“His name was Jason, and today is his Birthday.”

This haunting line is the first quote that comes to mind whenever I think of Sean S. Cunningham’s legendary 1980 teen slasher film, Friday the 13th. Made on a modest budget of $550,000, and following in the footsteps of John Carpenter’s breakout 1978 hit, Halloween, director Cunningham and writer Victor Miller elected not to take the easy route and merely rip off what ended up becoming a critically and commercially acclaimed addition to the ever-growing slasher subgenre, but rather to tell an original horror story about isolation and grief that stands as an indisputable classic in its own right.

Following the unsolved double homicide of two young camp counsellors on July 4th, 1958, Camp Crystal Lake is shut down and condemned for several years.

Many of the townsfolk fear and loathe the campsite so intensely that they refer to it as “Camp Blood”. It all started one year prior to the slaying of the counsellors when a physically disfigured, mentally handicapped 11-year-old boy named Jason Voorhees (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake due to the negligence of the people in charge of watching him, and his body has yet to be recovered. Over the years, attempts have been made to reopen the less-than-reputable campsite, but all were met with failure via mysterious fires and poisoned water. That hasn’t put a stop to the determination of Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), however, as he takes it upon himself to invest $25,000 into renovating Camp Crystal Lake and have it up and running by the summer of 1979.

Friday the 13th (1980) movie poster featuring scared teens at Camp Crystal Lake

Along for the journey to reopening is Steve’s ex-girlfriend, budding artist Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), whom Steve still harbours romantic feelings for, as well as six other attractive participants: Bill Brown (Harry Crosby), who becomes Alice’s newest love interest; Brenda Jones (Laurie Bartram), a mature, no-nonsense young woman with knowledge on the value of Vitamin C; passionate couple Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon) and Marcie Stanler (Jeannine Taylor); lovable jokester Ned Rubenstein (Mark Nelson); and allegedly talented cook, Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan).  

Unfortunately for these seven would-be counsellors, numerous citizens of the New Jersey area are severely disquieted by the idea of seeing the camp brought back to the public, and it seems to have angered one particular individual more than all the rest. What commences as a beautiful day of teamwork, camaraderie, and relaxation by the lake slowly devolves into a rain-soaked nightmare once an unidentified murderer lurking in the woods begins picking off the unsuspecting youngsters one by bloody one.

Friday the 13th (1980) murdered Camp Crystal Lake councilor

The first time I ever caught a glimpse of Jason Voorhees was at the very end of the fifth installment. However, that turned out to be someone else simply wearing the iconic hockey mask, but either way, that was my official introduction to the venerable franchise and to the mask. From that point forward, I began watching only the Friday the 13ths that included the central figure wielding the machete, but little did I know the first installment had nothing to do with that. There was no hulking monster in a hockey mask slicing and dicing his way through a batch of sexually active teenagers in the night. There is simply a camp, 7 upbeat young adults looking to earn some money over the summer, and a vengeful human assailant hell-bent on preventing the reopening of a place rightfully considered toxic. 

The opening scene represents one of the most memorable and unnerving in horror history.

Now, this says quite a lot because there are countless horror movies that open with murder in order to get the audience hooked within the first few minutes. While my personal favourite in that regard is still the opening scene of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, this brilliant moment is a close second. The initial shot is that of a stunning full moon illuminating a pitch-black sky. In the distance, we hear the innocuous, jovial voices of a group of people singing around a campfire. During the singalong, guitar player Claudette Hayes (Debra S. Hayes) cannot keep her eyes off of her boyfriend, Barry Jackson (Willie Adams). As the other teens gather together to prepare a new tune, Barry and Claudette decide to throw their own little party up in the barn, only to be watched and followed by a lunatic unseen by the camera. The killer surreptitiously creeps up the steps and catches the doomed lovers off guard before they can even have sex. It’s made clear that these two recognize their predator straight away, but within seconds, their lives are robbed from them in gruesome, relentless fashion. Cunningham’s use of the first-person perspective to place us behind the eyes of whoever this devil is should make John Carpenter proud, as he employed the exact same tactic for the opening scene of his holiday slasher to equally gripping effect.

Camp Crystal lake dock from Friday the 13th (1980) film

Sean Cunningham’s graceful, meticulous attention to detail elevated what could have otherwise deteriorated into a tasteless, cynical cash-grab. He films his movie in a way that’s so clever yet all too easy to overlook. While the camera is often placed behind a passage in the woods, staring directly at the central characters as they linger around the lake or go about their assigned tasks, Cunningham doesn’t neglect to capture the natural scenic beauty of the water as ripples are left by the rain, or the trees as they sway in the wind. When contemporary critics and detractors such as Gene Siskel slammed Cunningham as a “despicable creature infecting the movie business”, they didn’t take the time to recognize the manner in which he contrasted the peaceful, lush ambience of a campsite with its unsettling potential for menace. Yes, a campground can be a dangerous place for people to stay: you’re isolated from the rest of the world, there may not be many cops nearby to call for help, your parents are no longer there to keep you safe from the horrors of the universe. But it can also be a gorgeous spot to lie down, look up at the sky, and appreciate the wonders and advantages of being among your own peers without any restrictions. Cunningham was deft enough a filmmaker to explore both possibilities. 

The characters are likable, identifiably human, attractive, and don’t make the kind of inane decisions that plague many a teen slasher movie.

