Thursday 21 July 2011

Friday the 13th [1980]

FRIDAY THE 13TH is an American slasher film that was directed by Sean S. Cunningham and originally released in May 1980.  It stars Adrienne King, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Jeannine Taylor and Betsy Palmer.  For the benefit of the three remaining people in the universe who have never heard of this film it's about a group of counselors at a lakeside summer camp who are terrorised by a mad killer.

If HALLOWEEN [1978] is the Daddy of the slasher genre (or, to be more accurate, sub-genre) then Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13TH is the Mommy.  It took the mayhem out of the suburbs and relocated it to the country, where the bodycount could be raised significantly without the police rocking up to spoil all the fun.

A rural idyll about to be shattered

It also dispensed with Carpenter's idea of the Boogeyman instead turning to the giallo by using a mysterious killer whose identity remains hidden until the final reveal.  In HALLOWEEN we know who the killer is from the beginning and we know why he kills, so the film is essentially an exercise in tension; FRIDAY THE 13TH is more an ultra-violent whodunnit.

A good example of Tom Savini's effects work

Cunningham's film works because he's canny enough to know how to keep his audience interested: we meet a cute young girl who we assume will be the heroine (indeed as I did, having only ever seen stills of the film) only to have our expectations brutally cut short.  Hitchcock famously played a similar trick with Janet Leigh in PSYCHO [1960].  After that we're on our guard - anyone could be next!

Our heroine or merely the first victim?

A lot has been made about how slasher films usually butcher the promiscuous or drink / drug taking teenagers and how this means they betray a reactionary sensibility but I'm not sure that's the case. Yes the victims have sex and drink and smoke a little dope but they are nevertheless the figures with whom the audience is encouraged to identify and sympathise.  The villains are often authority figures gone bad or at least from an older generation who can't bear the idea of kids having fun.  In that sense it's possible to argue that slasher films are actually anti-authoritarian.  Whichever reading you prefer, FRIDAY THE 13TH is a thoroughly entertaining film which deserves its place in the patheon of classic horror movies.

The teenagers are a bunch of reasonably likeable dorks

There's no-one in the film you are likely to have heard of in any other context, save Kevin Bacon who of course went on to become a big star until his finances dropped off a cliff and he was reduced to appearing in mobile phone advertisements.

Kevin Bacon as Jack Burrel

Unlike most of his contemporaries - John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper - director Sean S. Cunningham didn't go on to have a significant career.  Of his subsequent output (which numbers only half a dozen) only DEEPSTAR SIX [1989] made any sort of impression.  I suspect that Cunningham lacked a truly creative spark: he didn't write his own screenplays as the others did.  Indeed, FRIDAY THE 13TH closely follows the style and structure of Carpenter's film, right down to the historic pre-credits sequence and liberal use of subjective camera.  He's not the only one to follow that model and one might argue that Carpenter himself was only copying Hitchcock anyway.

He did know how to pick a creative team though and a number of his crew went on to greater things. Associate producer Steve Miner became a director in his own right helming, among others, the first two sequels to FRIDAY THE 13TH and the shonky cult favourite WARLOCK [1989] starring Richard E. Grant.  Composer Harry Manfredini went on to score dozens of horror movies and, perhaps most famously of all, special effects man Tom Savini became an icon of the genre not only for his ground-breaking effects work but for acting and directing too: he's great in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN [1996] and his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD [1990] remake is excellent.

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