Saturday, September 14, 2013

Census Bloodbath: Babes in the Woods

For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.
If you're new to Census Bloodbath, click here.

Happy Saturday the 14th everybody! Last night Sergio and I were incredibly lucky to go to a special event at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica where we watched the first four Friday the 13th films back to back! Well, I did. Sergio managed to stay awake through about 75% of it, which shows fierce effort considering it ended at around 3 in the morning.

It was a really fantastic experience and I got to meet a lot of LA horror fans, hear two of the laters movies' writers speak, and get a photo with the very first victim (not counting the prologue) of the franchise!

You know how people go to church on Christmas Eve? Well this is my version of that. Every Friday the 13th has been like a religious experience since Jason came into my life.

Year: 1980
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We're here! We're finally here! The centerpiece of the Census Bloodbath project, the inimitable, trashy, ugly, gorgeous, low-budget screamfest that is the beginning of a twelve leg journey (soon to be 13, if the rumors I've been hearing pan out).

Way back when in the late 70's, an exploitation filmmaker (most famous for working on Last House on the Left and a multitude of softcore pornography) named Mr. Sean S. Cunningham decided to take out a full page ad in International Variety for Friday the 13th, "The most terrifying film ever made!" When nobody sued him over copyright for the name, he decided he should probably actually make the movie.

Parts were cast, crew was hired, and among them was Tom Savini, the 34 year old Vietnam veteran and makeup maestro behind Dawn of the Dead. Savini, composer Harry Manfredini, and to a lesser extent Sean Cunningham formed the Holy Trinity, sending Friday the 13th down to Earth cradled in their tender embrace.

There is no way to verbalize the massive outpouring of nostalgia and emotion that I feel when this frame comes onscreen.

Camp Crystal Lake. 1958.

Two camp counselors sneak away from a bonfire to canoodle in a close-by attic, but are soon interrupted by a stranger wielding a hunting knife. They die fairly bloodlessly (much in the vein of the Psycho imitators from the entire past decade and the classier early slashers like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween), because why should the filmmakers tip their hand so early?

Thus begins the unfairly maligned (more on that later) first installment of a decades-spanning slasher tentpole franchise. It is perhaps fair to explore the reasons why it came to be so. Many films had bigger budgets. Halloween was more masterfully made. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was scarier. Black Christmas was more Canadian.

But none of them had Tom Savini. The make-up and special effects artist behind some of the best films we have yet to come across in Census Bloodbath (The Burning, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Maniac!, The Prowler, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2... This guy has killed more people than Mr. Voorhees himself.). Savini singlehandedly brought the artistry and magic of Italian gore cinema to mainstream American cinema.

And people ate it up. After waves and waves of increasingly flavorless Norman Bates riffs, American audiences were ready for something new.

When Annie (Robbi Morgan), the chipper counselor, catches a ride to Camp Crystal Lake with a mysterious assailant and gets her throat slit in the woods, blood dripping and gurgling down her front, they found it.

That's gonna hurt in the morning.

The high caliber death scenes and unflinching approach rocked cinemas nationwide. Everybody was talking about Friday the 13th. It didn't have a genius behind the camera. It didn't have big name stars onscreen. But it did have baroque Grand Guignol mutilations that appealed to the baser side of moviegoers who needed something to shake them up after years of deathless (pun absolutely intended) cinema.

And if Halloween cemented the rules of the slasher film, Friday the 13th put super glue around the edges. Here be jump scares, sex leading to death, the Final Girl, POV shots galore, pulling back branches, gory death scenes that replace plot, and a heaping platter of Meat.

Our particular focus today is on Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), a rich but misguided man who is refurbishing and reopening Camp Crystal Lake (known colloquially as Camp Blood after the brutal murders in '58 and that boy drowning in '57) and his host of camp counselors, here to help him set up before the campers arrive.

There's Jack (the Kevin Bacon) a macho horndog; Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), his even hornier girlfriend; Ned (Mark Nelson), the requisite prankster (although it wouldn't be requisite yet, this is the first film, after all); Brenda (Laurie Bartram), who is a playful vegetarian; Bill (Harry Crosby), a suspenders-wearing hunk who can play guitar like he was born with a pick in his mouth; and Alice (Adrienne King), a handy and kind girl who's good at drawing and a little apprehensive about staying for the summer.

Because of how many words I had to use to describe her (and her androgynous haircut), she is without a doubt our Final Girl for the evening.

Prepare to get lost in those baby blue eyes.

For the first act, we get to watch these kids play around as they set up the camp and while nothing of real import actually happens, you get the sense that the actors were told to just let loose and have fun, and it really shows. In spite of them having to share a single teaspoon of acting talent between the six of them, they sell little moments that come here and there as the gang fights a snake, Ned pulls pranks, they have a run-in with a weed obsessed cop, play Strip Monopoly, and Bill and Alice flirt a little on the sidelines.

Also for some reason Ned and Marcie like doing impressions more than they like breathing. It happens every other scene. This seemed to happen a lot in 80's slasher movies, so maybe it's a generational thing. Maybe they suffered because they couldn't post "50 Impressions" videos on YouTube so they just lived their lives like that.

This whole sector of the film is permeated with a sense of idle summertime joy only infrequently interrupted by the stalker lurking in the woods. Oh, and Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) hiding in the pantry claiming to be a messenger of God and telling them they're all doomed. What a goof.

But when night falls, so does the rain. And the rain turns to blood.

And the blood gets all over everything and makes a mess.

Things start to go bad when Ned goes into a cabin to investigate a strange shadow.

Things get even worse when Jack and Marcy go into that same cabin to get out of the rain. And into each others' pants.

