Friday the 13th takes place on Friday, June 13th, 1980. Some chipper youngsters are starting their summer jobs as counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, a small camp that has been abandoned for over twenty years. It was left to rot after some counselors in 1958 were murdered by an unknown knife-wielding maniac. The townspeople are all pretty superstitious about the place, calling it "Camp Blood" (which is slightly better than the original name, "Camp Hate Crime") and staring in shock at anyone who wants to re-open the place. The new owner, Steve, wants the place cleaned up, pronto, but he has to pick up some equipment and supplies from another town. He leaves the camp with the assurance that six unsupervised teens counselors (including a young Kevin Bacon) will bear down and work hard while he's away, not drink alcohol, smoke dope, play strip Monopoly, and have consensual sex. While the teens spend their free time in their own unique ways, they are picked off, one by one, by an unknown killer. Aided by a harsh thunderstorm and the counselors' ignorance of their danger, the killer works quietly and efficiently until there is only one girl left, Alice (Adrienne King). How can Alice survive when her friends have all fallen to this mysterious villain? I don't know. It's seems pretty unlikely, doesn't it?
Now, any discussion of this movie necessarily requires hinting at who the mystery killer is. So...SPOILER ALERT.
This was definitely a low budget horror movie, and it shows with its casting. When you check out the movie on IMDB, the only actor from the film that has a photo is Kevin Bacon. That indicates a cast that was not filled with career actors. Not surprisingly, the acting is pretty mediocre. Luckily, the characters almost all die by the end of the movie. Adrienne King does a pretty decent job in the lead; in the final scenes, she was able to act convincingly scared and incoherent, but not annoyingly stupid-scared. Betsy Palmer steals the show when she finally appears, though. Crazy mothers are always scary, but I find it very unsettling when she speaks with her "Jason voice." Is it over the top? A touch, sure, but it is a great way to end the movie. The rest of the actors range from pretty forgettable (if you're being kind) to awkwardly annoying (if you're not). There's nobody in particular that's more terrible than the rest, I suppose. That is, unless you count the astonishing ugliness of the diner waitress. I think this series would be far more frightening if her face was under the hockey mask. Oh, and while the boy who played Jason for all of three seconds in this movie didn't really have to act, you should definitely check out the page to his keytar metal band, First Jason. It...uh...rocks.
On the surface, Friday the 13th is just a knockoff of Halloween. Both make extensive use of the first-person perspective for the killer, both have musical cues (Halloween has the piano theme and Friday has the SH-Sh-sh-AH-Ah-ah noise) when the killer is near, and both killers target naughty teens. What Friday has that Halloween doesn't, though, is special effects legend Tom Savini providing the makeup effects. That might not sound like much, but Savini has helped create some of the most memorable and iconic gore scenes in film history. He doesn't get a whole lot of chances to shine here, but he does manage to make Betsy Palmer's and Kevin Bacon's death scenes iconic. That's important, because director Sean S. Cunningham just apes the style of John Carpenter, so special effects become more important when you have poor acting and directing.
As the first installment in the most prolific horror movie series to date, this film has moments with some historic importance for the series. This is the first we hear of Jason Voorhees, the boy who drowned in Crystal Lake. It's also the first we see of Jason, and his first appearance is as a fairly normal-looking, if soggy, child corpse. This is the first use of the classic SH-Sh-sh-AH-Ah-ah theme. It's the first time Camp Crystal Lake was decorated in fresh corpses by a maniac. I've always admired the slasher movie villains that take the time to set up a nice presentation for the movie's final kill, and this is one of the better ones, especially considering how small Pamela Voorhees is. I would think hanging up corpses and rigging them to fall down when scared girls are passing by would be tiring, but she seemed fresh as a daisy when she finally revealed herself. Two other important Friday traditions started with this film: nudity and a high death count. There are nine kills (I think only one was not a knife kill) and you get to see Kevin Bacon butt (I don't want to spoil the suspense, but it's fantastic). The body count was pretty high at the time (and still beats most horror movies), but it was just a warm-up for this series. Oh, and we learn that Jason Voorhees was born on June 13th --- mark your calendars!
Of course, Friday the 13th wasn't initially planned as a series, so there are just as many moments that stick out for retrospective oddness. Take the Bacon butt scene, for instance. That might be the only bit of male nudity in the entire twelve movie series; all other nudity is kept to ladies with varying degrees of attractiveness. The silly out-of-left-field fake out ending showed us Jason for the first time, but it might be the last time he is shown as not suffering from an obvious deformity. Oddly enough, this might even be the last time somebody tried to fix up Camp Crystal Lake...I think it is an abandoned ruin in almost every other movie. The time line (when you're looking at the whole series) for this film is odd, too...Jason died in 1958 and this movie takes place in 1980. That means, if Jason was old enough to go to summer camp, that Jason would have been at least 27 when his mother was killed, which would put him in his 30s and 40s during the subsequent Fridays. I will consider myself lucky if I have a body like his when I'm 40...minus, of course, the facial deformity, the male pattern baldness, the dank odor, and the waterlogged skin.
That's enough of looking at this movie as part of a series. On its own, this isn't a great film, but it is one of the definitive slasher movies. It's not the most inventive, but it's executed competently and it has a very atypical killer. As a fine example of its genre and for all the affection it deserves for bringing us one step closer to my favorite hockey mask-wearing murderer, I give the original Friday the 13th