Friday, March 11, 2016

100 Scariest Movies Moments: #31 Friday the 13th

Reviewing the original Friday the 13th is not an easy task. Unlike most series in which the original cemented the brand, Friday the 13th became an icon of pop-culture largely because of Part 3. This leaves Part 1 mostly as a gotcha trivia question (“Who was the killer in Friday the 13th?” “…Jason?” “No, Mrs. Vorhees!”), and Part 2 as almost completely forgotten. It was in Part 3 that Jason first wore the hockey mask. It was also in Part 3 that it became clear the lunatics were running the asylum, as the series became more and more self-referential and just downright silly as it continued. This is not something I object to by any means, but it’s wildly different from the original.

The original came in the still somewhat early days of the slasher film. So strangely, the movie does not feel the need to correlate the character’s fears with our own. For most of the film, none of the characters know that anything is wrong as the killer makes at least some token efforts to conceal the bodies until only one victim is left. We on the other hand, periodically see a murder happen, reminding us that something is very wrong.

People have tried to claim that the movie has an anti-sex message. I disagree with this assessment, which seems built on an inability to distinguish between Mrs. Vorhees (Betsy Palmer), who slaughters teenagers for having sex because her son drowned when he was not being watched by camp counselors, and director Sean Cunningham, who set out to make a movie about a crazy woman who killed teenagers having sex.

The set-up of the movie is that Camp Crystal Lake is being reopened after two decades. It was originally closed after a series of events that included a drowning, two murders, as well as more minor issues like fires and bad water. Before the camp officially opens, a group of councilors have gathered, getting everything ready for the kids. The camp’s cook (Robbi Morgan) is picked up by a mysterious traveler whose face is never seen on her way to the camp, only to be attacked and killed by the driver.

Peeping Tom was the first film to use the killer’s perspective, but Friday the 13th popularized it. Here, it’s used much more cheaply, primarily as a way of showing you the violence while concealing the identity of the killer. The reason for concealing her identity baffles me, because there’s no mystery. We’re introduced to Mrs. Vorhees moments before she’s revealed as the killer

The best-remembered death of this film is easily Jack’s (Kevin Bacon). That may be at least partially because of Bacon’s later success. But I suspect part of it is because as the era of slasher films has continued on-and-off for decades, it’s the only death that’s really creative. The killer is under the bed Jack’s laying on and grabs him and holds him to the mattress. She then forces and arrow up through the mattress and through his neck.

I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike this movie. It’s a classic, exploitative slasher film, following in the footsteps of Halloween. Of the dozens of movies that fit that exact description, this is one of the few that really feels like there was some talent behind it, and most of the characters are reasonably likable. It’s a shame that Cunningham did a lot more work as a producer than a director after this, I would love to see an episode of Masters of Horror directed by him.

If you ever have the time, I’d say watch this movie in a marathon with the following three, as they form a fairly complete story. Mrs. Vorhees attacks and is killed, then her not-quite-dead son returns from the lake and begins a series of escalating killings that end with his apparent death in Part 4. Even without the others though, it’s a fun ride.

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