It’s to Victor Miller’s credit that he could write a character like Ned – who isn’t afraid to put on an Indian cap and run around shouting offensively in front of a cop, or stage a drowning to instill temporary panic in his colleagues – and actually refrain from making me despise him. Ned may be slightly immature and rambunctious, but as played by Nelson, he is also supplied with a heart and benevolent nature. He doesn’t act out because he’s simply a one-dimensional creep with a fondness for shooting an arrow near his terrified love interest: he is merely a young kid trying to figure out where he’s going in life, and might even be suffering from unexpressed feelings of loneliness and longing for companionship – which is expressed succinctly and poignantly in one small moment during which he secretly watches Jack and Marcie making out from afar. Ned is visibly jealous and discontent with lacking a partner. It’s this informative supply of depth and empathy that makes him a character worth caring about and fearing for his safety.

Throughout the course of the single day, Miller doesn’t explain to us who these people were before they arrived at the camp. In no scene do the characters sit around and share their life stories with the group, and that’s perfectly alright with me. I don’t need to learn every miniscule detail about these kids in order to care about whether they live to see Saturday the 14th or not. I don’t want to find out what their parents do for a living, or what their goals are for the long term. All that matters is that they get me to enjoy their company for this one day, and none of them fail me at that request. 

Camp Crystal lake councilor screaming from Friday the 13th (1980) film

A crucial element that distinguishes Friday the 13th from lesser slasher pictures is Cunningham’s uncommonly compassionate treatment of sex.

When Jack and Marcie are forced to seek shelter in a deserted cabin due to an approaching rainstorm, Cunningham doesn’t waste any time. Jack lights a candle, Marcie makes herself comfortable on a lower bunk bed and pulls down her pants. Needless to say what happens next, but it isn’t just that these lovebirds are engaging in the “sin” of premarital sex, it’s the beautiful, unflinching, and painstaking way that Cunningham directs the moment. He zeroes in on the ecstasy of Marcie’s face as she groans with pleasure. He does a close-up of her hands squeezing tightly into Jack’s naked flesh. The scene is alive and bursting with unabashed passion. Cunningham is not judging these people for enjoying sex. He’s celebrating them and their sexual desires, their love for each other. His camera is not embarrassed to highlight the sensuality. 

A slasher film wouldn’t be what it is without a plethora of brutal gore and high body count, and this phenomenal film doesn’t shy away from the goods. By the end of the nightmare, only one counsellor is left standing. Some of the kills are downright chilling and eye-popping: we get to see an axe slammed into a pretty woman’s forehead, a hideous gash slit across another’s neck, and most people’s personal favourite – an arrow pushed slowly, painfully through a young man’s chest while a fountain of blood spurts out at the screen. However, some kills are kept offscreen, emphasizing Cunningham’s preference of suspense and spine-chilling dread to copious presentations of carnage. Harry Manfredini’s unforgettable, alarming, charmingly old-fashioned musical score accentuates the feeling of nail-biting anticipation that Cunningham keeps his audience in while he expertly sets up the next attack.

Adrienne King delivers a sensational performance as final girl Alice. From the first moment she screams at the top of her lungs upon discovering her boyfriend’s corpse pinned by arrows to the door of the generator shed, King establishes herself as a worthy runner-up for the genre’s finest Scream Queen – trailing closely behind Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Her inexhaustible energy and commitment to the role never diminish for even the slightest second. It helps that Miller’s script demonstrates the care to inject Alice with enough brains to defend herself. Once she returns to her cabin, fully aware that someone is after her, she closes the blinds, grabs as many chairs as she can find and pushes them against the door, ties a rope around the handle in place of a lock, and arms herself with a baseball bat and carving fork. This is an intelligent, capable woman scared out of her mind, doing everything she can possibly think of to keep herself safe in a practically helpless situation. She’s vulnerable due to her alienated setting, yet still manages to display incredible strength and quick-witted awareness.

Betsy Palmer as Ms. Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980) film

Once the identity of the killer is ultimately revealed, it is shocking to discover that it isn’t a grotesque-looking, muscular, hot-tempered beast. Hell, it isn’t even a man. It’s a middle-aged woman with an initially friendly smile, a warm, maternal demeanour and an adorable blue sweater. Her name is Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who identifies herself as “an old friend of the Christys.” At first, Mrs. Voorhees comes across as anybody’s mother or grandmother: sweet, even-tempered, apparently helpful, and of course, a woman. After spending a few minutes with this suddenly arrived former cook of the camp, Palmer transitions into a mentally unbalanced, borderline delusional sociopath revealed to be the mother of the ill-fated child who drowned in the lake 22 years prior. According to Pamela, sex is the central culprit in her son’s demise. The counsellors who were supposed to be taking care of him – presumably Barry and Claudette from the opening scene – were instead tending to their personal needs while her poor child struggled and flailed hopelessly in the lake, screaming out for his mother.  

Betsy Palmer is devastating as Mrs. Voorhees.

Vacillating masterfully between optimistic and frightened, grief-stricken and infuriated, charming and menacing, there isn’t a single beat on the emotional spectrum that Palmer doesn’t nail with marvelous precision. Miller doesn’t excuse his antagonist’s heinous actions or justify her misguided outlook on adolescent sexuality, he takes pains to help us understand what is going on inside her deranged mind and to empathize with the agony and injustice that’s driven her to such insanity. Mrs. Voorhees is not a simple villain: she’s a heartbroken mother who lost the only thing in the world that mattered to her, the one thing she was supposed to protect and keep safe. Miller and Palmer have crafted a three-dimensional, deceptively chilling monster that, to me, is more impressive, not to mention ambitious, than a man who throws on a white mask and murders a group of high schoolers simply because he’s the personification of evil. Mrs. Voorhees is the monster any of us could become if we were pushed to the extreme. 

Note: Jordan gave this film a 4 and 1/2 stars bumped to 5 stars by Horror Oasis for our rating system.

Jordan Pressler

Jordan Pressler

Contributor

Jordan Pressler is a horror movie fanatic and screenplay writer whose work can be found on Fanon Fandom.

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