Friday the 13th has a reputation for two things above all: sex and violence. Violence we get here in spades, but those who were outraged by the sex scene in this film should check out American Pie sometime because even that is raunchier. We get a quick shot of Kevin Bacon's butt (no complaining here) and about two seconds of Marcie's boob. No wonder this film is rated X.

Anyway, back to the violence. Act Two is all about setting up stupendous death scenes like dominoes and knocking them all down one by one. Sean Cunningham seems to show up for the first time in 45 minutes in some surprisingly well-executed sequences like the shadow of an axe rising behind Marcie's head.

My personal favorite moment that I noticed this time around takes place during my favorite death scene (Kevin Bacon's of course). An eviscerated Ned is lying on the top bunk as he and Marcie do their thing. She takes off to pee and he lights up a cigarette. As he's laying there, a few droplets of blood spatter on his forehead. As he wipes it off, our attention is drawn to that area as WHAM! A hand reaches out from underneath the bed and pulls his head back.

It's no Citizen Kane of course (though I'd much rather be watching this movie than Citizen Kane), but that is some truly solid directing right there.

Now, if you care about spoilers for a 33 year old slasher movie, I'd suggest you stop reading at this point. If you're a normal human (unlike myself), please continue after the break.

The Spoiler Squad strikes again!

The great thing about Friday the 13th is that it is perhaps the only film in history to have a retroactive twist ending. People nowadays hear the title and think, "Oh yeah, that Jason movie." But you know what? Jason doesn't hurt a fly in his very first film. He's just the catalyst.

His drowning as a child in 1957 (while the two camp counselors from the beginning were "making love") drove his mother, Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer hamming it up like a champion) to insanity. She couldn't let the camp reopen because what if it happened again? She needed to avenge her son.

The thing is, a lot of people who haven't seen the film don't know that, so when this charming middle-aged woman pulls out a knife in the end, it blows everybody's freaking minds. I love it.

Critics of the film often complain that Jason isn't really in it, to which I respond: "How could he be? He wasn't even alive!" This is the first film in the series, Jason as the killer was an unheard of concept at the time this film came out. Stop griping.

And when people as "How could a middle aged woman have done this?" I reply, "Have you seen her?"

She's packin' heat under that cable knit sweater.

When Mrs. Voorhees shows her face, thus begins a rather meandering and dark Final Girl sequence in which it's very hard to locate anything that really happens.

Nonetheless it is valuable as a historical trendsetter and Alice is a halfway decent final girl.

Exactly halfway.

Love Adrienne King though I do, Alice just can't seem to maintain her good decisions. When Bill wants to go off alone to look for the others, she goes with him. Sticking together! Good! But when the generator sputters and dies, she lets him go off alone and falls asleep on the couch. She barricades herself into a cabin (a little overzealously but hey, she's scared) but tears it down at the first glimpse of headlights. And she hits Mrs. Voorhees hard time and time again but never follows up. She just runs to the next place of attack.

Finally she gets tired of it all and chops of Pamela's head with a machete. Good riddance.

And then she floats in the lake in a canoe, as one does.

And now for some spoilers I actually do care about. If you haven't seen this movie and plan on doing so, please don't read this part: [When Jason jumps out of the lake and grabs Alice in the end, it is always just as fresh and terrifying as the very first time. Always. What a brilliant and (at the time) not hackneyed way to send off a movie. The scariest part of the film as well as the weirdest.

I've seen Friday the 13th so many times that I've managed to convince myself it is an artistic masterwork, but let us never forget that it really is very shoddily made. There are about six shots that are just darkness with one small point of light in frame. It's impossible to see anything through the muddy gloom. The sound mixing in the truck scene is embarrassing, the lightning looks like a PA going crazy with a flashlight, there are two separate scenes in a bathroom where a girl is wearing just panties and a raincoat, and the policeman hilariously can't ride a motorcycle.

And that's just the basic stuff.

So no, Friday the 13th isn't some massively respectable and arty movie.


We have Tom Savini at his finest.

We have Harry Manfredini's frankly perfect music cues that toe the line exactly in between Jaws and Psycho while still managing to be their own thing.

And of course, that feat of inspired brilliance: the discordant CH CH CH HA HA HA (It's not technically those sounds, but God help me that's what it sounds like) motif that drives this film and its compatriots. It's scary, it's completely original and fascinating, and it's brilliant. 

Friday the 13th is a nostalgic dream come true for slasher buffs. It cemented in the tropes of the genre along with being one of the best of the (admittedly shoddy and sleazy) form.

Killer: Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer)
Final Girl: Alice Hardy (Adrienne King)
Best Kill: Kevin Bacon gets an arrow through the back of his neck.

Sign of the Times: Literally every single outfit any boy wears ever.

Scariest Moment: [Dat ending do]
Weirdest Moment: The way Crazy Ralph rides his bike gets me every time.
Champion Dialogue: "I hate when people call them kids. Sounds like little goats. But when you've had a dream as long as I have, you'll do anything."
Body Count: 10; including the killer but not including Jason or the snake. Sorry, PETA.
  1. Barry is stabbed in the stomach. 
  2. Claudette is killed offscreen. 
  3. Annie's throat is slit.
  4. Ned's throat is slit offscreen.
  5. Jack gets an arrow through the back of the neck.
  6. Marcie gets an axe to the face.
  7. Brenda is killed offscreen on the archery range.
  8. Steve Christy gets a hunting knife to the stomach.
  9. Bill gets his throat slit and is pinned to the door with arrows.
  10. Mrs. Voorhees is decapitated with a machete. 
TL;DR: Friday the 13th is not a good movie but it is the seminal slasher film and an outright masterpiece of schlock cinema.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 2349
Reviews In This Series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th Part 3: 3D (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

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