In the early days of the slasher film, the now-classic Friday the 13th sent the subgenre into overdrive, launching a bunch of the tropes that would sustain Hollywood horror writers for the better part of a decade: an unstoppable psychopath driven by revenge; a secluded locale perfect for murder; a bunch of teenage victims in waiting; a moral pecking order where the kids who have sex die first; and a virtuous final girl who defeats the killer…but not enough to prevent the killer from returning in a sequel. Friday the 13th trades on all of these with the same kind of single-minded ruthlessness of its central antagonist, but because it was helping to establish these tropes rather than coast on them, this is a film has to be recognized for the influential milestone that it is, even if it’s low, cheap and grimy.
The story takes place at Camp Crystal Lake, a woodland summer camp tucked away somewhere in rural New Jersey that has re-opened after years of inactivity. Back in the late 1950s, the deformed son of the camp cook drowned when some other campers threw him in the lake, and the counselors were too preoccupied canoodling with each other to notice. After that, the murder of a few counselors caused the camp to close, but surely, there’s no reason to worry that such mysterious and grim events won’t somehow repeat themselves, right? Right. So, a bunch of attractive teenagers heads up to the camp before the kids arrive to get things ready, and before you know it, they begin experiencing slashed throats, fatal arrow wounds, axe heads to the face, and other occupational hazards common to the summer camp industry. A few of the counselors have sex with each other, which seals their fate. But eventually the most wily and resourceful of them all—a young lady named Alice Hardy—manages to duck and weave her way into outlasting all of her friends, discovering who is causing all of the carnage and why, dispatching the killer, and having a dire premonition that somehow, this bloodbath in the woods is only just getting started. She is right. Five minutes into the sequel, she gets an ice pick through the head in what might be the swiftest reversal of fortune ever experienced by a horror movie heroine.
Friday the 13th is not great cinema, but it is important for what it set in motion, and it has achieved deserved cult status over the years from a generation of movie-goers thrilled by the spectacle of especially gory violence and a weird schadenfreude at seeing cool kids get slaughtered. This was the perfect movie to land right when the conservatism of the Reagan era was getting underway; a welcome rebellion against Boomer parents tut-tutting their children for daring to enjoy the kind of entertainment previously found in grindhouse exploitation films. Opposition from film critics of the time is especially interesting; Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted an entire episode of their television show decrying the movie out of the fear that in entertainment like this, people would root for the killer. (Ding! Winnah!) They even went so far as to spoil the movie’s big reveal in an effort to keep people from seeing it. If the critics themselves hate a movie to the point of sabotage, then that movie is doing something right, even if it’s only dispatching attractive teens in the woods.
It’s especially interesting to see that from a guy like Ebert, who would eventually mellow over the years and appreciate these kinds of movies for what they are: shallow, visceral thrills featuring horror so nonsensical as to remain firmly in the theatre. Unless you live in a cabin on a lake, you’re probably not going to walk around worried that somebody is going to cut your throat post-coitus. And really, what else could the Siskels and the Eberts of the world do but accept this movie and all the others like it? Friday the 13th was such a smash that it had sequels come out almost every year for the next decade. Clearly this movie hit a nerve as well as the jugular, and deserves a bit more credit than it gets for helping to justify the development of cineplex theatre throughout the 1980s, but also to boost the burgeoning home video market, where so many slasher films would find their home. Like it or hate it, Friday the 13th left an indelible, machete-shaped mark on the movies itself.
As for Friday the 13th itself, though, it’s still a fun romp through fairly stupid territory in which every character’s appearance starts a countdown timer on themselves. In every movie, there is a favorite kill; in this one, seeing Kevin Bacon get an arrow through the back of the neck stands out both for its gruesomeness and because it’s fun to see a Hollywood A-lister working in Grand Guignol stuff like this early in their careers. Still, if there is a moment of truth in this, it must surely be when Alice dispatches the killer with a swift beheading stroke. It’s ironic that Alice is held up as a classic “final girl” since she saves herself rather than is rescued by a guy, she is not nearly as virginal as her own trope demands, and she faces the aftermath of her bloody adventure head-on. Too much so for her own good, alas, but she gets points for knowing if she could kill one bad guy, she could do it again. It’s telling that the first thing this franchise’s second installment did was to remove Alice from it entirely. She was too real, too capable, and too heroic. You can’t very well have an endless body count in a world with Alice Hardys in it. Maybe one day we can get a movie where a bunch of masked killers are stalked by a relentless young woman with a grudge. We could do worse.