It could be argued that before Friday the 13th there was no slasher genre. The concept had been explored in everything from Black Christmas to Halloween, but the explosion of the low budget slice ‘n’ dice flicks that flooded the drive-ins in the early eighties were more a product of the success of Friday the 13th than of any film that had proceeded it. Thanks to ingenious marketing of Paramount Pictures and the groundbreaking special effects from Dawn of the Dead‘s Tom Savini, the movie’s reputation quickly grew through word-of-mouth and soon a cheap horror feature that had cost a mere $550,000 to produce was fighting for the top spot against such Hollywood blockbusters as Empire Strikes Back. The film immediately became a part of pop culture, with the monstrous child Jason Voorhees adorned across the covers of magazines, leading to every studio in town attempting to recreate that winning formula.
It is 1958 and a group of counselors gather around a fire at Camp Crystal Lake for a sing-song. During the festivities, two of the teenagers, Barry (Willie Adams) and Claudette (Debra S. Hayes), stare lustfully at each other. Once the song has finished, they discretely sneak away and head up into the barn to make out. But as they lay down and begin to kiss, a figure quietly moves below, climbing up the stairs towards them as they giggle and roll around on the floor. Suddenly, one of the steps creeks and Barry jumps up, immediately becoming defensive when he recognises the intruder. Protesting that they were being innocent whilst buttoning up their shirts, Barry is stabbed in the gut and falls to the floor. A moment later, Claudette desperately tries to escape but it soon cornered, when the killer pounces on her as she screams.
Flash forward two decades and a young girl called Annie (Robbi Morgan) arrives in town and heads over to a café to ask for directions. When she says that she is searching for Camp Crystal Lake everyone falls silent, until one of the patrons (Rex Everhart) agrees to give her a lift part way. Climbing into his truck, they head off through the country, with him attempting to convince her to quit for her own safety. It seems that in the years since the incident the camp has developed a reputation, with many of the locals believing the site to be cursed. With still several miles to go, Annie eventually manages to hitch a ride in a Jeep but the driver takes her in the wrong direction, forcing her to jump out into the bushes. Running through the trees, she is soon tracked down and begs for her life as her throat is slit open with a hunting knife.
Back at Camp Crystal Lake, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) has hired a group of counselors to help him renovate the property in time for its summer re-opening. These kids include young lovers Jack (Kevin Bacon) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), their practical joker friend Ned (Mark Nelson), Brenda (Laurie Bartram), Bill (Harry Crosby) and Steve’s occasional girlfriend Alice (Adrienne King). But when Annie fails to show up, the group are one down and are forced to work harder in order to prepare the camp. But a figure is looming in the darkness, dispatching of the teenagers one-by-one as they spent most of their time having sex or swimming in the lake. With no adults or authority figures to protect them, they are left alone to fend for themselves. Eventually, the lone survivor is forced to fight for her life, as she discovers the horrifying truth behind the camp’s bloody history.
The filmmakers of Friday the 13th were always the first to admit how many ideas they stole from John Carpenter’s Halloween, such as the faceless killer, the promiscuous kids and the prophet of doom – with Halloween it was Dr. Loomis, here it is local soothsayer Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney). But whereas Carpenter’s film was a well crafted movie with professional cinematography, Friday the 13th was a cheap exploitation film directed by a businessman. But, despite its technical flaws, there are so many features to enjoy with this movie that it is almost guaranteed to entertain. The cast are mostly likeable, especially Crosby and Bartram, who portray their characters as genuinely pleasant teenagers. Morgan, too, makes her role sympathetic, with her passion for the camp clearly evident. Whilst Bacon and Taylor are fairly generic, Nelson adds a touch of humour as the joker (which would become a staple of the genre), and King proves to be a suitable heroine.
Each of the kills are handled adequately enough, with the camera slowly stalking the victim, although Savini’s makeup is by far the star of the show. Although these type of effects soon became commonplace, back in 1980 they were considered spectacular and managed to anger various critics and moral watchdogs. Whilst the final twist is unique and unpredictable, it is also a little ridiculous to believe that a middle aged woman would be capable of throwing bodies through windows and overpowering healthy young men. The fact that the killer clearly had hairy knuckles also makes the revelation a little unbelievable. But, its shortcomings aside, Friday the 13th is such an inventive and enjoyable movie that is is no surprise just how eager other producers were to capitalise on its success. Yet, unlike most of the films that followed, Friday the 13th felt fresh and fun, and thirty years later it still stands up as one of the best horrors of the era.