I’m puzzled as to why Friday the 13th and the many films that followed it are so popular. At least with A Nightmare on Elm Street I can understand the popularity, at its core there is a very strong villain there. With this piece from Sean S. Cunningham, though, all you have is a tall hockey mask lumbering around with a machete. Scary, of course, I very much doubt many would want to be stuck in the room with such a villain, but as far as actual quality goes, there’s a lot to be desired from Friday the 13th. Perhaps it’s simply just in the right place at the right time, a time when the boobs, blood and exploitation of horror films was at its peak.
That’s the best explanation I can think of for the success of Friday the 13th, a film that is both surprisingly boring and incredibly poorly made. It captures the shlock and awe of the genre, but leaves out the best bits. It doesn’t have memorable characters like The Evil Dead or Texas Chain Saw Massacre did, nor does it have the narrative strengths that Psycho had to offer. The writing takes a turn for the worst, with contrived, cliché behaviour from a rambunctious group of teenagers obsessed with sex, strip-Monopoly and pretending to drown. It’s quite the culmination, but one that doesn’t offer anything of interest aside from an early performance from Kevin Bacon.
The actual kills, the prime reason for ever entering into one of these slasher flicks, are boring. Charmingly low quality, which isn’t something I’d expected, but low quality nonetheless. Much of the early flashbacks and moments rely on the premise that it’s scarier to see the outcome, rather than the act of killing itself. We must rely on performances to convey the pain, anguish, and terror this group of teens hold, and to be honest they don’t do all that great a job of it. Floundering their way through forests, all the conventional bumps in the night and lighting-infested skies do all they can to elicit a few cheap shocks out of its cast.
Not worth suffering through for the ramped-up tensions of its final moments, Friday the 13th is plain, articulating what few messages it has for its audience and running with them the whole way through. There’s no denying its influence, but there’s also no way of hiding the embarrassingly dull, often underwhelming moments filled with shoddy characters, boring writing and direction that can’t hold up. An influential slasher, that much I can agree on, but I’m not convinced by Cunnigham’s work, which riffs on far superior pieces of the genre from years gone by.