a Primal Root review
Friday the 13th is the film that sparked the match. Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre had put down the kindling and soaked it with gasoline but it was Friday the 13th in the summer of 1980 than set the fire which became the slasher sub-genre that would define the decade and would pump out a near constant stream of sequels for just about all of those 10 years.
Although incredibly successful there is the small tragedy of the affect all those sequels had on Victor Miller, Sean Cunningham and Tom Savini’s original piece. As Friday the 13th became an ever popular franchise of films with entries reaching into the double digits they have, in a sense, watered down the impact of Friday the 13th. What people lose sight of is just how good and even scary the original Friday the 13th is. With so many stories told of Jason, imposters, trips to Hell and trips to Manhattan, Friday the 13th kind of gets crushed under all the weight of the strange tales that unfolded afterwards.
The simple concept of isolating some teenagers at a secluded summer camp where they could no be reached by any adults, where they must fend for themselves, was ingenious. Many of us spent summers in these mildewed, moist and rickety old summer camps being tended and tormented by counselors who weren’t much older than us. It;s something many children and teens can relate to and it feels organic. Kids with responsibilities but still trying to bekids and have fun.
And we aren’t dealing with some group of unlikable morons this time around. These are intelligent, funny, and self reliant young people. Sure, they smoke a little “grass”, have premarital sex and even partake in a rousing game of strip Monopoly, but they also talk of neutralizing nitrates, creating delicious vegetraian meals where one will get all the protean they need, and also notice the change in weather patterns. Not sure if this makes them smarter than the usual batch but there sure aren’t any characters here calling one another “Dead Fucks” while typing into imaginary computers or commenting on how their casual sexual partner “Hardly Sweats at all.” I doubt those guys would even have a remote idea as to how to run the Emergency Generator.
This distinction makes the sequential murder of each counselor that much more frightening and impactful. No one wants to see these fun loving, relatable kids die. Let alone in such a grisly and graphic fashion. Sure they mess around, but they risk life and limb and give their all to save their fellow counselor, NEd, who looks to be drowning. Revealed later to be a woefully unfunny practical joke. Especially to a certain killer gazing on from the woods.
Friday the 13th also functions as a “Who-Done-It” murder mystery. Although, it’s a film tat totally cheats at this scenario. Several red herrings are introduced but they are all killed by the end of the movie only for the real killer to drive up put of nowhere and confront ALice, our final girl, under the guise of trust.
It’s the warm, and completely disarming actress Betsy Palmer who identified herself as “Mrs. Voorhees, an old friend of the Christie’s.” The audience looks at Mrs. Voorhees and she seems pleasant, personable and like she wouldn;t harm a fly. But you feel something might be off. Maybe she’s a bit too happy. A bit too inviting. That there’s something much darker just under the surface.
Palmer delivers and knock out of a performance as Mrs. Voorhees who is revealed to be the vengeance seeking mother of a former camper who drowned at the camp in the 50’s due to horny, negligent counselors. “They weren’t paying any attention. They were making love while that young boy droned! His name was Jason” It’s one of those reveals that slowly and effectively builds the dread. We learn of Mrs. Voorhees’ lose, her sense or despair and tragedy. And we can feel her pain. Why she has snapped and decided to wreak vengeance on this camp and anyone who tries to open it again. Because every time the gate to the camp opens she relives her lose, all the pain comes flooding back, and she must avenge her son and prevent the lose deaths of other children by punishing those who are trying to bring those youths back to the spot of her son’s passing.
The final chase is frenetic and crazy as hell highlighted with some great vengeful one liners from Mrs. Voorhees as she stalks and battles the terrified Alice. It all culminates with an excellent showdown on the beach where Alice gets her hands on Mrs. Voorhees’ machete and knocks her mother fucking block off. It’s a surreal and graphic effect by master Tom Savini, where toothpicks are visibly holding the head on, Mrs. Voorhees has hairy man hands, and the neck pops open the opposite way from where the blade makes contact, but these strange screw ups make the whole thing even more jarring to the audience. It all feels like a nightmare.
And who can ever forget the sting in tail ending? After a long night of bloodshed Alice has survived. Having left the the blood caked beach of the lake to take off into the secluded safety of the water itself in a canoe she wakes to find the local police on the shore calling out to her. Her ordeal is over. She has saved herself and the cavalry has arrived. The music swells, ALice looks hopeful, and then a rotted, zombified mongoloid rises from the depths of the lake, wraps his muddied, decrepit arm around our heroines neck and in slow motion drags her under the water.
It’s an obvious steal from Brian DePalma’s film adaptation of Carrie, but it works in spades. the first time I saw this on VHS in the safety of my living room I nearly put a dent in the ceiling I jumped so high off the couch. Sure, Alice wakes up later in her hospital bed safe and sound. When she asked about the boy, Jason, who dragged her under water, the sheriff replies “We didn’t find any boy.” As if this is supposed to bring some comfort. Did Alice dream this? Hallucinate it? Was it some sort of ghost? Or was it really Jason, whose body was never recovered from the lake?
It’s a terrifying image. One that sticks with the viewer long after the credits roll and the lights come up in the theater. Much like Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th is about the ghosts of our past wreaking havoc on our lives today. The mistakes and tragedies of our collective pasts revisited. Every camp has a legend like Jason or Cropsey to keep the young people who make up the population there in check. They are morality tales, where those who do wrong will always pay. The past is in stone and cannot be erased. And for some they will never forget. And that these skeletons. no matter how deep they are buried, have a way of resurfacing. They will one day return to us and bring those days back to life.
Friday the 13th is a very affecting and entertaining horror film but it is also a dark and sad tale of vengeance, insanity and lose. Mrs. Voorhees’ rage is an understandable one, but it is clear this deep sense of personal tragedy has caused her to lose her mind. She was a mother and a cook once. She was a good person. The counselors are also all very good people and have much to contribute to society in their own way. They might be young and a little naive but they haven’t harmed anyone. Now, every single one of them is dead because of one terrible day that took place decades earlier. Due to the same act that brought Jason into this world. The same act that was the cause of his death. An act of love.
Friday the 13th is one of the finest examples of the horror films produced in the 1980’s. It’s a machine the builds the scares and delivers them with glee but is also grounded in a a relatable reality and heartbreaking and believable tragedy. It;s a film well worth revisiting. And when you do, try to forget Jason X, Freddy vs. Jason, and even Friday the 13th part. Forget the whole franchise. Just pop in Friday the 13th and take it as a stand alone, independently made horror film and you’ll find a strong horror films that stands up on it’s own two legs.
Happy 30th Birthday, Friday the 13th.
-The Primal Root