Friday the 13th does a better job of assaulting its audience than in scaring it. Instead of creating moments of suspense, the film uses quick, fast and cheap frights to jostle its audience temporarily out of their seats. The villain, Jason Voorhees (Derek Mears), leaps out from the shadows accompanied by a loud noise, executing a quick sensory attack on the audience.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Friday the 13th is mostly bang, with only a few moments where the film sets up a mood of tense dread of what is to come. The film often jumps the gun, cutting straight to the violence without successfully sustaining suspense. It becomes a visual attack on the audience as the film cuts to Jason then to the violence and then to the aftermath. The punch-line is reached before the setup is established.
And this is somewhat ironic as the film has a rather lengthy prologue where a fleeing camp counselor (Stephanie Rhodes) turns at the last moment and kills her pursuer Pamela Voorhees (Nana Visitor), the mother of the troubled Jason. Some years later five college-aged campers unknowingly pitch camp feet away from the camp where Pamela was killed. Her son, Jason, resides nearby and it is not long before one-by-one all five are slaughtered by him.
Six weeks later, another group of young adults take a weekend trip up to a summer home. They cross paths with Clay Miller (Jared Padalecki), who is looking for his sister, Whitney (Amanda Righetti), one of the missing five campers. Just as Clay gets close to finding out the truth, Jason strikes once more, slaughtering his hapless victims.
But as Jason picks off these characters there isn’t any emotional tension because the film gives us no reason to like these characters. In fact, some of them are despicable people who probably deserve to die. If the film had given some likability to these stereotypical twenty-something-year-old party animals there would be some stakes involved. We would have wanted them to live. Instead the film settles for disposable characters, leading to a lack of suspense.
However, there are several moments where the film does sustain suspense by allowing the victim to know their plight before Jason gets the drop on them and in a panic they try to evade him. The one scene in particular is shot from beneath a dock where the camera catches glimpses of Jason between the cracks and the suspense is gradually allowed to build. There are enough of these tense moments of true suspense to give viewers a break–if it can be called that–from the mindless repetition of fast and quick violence.
Yet even in its greatest moments of suspense, the film is lacking because Jason fails to be a frightening antagonist. His silence isn’t as menacing as it is simply flavorless. The iconic hockey mask makes the effect even flatter as we see no emotional reaction. We know who the villain is, so the mast is simply an aesthetic effect that fails to impact. A great villain should frighten the audience beyond the simple threat of violence. Instead, Jason is a mindless killing machine with no personality or psychological depth.
There are those who believe the psychiatrist scene at the end of Psycho is a blight on an otherwise flawless film. But the absence of such a scene in Friday the 13th shows that these lengthy scenes of exposition serve to provide the villain with a plausible motive. And a villain without a plausible motive in a slasher film makes for a film of mindless carnage.
On the subject of mindless, that’s the best word to describe the sexuality in the film. It would not be worth bring up except the film lingers more on building up of sexual tension and eroticism than it does in most of the slaughter sequences. And in true Hollywood form, it’s always female upper nudity. The film could have turned this sexuality into some kind of motivation for Jason. Perhaps it arouses his bloodlust. Instead, the film simply grinds to a halt so that all the males in the audience can be titillated.
Friday the 13th has several brilliant moments of suspense to keep the film from being an utter failure but for the most part it is quick fast and flinching violence. Put simply, the film is sadistic pornography in terms of both sex and violence. If you like such a film here is another one for you, but most people will not find the film’s mindless violence satisfying or engaging.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing