FRIDAY THE 13TH - DVD review

...perhaps more than any other film, it helped to popularize the slasher genre and codify the formula.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"You're doomed. You're all doomed if you stay!"
--Crazy Ralph

Film buffs can probably argue from now 'til doomsday about exactly which film originated the slasher genre, and I have no doubt they are doing so right now. Some might say the genre goes all the way back to the silent days of German Expressionism, others to things like Hitchcock's 1927 "The Lodger." Certainly, one could make a good case for Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), although that film, as good as it was, didn't exactly set off a slasher craze. I would imagine that Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left" (1972), Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974), and, of course, John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978) could also lay claim to the honor. My own candidate, though, is Sean S. Cunningham's "Friday the 13th" (1980), not because it actually started the trend in slasher flicks but because perhaps more than any other film, it helped to popularize the genre and codify the formula.

We all know the formula by now since we've seen it repeated in so many films since "Friday the 13th." There is always a group of young people, usually in their late teens, isolated in a remote area, who get picked off one by one by a crazed maniac. These teens are always highly attractive, always played by actors in their twenties, and always engaged in drinking, partying, nude swimming, and casual sex whenever possible. The mad slasher himself is omniscient and omnipotent; that is, he knows everything and is everywhere at once, able to kill one teenager in the woods five miles from the nearest house and ten seconds later step out from behind a tree and kill another teen coming from a cabin to relieve himself. The slasher also seems to know where all of his victims are every minute and how to murder each of them with enough gory variation to satisfy the most finicky horror fan. Indeed, the slasher usually seems so smart that one wonders why he is content merely to pick off witless teens when he could put his mental powers to work as a brain surgeon, a rocket scientist, or a talk-show host. What's more, the teens never stick together but always go their separate ways on the darkest, scariest nights. "Let's see," they say. "We know there's a manic loose killing everybody in sight. How about we each take a flashlight and a penknife and try to find him. Oh, and if you're alone in your room, lock the door and don't let anybody in." So the person alone in a room hears a noise outside and immediately goes to investigate. Alone. Additionally, the slasher must be invincible. You can shoot him, stab him, electrocute him, bury him six feet under, and he'll return to fight another day. You can't keep a good monster down.

You'll find that "Friday the 13th" pretty much wrote the book on slasher flicks. The point is not to develop character or create atmosphere or even produce any excitement but to show as much grisly death as possible and keep the viewer wondering who will die next.

Yes, the movie does have sort of a plot. After being closed for some twenty-odd years, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) is reopening Camp Crystal Lake, an out-of-the-way summer camp in New Jersey. The camp hasn't been open since a strange set of events occurred there, events that included the murders of several young people. The locals now call the place "Camp Blood."

Producer and director Sean S. Cunningham rounded up the usual suspects for his young victims, all of the actors in their early twenties and portraying college students on summer vacation working to open the camp. There are Alice (Adrienne King), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Annie (Robbi Morgan), Brenda (Laurie Bartram), Jack (Kevin Bacon), Bill (Harry Crosby), and Ned (Mark Nelson). Obviously, the names that stand out are Harry Crosby, son of Bing Crosby and Kathryn Grant, and Kevin Bacon, whose only notable previous appearance had been in "Animal House." Most of these actors die exquisitely in the film.

Naturally, we have to have a weird assortment of peripheral characters, too, so we get Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), who runs around warning the kids that they're all doomed if they stay on at the camp; Officer Dorf (Ron Millkie), whose name fits him, a dorky, uptight motorcycle cop; Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), the mother of you-know-who; and Jason (Ari Lehman), who makes his first, obligatory appearance here.

Director Cunningham and writer Victor Miller call upon every dramatic pause, every red herring, every point-of-view shot they can muster to drum up a little tension and suspense. If we all hadn't seen this kind of thing done so often before and so often since, you could even say it works. Better still is composer Harry Manfredini's background score, which in the titles should have given credit to Bernard Herrmann, it sounds so much like "Psycho," "Vertigo," and "North by Northwest." Nevertheless, the music is probably the best thing about "Friday the 13th," creating more frights than do the actors or the script. Also credit Tom Savini, who handled the makeup and stunts on this movie and about 800 more after it. He helps a low-budget horror film look like a far bigger project.

