To this day, Friday the 13th remains one of the most successful horror movies of all time. It was made for very little money, was not what people were expecting, but once it hit and people started seeing and talking about it, it was a massive hit. It even beat out The Empire Strikes Back at the box office. While the feature itself was heavily influenced by Halloween, it was this feature’s theatrical success that really kicked off the slasher craze of the early 1980’s.
And while it was certainly effective, was the original Friday the 13th actually that great of a movie? That’s what we’ll be looking at here. Because while it is a fun slasher and has its high points, it is not the best of the Friday the 13th franchise. There were things that followed it that took the concept and executed it much better. In a way, that makes sense.
The first Friday the 13th was very much an experiment. After it came out, it was easier to estimate what worked and what didn’t and apply that to the sequels. Clearly, this was a good idea because Friday the 13th Part 2 was one of the best slashers of the era. And the third and fourth films kept up this level of atmosphere and quality.
While the original Friday the 13th is not lacking for atmosphere, it definitely falls short in some categories. The effects by Tom Savini are the highlight, and some of the best of the series, but it doesn’t matter as much when we don’t know anything about the characters. Some of them have personality—Ted and Marcie in particular—and some of them don’t. As the sequels progressed, at least the early ones, the characters became much more lively and memorable.
There are also some structural issues with the film. Betsy Palmer is great in the role of Mrs. Voorhees and she is a terrific killer overall. But she doesn’t appear until about five minutes before she is revealed as the person responsible for the murders. It would have been great to see her character fleshed out in at least a couple more scenes, pretending to be normal, hiding her resentment. Palmer reportedly asked Cunningham to place her earlier in the movie in at least one other scene, maybe at the diner, but he didn’t want to give the audience clues. Which just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how a murder mystery works.
Almost every slasher that followed fixed this problem. All of them featured a character that had at least appeared throughout the movie turning out to be the killer. Even Friday the 13th Part 2 built up Jason Voorhees as a sort of campfire tale, a monstrous local legend. This made a world of difference, as it gave us a character to fear from the beginning.
With the first movie, we have almost no point of reference. We see the flashback murder, which is a great cold open, but after that we have no knowledge of this killer. We just know that they’re there. Even if that provides a sense of tension, knowing what the characters don’t, it’s not as effective as many of the slashers that would follow it.
Friday the 13th definitely comes recommended. It has a lot going for it. And first and foremost, it is enjoyable. It’s popcorn entertainment, nothing too artistic. And the filmmakers have readily admitted such. The motivating factors responsible for every decision that went on behind the scenes were all financial in nature.
Director Sean Cunningham wanted to make a horror movie because he knew horror made money, but did not particularly love the genre himself. Many great films in the genre have been made with this mentality, but in the case of Friday the 13th, it’s particularly obvious and it’s amazing that it works as well as it does.
A lot of that is due to Savini’s gory FX work, which also set a standard for the genre and helped feed a battle between horror and the MPAA that would last throughout the decade. The filming locations also perfectly sold the summer camp atmosphere. The movie works. But the old adage that the first in a series is always the best just can’t be applied here. Friday the 13th Part 2—as well as its immediate sequels—did what every sequel should do, but usually fails at: it improved on the things that needed improving while adhering to everything that made the first one great.