12 Days of Friday, Day 1: Friday the 13th

Editor Alex Vo watches a Friday the 13th movie daily until the reboot.

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Day One: Friday the 13th

Welcome back, counselors! Crystal Lake re-opens in two weeks with Marcus Nispel's Friday the 13th reboot, returning Jason back to his old haunting grounds after stints in Manhattan, suburbia, and, uh, deep space. As intrepid head counselor, everyone's invited along for my Friday movie marathon, exploring the franchise's transformation from indie shocker to horror icon, one a day up to February 13, 2009.

First, my brief history with the franchise: I bought the Paramount box set in 2004, having not seen any of them, though childhood was thoroughly haunted by the unbeatable NES adaptation. I watched the movies over the course of a month for absolutely nothing more than boobs and blood, because, hey, that's all they offered, right? I've forgotten pretty much everything about them, except that The Final Chapter was my favorite and I found Jason Takes Manhattan borderline unwatchable.
So here we are. Crystal Lake. First blood. Friday the 13th isn't necessarily a good movie, but it does seem to develop beyond its origins, at least more than when I last saw it. Grabbing my attention this time is how Friday the 13th is less a slasher and more a giallo flick, that subgenre of horror combining mystery plots and slick kills, popularized by early Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Even from their first movies, the Halloweens and A Nightmare on Elm Streets maintain momentum by forcing audiences to guess who will survive. Friday the 13th's driving question is less who will survive, but rather who is the killer? (Of course, we all know now it's Jason's mother.)

I get the feeling director Sean S. Cunningham resented for a long time that his modest thriller gradually morphed into a monster slasher. He took obvious pride in Friday the 13th, as evidenced by the very first shot:
No production companies. No actors or crew are listed. And the very next shot opens on a moonlit Crystal Lake in 1953, with no further credits until after Pamela Voorhees knifes two horny counselors. And I thought Kubrick went to great lengths to emphasize a movie was "his" during the credits!

Check out Cunningham in the video interviews on the uncut DVD coming out tomorrow: he comes off a bit dismissive or uncurious about why America has latched onto Jason Voorhees as an icon. It was never really his bag. Cunningham's early career displays a fascination with sexuality, whether in drama (1971's Together, which always struck me as America's answer to the I am Curious movies), comedy (the softcore Case of the Full Moon Murders), or horror (he produced The Last House on the Left). Friday the 13th represented an accumulation of these interests: beautiful kids running around, screwing, smoking dope, getting killed. No monster necessary.

For a movie famed for being shot on the cheap and quick, there's a tiny abundance of cinematic flourishes, enough I guess to drive a director to "stamp" Friday the 13th with his name. For example, after lone survivor Alice (Adrienne King) finally discovers her friends are dead, she flees to her cabin. As she barricades the door, we're treated to a handheld, three-minute single take, a patient accumulation of dread and choreography rarely seen in slashers, before and after:
Yet for all of Cunningham's machinations to create a mystery out of a slasher, to humanize his teenage bimbo victims, to add texture to his camera shots, they all fall flat. Because Friday the 13th is a mystery without suspects; Pamela Voorhees and her motivation appears at the end, out of nowhere. Cunningham has trouble seeing teens beyond carnal desires, and even one my favorite shots, that single take, is rendered moot: a minute after setting up the barricade, Alice simply knocks it out of the way to go outside. There's a habitual lack of payoff, subtle but jarring, in Cunningham's movie that prevents Friday the 13th from being placed in the same league as, say, Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.
So we forget about what Cunningham tried and failed to do with his movie, and we remember the more schlocky elements that, while exploitative, were at least effective. Things like Tom Savini's special effects (Kevin Bacon and the post-coital arrow through the neck!) are so visceral and gory that they overpower the movie's quieter elements. We remember, in a gloriously camp performance during the final reel, Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees. We remember the supernatural elements, that a child drowned may raise from the dead.
Anyways, this is as cerebral as the series gets. Tomorrow, let's party with Jason Voorhees proper in Friday the 13th Part 2!

Schedule of Fridays: