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 “Tony 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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Franchise Firsts: “The Exorcist” (1973)

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Let’s just get this out of the way: The Exorcist is the best horror film of all time. There. Now, onward.

I expected this film to be less impressive on my sixth viewing, or whatever this was. On the contrary: I noticed things I never caught before, nuances of acting and emotion and scene and stuff that made me have feelings. And here’s another point to get out in the open: not only do I regard this as the best horror film of all time, but as one of the most uplifting, hopeful movies ever made. Honestly. I’ll get to why in a moment, but let’s get all our cards on the table, n’cest pas?

The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, tells the story of Regan, the daughter of (fictional) famous actor Chris MacNeil. Since the plot of the film is mostly the same as the novel on which it’s based (though the details differ), I won’t waste time on it now: in lieu of that I’ll refer you to my review of the latter here. Instead I’ll focus on why, no joke, I actually cried a little on this most recent viewing.

In some ways this is a near-perfect film. Every frame is wonderfully composed, and while there’s some annoying camerawork by today’s standards, the cinematography still holds up. It is utterly complete, every detail accounted for, every scene significant: it is economical, spartan even, with nothing wasted, no throwaway dialogue, no unrelated scenes. That’s what caught me most by surprise on this viewing, in fact: how important every detail is. I didn’t realize, for example, that the iconic head-spinning scene was actually possessed Regan’s way of acknowledging that she killed Burke, the drunken British director, whose head was twisted around ninety degrees. I’d seen it half a dozen times before and never made the connection. I knew she did it, of course; but I didn’t realize that the answer to the infamous, “Do you know what she did? Your cunting daughting?” was, well, she killed the British guy. Likewise, I didn’t catch that Lt. Kinderman, the kindly cop played perfectly by Lee Cob, was doing something important when he commented on Regan’s cutesy clay sculptures (in the previous scene he’d discovered one such sculpture at the scene of Burke’s death). Chock it up to youthful stupidity; regardless, watching the film with fresh eyes revealed lots of new stuff.

The Exorcist also shines as an example of how uplifting horror can be. And I really mean that: it’s a battle with a terrible supernatural power and humans, though at a disadvantage, still have a chance. The themes are clear as crystal: the old priest, Lankester Merrin, encounters the Pazuzu statue and suddenly becomes intensely aware of the darkness and ugliness in the world. But though shaken, he’s not beaten by it. His resolve makes him the demon’s greatest adversary. Damien Karras, the young priest, has lost his faith and now can only see the evil in the world. He wants to do good but he’s disgusted by humanity, by people’s debasement of themselves and their places and their lives. Ironically the demon’s appearance saves his faith: by the end, he unquestionably believes. His seeming condemnation is actually his salvation, sort of. It’s beautiful, and you don’t need to be a religious person (I’m not) to experience a surge of what’s been called “the religious feeling” from this narrative.

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Nowhere, to my mind, does the movie assault the audience with pro-Christian messages: if anything there seems to be some commentary on the Catholic church’s backwardness and conservatism (one of the neurologists examining Regan makes a comment to this effect). But differences between dogmas become irrelevant in a world like the one proposed by The Exorcist, in which the supernatural is both real and threatening. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if you worship in a church or a mosque or a synagogue or whatever: the MacNeills are themselves areligious, but their faith, or lack thereof, doesn’t seem to factor into Regan’s possession. What matters, the movie seems to say, is that there is a real spiritual evil and that only clarity of purpose and strength of character and, perhaps, faith in some equivalent spiritual good can combat it.

And best of all are the tiny human kindnesses, the warmth of the banter between Kinderman and Karras, and later Kinderman and Father Dyer (in the extended version), and Father Merrin’s unshakeable goodness. In one scene Kinderman visits the MacNeill’s house and, as he’s leaving, he tells Chris, “You’re a very nice lady.” She responds, “You’re a nice man.” In the midst of these awful events–Chris’ daughter has the devil in her; Kinderman is investigating Burke’s homicide, and he’s reluctant even to suggest that Regan could be responsible (though he’s clearly thinking it)–this simple exchange seemed so decent that it made me get a little teary this time around. Admittedly there was also wine, but still, it’s touches like this that make this film great.

Horror like this, stories of the supernatural where it is frightening but people can do something about it, are the ones that speak most to me as a dorky folklorist whose secret wish has always been to be a vampire hunter. But what do you think? Does The Exorcist deserve its iconic status?

After a review like that, if you can even call it a review, there’s only one score that’s appropriate.

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