday The 13th ALSO became one of the most ripped off films of all time because after it was a hit EVERY slasher film turned into a bloodbath with severed body parts flying everywhere. With all these elements in place, all they needed was a title for their upcoming production. Originally it was going to be called Long Night At Camp Blood, but Cunningham decided to change it to Friday The 13th, which oddly enough was the working title for Manny's Orphans.
This proved to be a genius idea, as the synergy with the infamous “holiday” would go on to drive the film, and the eventual series, to becoming one of the highest grossing horror franchises of all time. Shot on a budget of half a million dollars, the film opened on May 9, 1980 and would eventually earn nearly sixty million dollars worldwide. In 1980 terms, this was a certifiable blockbuster and guaranteed we'd be seeing the twisted world of Camp Crystal Lake for many, many more years to come. Speaking of that camp, let's journey there and see Jason's origins in A Ghoul Versus Friday The 13th!
The film opens exactly as Halloween did: a point-of-view shot of SOMEONE watching some horny teenagers, lumbering up a flight of stairs, and then killing them. This immediately sets the tone for the movie, because while Carpenter's film relied on nuance and a slow burning pace, this is just flat out stabby stab and blood. We also get to hear the killer's signature theme play in the buildup to the murders, the “ki ki ki ma ma ma” sound effect. The score for this film was handled by Harry Manfredini, who would go on to provide music for eight of the twelve chapters in the series. Manfredini was definitely one of the few people involved in making the movie that wanted to give it some depth, as he worked very hard to make his score effectively raise the tension of the film. He made the decision to cut out music in certain scenes completely instead of relying on cheap jump scare chords, so maybe he's one of the people who saw Halloween and understood WHY it was so scary.
The horny teens in question are camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, circa 1958. Two of them sneak upstairs to have some good ol' fashioned premarital sex, but the only penetration that occurs is a butcher knife through their skin. This kicks us to the opening credits, highlighted by the appearance of the Godfather of Gore himself, Mr. Tom Savini. Savini is nothing short of a legend in the horror genre, rocketing to fame in 1978 with his groundbreaking makeup effects in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and continuing to build his legacy with films such as Maniac, Creepshow, and the sequel to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He is also responsible for the ending of this very film, but we'll get to that later.
The credits bring us to the present day on Friday the 13th, as we see a female backpacker making her way through the small town of Anywhere, USA. This is Annie, a camper trying to find directions to nearby Crystal Lake where she's been hired as a cook. She enters a diner to ask for help, her question drawing stunned looks from all the patrons. A trucker named Enos agrees to drive her there, filling her in on the history of the camp and why everyone was so surprised she was going there. We learn the camp, nicknamed Camp Blood by the locals, is considered to be cursed since a boy drowned there in 1957 in addition to the two stabbings we saw earlier. Annie isn't the only new hiree heading to the camp as we see in the next scene where we meet Ned, Marcie, and Jack.
This is by far the biggest role for the actors playing Ned and Marcie, but you MIGHT have heard of Jack's actor: Kevin Bacon. He's kinda sorta famous, it's safe to say you've seen a movie of his... or twenty. He's also yet another megastar to have his career launched in part by a franchise-in-the making horror film, joining the ranks of Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis and A Nightmare On Elm Street's Johnny Depp. They all talk about sex, because none of them want to make it to the closing credits.
They arrive and meet their boss, Steve Christy, who has been said to spending a great deal of money to reopen the camp. They're introduced to the other counselors: Alice, Bill, and Brenda, and I think we finally have our entire cast of Dead Actors Walking. Steve and his chest hair creepily flirt with Alice, talking her into staying on for another week as it's pretty obvious she wants nothing to do with the camp and wants to go back to California. Steve then leaves to go into town to buy some supplies, giving everyone instructions on what to do until he gets back.
The movie returns to Annie, who is trying to hitchhike her way to the camp since Enos couldn't drive her all the way. She gets a jeep to stop for her, and I can't help but notice the camera is going out of its way to NOT show the driver. Hmm, what could THAT mean? My suspicions grow as the jeep drives past the entrance to the camp AND dramatic horror music kicks in when Annie notices this. Well, I didn't say EVERY scene Manfredini scored was going to be subtle. Annie asks the driver to stop, but instead the jeep begins to accelerate. Annie displays some gumption and jumps out of the vehicle, running into the woods with the driver chasing on foot. This is done through the driver's eyes until the respective changes to third person in a bit of jarring editing. Annie thinks she's home free until she takes a knife to the throat in a FINE bit of Savini bloodletting.
Hopefully you enjoyed that scene, because it's the only interesting thing that happens in the film for awhile. The next few scenes are the counselors doing their best to reenact every Horny Teen Camp movie ever in what's supposed to be character building so we care about them when they eventually die, but EVERYONE is the same. I guess you could say Alice is the innocent one, Ned is the prankster, Brenda's the brain, and the rest are... uh, people? There is the highly memorable scene where a cop named Dorf shows up looking for Ralph, the town nut job, and swallows the entire set with his rapid fire one liners. I REALLY wish Dorf was the star of this film.
