Retro Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

By weird coincidence I decided to rewatch the original Friday the 13th this week, well before I realized that this week would actually have a Friday the 13th. I’ve been wanting to get to this for quite a while now, for complicated reasons. I’m fairly sure I saw it for the first time back in high school. (Though almost certainly not before. As a child I was absolutely terrified of Jason.) At any rate, on this viewing I’d forgotten so many details that it was like seeing it for the first time.

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Pictured: unrelenting horror.

One awful, awful thing serious fans may have already known about (I did not) is the snake scene. In a pointless bit of tepid mood-setting, a black snake slithers into one of the cabins, and the goofy teenagers freak out. One of them hacks it up with a machete, and as far as I can tell, the scene is real. I didn’t even remember this scene happening, but on this viewing, I thought it looked suspiciously realistic. It seems I was right. (That link is to another WordPress blog. With a cursory Google search I’m not able to turn up anything more authoritative than that, and I’m lazy, but it sure did look like they really killed that snake.) I don’t tolerate animal cruelty in any form, so after a few minutes of waffling I turned the movie off and resolved not to finish it. But several days later my resolve crumbled and I picked up where I’d left off. If they did murder that snake 37+ years ago, me not watching the movie now wasn’t going to bring it back.

I’m not certain why, but despite my avowed dislike of slashers and bloody horror in general, the Friday the 13th franchise has always held a weird fascination. I think it’s because it scared me so badly as a kid. I’ve probably already mentioned the sleepover when friends were watching one of the Friday films on TV and I was so scared that I had to leave the room. Another time, some years later, I had to go on some sort of “retreat” at a place called Summit Lake. I have virtually no memory of what we did there–I assume it was normal camp stuff like canoeing and weaving stupid things out of gimp–except that all the kids slept in a big cabin and one night some of the other children terrified me with stories of how Friday the 13th‘s Crystal Lake was actually Summit Lake, where the movie was filmed. (This, of course, was total hogwash–Crystal Lake is in New Jersey, not Maryland–but I didn’t know that at the time. I actually believed for years after that the movies were filmed there.) My most vivid memory of the whole trip is lying awake in my cot, convinced that Jason was going to appear and murder me.

Then there was the infamous NES game, with Jason decked out in his inexplicably purple jumpsuit. I played it with a friend and remember being scared by it too, not because the game itself was particularly scary, but just because it referenced the scariness of the movies. Jason really freaked me out, even in purple.

So it could be that I’ve wanted to address some childhood fears by actually watching some of the Friday films. (To this day the only ones I’ve seen all the way through are the first one, Jason Goes to Hell, and Freddy vs. Jason. And the trashy 2009 reboot, but that doesn’t count.) But my conscious reason for wanting to revisit the first film now was to confirm that Jason, the antagonist of the rest of the series, did in fact drown in Crystal Lake as a child. If Jason drowned, that means his eventual appearance in the series is as a revenant, an undead murder machine, rather than just a regular murder machine. (I know that by the later films this is established, but there seems to have been some doubt about it in earlier entries.) Regular murder machines are boring to me, but undead ones are neat. And while I still don’t care for extreme violence, something about the Friday series’ weird mythos appeals to me.

You probably know the story (such as it is). In the film’s present, Camp Crystal Lake is about to be reopened after some twenty years. It was closed following some mysterious murders. Now a group of teenagers, including Kevin Bacon, have been hired as counselors and are working to get the place back in shape, but one night a thunderstorm hits and an unknown assailant starts a-murdrin’.

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This is my murdrin’ sweater.

The killer, as we all know by now, is Pamela Voorhees, whose young son Jason was left to drown decades earlier by some irresponsible horny counselors. Now she exacts revenge on, I guess, anybody who comes to Crystal Lake? Only not really, because other people come and go and don’t get killed, like Crazy Ralph and the derpy police officer. Pamela mentions at one point that it’s Jason’s birthday, so I guess that’s why she’s killing people now? Also it’s Friday the 13th, so. Plot.

Yes, there’s really not a lot of narrative here. Despite this, Friday the 13th isn’t exactly a terrible movie. It’s got a coherent, if superficial and somewhat stupid story, and does manage to create an atmosphere of weirdness and, if not dread, then at least futility. Like later films in the series–and like the slasher genre as a whole–the plot is really nothing more than a series of flimsy excuses for people to be cut off from their friends and slaughtered one by one, but it’s at least plausible that a bunch of young people would be hired on an ad-hoc basis to serve as counselors at a junky local camp. Normally the “five or six young people do stupid things in isolated places and get murdered” formula feels less organic. The acting and writing are on the bad side of the spectrum, but not nearly as bad as other genre films. (I’m thinking especially of a later entry in the series, I don’t know which, and a line about “Harvey the wonder llama.” Jesus.)

I am happy to say that, according to the story as laid out in the first film, Jason absolutely did drown. Apparently they retconned this later, because when Jason does show up it’s as an adult, but at the beginning he was definitively dead. He drowned in 1957, and in 1958 his mother Pamela Voorhees committed the franchise’s first revenge-murders against some of the counselors. There’s no ambiguity here: we hear it all right from Pamela’s mouth. So whatever else he is, Jason Voorhees the hockey mask-wearing butcher is and always was undead. The ambiguous scene at the end where Jason leaps out of the lake to pull final girl Alice in seems to confirm this: he’s all rotty and gross. Whether this scene is a dream or not (and I’d argue that the film heavily implies that it isn’t), we still know Jason was dead.

Except, I guess, when he wasn’t? But then he was again? Something. Whatever.

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Yeesh

Well. *nervous cough* I’ve, uh. I’ve been away. For. A while. But… I’m back now! So… you know. Horror!

Life moves in drunken, sidewindy ways, and I find myself back in the US again. It’s been a crazy reentry and I don’t know exactly what’s next, but for the next year I’m ensconced in a postdoc. That’s right, I finished–no longer an angry grad student, but an actual angry scholar. So, you know. That’s a thing.

I’ve moved a teeny bit further north, deep into Trump country, which is a terrifying thing. (If you’re not into politics, now’s the time to click away.) Coming back from Japan in the wake of the election was extremely hard, as my lady friend had to stay there in her university job and we’re back to being long distance for a while. But coming back alone to this climate of hatred and fear… It’s shameful. I am ashamed.

So as we approach what is, if not the most “important” (whatever that means), then certainly the most visible holiday of the calendar year for most of the Western world, please be kind to each other, but also remember that words alone will not change things.

I’m busier than I’ve been in ages, but I’ll try to get back to something like a regular posting schedule. I hope you’re all well and getting through it. Resist, but also, don’t forget to laugh. From a cosmic perspective all this horror and stupidity must look pretty silly.