I watched Friday the 13th for the first time four years ago. I did not care for it. A devotee to Halloween and to John Carpenter in general, my initial viewing left the impression of a mostly forgettable Carpenter rip-off remarkable only in the inexplicable way it somehow launched a spat of bad sequels almost every single year for the next decade (though Halloween is guilty of the same). I probably could have lived the rest of my life happily holding this opinion of the movie if Eldritch Adaptations/ Tuesday Zone writer Alex Gladwin hadn’t suggested I give the movie another watch. Lo and behold, a second viewing revealed a much better made horror film than I had originally credited, and a slasher that’s distinctive in the ways it differs from the franchise and the genre it would spawn.
Friday the 13th‘s biggest game changer may be the likability of its cast. As the rules of the slasher cemented and the “punishment” aspect of the killings became a defining characteristic, the teenage machete fodder (Final Girl notwithstanding) becomes broader and act worse, and their deaths become anticipated for a different set of reasons. Even Laurie Strode’s doomed friends Halloween kind of suck; they’re shirking their responsibilities to have sex and generally being jerks to Laurie a lot of the time. None of the counselors in Friday the 13th are bad kids. Sure, they’re having sex and smoking weed, but they’re also responsibly opening Camp Crystal Lake. They clearly care about each other and about their job. Hell, our first victim Annie (Robbi Morgan) is taking the job at the camp because her dream is to help children. At their worst, they’re harmless doofueses (Mark Nelson solidifying the prankster archetype as Ned) and at their best, they’re going out of their way to help one another and people they don’t know (Laurie Batram’s Brenda dies because she goes out to investigate what sounds like a kid crying for help). They’re not exactly deep, rounded characters, but we like them, and when they dies it feels sadder and more senseless and the suspense tightens. Friday the 13th generates a genuine concern for the safety of its central teens that’s not always prevalent in other films of its ilk.
Director and producer Sean S. Cunningham might not have the same eye for cinema as fellow slasher forefathers Carpenter and Craven, but revisiting Friday the 13th reveals he’s better behind the camera than I originally thought. Scary hockey mask wearing murder-giants, Friday the 13th is maybe most well known for how it employs POV shots, putting the viewer in the killer’s eyes as they watch their victims from behind trees and around corners. It’s a neat shot, and one that’s become synonymous with slashers, but the cinematography in Friday the 13th is notable for how it splits the difference between perspective shots. While those killer’s perspectives are mostly effective, the best shots place the viewer opposite the killer. DP Barry Adams drops the viewer uneasily into the action, into scenes where we know the killer is nearby, and the suspense lies not in if our protagonist will be attacked, but from where. The camera follows characters through dark, claustrophobic hallways, peeking from around corners or through door frames and it becomes clear that the camera is not the killer, and instead simulates the viewer watching at home or at the theater from between their fingers (or from behind a throw pillow, as is my wont). The dread these shots create, not the actual murders, are what make for the best scares in the movie and what places the movie’s big jump scare up there with the one in Jaws for the best ever filmed. There aren’t as many memorable shots as in some other horror heavyweights, but the cinematography serves the film well, particularly the way it dances around revealing its killer.
Jason is not the killer in Friday the 13th. The horror faithful reading this are rolling their eyes at this non-revelation, and the newcomers are just a little bit safer if they find themselves in a Scream-type trivia situation. With the twist 35 years spoiled, it’s not as easy to appreciate how unique and well-executed the killer’s last reel reveal is. Sexy teen murder aside, the big draw of slashers are their iconic killers; from Halloween on, the common wisdom is to center the action around the monsters, with their physical presence adding to the menace. Friday the 13th bucks this trend to good effect, since without an idea of what the killer looks like, they could be hiding anywhere. What’s more, the killer doesn’t look like a monster, and is normal looking enough for two victims to approach them carefree, making fine red herrings out of the assortment of surly townsfolk introduced early on. Friday the 13th relies on those trusty POV shots, score cues, and some good ol’ fashioned uncomfortable stillness to ratchet the tension in lieu of a fleeting shot of the killer in the background. The few times we see Michael Myers at a distance in Halloween make my blood run cold, but there’s something effective in the uncertainty and mystery surrounding the deaths in Friday at 13th, and that’s something unexpected from a franchise that’s generated one of the most enduring figures in modern horror.
While it’s not quite as good as its more attractive older sibling Halloween, Friday the 13th is a much more worthy slasher than my four-years-ago self took it for. As important for the cliches it invents as for the conventions it dodges, it’s a shockingly well crafted genre milestone.