By: Tristan Collett
I know I am going to annoy all you purists out there…again. So grab your machetes 'cause here I go with my critical rant about the original Friday the 13th:
As much as I enjoy the franchise (and I really do find all the movies very, very entertaining), I have always had a problem with the first in the series. Even though there are so many memorable moments that burned themselves indelibly into my VHS-addicted, pre-teen brain, when the end credits rolled I was left in a state of confusion.
Before 1980 there had been Halloween, Black Christmas, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it was Friday the 13th that created the term ‘slasher’ film within the media. This was mainly as a result of the film’s realistic practical effects. Its inventive neck slash wound opening up before your eyes was genuinely shocking back then, and it is still effective today. Similarly, the simple combination of a prop axe and gory prosthetic make-up really made you believe the most brutal of head traumas had just taken place.
This particular form of violent image was a brand new type of illusion. The trickery from make-up maestro Tom Savini, convincing though it is, unfortunately also feels more blatant and exploitative than it might do otherwise because of the awful script structure from which it is hanging. This is my issue with the classic original: the script just doesn’t work, mainly because the scriptwriter doesn’t seem to know where the story wants to go, and if he does then he isn’t experienced enough to get it there.
On its journey to creating Universal’s new horror icon, the first Friday the 13th film flirted with the ‘mystery thriller’ template. The opening 1958-set prologue hides the assailant from us by way of its killer-cam, showing the murder from the antagonist’s point of view. This motif is used throughout the movie, together with the odd boot or hand occasionally finding its way into frame to signify the killer’s presence.
The first counselor couple victims are caught making out, and it is made clear by their embarrassment that they are killed by someone in authority at the camp - an adult who is meant to be responsible for them (“We weren’t doing anything. We were just messin’ arou….”).
From here the film jumps forward 22 years, when we can set about solving this mystery. We are on the lookout for an adult - someone middle-aged, or even older by now. So, who do we meet? First stop, the all-purpose shop/coffee house/diner, whose middle-aged customers refer to the local youth resort as Camp Blood. There’s even another candidate for the role of murderer hanging about outside - Ralph, the prophet of doom. Luckily for him, even in 1980, he was way too obvious a suspect.
Enos, the slightly creepy oil truck driver helps our friend Annie half the way to Crystal Lake. On the ride, he tries to persuade her to quit, mentioning “the two kids murdered in ‘58, a boy drowning in ’57, a bunch of fires. Nobody knows who did any of ‘em”. An Agatha Christie-style formula seems to be building with this sort of character and back-story, and we feel the need to outsmart the writer.
Annie’s next (and fatal) ride emphasizes that the killer is targeting counselors. As soon as she refers to her job at the camp, she’s done for. We know this murderer can’t be any of the counselors at the camp. At their age, they are all machete fodder. Even camp manager Steve Christy, who is trying to get a little too familiar with co-worker Alice shortly after we meet him, is still too young to be a suspect. This leaves his sleaziness in mid-air, making for quite a cringe-making scene.
Our next killer clue revolves around Brenda – until now, seemingly one of the more sensible counselors from the film. A child’s voice calling for help lures her outside to her death, and is somehow meant to help us piece together the puzzle, but actually is just confusing. Watching the film as if it is your first viewing, it is not clear what it is trying to do. Is it hinting at something to do with a vague remark that really hasn’t been elaborated on? It seems to be, but there is no foundation of clues, no solid frame of reference for us to tie it in to the mystery. There is just that oil truck driver’s less-than -brief mention of a boy drowning. The sequence ends up feeling disjointed, as if we should be scared by something we should have remembered.
Next up on the hit list is creepy camp manager Steve, who recognizes the killer shortly before being offed. His friendly greeting, “Oh, hi. What are you doing out in this mess?”, reiterates that the killer is still linked to the camp or locality. He clearly knows this murderer, which serves to accentuate how irrelevant the murder-mystery formula is, because until now he’s not been seen talking to anyone even remotely suspect… other than a speaking-part extra at the diner. At this point we are wracking our brains, wondering who the killer could be. Did I miss something? Did the projectionist forget to splice in reel 2? There are no options for consideration other than the locals we met briefly with Annie nearly a whole hour earlier at the start of the film, and I’m starting to sympathize with Steve’s parting statement: what am I doing in this mess?
The film has progressed with the counselors being dispatched one by one, as is now the convention for the slasher, leaving Alice curious about their disappearance and the power-outs around the camp. This leads to another trademark of the era, the obligatory discovery of bodies by our final girl. Just as we figure that we are at the finale, a car pulls up at the camp and someone gets out.
“Who are you?”
That’s right, Alice, we’re reaching the end now and we don’t have the first clue either.
“Well, I’m Mrs. Voorhees, an old friend of the Christies”.
Mrs. Voorhees has come into the film completely out of the blue… she’s middle-aged, and knows (sorry, knew) Steve Christie… She’s clearly the murderer we’ve been waiting for! Was this really meant to be a tense build up to a shock moment of realization for us? So, Mrs. Voorhees keeps up her pretense and goes inside the cabin to inspect the carnage with Alice. A little melodramatic acting ensues… and then it comes:
“Steve should never have opened this place again...blah blah… There’s been too much trouble here… blah blah…Did you know that a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed?”
…err, hang on… was that the miniscule bit of dialogue the oil truck driver mumbled just after the prologue and hasn’t been mentioned since? Well, it was skipped over really quickly…so, I might just remember something, but final girl doesn’t know what you’re talking about. This all seems a bit random.
Mrs Voorhees is angry now. She doesn’t like the counselors because they’re selfish teens who didn’t look out for her kid? We learn his name was name was Jason and are witness to a flashback of a drowning boy. Frankly, this is quite a lot of new information to take in from a stranger this late in the game.
“Kill her, mommy.” Ahhh... that’s the child’s voice Brenda heard earlier. Mrs Voorhees’ schizoid impersonation of her son’s voice is embarrassing to watch, and feels just a bit weird, because we haven’t had any help throughout the film to unfold the plot. Betsy Palmer’s great psycho performance is just left hanging without a cohesive script structure to support it.
The revelation that the killer is Mrs Voorhees seems to be an attempt at throwing us a curve ball. It is nothing of the sort. We already know it has to be someone middle-aged and connected to the camp. The fact that this new character pops up out of the blue, however, is just weak. She has to explain the backstory herself, and try to remind us of the one tiny piece of info we heard 10 minutes into the film. Let’s face it, you don’t know what she’s talking about because no-one watching has remembered the brief reference to the boy drowning. It’s not been a whodunit because Mrs Voorhees was never on the list of suspects in the first place.
I realize the film was mostly designed to bring the money in on the strength of the shocking deaths - that is not what I find offensive. The confused and clumsy script, starting out in one style but failing to pay it off is what bugs me. It feels as if Victor Miller panicked when writing it and felt he had to quickly think up a justification for all the violence, expecting us all to embrace his badly explained conclusion.
A mystery thriller without a build-up showing the characters’ possible motives just doesn’t work. For this style of story, there have to be suspects. Friday the 13th doesn’t seem to know what type of film it is. In failing script-wise, it inadvertently helped create a brand new style of murder film. It spawned the term ‘slasher’, perhaps through a not-quite-so-intentional emphasis on realistic gore effects. This is what the film is best remembered for instead of its plot, and it is what blew my mind back in the early ‘80s. If not for the popular special make-up effects by Tom Savini, that origin story would never have become the movie mythos that it is today.
Editor's Note: Thank you Tristan for writing this! Please check out this website for Tristan's band Pause, an alternative rock band based in Buckinghamshire, England. You can also like their Facebook page here!