The "Friday the 13th" films were neither regarded as horror masterpieces nor were they well received by critics, but they still somehow manage to be iconic because of its Hockey Mask wearing killer who many people know and recognize whether or not they've seen the films, and would appear in sequel after sequel through most of the 80s to the early 90s, to eventually making a comeback in the early 2000s. And as the years went on, the films themselves would gain a cult following among audiences (including the famous internet critic James Rolfe). With the exception of the 3rd movie that I saw way back in Middle School, and seeing bits and pieces of “Freddy VS. Jason” on TV, I haven't watched most of these movies. And my memory towards the 3rd one is so vague, that it’s like I've never seen it. So I plan to review these movies in the future for my love of the horror genre, and curiosity to see if I find them to be as entertaining and awesome as other fans may feel, if not scary or good. I'm not going to go crazy with these films like I did with my Godzilla reviews, but I plan to review them down road to see where I stand with the franchise. So let's get things started as I review the first one of the franchise that started it all!
The premise is as basic as a simple slasher film can get. A group of teenagers go to "Camp Crystal Lake" to help restore it for the summer, and work there as camp concealers for when it opens. The only catch is, the camp has been through many horrible tragedies in the past, and the town’s people believe that the place is cursed. The kids shrug it off thinking that everybody in town are a bunch of superstitious loony's until they find them being stalked by an off-screen killer that slowly kills each of them in horrible graphic ways. Okay, we know how popular the film is to the horror genre for being the first of the franchise, and introducing Jason Voorhees and the famous creepy chant that he makes "Chi, chi, chi; ha, ha, ha". But I began to think that if this was the only "Friday the 13th" we have, how well would it stand-out on its own?
Well in terms of plot and techniques its very clichéd since many famous slasher films have been using most of these clichés way before the film came out. The idea of the teens’ going to the killer rather than the killer coming to them has already been used in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", so it’s nothing that new. The killer being mysterious and only getting the impression of his presence from the use of P.O.V. isn’t new either since it has been already used in "Black Christmas" and the opening of "Halloween". As a matter of fact, the opening for the film itself reminds me of the first scene from "Halloween" since we're seeing naughty teenagers getting killed by the killer through the use of P.O.V., as well as having the event taking place years before the film's current events. Come to think of it, the film has taken plenty of things from "Halloween" and "Black Christmas", like the naughty young teens being killed one by one; sex becoming a big no if you want to survive in a horror film; a large body count; and the last remaining character finding the dead bodies popping up at her and running from the killer. There's even a few aspect taken from the Granddaddy of slasher films "Psycho" by having a twist of who the killer is, along with a tragic back-story given to the killer; the person who you think is going to be lead girl is killed off before we even make it to the half-way point; and the music itself sounding very similar to the iconic theme that everybody gets chills from. And the film doesn't just take things that have already been done in other slasher films, but also from other films maintaining horror, like the last scare we get in the movie playing out like the last jump scares in films like "Carrie" and "Deliverance" for example.
The characters aren't anything that special either. I mean sure the acting is fair, along with having some interesting casting choices such as Harry Crosby who's the son of famous crooner Bing Crosby, and a young and upcoming Kevin Bacon who previously was in “Animal House”. And I do remember half of them such as the sweet and innocent teenage girl Annie (Robbi Morgan) who appears after the prologue; the head camp concealer Steve (Peter Brouwer) who takes things seriously; the obnoxious teen Ned (Mark Nelson); and the teenage girl who works along-side Steve and takes it nearly as seriously as he does Alice (Adrienne King). But just because I remember some of them, and the two of the people that they casted for their roles, that doesn't mean that I find them to be interesting. Some characters like Alice and Annie are somewhat likable, but even they still fall short as characters for how clichéd they are. Most of the things that these characters do in the film are have sex, act like a bunch of children (like Ted dressing up as an Indian for no reason), play naughty games, occasionally do some life threatening things to each other, and not do any work. In fact most of the scenes when we see them together are usually there to pad out the film that goes nowhere as we learn little to nothing about them, aside from like maybe 1 or 2 short scenes. Scenes like Steve in the Diner before leaving, the teens playing a game of strip monopoly, Crosby killing a live snake with a machete, and Alice making coffee, could have easily been cut where you would miss nothing. And I know that you need these slow scenes to build-up the tension, and spend time with the characters, but they just drag on and add nothing to the overall story.
With the exception of the killer, the only characters that I found to be the most fascinating are the towns’ people who warn the teens to stay away from the camp. The way they all react in horror, and tell them to leave while they have a chance just brings a lot of tension of how they build-up this place as if some of them may have had a bad experience there themselves or know somebody personally who died there. The ones who stand out is the town fool Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) who pops up at the camp telling the teens to leave or else they'll die; and the friendly but paranoid truck driver who takes one of the teens half-way to the camp and tells her the horrors of what has happened there (Rex Everhart, who you may recognize his voice as Belle's father Maurice in Disney's "Beauty & The Beast").
