Friday, May 13, 2016

Happy Friday the 13th Day: Friday the 13th (1980)

Happy Friday the 13th!

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey).

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.
The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts?

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger.

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes. 

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult. 

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). 

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds. 

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl. 

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster
When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight.  

1 comment:

  1. A lot of horror fans claim that Alice Hardy is an example of a traditional final girl when in actuality she smoked weed and participated in strip Monopoly. Brenda could have been a contender for final girl as well, although she instigated the strip monopoly and partook in the weed. She is the one I think who had the most caring personality (going out in the rain to look for the crying child). Brenda is someone I definitely would have wanted to be friends with. Rest In peace Laurie Bartram.