Monday 5 November 2012

Or, death in the woods

When Friday the 13th was released in 1980, the slasher had been around for a while. Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (both 1974) had pioneered the subgenre, while Carpenter's Halloween (1978) had codified its tropes: masked, silent killers with blades, young people murdered rapidly and swiftly, the Final Girl, and a reactionary moralism that constantly punished its own transgressions. Although the template existed, the floodgates had not yet opened.

Just a couple of years later, though, cheap horror flicks had absolutely overrun cinema, and Sean S. Cunningham did it. It makes sense, somehow. Cunningham had collaborated with Wes Craven on the latter's seminal Last House on the Left (1972), but in the second half of the seventies he'd turned to by all accounts wretched comedies. After Halloween he sensed an opportunity in the slasher and rushed Friday the 13th into production with an unfinished script, a budget of barely over half a million dollars - and special effects makeup wizard Tom Savini of Dawn of the Dead (1978).

We open at Camp Crystal Lake, in 1958. Two counselors get away from the group and into an attic where they begin making out, watched by an unseen figure who proceeds to knife the bloke and attack the girl. The frame freezes on her terrified face, then the franchise's logo fills the screen. It's a brazen and wildly unsuccessful attempt to rip off Halloween's immortal killer's-point-of-view opening sequence, and it's symptomatic of the film to follow.

In the present day we meet Annie (Robbi Morgan), a chirpy twentysomething who's been hired as a cook at the soon-to-be-reopened Camp Crystal Lake. Despite being warned by the locals, including Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), that 'Camp Blood' is cursed, she accepts a lift to the camp from an unseen stranger, who very deliberately misses the exit to the camp. Annie, realising something is wrong, leaps from the car and limps through the woods, only to stumble and find herself at the feet of her pursuer. She pleads for her life, but the killer brutally slits her throat.

Depriving us of a sympathetic character we've been led to identify with is cold, nasty and shockingly effective, but that early peak means the rest of Friday the 13th is a rote stalk-and-slash bore with a bunch of people who never rise above tolerable. Preparing Camp Crystal Lake for the arrival of the campers are owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and his hirelings: macho Jack (Kevin Bacon), his sensitive girlfriend Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), not-Kevin-Bacon Bill (Harry Crosby), strip Monopoly aficionado Brenda (Laurie Bartram), insufferable prankster Ned (Mark Nelson) and sensible Alice (Adrienne King). In the course of one night, the killer whittles this group down to just the Final Girl.

It's a wonder that a formula that had barely been established can already feel as stale as it does in Friday the 13th: if I didn't know any better, I'd guess the film was released well into the slasher boom, not right at its beginning. Cunningham is the most inelegant of directors, moving his camera as if he's read about how to do horror in a book, but without any practical experience. This artlessness extends to the way he composes and structures his scenes, inevitably going for the blandest and most obvious visual cues. Barry Abrams, Cunningham's go-to cinematographer who disappeared into well-deserved obscurity with his patron, shoots the whole thing in the flattest manner conceivable, although nature gifts him some pleasant images.

The film isn't bereft of grace notes. There's Ron Millkie absolutely delightful cameo as an out-of-his-depth policeman ('We ain't gonna stand for no weirdness out here'), not to mention Betsy Palmer's pleasingly hammy turn. But Friday the 13th never relied on its script or performances. The film stands or falls with Tom Savini's craftsmanship: and heavens, Savini is at the top of his game. The practical effects - including the throat-slitting mentioned above, an arrowhead through Kevin Bacon's throat, and an axe blow to someone's forehead - are top notch, equalling if not outdoing the best the Italian gore masters had to offer at the time.

Tim Brayton has argued that Friday the 13th kicked off the slasher deluge where earlier films could not precisely because it was hackwork, painting-by-numbers horror filmmaking instead of the sometimes fiercely personal creations of Tobe Hooper, Bob Clark and John Carpenter. Cunningham, the line of reasoning goes, was readily imitable. Brayton, I think, is right on the money: F13 is middle-of-the-road in every way, but it demonstrated that you needed little craftsmanship except in the special effects department to make wheelbarrows full of money. So they did: Hollywood's underbelly spewed forth hacks' dime-a-dozen horror films, setting off the wild boom-and-bust of eighties horror. It's not a pretty story, but it befits its progenitor - a film visionary precisely because it is so mediocre.

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