Now, you may have noticed that I haven't mentioned anything about whether "Friday the 13th" is a good movie or a bad movie. Do I really need to? I mean, by now hasn't it become something of a cultural icon, transcending anyone's personal opinion? Who cares if it's good or bad. Some people consider it a horror classic; some see it as campy schlock; and still others find it offensive, degrading, and stupid. It doesn't matter. It is what it is, and no one can discount its influence on cinema. The dang thing spawned nearly a dozen sequels, and it promoted a whole new slasher-film industry in Hollywood. I think that's good enough.

For what it's worth, though, I rather enjoy "Friday the 13th." It's not as gory as most of its successors, and it's sort of quaint and innocent in its low-key way. Besides, there's always that ending to consider (or endings). And don't even remind me that "Carrie" and "Deliverance" beat it to the punch.

Trivia: "Friday the 13th" cost around $700,000 to make in 1980, and it took in over $40,000,000 at the box office. When a film earns nearly sixty times its budget, you know it's a hit. Also of interest, the filmmakers shot the movie at a real summer camp, New Jersey's Camp Nobebosco, which still operates to this day. The publicity can't have hurt business.

The picture quality on this DVD surprised me. I worried that so old and so low-budget a film as this one would not turn out looking as good as it does. Paramount engineers use an anamorphic transfer to reproduce the film's image in its native 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with the colors showing up brightly and vividly in daylight shots, and object delineation looking reasonably good for standard definition. Skin tones are particularly natural, and there are relatively few or no age markings to speak of. Indoor and nighttime shots do get more than a bit grainy, but we might have expected that.

Paramount have remixed the English soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, but for purists they also include the film's theatrical-release monaural track. The DD 5.1 provides a fairly wide front-channel stereo spread, and noises like wind, rain, and background music open up nicely, if subtly, in the surrounds. There is not a lot in the way of frequency extremes, the midrange can be a tad bright and edgy, and there is only a moderate dynamic impact, but, hey, the audio probably sounds better here than it did in a movie theater.

There's really quite a good collection of bonus materials on this Deluxe Edition DVD. First off, there's the customary audio commentary, this time not only by the director, Sean Cunningham, but with writer Victor Miller, actresses Betsy Palmer and Andrienne King, composer Harry Manfredini, special-effects supervisor Tom Savini, executive producer Alvin Geiler, and host Peter Bracke. Unlike most commentaries, their discussion is not scene specific but rather a freewheeling chat about the film and the filmmaking.

Five featurettes come next, most of them newly made in 2008. "Friday the 13th Reunion," filmed September 13, 2008, is a seventeen-minute question-and-answer session with many of the folks from the commentary in front of an appreciative audience. "Fresh Cuts: New Tales from Friday the 13th" is a fourteen-minute selection of behind-the-scenes stories about the casting, music, and characterizations in the film. "The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S. Cunningham" is nine minutes in which the director discusses the movie and what it means to him and to the world. And "Lost Tales from Camp Blood, Part 1" is a newly filmed seven-minute scene that appears to come out of nowhere.

The extras wrap with fifteen scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and a slipcover with a 3-D holographic picture on the cover.

Oh, and this "Uncut," unrated Deluxe Edition "contains 10 seconds of footage different from the original R-rated version." Fans will have to own the new edition in any case, but surely the extra ten seconds will clinch it for non-fans as well. I can see Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin lining up now to get their copies.

Parting Thoughts:
Because of the movie's 2009 remake, co-produced by Paramount and New Line Cinema among others, both studios are re-releasing new editions of practically everything "Friday the 13th" they can lay hold of. These include not only a DVD and Blu-ray edition of the original film, but new editions of "Friday the 13th, Part 2" and "Friday the 13th, Part 3, 3-D" from Paramount and a three-disc set containing "Jason Goes to Hell," "Jason X," and "Freddy vs. Jason" from New Line. That's over half of the "Friday the 13th" canon reissued at one shot. Or one stab, if you prefer. Only the viewer can decide if it's worth it. For me, the first, original movie reviewed here is probably all I'd need.


Film Value