Summer camp, teenagers, murder. Friday the 13th wasn’t quite the first film to carry these traits, but it definitely popularized them, along with the slasher film sub-genre as a whole.
The movie follows a group of young adults who are fixing up an old abandoned summer camp, when they soon become stalked by an unknown killer.
All throughout, it does well to take your mind off of the fact that it’s a horror film, striking when you least expect it. Almost as though it’s not fully aware that it’s a horror film itself–both a good and bad consequence of helping set a genre’s formula. Good because it gives you a better element of surprise, but bad because it tends to meander and lollygag. In fact, no one is even aware that there is a murderer on the loose until the final third of the film.
Unlike 1983’s Sleepaway Camp–which many accuse of being a Friday the 13th imitator–this film doesn’t really give its villain a personality until the very end.
While most of the movie is campy when not suspenseful, the last 15 minutes are truly chilling. But even during this part, it’s convenient stupidity of the characters that elongates the film an extra ten minutes or so.
Director Sean S. Cunningham does a pretty good job building the suspense when needed, but isn’t so competent with the young actors’ performances, often times overlooking a misdelivered line or two.
Actually, I think the suspense should be mostly credited to the fantastic score by Harry Manfredini, which is on a totally different level than the rest of the film. The music gives the movie integrity where it’s otherwise trying to find its footing.
This first Friday the 13th installment is definitely dated, and some of the copycat movies actually turn out better, but there’s something intangibly refreshing about a film that isn’t trying to replicate a formula beat by beat. Since there hadn’t quite been a proven formula yet at this time, Friday the 13th gets to certain spots on accident. The events happen organically instead of the filmmakers trying to hit all the marks of successful slashers before this one. Not that some aspects aren’t inspired, but it’s less shameless than what was to come following this film.