As with many other influential movies, Friday the 13th carries the weight of everything it has inspired: We’re talking sequels, a prequel series, reboots, and retcons, ripoffs, and rehashes. Along that journey, Jason Voorhees has been to Hell, Manhattan, Elm Street, and outer space. You can also spot obvious homages within the Scream and Scary Movie franchises. All that can make this original film a little difficult to judge on its own merit. After all, Friday the 13th was once nothing more than a visceral little popcorn flick, designed to scare the bejeesus out of young audiences, and then vanish into the ether.
Its plot is iconic enough to feel familiar to people who’ve never even seen the movie: We begin at Camp Crystal Lake, in the late 1950s. This is one of those ubiquitous teen getaways, wherein randy campers fumble through a few gospel standards before disappearing for some hot nookie in the attic. In the opening sequence, a couple barely has time to strip down to a bra and tighty-whiteys before a mysterious figure descends on their second-base shenanigans. Of course, they get hacked up real good, and we roll the title card.
Jump ahead to 1980. Those murders prompted the camp to close, and now it’s grown into wilderness. The local townsfolk have switched into Twilight Zone mode, where their sole purpose in life is to shake their heads and issue dire warnings to anyone who dares go up yonder. So, when a pretty young counselor (Robbi Morgan) arrives and asks for a lift out to Crystal Lake, somebody reluctantly obliges. After all, it’s her funeral.
Turns out, somebody’s had the wacky idea of reopening the camp. New counselors descend on the dilapidated grounds, hoping to restore them to former glory. Just like the doomed souls at the movie’s outset, these randy kids are ready to belt out a few gospel tracks and do some hookin’ up in the bushes.
You can probably figure where it goes from there: Lots of hackin’, slashin’, and screamin’. Lots of jorts, bushy mustaches, panties, and whatnot. Director Sean S. Cunningham serves up most of his murderama from the killer’s POV, so their identity remains a mystery. This adds a little intrigue to the film, even if the final reveal is a bit…underwhelming. (Also, in a trendsetting act of filmmaking hubris, Cunningham concludes the story by setting up a sequel. Amazingly, this franchise has spawned more movies than Police Academy and RoboCop combined.)
Like many horror flicks of its era, Friday the 13th delivers an irresistibly shambling charm. It was filmed on a shoestring budget, with an unknown cast. (Keep an eye out for a baby-faced Kevin Bacon, playing a counselor just begging to get gouged in the carotid.) For all its DIY aesthetic, this freaky Friday is surprisingly well-made.
This leads to the inevitable question: Is it still scary? Well, not really. In fact, Friday the 13th is probably a victim of its own success. So many movies have either ripped it off or paid homage, everything about it feels formulaic now.
More than anything, this classic gore-fest has become a venerable time capsule. Moviegoers can stream Friday the 13th to see what was scary back in 1980. They can also chart the rise of violent horror movies as cheap, lucrative junk-food cinema. Ironically, this movie was probably meant to be enjoyed and thrown away. Now, it endures as a blood-spattered artifact of its era.
95 min. R. Max.