The film has a bit of a mystery of who the killer could be, and without giving it away for newcomers, it overall doesn't work. It feels so down-played in the movie that you never find yourself second guessing yourself of who it’s going to be. And when we find out who it is, its feels very out of left field since we never see this character in any of the previous scenes, not even so much as being in the background. And it isn't Jason either, we see him in like two brief scenes that are under a minute long, and he's not a grown man wearing a hockey mask either. So as a stand alone movie, Jason wouldn't have left an impact on the horror genre. It was the sequels that clearly made him famous.
So the film is as generic as any other slasher film if it was a stand alone film, but there are still a few great things that the film has going for it. The first one being the atmosphere and the film’s setting. As far as I know, there aren't any slasher films before this film that take place at a summer camp, or at the very least ones that aren't as popular as this film, where I feel that even if we didn't have the sequels, the film would still be recognized for starting this cliche since there were films using this cliche in the following year such as "The Burning" and "Just Before Dawn", as well as many more in decades to come. And why not, it's a cool set-up. You're out in the wilderness and are miles away from any civilization with the phones being cut, and your cars not working in the middle of a dark and stormy night where the killer can be anywhere, that overall makes it a highly intense scenario to be trapped in. And before the camp starts looking forbidding at night, it looks bright and beautiful during the day time, being the perfect place to camp and go swimming if there wasn't a killer on the loose, but there is, which as a result makes you feel enchanted but paranoid at the same time, and I truly admire when horror films manage to do that so successfully.
As cliched as the techniques used for the film are, that doesn't mean that they are done poorly. The P.O.V. shots are still done as effectively as the other films that I have mentioned, where half of the time you find yourself questioning whether or not if you're seeing it through the killer's eyes since there are other scenes where the camera would move similar to those shots when we're up close to the teens and follow them around, that at first seem like the killer is watching them, waiting to strike at the right moment. What makes these P.O.V. shots work so effectively are the creepy sound that the killer makes (or so we think that the killer makes, and what that iconic sound sounds-like) and the music. But wait didn't I criticize the score for sounding like "Psycho". Yes I did, and it is similar to "Psycho" and is not very memorable either. But with that said, the use for the music works well because it's only used for when the killer's present, rather than celebrating a red-herring. And when it's being used for a jump scare it always makes me jump. I know that's what jump scares usually do nowadays, but the difference is the pay-off in this film is actually scary, as well as looking down right gruesome. Even when I knew when it was going to happen, I still found myself sitting there wondering when it will, and when it does it still catches me by surprise. The best jump scare is the last one, that once again is similar to "Carrie" and "Deliverance", but still a shocking pay-off where you wouldn't suspect it given how reality based the film is until this scene. I just hate that the film doesn't end there, where we get an ending that feels tacked on to explain the logic for what just happened.
The best effects used in the film that help make the result of the scenes of suspense so shocking are the gore effects done by Tom Savini, who has done special effects for horror classics like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Creepshow". We see necks being cut and watch the blood ooze out of the open wound; see an axe attached to a women's face; and witness an arrow pierce right through Kevin Bacon's throat. These are seriously some of the best gore effects that I've ever seen in a horror film for how real they look! Apparently the effects were so shocking and too graphic for the censors that they had to cut some of those bits of gore out. But now you can see it all in current releases of the film. What's also cool about the death scenes is we don't see everybody die on-screen, sometimes they are killed off-screen where you would later see their dead bodies pop when you least expect them too, thus making the reveal to be just as shocking as seeing them being killed on-screen. And what's even more shocking is the person who is behind the murders. Again, without giving it away, as out of nowhere as this character is, the person they got to play the role does such a solid job of playing both the crazy and sympathetic side of the character that you wouldn't think that a person like this would ever stoop to such a low. It's definitely the best performance in the movie along with the town's people.
Either as being part of a franchise, or a stand-alone film, it still is important to the horror genre. Granted as a stand-alone picture the only mark that it would leave for the genre is the killer killing people at a camp, when with being part of the franchise on the other hand it leaves much more of an impact. But when judging it as its own film there is some things to admire. The setting and look for the camp is thrilling. The film's use of jump-scares are always surprising or shocking, even when you can predict when something bad will happen. The gore effects are incredible! The chant that we hear as the killer is stalking its prey is chilling. And acting from the town’s people and especially the killer do a solid job of creating suspense and terror, as well as their roles being the type of characters that you would love to know more about. But with that said, the film does have plenty of problems. It’s very cliched; the characters while not boring are still far from engaging; there are plenty of scenes that go nowhere and only slow the film down; and the mystery element of the film is hardly ever played up. I wouldn’t necessarily put it up there with the other slasher films that came out before this, since it is very flawed. But I wouldn’t call it a bad slasher film either. It’s just an average slasher film with things both good and bad that would become more important when it started to become a franchise.