Ralph shows up in the camp kitchen later, warning everyone they'll die if they stay there because of the curse. Well, that was fun now back to nothing! And do I ever mean nothing. Things start moving again later on as Jack and Marcie have sex in a cabin, unaware Ned's dead body is in the bunk above them. A few scenes earlier Ned saw someone at the cabin and went to investigate, but the movie thought it'd be much more interesting to listen to Marcie describe a dream she had about rain for five minutes. After they finish, Marcie leaves to use the nearby outhouse cabin and Jack gets a blade shoved through his throat from behind, as the killer was under their bed the entire time. Another beautiful Savini effect, as they are really the ONLY reason to watch this movie.
We catch up with Marcie in the outhouse, and it's worth noting she's not wearing pants... just like Annie Brackett in Halloween. She even looks similar to Annie and has the same kind of outgoing personality. “Ki ki ki ma ma ma” fires up, like THAT'S any kind of a surprise. Marcie goes to investigate a strange noise, and gets AN AXE TO THE FUCKING FACE! GODDAMN! Brutal, brutal shot here and easily one of my favourite kills in any movie ever. Whatever they paid Savini for this film, it definitely wasn't enough. It looks like Brenda is going to be next to the Killin' Party, as she heads to her cabin alone to close her windows as a massive rainstorm is beginning to break out. She settles into bed to read a book when she hears a voice screaming for help, running outside with a flashlight. The voice leads her out to the archery range, where floodlights turn on and blind her. We hear her scream as we cut back to Alice, who tells Bill she thinks she just heard Brenda scream in addition to seeing the lights come on.
The two go out together, surprisingly enough, but find nothing. They search Brenda's cabin and find an ax lying in her bed, which panics them so they go to Jack and Marcie's cabin. This cabin is also empty, as it seems like the killer is moving the bodies. You know, just like Michael Myers did? The two, now very worried, break into the locked office cabin to call for help. The phones are dead though, because Michael- I mean, whoever the killer is cut the phone lines. They try to drive away, but the truck has also been sabotaged. Bill concludes the best thing to do is return to their cabin and wait for Steve to come back, since walking to town is out of the question in the storm.
Unfortunately Steve's a little too busy getting stabbed by the killer on his way back to the camp, so that plan's no good. Sure is a good thing the killer thought to hang out at the front of the camp after taking out Brenda, or else Steve would have messed everything up! Our killer then warps back to the cabin containing the camp's generator, shutting it off and eliminating all power. This cues up Bill to “check on the generator”, because one thing this film definitely has in spades is repetition. This scene is interesting because it's a locked down shot of Bill working on the machine, with the dark doorway behind him dominating the left side of the frame. This draws your attention to the door, as you're just waiting for Michael- DAMMIT, I mean whoever to emerge and kill Bill. Volume Two.
What's interesting about that, you ask? IT NEVER HAPPENS. This could be viewed as a subversion of one of Halloween's most memorable shots where Michael Myers did what I was just talking about, so it's Cunningham playing with our expectations. The PROBLEM with this is the movie isn't exactly riveting, so even another ripoff shot would have been preferable to absolutely nothing. What do we get instead of seeing Bill meet his end in a stylistic shot? We quick cut to Alice, who is now officially our Final Girl. And definitely one of the poorer Final Girls out there, as we've spent almost no time with her so we know nothing about her except she's a really good artist. Laurie Strode wasn't exactly the most layered character in all of cinema, but at least she was in the majority of the scenes so we had a bond with her and gave a damn when shit went down.
Alice gets up to... make some tea, and we get to watch every single step in mind numbing detail. There's no “ki ki ki ma ma ma” playing, so I don't care in the slightest. She finally gets as bored as the rest of us, so goes outside to find Bill. And does she ever find him! He's pinned to the outside of the door to the generator cabin in a shot that TOTALLY ISN'T LIKE Bob being pinned to the wall in Halloween. Alice freaks and runs back to her cabin, trying to barricade herself in for the next five hours, or at least that's how long it feels. I think at this point Cunningham got tired of “borrowing” from John Carpenter so switched gears to George Romero, as the vast majority of the original Night of the Living Dead is people covering doors and windows. And yet that movie had WAY more characterization than this one, which is saying something because the Final Girl in that one was borderline comatose for most of the run time.
This whole exercise proves to be in vain as Brenda's body gets hurled through one of the windows, which pretty much causes Alice to break down. This is where I'm pretty much rooting for the killer at this point, because Alice's whimpering is UNBEARABLE. She sounds like a cat in heat, only infinitely more annoying. Spotting a jeep pull up outside, she tears down her makeshift wall and runs out to get help. It's a kindly older woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Voorhees, a friend of Steve's. She's played by Betsy Palmer, who was very famous in the 1950s thanks to her appearance on the hit quiz show I've Got A Secret. The only reason she agreed to do this movie was because she needed money to buy a new car, famously quoted as calling the script a “piece of shit”. She talks down the hysterical Alice, entering the cabin to see Brenda's body. She starts ranting about how Steve never should have opened the camp back up, going on to talk about the young boy who drowned, who was named Jason. Her tone beginning to get downright sinister, she says he'd still be alive if the counselors hadn't ignored him to go have sex.
