One of the difficulties in reviewing “Friday the 13th” is that like “Halloween,” the film has been imitated and ripped off numerous times, too often to look at it in a fresh light. As a matter of fact, this movie was made to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s film. Still, in the long run, this is actually one of the better 1980’s slashers. Although it adheres to the traditional formula, it holds up better than much of the subgenre, including some of its own sequels. While the plot may be a bit thin, it does have a certain eerie, gritty atmosphere generally lacking in many other slashers. This is due in no small part to Sean S. Cunningham’s effective lensing; in fact this may be the best-directed entry in the series. It did have a pretty low budget, but that rarely hurts the film; its dark, shadowy look lends it a creepy feeling a more polished film may have lacked. The use of point-of-view shots is copied from “Halloween,” but its put to good use as the killer stalks the young cast; it is thankfully not overdone. The legendary “Chi Chi” score comes into use for the first time; it may have grown redundant as the series proceeded, but it works like a charm here.
One refreshing aspect of the film is that the teenage characters are not nearly as irritating or obnoxious as most of their counterparts in later entries. We are invited to identify with them and sympathize with their plight, as they fail to realize that a killer is in their midst. Some of the murders are fairly memorable, especially the part where a character gets an arrow in the throat. Said character is played by a pre-fame Kevin Bacon, perhaps the most interesting bit of casting in the series. Betsy Palmer gives an over-the-top performance as the legendary Jason Voorhees’ psycho mother, seeking vengeance for the drowning (more on that in a moment) of her son years earlier. It’s very unsubtle, but it works in the context of this movie. Her death scene is as gratuitous and crude as they come, but it’s a logical conclusion for a slasher.
Oddly enough, “Friday the 13th” wasn’t intended with sequels in mind–at least I think that is what the writer said at one point. Still, the ending, with Jason’s spirit haunting the lone survivor of the massacre does allow for that possibility. It’s still a pretty eerie scene. Of course, the very next film would contradict this, saying that Jason has been living in hiding for many years. Later on, they would take even more liberties with the character’s parameters, to the consternation of some “purists.” These type of films are not renowned for their sense of continuity in any case, so let us not dwell upon this further. Overall, this movie makes for a diverting midnight viewing, although its critical reception is unlikely to improve at any time in the near future.