Since it doesn’t have the cinematic artistry of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the queasy thrills of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, the novelty of Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, or the uncompromising shock value of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you really have to wonder what exactly made the Friday the 13th series so wildly successful. I think it’s because, starting from this very first entry, there was a kind of minimalism at work, eschewing anything special in terms of mood, pacing, character, plot, and tension. What was left were a handful of horny teenagers hanging out in cabins, around a lake, occasionally having sex, and getting their throats slit open by a murderer. It’s a formula with no pretensions, and if you’re not viewing it today for cheap exploitative thrills you’re probably regarding it with nostalgia. The characters play strip monopoly and do lame impressions of Humphrey Bogart. Boys and girls alike boast shaggy haircuts (the fashion sense at the time was taking a hideous turn toward the preppy) and the free love on display is spirited because there’s no body-horror jitters about a lethal sexually transmitted disease. The murderer turns out to be a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) with a butch haircut and a gigantic bulky sweater, whose line readings are akin to nails on a chalkboard (“They were making love while that boy drowned! His name was Jason!”) and a predilection for speaking to herself in the mincing voice of her dead child (“Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!”). It’s only in this last 20-minute appearance of this scene-stealing harpy (not to mention the memorable cameo by her rotting zombie son) that Friday the 13th becomes memorable as high camp.
The picture quality is surprisingly good for a grainy low-budget slasher flick, with vibrant colors and textures. The cleaned-up soundscape nicely balances the "kill kill kill" sound effects with the Penderecki-inspired violent score.
A feature length commentary with producer/director Sean S. Cunningham freely acknowledges he made the film to capitalize on the success of Halloween, and his goal was to make money so he could make more movies and send his kids to college. Cast and crew share various production anecdotes, or wax philosophical on the rules of slasher movies, and slasher historian Peter M. Bracke compares the gore illusions to a Vegas show where David Copperfield saws a girl in half, which is probably truer to the spirit of these films than the concept of cheering on mass slaughter.
"A Friday the 13th Reunion" brings together a handful of the cast and crew to reminisce over the casting (Betsy Palmer’s agent told her this was a way to make some fast cash, and no audience was ever going to waste their time with it), with lead actress Adrienne King proving for the panel audience that she can still scream like a pro. "Fresh Cuts: New Tales from Friday the 13th" is a bit of a misnomer, considering it recycles stories from the commentary and other featurettes, such as the shock ending as an attempt to outdo Carrie. Their pure shamelessness is kind of appealing. The nine-minute documentary about Cunningham, who seems a likable and considerate guy, is most notable for a few shots of the impresario’s home, which he refers to as the "house that Jason built."
The theatrical trailer literally is a countdown of 13 images from the film, intended as a kind of tone poem of dread with that husky voiced narrator that seemed to be present for all high-concept, exploitative slasher trailers. It’s way more enjoyable and loony than the short film Lost Tales From Camp Blood - Part 1, a shot-on-video narrative about camp counselors investigating some scary noises outside. Though it incorporates the score and sound design from Friday the 13th, it lacks any discernable tension or craft, making the feature film accompanying it seem like a classic in comparison.
Friday the 13th is the one that started them all, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any good, does it?