May 13, 2016

"Friday the 13th" (1980) is Overrated

Scene from Friday the 13th
There's a few of them every year. They're not always in the same month, but people cannot help but enjoy the cursed allure of Friday the 13th. For whatever reason, the date has managed to spook people with the belief that it's a day with nothing but bad luck. It's even inspired one of the most recognizable horror franchise with Friday the 13th and the presence of the hockey mask-clad Jason Vorhees, whose machete has murdered its fair share of hormonal teens at Camp Crystal Lake. However, there's one thing that I want to ask to those that love these movies: what do you think of the first one? No, really. What do you think of director Sean S. Cunningham's 1980 film that debuted the world to the horrors that be? I frankly think that anyone who says that it was a good film clearly wasn't paying full attention.
Since the 1970's, there have been three iconic serial killers: Michael Meyers (Halloween), Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), and Vorhees. Like most horror characters that have the least bit of appeal, each of these films received enough sequels to become an endurance test for those dedicated enough to scares and gore. Still, one can easily argue that even if the sequels lost their way or took the character into ridiculous directions, the general consensus is that the reason that they're appealing can be seen in the first movie. It's certainly true for Meyers and Krueger, whose entries remain two of the most iconic horror films in history. However, Vorhees cannot say the same. In fact, he's practically not there.
Before I go further, let me note that I am not trying to judge the franchise as a whole. I am merely looking at the origin story, of which lacks the same substance as Vorhees' counterparts. While I'm going to argue that the iconography that made Vorhees recognizable didn't arise until Friday the 13th Part 3, I am merely judging the original horror film for what it presents. Frankly, anyone who argues against the idea that a character of Vorhees' stature needs to be immediately recognizable is kidding themselves. These are novelty characters, and the fact that Krueger and Meyers could be picked out of a line-up after 90 minutes while Vorhees couldn't after two movies is itself problematic. However, it could all be justified if the stories work. To say the least, Friday the 13th Part 2 is an improvement, but we're still left with an idea instead of an actual character.
If one was to tell the story of Jason Vorhees, there's certain things that were definitely present in the 1980 film. For starters, Camp Crystal Lake is synonymous with the franchise. The mythology is technically there, as Vorhees' motivation is that he did drown. Even the creative deaths is something that the series would explore in greater detail. However, the rest isn't exactly there, even by the standards of the time. The film is essentially about surviving against a murderous force in the woods. It's a concept that is itself horrifying and explains why Friday the 13th has double digits of sequels (with constant rumors of more). With limited exceptions however like The Exorcist or Carrie, horror films of the time were also relatively cheap and rarely had compelling stories. It kind of explains why Vorhees and Meyers were so popular, especially in an era that still had the Manson Family in recent memory.
The mystery becomes: Whatever happened to the young and innocent Jason? It's the myth that fuels the series and introduces us to Pamela Vorhees (Betsy Palmer), his mother. She is overprotective and wants people to leave the camp alone. This coincides with her prophecy coming true of teens dropping dead like flies. Still, the scariest thing is that we never see the killer, who is presumably Jason. Still, this is all that the film has going for it after 95 minutes. By the end, the big reveal is that Pamela has been committing the crimes to protect her presumed dead son. By the end, everyone assumes that the killer is dead after Pamela is beheaded by a machete. However, Jason is still in the lake. The last image is of this frayed body pulling a woman off a canoe and into the water. It's a jump scare tactic, and one that had been used quite frequently throughout this time.
If there had been no Friday the 13th franchise, it would be likely that this film wouldn't have much of a legacy. For starters, Cunningham's direction is far from riveting and the acting is worse than Halloween (the film that inspired it) and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Even with Kevin Bacon and Bing Crosby's son, the film didn't have much charisma. Even Palmer simply took the job to pay for a new car. This isn't to immediately decry the film, but when a horror film lacks tension and has very little that's iconic, what then makes it a good film? In better hands, the twist that Pamela was murdering teens would've been far more memorable. Instead, it's kind of campy and the low production doesn't help matters. Sure, it makes the kills more interesting, but it's still lacking.
In the grand scheme of things, it's also a very insecure start to one of the most profitable horror franchises in history. Jason Vorhees would pop up again in the sequel, but still not in the form that fans have come to love. Still, it was Jason doing the action and not Pamela. That is a big difference. Also, there's little that's cathartic about knowing in 1980 that Pamela committed the crimes and not Jason. Sure, it creates an inverse of Psycho with a mother protecting her son, but there's little motivation or depth of character to make this at all interesting. The final reveal that Jason is still alive may save franchise continuity, but it definitely ends the film on an anticlimactic note. Why should we care that he's still alive and looking so deformed? It adds little to the story besides a final jump scare.
Comparatively, Halloween focused around Jamie Lee Curtis as she was stalked by Meyers. There was build-up to the final conflict. We see Meyers stalking her from behind bushes, with an eerie soundtrack to boot. Everything about the film feels tonally rich and sets the viewers up with an immediate uneasiness. By the time that we see Meyers, there's a certain unnerving quality, as if he's been stalking us the entire time. Yes, Friday the 13th is more aggressive in its violence, but it feels jarring and abrupt in ways that are diminished by its low budget and lack of complex story. Mind you, serial killers don't need complex stories to be entertaining. However, they still need an arc, no matter how simple. 
In fact, it would be difficult to really suggest that anyone watch the first Friday the 13th in order to understand Jason Vorhees. He's a lumbering killer with a clever gimmick. Considering how much stronger Krueger and Meyers started, it's a wonder that Vorhees eventually found his niche. While Halloween was reaching an identity crisis by the third film, Friday the 13th was finally making sense. It is tough to assess whether or not this is an overall problem for the franchise, but it definitely feels like a deceit in hindsight. We don't need to see all of the back story and what Vorhees looked like before the mask. Just bring us him in action. That's what these films do best.
I'm sure that the later entries have entertainment value. However, one cannot help but admit that Friday the 13th (1980) is overrated. It lacks any of the energy or ambition of the other serial killer heroes of the day. Most of all, it lacks the ability to be memorable outside of the Pamela Vorhees twist. Where Halloween had the stalking scenes and A Nightmare Before Christmas had Johnny Depp falling into a bed blasting blood, there's nothing of that caliber here. It's why every Friday the 13th, I feel like playing along with the novelty before I remember how bad that first film was. I also don't like how long it took for him to find his iconography. Even then, at least the sequel was a legitimate slasher film that bought into the Jason Vorhees mantra. This first film doesn't even know what it wants to do.

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