Tuesday, October 20, 2020

What's All This Then? | Friday the 13th (1980)

I'm not a slasher movie fan. I prefer my horror to be creepy and spooky and subtle. I love living in the tension of what might happen. Gore doesn't scare me, it just grosses me out. 

But I do love world-building and epic stories and I'm fascinated by the idea of slasher sagas like the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th films. They scratch the same itch that corporate superhero comics do. The business is propelling the story machine so that it has to keep rolling, so how do the storytellers accomplish that? It's often clunky, but equally as often interesting to me as a writing exercise. 

I already looked at the Halloween saga a long time ago and got started on (but never finished due to my lack of access to the movies at the time, not lack of interest) the Nightmare on Elm Street series. I need to go back and wrap up Nightmare at some point, but in the meantime, this year I want to finally see all of the Friday the 13th movies and how they connect to each other. 


I've seen the original Friday the 13th two or three times before, but I always forget how good it is. It's super cheap and none of the actors are very professional (only Kevin Bacon would go on to have any kind of career), but the characters are believable, the story is extremely well paced, and it wisely keeps its killer's motives a mystery until the very end. It doesn't rely on jump scares and the gore is minimal. It spends a lot of time letting the killer stalk the victims. The murders also start right towards the beginning of the film and since the whole story takes place in a single afternoon and evening, it breezes through like summer wind through a stuffy cabin. That and all the red herrings around the murderer's identity keep me super engaged for the whole run time.

It's a common criticism of teen slasher flicks to say that they specifically punish sexual promiscuity and reward the purity of the Final Girl, but that's not always true and it's not for Friday the 13h. Jack and Marcie are the only characters to actually have sex. Ned is obsessed with it, but he's every bit as virginal as Final Girl Alice, who's right in there playing strip Monopoly with Brenda and Bill. And the film's first victim is Annie, who doesn't have time to do any kind of messing around with sex or substances. 

All that helps keep the movie fresh for me. These are young people alone in the woods doing things you might expect unchaperoned young people to do, but it's an overstatement to say that their fates are tied to their actions. That might be more true in the sequels or other slasher films, but I think it's cool that it's not in this one, which is arguably the prototype for the genre even more than Halloween is.

I've gone back and forth on how I feel about the ending and the killer's revelation of herself. On the one hand, it's awfully convenient for exposition's sake that she show herself and explain her motives to Alice. The audience needs to get that information somehow, but this seems like an inelegant way to do it until I realize that as insane as she is, Mrs Voorhees does have incentive for wanting someone to know why she's killed all of those people. She sees it as retribution/justice for the death of her child, but part of justice is having someone know that justice has been carried out. Mrs Voorhees obviously can't have everyone knowing that it was her or why she did it, but when she's down to her last victim and is about to safely get away with it all, I understand why she goes for it. (Speaking of her motives and insanity, I also love the reversal of Psycho with the mother creating a homicidal alternate personality of her dead son.)

Outside of the general cheapness of the production (the motorcycle cop is especially hard to believe), my only complaint about Friday the 13th is its wanting to leave open the question about whether or not Mrs Voorhees' son Jason is still a threat there at the bottom of the lake. The dream sequence with him attacking Alice in the canoe is fine, because it's a dream and it feels like the kind of thing she might be afraid of after the night she's had. And I don't care too much about her vocalized fear that "he's still there." She's in shock and it doesn't have to mean anything. 

Except that the movie clearly wants it to mean something with its focusing on the surface of the lake right after her declaration. It's clearly setting up a possible sequel, but there's no rational reason to believe that Jason is anything but a resting corpse at the bottom of the lake. Up to then, this has been a straightforward mystery about a mass murderer. It's only at the very end, after the climax, that it decides to introduce a potentially supernatural element. I don't like that.

I don't actually remember if I've ever seen Part 2 before, so if I have, I definitely don't remember how it handles Jason's resurrection or how much it explains. But I can imagine a scenario in which Mrs Voorhees' deep connection to her dead son would allow her spirit to possess his corpse and bring it back to murderous life. I can also imagine an explanation in which she never really created his alternate personality on her own, but was actually possessed by him. But that's not as cool to me.

Of course, Mrs Voorhees' possessing her son's corpse would only give her a teenaged body to run around in and that's not very threatening, so I expect something completely different for the next movie. I'm looking forward to seeing what that is.


Caffeinated Joe said...

This movie is one of my favorites, have watched it many times. I actually commented to my wife that I was reciting the dialogue right before each character spoke. I agree about Mrs. Voorhees needing to tell someone about her reasons. She wants them to know why she is making them all pay. As for the lake shot at the very end, I just see it as a final calm shot of the lake, where all this madness began. I truly don't think the initial idea had Jason anything other than dead. The sequels however... ;)

Michael May said...

Thanks for that perspective, Joe! I know you're a huge fan of these movies, so I'm very interested in hearing your thoughts on these posts as we go.


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