A group of college students assemble at Camp Crystal Lake, a summer camp that has been abandoned since the drowning of a child and the subsequent murder of two camp counselors. Whatever anonymous murder committed the original crimes, however, has returned. The students are stalked and killed one by one by an unseen assailant.
Let’s jump back for a moment: in 1978 John Carpenter’s horror film Halloween was an unexpected independent film hit, grossing more than $70 million on a $300,000 budget. Other independent production companies were quick to cash in on Halloween‘s success, throwing a range of similar slasher movies into production. Tourist Trap and When a Stranger Calls were released in 1979, and the following year they were joined by the likes of Prom Night, Silent Scream and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. It was Friday the 13th that was the most significant in film history terms, not simply because it led to a large number of sequels but because it was the first slasher film to be produced by a major film studio: Paramount Pictures.
The film broadly establishes a formula that many slasher films followed throughout the 1980s. A group of teenagers head to someplace isolated at night, start to drink, take drugs and have sex with one another, and one by one they are brutally murdered by a mysterious killer. Once the cast has been whittled down to one surviving teenager – almost invariably a young woman known to horror fans as ‘the final girl’ – she fights back against the assailant, discovers their identity and kills them. That is certainly the case in Friday the 13th: all youthful rebellion and misbehaviour is violently and gorily punished, and soon only a young woman named Alice (Adrienne King) remains to defeat the killer.
The use of the final girl is something that really marks out the slasher film within the broader context of 1980s American cinema. With a few exceptions, the slasher film was where the audience could go for strong female protagonists. These protagonists may have screamed in terror, and run away an awful lot, and only survived or fought back in a panic, but at the time they were some of the most visible leading roles for women.
In one key respect the film also differs from the typical slasher film. Most films of the genre include a male villain: indeed every single Friday the 13th film other than this first one does the same. In this case the killer is revealed to be the grief-stricken mother of the boy who drowned, since deranged out of her mind and obsessed with murdering teenage camp counselors. It’s a little ridiculous, but then so are slasher films. The film’s other main innovation is the character of Ned (Mark Nelson). He is a comedic character, and the ‘joker’ of the group. He is the first character of his kind to feature in a slasher film, and would be copied numerous times in the ensuing years.
The film is generally a pretty basic affair. There is little in the way of sophisticated plotting or inventive camera work. The narrative is a direct and straight-forward one. None of the cast are particularly distinctive – although there is a certain amusement value in seeing Kevin Bacon getting brutally murdered in one of his early roles. One definite highlight is Harry Manfredini’s accomplished Hermann-like musical score. It gives the film’s more suspenseful scenes a frission they may have lacked if forced to rely purely on Cunningham’s direction.
This is not a film to take seriously. Like all good slasher flicks, it is a film to laugh at and with, trying to work out which hapless teenager is going to be killed next, which one will ultimately survive, and jumping at every sudden noise and pounce. It is a simple film, but a surprisingly enjoyable one.