13th is 34 years old. Chew on that if you want to feel ancient!
While I write I typically keep the television or radio on for background noise, for company. If a really good (or entertainingly bad) show airs, I’ll pause in my writing, a few minutes here, a few minutes there, to enjoy key scenes and plot points. At times a real gem will sweep me away and the writing will be forgotten. Chinatown can do that, for example, every time, as perfect and minimalist a film as has ever been crafted. I would have bet strong odds that Friday the 13th would not have been able to commandeer my attention—but yesterday I would have lost that bet.
Friday the 13th is not a great movie. In many ways it is a terrible movie (and not the cool terrible, as in "You’re terrible, Muriel.”) But Friday the 13th has a sort of hypnotic pull, and having seen it now, I understand why it spawned a multiplicity of sequels and reboots as well as (eventually) an iconic villain.
What drew me in first was the classic purity of the set-up. There is a place, nicknamed “Camp Blood,” that is supposed to be a bad place, where awful, even supernatural things happen. You are not supposed to go there. So, naturally, the film begins with a cadre of energetic and cheerful young people--not bad, but irreverent--headed toward this accursed place for the express purpose of reopening the camp!
There. That’s the launch of so many horror and ghost tales, going back thousands of years. There is a forbidden place, and there is a cheerful innocent—in this case, a pack of cheerful innocents—who will disturb the place. Nothing but slaughter can ensue.
I was next drawn in by the realization that Kevin Bacon—yes, that Kevin Bacon—was among the cheerful innocents headed to the slaughter. While he was in no danger of being nominated for an Academy Award, Bacon’s was the only performance in the film that seemed wholly natural. That is, he was the only actor in the production who already knew how to act. He looks inconceivably young and vulnerable, and while there is nothing very interesting about his character, you still care that he is probably (OK, definitely) going to die.
The third element that drew me in was the almost documentary-like patience and simplicity of the film. Friday the 13th is not showy, not just because there’s no budget for pyrotechnics, but because the script is a simple story that will demand patience of the audience. There’s no hint here that the sequels will mutate into ever gorier and more over-the-top supernatural thrillers.
All of the characters are ordinary. No one is a superhero or a super-villain. No one is, even, a hero or villain. The young people who are reopening the camp are typical young people. They are neither particularly likeable (with the exception of Bacon) nor unlikeable (with the exception of prankish “Ned”). The activities that they engage in are typical activities. They paint. They clean. They organize. They swim. They talk. They laugh. They cook supper. They play music and games. A young couple slips off to be alone together. It’s all very human and ordinary, and the camera lingers over those ordinary moments as if they matter. If it weren’t for the fact that every ten minutes or so someone gets murdered, this would be a rather ho-hum “How to reopen your summer camp” documentary!
But someone does get murdered every ten minutes or so, and in very grisly and variable ways (the common theme being that a blade is typically involved). A knife for one victim, a hatchet for another, and so on. And on. The pull of the movie becomes the question “Will anyone survive?”
The answer (SPOILERS ahead) is that, yes, there will be one lone survivor. One of the young women survives until the end. She is not the most attractive or intelligent or wise or likeable of the cast, but that seems to be rather the point. What she lacks in other aspects is balanced by her tenacity. In what becomes an almost agonizingly drawn-out final face-off, she confronts the murderer, then escapes, then confronts the murderer again, over and over, in a painful cycle.
Our heroine—though she isn’t, really—makes ludicrous and repeated mistakes. She constantly gives away her hiding places by whimpering, shouting, wrenching drawers open and shut, knocking things over, turning on lights, turning off lights—you name it, and she does it, which is how the killer keeps finding her. By all rights, our lone survivor should be as dead as the other victims.
But this isn’t a film about justice or logic. It’s a film about survival. And sometimes the survivor is the one with the most cockroach-like qualities, an ability to be found and knocked down, and found and knocked down again, and so on and so forth, while continuing to refuse to just give in. In this story the survivor’s tenacity saves her where intellect, cunning, etc.—qualities we tend to laud in such filmic situations—have gone by the board.
Who is the killer, anyway? For the one other person besides me who hasn’t seen the movie yet: another SPOILER alert. The villain is not the soon-to-be-famous-and-iconic-and-unkillable Jason Voohrees but, rather, Jason Voohrees’ off-the-rails mother. Once she heard that the camp at Crystal Lake was going to be reopened, Pamela Voohrees dove off the deep end of sanity, into the abyss. She decided she simply had to kill those meddling kids who were disturbing the accursed land where her son drowned, years before, due to the inattention of his camp counselors.
Film and TV veteran Betsy Palmer does a capable job chewing the scenery as wronged mama Voohrees, swinging blades and channeling the voice of her drowned son with gleeful intensity. Sporting an eminently sensible woodland sweater-and-slacks ensemble, Jason’s mother chases the lone survivor from cabin to cabin, building to building, room to room, wounding and being wounded, and refusing as steadfastly as her prey to surrender.
They fight, they draw blood, the girl slips away, and the psychotic mama Voohrees pursues. It happens again. And again. And again. At no point does the girl arm herself with a suitable weapon, although she stumbles through a wealth of them during the pursuits. “Come on!” I found myself shouting at the screen, “Grab that kettle/pot/pan/knife/hatchet/etc.!” Instead of which, she would grab nothing, or she would grab something woefully inadequate, like a cheap-looking brownie tray, and immediately discard it after using it only once. The lone survivor in Friday the 13th is no Buffy the Vampire Slayer—she is a fumble-fingered stand-in for us, if the truth be told. It’s tough to admit, but wouldn’t most of us be as clumsily terrified as this girl is if Pamela Voohrees were stalking us?
The showdown goes on and on. I would like to think that the writers were making a point about the painful struggles of life, struggles that drag out, and cycle back, rearing their heads just when you think everything is going to be OK. I would even like to think the writers were tapping into the female empowerment zeitgeist of the early 80’s, making both the bad guy and good guy of the movie women. However … the endless final battle might merely have been due to too light of a hand in the editing bay.
Well, allrighty then. Mama Voohrees is finally dispatched. She was full-bore crazy, but she was mortal. Lone survivor girl floats around the lake all night, huddled in a canoe, using the water as a protective zone between her and whatever other evils might be lurking in the accursed woods. The next morning she has a nightmare (or is it?) about a rotted and malformed boy, Jason himself, leaping up from the depths of the lake like a demented flying fish, attacking her, trying to drag her under.
Smash cut to the hospital where she is recovering. Minor-characters-only-there-for-exposition assure her the attack by Jason was only a dream. She’s going to be fine. Riiiiight. One of the rules of this genre is that even if you physically survive such ordeals, emotionally, mentally and spiritually you are never fine again … Unless you are the film’s producers. Then you are more than fine. You are running to the bank and diving into piles of money that only drift higher as sequel after sequel is released.
If you haven’t seen Friday the 13th in a while, why not see it again? It’s a perfect “early summer” flick. You can probably Netflix it. Or adjust your rabbit ear antennae and find the old movie station on which I caught it. Pop some popcorn, make sure the kids are asleep (or at least out of the room—it’s an R-rated horror flick, for crying out loud!) and let Friday the 13th pull you in once again, like it did 34 years ago. And this summer, if you’re thinking about fixing up that old camp down the road, the one they used to call “Camp Blood,”or your mother-in-law’s old house, (or any other potentially accursed property)… let it go.