AS HORROR-MOVIE picks for Halloween go, Friday the 13th (1980) is a genuine bad-luck omen. Indeed, has there ever been a more unimaginative exercise in big-screen terror--not to mention one that grossed $35 million, spawned eight identical sequels (a ninth, Jason X: Friday the 13th, Part 10, is due out next year), and inspired two decades of slice-and-dice thrillers?
Horrific it is, although the fact that this low-budget summer-camp shocker made a killing at the box office does lend it a certain perverse intrigue. I mean, why would early-Eighties teens have turned out in droves to see a joyless Halloween rip-off in which a dozen tight-clothed members of their generation are systematically butchered by an unseen psycho? Weren't the imminent election of Ronald Reagan and the spread of the 21-year-old drinking age terrifying enough? Whatever the reason, Friday the 13th (appearing on a calendar near you this week) represents the American horror film at its most crudely elemental--a movie that's fascinating in inverse proportion to the minimal artistry that accompanies its sadism. The Blair Witch Project is cuddly by comparison.
From an industry standpoint, it isn't hard to recognize the film's appeal. At a time when Jaws and Star Wars had pushed youth-movie budgets to unprecedented heights, Friday the 13th was shot independently for a mere $600,000, and it sold for three times that amount to Paramount Pictures--which proceeded to spend a whopping $4 million on advertising. So, too, the filmmaking was a done deal: Simply assemble a cast of attractive unknowns and then hire a horror-movie makeup artist (in this case Vietnam vet Tom Savini, interviewed at length in The American Nightmare) to puncture their bodies with enough Black & Decker hardware to fill a season of This Old House. Reviews, of course, were beside the point: "All these nice kids have been perforated in various ways on the day of the title" was as much plot description as could be mustered by the New York Times' Janet Maslin. (Couldn't a fourth-string critic have been placed on this unenviable assignment?)
Befitting the cruelly formulaic Reagan era itself, Friday the 13th displays a ruthless business approach to murder by numbers. Unencumbered by psychology or irony or suspense (even the bare-bones "ch-ch-ch...pa-pa-pa" score that precedes the killings is tediously repetitive), the film devotes all its creative energies to the gore. Should this slaughter be conducted with an ax, a hacksaw, or a hatchet--or an arrow, perhaps? What does a decapitation really sound like? Still, the movie does muster up a repugnant tour de force halfway through, when Kevin Bacon's horny and otherwise nondescript young hunk gets impaled in the neck by a spear, and the blood begins to spurt in rivulets into his own mouth. It's the ultimate in violence as performance-art porno.
Just where did such unspeakable hostility come from--and how did it possibly pass for entertainment? Well, as most of Friday the 13th's victims are scantily clad and independent-minded young women--while the archetypal Final Girl (Adrienne King) seems to survive the bloodbath on account of her goody-two-shoes frigidity--it's safe to say that the movie represents a conservative backlash against both feminism and the sexual revolution. Indeed, the psycho killer turns out to be a vindictive middle-aged mom (Betsy Palmer) whose son Jason drowned at summer camp in the late Fifties while his counselors were fooling around. Message: Free love deserves punishment.
No matter how you slice it, Friday the 13th's subjective camerawork--which, like Halloween, puts the viewer in the mind of the stalking killer--is just plain sick. (Who'd want to identify with a mass murderer?) But as the film's larger subject is that of teens under siege from authority figures (cops, weird old fogies, psycho killers), perhaps there's an element of Bonnie and Clyde-style romantic nihilism in the image of rebellious kids being cut down by repressive forces that couldn't possibly comprehend their desires. And what teenager could fail to appreciate Friday the 13th's final twist--in which Mom is revealed to be the greatest horror of all?
Kane Hodder, who plays Jason in Friday the 13th parts seven through ten, appears October 19-22 at the Halloween showcase Nightmare at Trout-Air; (651) 464-7891. The original film is available at area video stores.