The weird thing is that somehow, in spite of all impressions to the contrary, it's not actually bad. After all, it was the second-biggest hit of the summer of 1980, after The Empire Strikes Back
. Sequels were inevitable, although hardly to the extent of becoming one of America cinema's most successful franchises and the biggest American horror franchise last time I was looking (adjusted 2008 dollars for box office gross). Jason Vorhees would star in comic books, toys, video games, soundtrack releases and more. Not bad for a character who's barely in his first film and is basically doing the same job as Norman Bates's mother. Nevertheless this film was also hated with a passion by the critics and all but sent me to sleep.
Is it a good film? Hell, no. There's no Halloween
or A Nightmare on Elm Street
film I wouldn't rewatch before seeing this thing again. I was fighting the urge to pause and do something else instead. However if you look at it closely, you'll find that strictly speaking it's not doing anything wrong. There's nothing you can point at and laugh, as opposed to all those slasher films that give us retarded plotting, nonsensical action sequences and a loathsome cast. On the contrary, Friday the 13th has top-notch gore from Tom Savini and a keen awareness of nudity. The plot makes sense and all the characters' actions seem reasonably intelligent. The acting is pretty solid by the standards of the genre, although it's scary how much we've lowered our standards in making that qualification.
However as a movie, it's empty. None of the characters really do anything or even are aware that anything's wrong until we get to the climactic battle of Slasher vs. Last Remaining Survivor. Stuff happens, some of which involves gore. Repeat for 95 minutes until the end. That's the plot of this movie. Hell, I wouldn't say that the characters even count as characters. They're entirely interchangeable. Let's do a run-down of the cast:
- 1 - the cute, upbeat one who never even reaches Crystal Lake.
- 2 - the wooden older one who's trying to get Crystal Lake up and running again after those unfortunate accidents back in the 1950s.
- 3 - teenage boy who's a bit of a goofball.
- 4 - the one who's played by a slightly better actress than the others, who in her first scene gives Mr Wooden a week to get things working before she goes home.
- 5 - a young Kevin Bacon.
- 6 - ...nope, sorry. Can't remember anything about the others.
Ironically I quite liked these people, but only in the abstract way in which one likes anyone who's young, good-looking and friendly. More than half of list earned a mention entirely because of the actors rather than the script... and even there I'm being generous and giving points for charisma or future name value rather than ability. The most memorable character is #1 and she gives the worst reaction shot in the movie.
What about the killer? Surely the film can wring out some personality of her, at least? Well, yes and no. I really liked Vorhees once she'd shown up. I've never seen another killer like her in a slasher movie and she really lifts the film when she's on-screen, despite being a bit flat with her "possessed by Jason" lines and being rather risible in her "killer stalks the last survivor" scenes. Is she cool to watch? You bet. Is she scary? Ahahahaha, no. Nevertheless she's the one scenery-chewing character you can't help but watch, giving the movie such a kick that I can't understand why more slasher films haven't gone down this route instead of giving us a procession of gigantic retarded mutes. Unfortunately we're already a good hour into the film by the time she shows up, with her unseen appearances until then having been done with kill-o-vision camera tricks. All the Mad Slasher personality we get during the finale is at the cost of having no personality at all until then.
The film takes a further jump in quality right at the end, with a weird scary twist that was Tom Savini's idea. He got it from seeing Carrie. We're not sure what really happened, but it's a cool surprise and probably more haunting if you're ignorant of the rest of the series. "He's still there" is a chilling last line no matter how you read it, but it packs an emotional punch if Jason's dead and what we'd been seeing was his ghost.. Hell, bearing in mind the series's later convolutions with resurrection and space slugs, not to mention Jason having suddenly become a full-grown adult for the next film in the series, who's to say that such speculations couldn't be true?
If you enjoyed the bulk of this film, that double jump at the end will probably make it look like a masterpiece. Even if you're merely looking for flaws, this is a solid movie. There's far, far worse out there. Besides, what's genuinely impressive about the film is how it fares with its sex and violence.
I'll start with the first of those. This is a relatively chaste movie, but it's great at teasing us. Objectively speaking, the actresses aren't anything special to look at. They're all pleasant and pretty, but no one's a knockout and they're all fairly flat-chested. However you've got to admire the way the film carefully rations out its bikini shots, tight T-shirts, modest sex scenes and Strip Monopoly. No, really. It's like Strip Poker, but with Monopoly. How would that work? It would seem that you buy properties with money but pay rent fines with clothing, which would suggest that the cheapest properties are the most desirable and the game's going to end quickly unless you're allowed to win back lost garments.
Oh, and for no reason at all there's a beaver shot. I'm talking about the water-dwelling mammal that builds dams, in case you were wondering.
As for the gore, it's a work of love and artistry. I admired the bed kill, while that axe in the face was a memorable moment too. You've got to love the guy who's been pinned to the door by arrows, though. He's hanging a good foot or two clear of the ground! Was he jumping up and down to be shot at, then?
That's about it, though. There just isn't much here. You could perhaps read things into the religious references, but we're only talking about a couple of lines here. The kids in 1958 are singing hymns before they sneak off to have sex ("milk and honey on the other side, hallelulah") and there's a later quote of "for what hath God wrought". I didn't spot anything else. Alternatively you could perhaps try to argue that this film, like so many of its kind, is punishing lustful behaviour, but frankly the killing of teenagers who have sex probably has more to do with the fact that they've separated themselves from the group and sneaked off on their own in the dark. Besides, for once there's an in-character reason why the killer this time might want to kill the sex-crazed ones first.
Is the film tense? Yes, occasionally. The girls' shower block is a bad place. Is it scary? Maybe, if you find this kind of thing frightening. The frustrating thing about this film is that in many ways I think it's a well-made example of its genre and all it needed to be good was a proper script. You know, with a plot and discernable characters. I can see why this film was successful, but it has the kind of story that wouldn't be affected if you shuffled the first hour's scenes into a random order. Dammit, at least Halloween
and A Nightmare on Elm Street
had relatively classy first films. It's not looking good for this series, is it?