Monday, October 13, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Friday the 13th (1980)

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Friday the 13th is considered by many to be one of the first "true" slasher films. After being cursed for years with nothing but murderous bad luck, an entrepreneur decides to re-open Camp Crystal Lake. Unfortunately, things don't end well for the young and nubile counselors, who all begin to die extremely bloody deaths at the hands of an unseen killer during a rainstorm which isolates the camp.

Friday the 13th was the first in a long-running series of slasher films, helping define the subgenre and influenced many subsequent films. It has received so much criticism over the years, referring to it as nothing more than horror schlock that only became popular because stupid people enjoyed it. I'm not kidding, I've actually read a review that claimed that. Although its far from being the horror movie equivalent of Citizen Kane, Friday the 13th remains effective to this day because its actually pretty good and shows you what to do if you want to make a decent slasher flick.

First, Friday the 13th realizes the characters need to be likable. If they're total douchebags with absolutely no redeeming qualities, we won't care what happens to them. On the contrary, we'll actually be begging the film to kill them as soon as possible. Thankfully, Friday the 13th offers us a cast of likable characters who do the kind of stuff you'd expect young counselors to do at a summer camp: goof off, drink a few beers, possibly fool around in the bunks. The actors and actresses do a decent job with their roles, making us sympathize with them, meaning we don't want to see them die, making their death scenes more tense and horrifying.

Friday the 13th also utilizes the "less is more" principle rather well. The film has this odd reputation as a sadistic bloodbath, but that's really not true. While some of the death scenes are "bloody", they aren't the gore show some would lead you to believe. The filmmakers simply use these scenes as great punctuation marks throughout the film, making it feel more gruesome than it actually is. The fact that we see most of the murders through a first person perspective (putting us in the killer's shoes) probably enhances the film's "gruesome" feeling.

Finally, the reveal of the killer is perfect and still works today (albeit for different reasons). While watching Friday the 13th, you'd never suspect the killer is actually a grieving mother who just wants vengeance for the death of her disabled child. It plays with our expectations in a smart way, giving us a different kind of slasher. The reason this still works today is because most people tend to associate Jason Voorhees with the name "Friday the 13th", so assume he's also the killer here as well.

Although the film is far from perfect, Friday the 13th has entered the cutural zeitgeist for a reason. It helped establish the slasher subgenre, started an incredibly popular horror franchise, and influenced many films to come. It doesn't hurt that its also rather enjoyable and decently made. Sometimes, mainstream critics can be a little too harsh on a film. I believe that's the case here. For once, ignore the "professional consensus" and check out Friday the 13th. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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