Thursday, May 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Friday the 13th

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

That would be the original Friday the 13th, not any of the ten sequels, or the 2009 remake. This 1980 slasher movie, which features no deranged killer in a hockey mask, no supernatural elements and, until the final moments, no Jason Voorhees at all, is pretty much dwarfed by the rest of the long-running franchise, and not necessarily unjustifiably. Sure, many (most) of the sequels are terrible, but they did all the work in establishing the memorable iconography of the series and creating a template for the entire slasher genre. It's Jason in his hockey mask wielding a machete that's burned into the pop-culture consciousness, not his middle-aged mom in her dowdy sweater.

Of the four big movies that gave birth to the slasher genre (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street), Friday the 13th is easily the least distinctive, and the only one without a strong auteurist vision. Director Sean S. Cunningham is a journeyman producer whose filmography as a director is undistinguished aside from Friday the 13th. He worked as a producer on Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left, and envisioned Friday the 13th as a way to capitalize on that filmmaking style. But while Last House is a weird, uneven creative vision (for better and worse), Friday the 13th is a mostly soulless exercise in dispatching one-dimensional characters, devoid of social commentary or personal expression.

That's not to say it doesn't succeed at what it sets out to do, though -- Cunningham stages some good shock moments, and uses point-of-view shots to establish a sense of unease about the mysterious killer. Harry Manfredini's eerie score is rightfully the one element of the movie that's become indelibly part of the franchise, and is often the only thing that people remember. And while Mrs. Voorhees didn't last as a villain, having the matronly woman as the serial killer is a sort of offbeat choice that mostly works.

The camp-counselor characters, however, are completely uninteresting and useless except as fodder for the killer, and their interactions are the movie's weakest part. Other than Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) musing about her dreams of raining blood, there's nothing to indicate any personality or inner lives on the parts of these characters. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Heather Langenkamp in A Nightmare on Elm Street created strong, interesting heroines who were as important as their adversaries, if not more so. Here, I could barely tell the characters apart half the time.

So Friday the 13th is a horror classic almost by default, and not really in a league with its supposed peers of the time. But it's also worth looking back on for horror fans, to see how different this franchise was when it started out, and to spot a few interesting elements that have since been lost.

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