She starts to advance on Alice as she talks about Jason's death, Alice starting to get the hint and slowly back away. Her fears are confirmed as Mrs. Voorhees pulls out a knife, yelling at Alice for letting Jason die. Alice grabs a fireplace poker and expertly defends herself, but instead of going for the kill chooses to run out of the cabin. She jumps into the jeep, but exits just as quickly when she sees Annie's body riding shotgun. Starting to head for the woods, her path is blocked by Steve's upside down hanging body which suddenly dangles down from a tree branch. Do I even have to SAY “just like Halloween” anymore? There's “ripping off” and then there's “lawyers probably should have been called”. Mrs. Voorhees comes to and stumbles outside to see Alice running away, talking to herself in a DISTURBING voice meant to be Jason's and saying “Kill her mommy, kill her!”. Incidentally, this line is where Manfredini got the idea for “ki ki ki, ma ma ma”.
Blessed with the magic Voorhees gift of teleportation, Mrs. Voorhees catches up to Alice in no time at all. They take turns beating the shit out of each other, which is awesome, but then Alice fucks it up by taking off again. STAND YOUR GROUND WOMAN! Eventually Laurie hides in a closet with louvered doors while Mich- awww, I did it again, didn't I? Actually Cunningham did it again, I'm just calling the action. Alice grabs a frying pan and brains Voorhees with it, knocking her to the ground and causing blood to pool under her head. Alice cautiously kicks her to make sure she's dead, then goes back outside. Yeah, I'm SURE she's dead.
Wow, she totally isn't. What a shock. She follows Alice to the lake for Round 3, which is just as entertainingly visceral as the other ones. I really like that Voorhees isn't some super strong brute but just an everyday, normal person. It really adds a lot more tension to these fight scenes, making them totally believable that we have two people literally fighting for their lives. I sure wouldn't mind more movies doing this. Alice decides she's has enough of running though, so grabs the machete Voorhees tried to kill her with and turns it on her, CUTTING HER FUCKING HEAD OFF! Team Alice, motherfucker!
Killing a psychotic sweater wearing mother with a split personality can really take a lot out of you, so Alice takes a canoe out into the lake to clear her head. Sure, why not? She ends up falling asleep, getting woken up the next morning by a pair of police officers yelling at her. She lifts her and and smiles, relived to see them. And then JASON VOORHEES LEAPS OUT OF THE LAKE and pulls her under, but this turns out to be a dream as she wakes up screaming in a hospital. Did you like that ending the first time you saw it at the end of Carrie? This was all Tom Savini's idea, as he was a fan of that ending and felt this movie needed a similar jump scare to close out on. The police officer that gave Steve a ride is at her bedside, asking what happened. When she asks if they found Jason he says no, Alice concluding that he's still there as the movie gives us a final shot of Crystal Lake.
Cue the credits.
Friday The 13th is my absolute FAVOURITE horror franchise of all time, but that love doesn't begin until this series devolved into kill porn and got incredibly silly. Just like early Star Trek The Next Generation episodes featuring a beardless Riker are unwatchable, early Friday The 13th movies featuring a mask-less Jason are unwatchable. Ironically, these movies had to get a whole lot worse until they got better. I think it's pretty obvious that outside of Tom Savini's AWESOME special effects, I can't stand this movie. It's a terrible Halloween knockoff that completely missed the point of why Halloween was so popular, as it traded all of the off the charts tension for off the charts BOREDOM. Cunningham was too busy cribbing Halloween's biggest scenes to worry about crafting an actual movie, so once those scenes were done he just threw in ENDLESS scenes of the counselors babbling on about nothing.
But it was enough to catch the attention of movie goers, as it grossed nearly sixty million dollars against a budget of around half a million. Critics HATED it, and I mean that without a hint of hyperbole whatsoever. The most famous example of this is Gene Siskel, who responded to this film with such vitriolic anger one must wonder if Sean S. Cunningham ran over his dog or something. In Siskel's review for the Chicago Tribune, he started off with spoiling the ending to hopefully prevent people from seeing the film. He then called Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business”, and then gave out the contact information of the chairman of the board behind the movie's studio as well as Betsy Palmer's home city. He encouraged people to write both to complain about how awful the movie was, which is PURE FUCKING CLASS. Siskel's partner, Roger Ebert, was also not a fan of the movie but sure never dragged the addresses of actors into it. Could you imagine of his stature pulling that shit today?
I really can't recommend this for any reason beside to see Savini's craft on full display, as this is barely a Friday The 13th movie compared to what the franchise would become. I really did enjoy the realistic fighting at the end, but it doesn't have much of a place in a series like this. But I'm sure you've seen the movie a hundred plus times, and probably just got done watching this before reading this review. This is quite possibly the only time in a horror franchise I can say IT ONLY GETS BETTER FROM HERE, because this series does get quite awesome in a few films.