What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of 1980's FRIDAY THE 13TH. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why the film still haunts us thirty-two years later. I intend to visit the entire series in this manner if there's interest, although honestly I'm not sure all installments deserve the treatment.
(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)
The original FRIDAY THE 13TH is without question one of the most influential motion pictures ever made. Questions of quality aside, even mainstream critics are forced to admit to the widespread effect the release of Sean S. Cunningham's popcorn thriller has had on the landscape of modern motion pictures. While Bob Clark's proto-slasher BLACK CHRISTMAS and John Carpenter's seminal HALLOWEEN set the stage, it was FRIDAY THE 13TH that effectively changed the direction of horror films forever. Imitations followed in droves until no holiday was left without a stalk-n-slash feature film revolving around it, from NEW YEAR'S EVIL to SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, but none captured the imagination of the film-going public the way FRIDAY did.
Contrary to the protests of those same mainstream critics, there is a reason for this.
FRIDAY THE 13TH is crude, yes, but never sloppy. In fact, it's a meticulously staged feature, lean and careful, far superior in structure and approach to the work of much more respected directors. While it would be a stretch to suggest the film qualifies as high art- or, really, art of any kind- the near-constant comparisons to base-level pornography are equally unreasonable. There's a reason that FRIDAY endures; a reason why, eleven sequels later, the brand name still generates excitement in horror fans. That reason is this: FRIDAY THE 13TH is the great white shark of summer movies. It may not do much, but what it does, it does extraordinarily well.
Unlike the literal approach to slasher material employed by HALLOWEEN and many of the later clones, FRIDAY embraces the queasy logic of a nightmare, not so much abandoning reason as much as rejecting it in favor of a more heightened experience. The opening sequence, set in the distant (but not too distant) past plays out exactly like a campfire ghost story. Two camp counselors separate from the group to make out only to discovered in the act and murdered. The comparisons to dozens of familiar urban legends are obvious: youth, sex, death. It's within this world- the same one populated by The Man With The Hook and the Snake Egg Wig- that FRIDAY sets itself.
Not more than a few moments later, we learn even more local folklore back-story; a boy drowning, poisoned drinking water, murders. Camp Crystal Lake's got a death curse. It's jinxed. The locals call it Camp Blood. The film isn't just building a myth to wrap around its threadbare plot, its developing a narrative style.
Ghost stories and nightmares, that's what in play here.
The film makes no attempt to hide its goals. Annie, the victim who shares an occupation with the killer, states in passing to a complete stranger- “...But when you've had a dream as long as I've had, you'll do anything.” Marcie, soon to die in a shower stall, confides in her boyfriend Jack about her re-occurring “shower dream”.
In the end, it's revealed that the dream we're watching is the nightmare recollection of Alice, the sole survivor. Until the end, Alice has been a very reliable narrator, even filling in scenes she's not present to observe, but its telling that she's an artist. “Do I really look like that?” “You did last night.”
FRIDAY THE 13TH's dream-logic extends into its plot itself. Images reoccur with startling regularity. Neddy's faux-drowning foretells Mrs. Voorhees' vision of Jason in the lake. Bill's slaughter of the snake in the cabin mirrors Alice's decapitation of Mrs. Voorhees. Surprised by Ned's “trick shot” at the archery range, ultimately the place where she'll die under very similar circumstances that night, Brenda warns the prankster that she'll “tack [him] up to dry”; a fate Ned escapes but befalls Bill. The viewer is assaulted with violent ideas and images until the foreboding spills over into materialization.
The last vestiges of reality ebbs away as night approaches. It's no accident that we “awake” on the couch with Alice, now alone in the camp. What follows is a painfully protracted scene of our heroine preparing a teakettle. Nothing stylized, nothing unreal. At this point, the audience is waiting for something outrageous, but instead we watch the most mundane activity possible. The nightmare can't be over, and yet the film has changed. The sudden crash of Brenda's barely-alive body through the cabin's window is a double shock: the violent image mixed with the realization that the terrible dream is not over.
It's not over then, and not after Mrs. Voorhees has been dispatched. Cunningham and crew employ the “kettle” trick once more, this time with Alice in her canoe, disarming normality returning for one brief moment before---
Alice's final line- “Then... he's still there.”- disturbs not because a monster might still be loose, after all, the film has done nothing to develop the idea that Jason might still be alive, but because the line between reality and nightmare has been permanently torn down. We don't trust that it's over. We watch a ripple fade in Crystal Lake, and we all expect to see something there, just under the surface---
---under the surface of the dream.
Thankfully, for us, the nightmare didn't end there.