Sometimes you just catch lightening in a bottle and that's what the original Friday the 13th was. The simple story crafted by Victor Miller and Sean Cunningham, with its natural qualities of a campfire tale, was the perfect showcase for Tom Savini's groundbreaking FX work. Savini's own work in 1978's Dawn of the Dead was a benchmark in splatter (in fact, his work in that film led Romero to coin the phrase "splatter movie") but it was more of a midnight movie, rather than a mainstream hit. But Friday the 13th was different. For this grotty little independent film, with its grainy look and grisly FX to be picked up by a major studio like Paramount was a significant deal. It meant that Friday the 13th would receive the kind of wide distribution that a low budget exploitation film normally wouldn't have. And unlike Dawn of the Dead, it was rated R so it would automatically play more venues and be more accessible to a wider range of moviegoers. So while some had already had the pleasure of seeing the top of a zombie's head sliced off by a helicopter blade, for many viewers Friday the 13th was really the start of something new.
It's almost impossible now, almost thirty years later to even remember, much less convey to those who weren't around then, how genuinely shocking the original Friday the 13th was at the time. We weren't such a jaded culture back then. In 1980, just to see a throat slashed on screen was really something. It was horrifying. And Kevin Bacon's arrow through the neck murder was astonishing, jaw-dropping stuff. We weren't blase yet about sights like this. We didn't yet live in world of Re-Animator, or The Evil Dead, or Dead-Alive where seeing gore by the gallons became commonplace. And in the days before most households had VCR's, if you hadn't seen Dawn of the Dead in a theater, you had no other way to see it (and for those few who had VCR's in 1980, I don't even think Dawn of the Dead was on cassette yet).
Given the extremes to which popular culture in general - and horror filmmaking in particular - have gone in the years since Friday the 13th, the original film now carries an old-fashioned appeal to it. Savini's state-of-the-art special effects (which only constitute about a minute or two of screentime in the film) forever changed the expectations of horror fans - and made horror movies a renewed target for moral watchdogs as well. The outrage this film incurred seems hard to believe now, as today what was once considered to be a notorious bloodbath seems positively Hitchcockian.
Although Friday the 13th has long since lost its shock value, I think it still plays very well. And that's because Cunningham didn't set out to make a gore film. This isn't out to hammer the viewer with kill after kill. Cunningham actually expects the audience to stick with the movie when not much appears to be happening. And in tandem with cinematographer Barry Abrams, Cunningham makes Camp Crystal Lake a truly scary place to be. More than with any other film in the series, you really feel that these kids are alone in the middle of the woods. There's a sense of isolation that pervades the film and when night falls on Crystal Lake, it really feels like night - not movie-style night time where everything is still somehow illuminated but real, honest-to-God night. Outside the the limited light of a lantern or a flashlight, you're just looking at blackness. The only other film since that created that same feeling that I can readily think of is The Blair Witch Project.
Some may feel otherwise but for me, Betsy Palmer's performance as Mrs. Voorhees falls on the right side of campiness. Her peformance doesn't hold back and it really gives the third act a boost. Palmer handles the necessary exposition well without letting it stop the film in its tracks and when she has to pursue Alice, she's a convincing threat. You can believe that she was able to take down all these people and that she would be a relentless adversary. And as the first Final Girl of the Friday series, Adrienne King's Alice will always exist in a class by herself. Maybe because I've never seen King in any other film besides this, but she's easily the most wholly believable girl-next-door of any of the Friday actresses. There's a cherub-faced sweetness about her that's been abolished from the world of movies, apparently, because I've never seen another horror heroine quite like her.
Even though Friday the 13th was far from an original creation - preceded by the likes of Twitch of the Death Nerve, Black Christmas, and Halloween - it still feels like a one of a kind movie to me, like a last summer of innocence before horror films had to constantly up the ante on each other and squeeze more slaughter in. It feels like a product of more carefree times and that's always a welcome place to return to.