Friday the 13th was directed by Sean S. Cunningham (Spring Break, DeepStar Six), written by Victor Miller (All My Children, Manny’s Orphans) and Ron Kurz (Eyes of a Stranger, Off the Wall), and stars Adrienne King (Killer Therapy, Psychic Experiment), Jeannine Taylor (Royal Romance of Charles and Diana), Harry Crosby (Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-Go Dancer, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed), Laurie Bartram (Another World, Emergency!), Kevin Bacon (Black Mass, Footloose), Mark Nelson (First Wives Club, Lingua Franca), Ari Lehman (The Lurker, Horrortales.666 Part 2), and Betsy Palmer (Knots Landing, Queen Bee). It’s about a group of newly hired camp counsellors getting picked off one by one at a storied campsite.
The Plot: Trendsetters are normally known for their quality, creating something magnetic for admirers to strive to recreate and modify to make a classic of their own. For as high-profile as the Friday the 13th franchise is now, the first entry sets a despairingly low bar for its debut story.
1958, Camp Crystal Lake, two teens are stabbed to death and the murderer is never caught. 21 years later, the camp is about to be reopened and counsellors Alice (King), Marcie (Taylor), Bill (Crosby), Brenda (Bartram), Jack (Bacon), and Ned (Nelson) are working on fixing the place up. Beyond a flimsy mythos of the camp having a “death curse” after the son of a woman (Palmer) drowned and those first teens were killed, there’s no story to be had here.
Miller and Kurz were only tasked with ripping off iconic scenes instead of writing anything that could pass as a story, leaving the movie to meander for long stretches. One without prior knowledge could easily think that Friday the 13th was some kind of tax shelter scam had they not seen the title card as the closest the movie comes to something resembling a story only pops up around 40 minutes in, finding Ned dead in one of the cabins. With this limp and expected reveal, the campers finally start dying, forcing them to hide from the unseen killer.
Effort wasn’t applied here, with the late game’s slight uptick in pace failing to compel, leaving the first of many Fridays barren for its entirety.
The Characters: Instead of setting up lore for the world via characterization like Halloween or illustrating believable bonds like in Black Christmas, Friday the 13th does nothing but force the audience to watch grating and bland characters refuse to develop for its runtime.
Alice isn’t really the main character, as she’s not the centrepiece or a character. The sole productive person amongst the group of teens, she’s introduced actually doing work instead of horsing around, and when things start to go south for the campers this trait is what sets her apart. It’s the barest of the bare minimum for setting up characters, but at least it’s something to vaguely work with for King, the only performer given something to do aside from Palmer.
Most other characters can be summarized in a handful of words, with the remainder unable to be characterized at all. Marcie and Jack are in a relationship that features drug use, and Brenda and Bill are nothing characters that only exist to get killed off, though Crosby does at least get to strum a little bit on his guitar before getting the boot. Ned is one of the progenitors of the prankster in slashers, which is something, but unfortunately kickstarted one of the most grating archetypes to rear its head in the subgenre from 1980 forward.
Personality in the first 80 minutes of Friday the 13th only comes from brief time spent with side characters like a crazed man and a truck driver, if they had been the stars there could’ve at least been some entertainment value between the tedious games of strip poker and soup cooking.
The Horror: With a script as barebones as the one written for this movie, it would’ve been advisable to have a consistent run of scares, or at least some ambient sense of dread, but Friday the 13th again fails to do anything close to the sort.
Famous for bringing blatant blood and gore to the mainstream, one would expect the first entry to burst out onto the scene, but it’s rather sparse with its kills. Cunningham starts picking people off fast, with the 1958 murders happening in the first 5 minutes, as well as the death of another counsellor that was on her way to the camp. These first few kills aren’t anything special, and it takes a significant portion of the runtime for something even close to memorable to happen to an actual character. Deaths may be plentiful here, but only one with an axe and another with an arrow are even worthy of attention.
The atmosphere is shockingly low, with the director failing to capitalize on a ripe setting beyond fear of the townsfolk that’s never mentioned after meeting the main characters, who should’ve come back in some form, even if for a false scare or just to be killed. Once most of the cast is killed off, the camp still has little personality, with the final chases around the grounds appearing interchangeable thanks to either limited settings to shoot or the lack of ambition to even try.
Some will try and tell you that there’s a mystery that adds to the fear factor, but those people are blatantly wrong. Cunningham never casts any doubt on the campers, and with the murders that gave Crystal Lake its reputation being over two decades removed from the events of the movie, no suspects can even be created regardless. By the last 10 minutes, Friday the 13th has revealed its killer, but they’re only vaguely mentioned in the first 10, so guessing is off the table for the audience, further removing any connection with the film.
It’s got so few scares and so little terror that the first Friday the 13th’s classification as a horror movie could be debated. Those looking to be startled will be more likely to doze off before the movie even tries to do anything horrifying.
The Technics: With only a handful of poorly regarded comedies to their names before this, it’s both a miracle for them and a disappointment for viewers that creative duties were handed to Cunningham and Miller for this feature.
Directorially, his hand was inconsistent, as Cunningham tried to replicate the POV shots of Halloween’s opening, but instead of those moments coming from strictly one party, he tries to make the camera act as both the aggressor and the victim, muddying the distinction between the two. Most of the movie doesn’t use this approach, but that may not be a good thing either, as the direction is flat at all other points.
The pacing doesn’t alleviate the flatness of everything else, with Friday the 13th moving at a glacial pace for almost every second of its 95 minutes. Desperation to meet a required length comes across frequently, with scenes dedicated to watching Alice board up a door for three minutes, watching the characters take turns jumping off of the lake’s dock, and so forth. Feature-length qualifications are pretty slack, with 75 minutes the minimum to fall under the banner, so it’s a wonder why the movie needed to drag for so long.
Beyond its longstanding veneer as an important film, Friday the 13th is an excruciating viewing experience where the only signs of life are a score ripped off from Hitchcock’s most famous movie and, ironically enough, a couple of deaths.
Friday the 13th is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from Paramount. And if you’re looking for more like it, FilmTagger has some suggestions.