Its top-billed star did her role only so she could get money to buy a new car and one critic hated her in it so much he published her address so fans of the family-friendly star could write in their disgust (ironically, he printed the wrong one), but nevertheless “Friday the 13th” became the beginning of one of the most iconic, popular and profitable horror film franchises of all time. It also spawned an entire sub-genre of the slasher movies with the maniac killer called “Jason.” The original is cheesy and poorly written, but it is effective and achieved what its filmmakers set out to do: be successful. You even get a side of Kevin Bacon!
‘Friday the 13th’
(1980; 95 minutes; rated X; directed by Sean S. Cunningham and starring Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King and Kevin Bacon)
A ‘BAD’ HORROR FILM IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion and trivia and updated links on Sept. 15, 2016.)
A number of things are wrong with the original “Friday the 13th.” You can choose from its cheap production (the film was made on a budget of only $500,000) to its screenplay (they call this writing?) to mostly poor acting, but it does introduce one key character into the pantheon of horror film greats: “Jason.” He’s the demon out of “Camp Crystal Lake” fame. Yes, he’s the deranged killer whose signature hockey mask would grace the screen with numerous sequels and be the staple of one-item Halloween costumes ever since.
The “Friday the 13th” franchise has through this year included 12 films (with a remake of the original and even one where the killer squares off against another iconic horror character in “Freddy vs. Jason”), but you wouldn’t know it from the first one I’m looking at today. Heck, the hockey mask didn’t arrive until the first sequel and ** SPOILER ALERT ** Jason wasn’t even the killer in the original (and this was a trivia question director Wes Craven used with a doomed character in his blockbuster “Scream” from 1996 – click here for my review of that one).
Even with its lack of sophistication, “Friday the 13th” does manage to accomplish tension and fright very well from the creepy-peeking camera views of what the killer sees from the woods or the killer’s POV, while dispatching the victims and even to the gore (basically tame by today’s gut-wrenching special effects). One such exception is when a counselor is lying on a bunk and an arm comes out from underneath to pin him and then you see an arrow head puncture through his throat. In one less than grotesque scene, the summer camp’s owner, when approached by the still-unseen killer, calls out a friendly “hi” before meeting his predictable fate.
The story is about the re-opening of a summer camp at “Crystal Lake” in New Jersey where bad things have happened for years. It all started with the death of a young camper while the counselors are being amorous and neglecting the kids. Next, there’s a bunch of foreshadowing and then killing.
The film builds with you easily knowing the killer isn’t any of the red herrings thrown out by director Sean S. Cunningham and to the superlative and dramatic (still cheesy production, though) introduction of “Jason” at the end. In the end it turns out that the killer is the mother of a boy who drowned at the camp in 1957 while counselors were making out and she came back the next year to deliver her personal revenge to those foolish enough to come back to the camp.
I hope I didn’t do a “spoiler” on you with all of that information. If I did, well, sorry about that but it was unavoidable.
“Friday the 13th” has all the stereotypical elements of the horror film genre that got into high gear two years before with Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (click here for my review of that one): college-age kids being picked off one-by-one by an unseen killer. They’re all pretty stupid to keep rummaging around the dark and finally there’s one cut from the Jamie Lee mold, who manages to accomplish a little slashing of her own.
It’s difficult to highlight actors here since only a couple of them are familiar to most audiences (then or later in their careers), but here goes:
- Betsy Palmer was known for family-friendly fare such as “Mister Roberts” before picking up a knife (ax, bow and arrow, etc.) here. She plays Mrs. Pamela Voorhees here and doesn’t make a facial appearance until later in the film, but is actually effective and you can tell that she’s easily the most talented actor working here (her back-and-forth dialogue as both herself and “Jason” is very, very good as is conveying her madness through her eyes). Palmer was also in dozens of family-friendly TV roles from “CHiPs” to my favorite schlocky TV series, “The Love Boat” (click here for my review of it). Palmer passed in 2015 at the age of 88.
- Kevin Bacon has a small part here and is the counselor who is dispatched early with an arrow through his throat. His part doesn’t really lend itself to any critical review of him as an actor and he would later in his career show he was the best actor here (and ultimately the most accomplished). Bacon has also been in “Footloose,” “Diner,” “Hollow Man” and did his career best in Ron Howard’s celebrated “Apollo 13.”
- The Jamie Lee-like heroine of the film is Adrienne King, who plays “Alice Hardy.” She’s virtually undistinguishable from the other counselors’ efforts other than she was the one chosen to stand up to the killer. King does a good job of this and she’s earnest in the role and lets you know it’s not over since they didn’t find the boy “Jason” at the lake. “Then he’s still there,” she says. She would later be in “Gabby’s Wish.”
About the film’s rating: “Friday the 13th” was rated “X” at the time, according to IMDb.com, for its graphic violence, some nudity and a brief scene of a camp counselor with marijuana. However, the harsh “X” designation (most usually associated with pornographic films) is not justified – certainly not even by today’s broadcast MTV or Comedy Central standards much less in current films. At worst it would be a mild “R” today considering what its competition offers audiences.
“Friday the 13th” was the 18th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1980 with $39.7 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It would go on to rake in $59.7 million worldwide, according to Wiki, and with its sequels and merchandising, “Jason” would ring cash registers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. “Friday the 13th” was right behind “Caddyshack” in 1980 but wasn’t the top grossing (dollars, not stomachs) horror film of that year: “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson was 14th with $44 million. The No. 1 film of the year was “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” with $209.3 million. Here are the films from 1980 that I’ve reviewed:
- “Any Which Way You Can” (so-so Clint) – click here for my review
- “Battle Creek Brawl” (mediocre) – click here for my review
- “The Big Red One” (not very good war) – click here for my review
- “The Final Countdown” (OK) – click here for my review
- “The Hollywood Knights” (excellent comedy) – click here for my review
- “The Long Riders” (superior western) – click here for my review
- “Prom Night” (Jamie Lee horror) – click here for my review
- “Rough Cut” (nice Burt) – click here for my review
- “Seems Like Old Times” (solid comedy) – click here for my review
- “Terror Train” (Jamie Lee horror) – click here for my review
- “Used Cars” (tremendous comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Sally Field auditioned for the part ultimately played by King. I wonder why Sally wasn’t chosen?
- Palmer was reported in an interview to have said at the time that after she read the script she thought it was “a piece of ****.” But, she did need the money offered ($1,000-a-week for 10 weeks) to buy a new car.
- Unlike other “Jason” films, the original has only 11 deaths.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “The movie was filmed at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in New Jersey. The camp is still in operation, and it has a wall of Friday the 13th (1980) paraphernalia to honor that the movie was set there.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The film takes place on June 13, 1958 and June 13, 1979.”
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