Frightening Friday: ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980) crystalizes lakeside horror (Movie review)

T

o celebrate our 2,000th post here at Cold Bananas, we’re launching a new weekly series. Frightening Friday will look back at some classics (and not-so-classics) of the horror genre through the years. With today being Friday the 13th, and the slasher touchstone marking its 40th anniversary, we’re starting off with the most appropriate entry …

It’s interesting to watch the original “Friday the 13th (1980) right after the 2009 remake. The first 15 minutes are better than a compilation of the best 15 minutes of the remake, even though the new version is slicker and has decades of horror-trope knowledge to bank on. I think the biggest reason for the original’s superiority is that the camp counselors look like young people you might see in everyday life, rather than only on a movie backlot.

Annie (Robbi Morgan) is hitchhiking her way to her kitchen job at Camp Crystal Lake in New Jersey. Some of-the-time elements include not only the fact that she doesn’t have a car or a ride, but also the fact that she willingly hitches rides with anyone. Violent crimes were more prevalent in 1980 than now, but people were also more trusting of strangers. It’s refreshing that she’s a normal-looking girl next door, rather than a model from the WB and Disney Channel stables, as per the new version. I worried about what would happen to Annie, because she seems like a sweet, normal teen.

“Friday the 13th” is a legitimate classic – not just a film that draws on influences, but one that is itself an influence. I think the summer camp setting is a big reason.

Writer Victor Miller could be called a hack for his “Friday the 13th” screenplay. The off-camera stalker calls to mind “Black Christmas” and “Halloween.” The sexed-up kids who don’t know what they’re in for are found in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The “one last scare” is used in “Carrie,” and even the idea of Friday the 13th as a scary day did not originate with this movie. (Some theorize it dates back to the Middle Ages.)

Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is “Psycho’s” Norman Bates in reverse; she has a split personality as her dead son, Jason. Still, the reveal of a middle-aged-woman serial killer must’ve been epic in 1980.

Harry Manfredini’s score introduces the iconic “sh-sh-sh-ha-ha-ha” vocals, but sounds very much like “Psycho’s” theme in the suspenseful moments. (The soothing music over the lake shot at the end is nice contrast, though.)

Director Sean S. Cunningham likewise doesn’t reinvent the wheel as he draws upon what has worked in the burgeoning slasher genre.

Yet “Friday the 13th” is a legitimate classic – not just a film that draws on influences, but one that is itself an influence. I think the summer camp setting is a big reason. Miller and Cunningham take a place that’s associated with carefree times and natural beauty and turn it into something tense and dark. “Dead of Summer” and “American Horror Story: 1984” are some recent TV shows that have basically ripped off the 1980 film; the concept has staying power.

The craftsmanship of this movie is unoriginal but impeccable, and it has a lot less sex and gore than its reputation suggests; it effectively hints at both of those elements. The makeup department led by legendary Tom Savini gives us some great images such as an ax through the head, but only about half of the kills show the aftermath. Several of them are suggested with something like an offscreen yell.

While I did want Annie to last longer before the killer gets her, Adrienne King does great work as Final Girl Alice. Witness the scene where her friend’s corpse flies through the window of the kitchen where she’s hiding. Alice slinks to the floor before getting up on wobbly feet and moving out of the room like it’s the hardest thing to do; she is scared like any normal person would be in that situation.

There’s a lot of cheese in “Friday the 13th,” like when Alice and Mrs. Voorhees fight at the end – capped by one last iconic effect from Savini’s team – but the lack of top-shelf stunt work doesn’t hurt the film much.

Even as I giggle at things like the local nutjob, Walter Gorney’s Crazy Ralph, warning the kids about “Camp Blood,” I also enjoy the fact that the filmmakers are setting the stage. Even when Kevin Bacon’s Jack, in response to a roll of thunder, tells his girlfriend that they better get inside, it builds suspense, if only because we remember rainstorms as being scary as kids.

Even if it isn’t as scary or surprising on your 13th-or-more rewatch today, “Friday the 13th” remains enjoyable as a well-crafted piece of slasher history.

Click here to visit our Horror Zone.