John Carpenter’s Halloween spawned one of the most popular subgenres of the horror genre, the slasher film. The horror genre, as it always does, quickly churned out a number of knockoffs after the financial success of Halloween. The first major success after Halloween came only two years later, the now famous Friday the 13th. Yet as much as the horror genre recycles and reusues elements of successful films, Friday the 13th stands as a different kind of slasher film.
After all, the film simply could have been a rehash of Halloween with a new cast and villain. Instead, it sets itself in a more isolated location, Crystal Lake, a summer camp. A young group of staff members show up to get the camp in to shape, only to discover that the camp has a shady past of violence. And one by one the staff members are killed off as the evening goes on, stuck miles away from civilization and unable to contact the outside world.
Part of what makes Friday the 13th effective is that it lulls the audience with a lengthy setup of mundane, everyday things. The front end of this film does have a couple of violent incidents, but the majority of the first act consists of these kids goofing off. As the film builds up, the violence makes the mundane setting horrific. The contrast makes the moments of violence effective and intense, as well as creating heightened tension in the second half.
Also, the pacing is key in crafting suspense. The recurring point of view shots add a sense of dread to otherwise mundane scenes. When we discover that the kids on the dock are being watched, it makes an otherwise a relaxed scene edgy. When the violence is imminent, the suspense is at its best. Every dark corner or closed door could house the violent perpetrator. The film could have the killer hop out and quickly jump to the violence, but instead it builds a lot of these moments until it becomes almost unbearable.
And the reason this works is because of the cinematography and lighting. A lot of horror films are darkly lit, but this film consists of images where we can only get a general sense of things. In a lot of slasher films the killer is off frame, lurking, and we know they aren’t there because we can still see everything to an extent. This means that the sense of mystery is everywhere and the killer could be lurking in the corner of any frame.
But not all the images are about immersing us in the suspense and mystery. Before the violence sets in there are plenty of nice shots of the outlying area. Anyone who has spent any time in the outdoors has been to such a place. There’s a magnificent, clear tree outlined with dense woods. And the sunset is magnificent and picturesque. This makes the violence even more jarring once it makes an entrance into the picture.
A lot of horror films deal in the uncanny, but it’s the way Friday the 13th is even more uncanny than Halloween. While I don’t want to reveal the mystery of the main killer, when the reveal is made, the villain is a disturbing and repulsive. In fact, I’d be far more interested in seeing films with this killer than the iconic Jason Voorhees who isn’t a presence in this film. It takes its cues from Psycho, like a lot of these slasher films, but the way it’s presented makes it understated.
However, the main problem with the film is that the victims lack personality. Sure, they’re fodder, but it would be nice if they were at least memorable. The character of Ned (Mark Nelson) is a bit amusing with his crazy antics, but these characters aren’t well defined or even distinguished from each other. I’d even argue that the film doesn’t have a final girl because no female character in the film has the characteristics of the final girl.
However, this does lead to an effective ending. Yes, it’s stealing a trick out of Carrie, but it works on a number of levels. First, it hints at the Jason Voorhees character who will carry the rest of the series. Second, it conveys the Freudian idea of birth being attached to water. Third, it sets up the idea that the repressed will surface up no matter how hard you try to hide it.
In fact, even though that one scene is unexpected and out of place, it succinctly summarizes why the film works. The villain able to emerge from anywhere and is uncanny in contrast to his normal surroundings. The scene also conveys the idea that dirty secrets have a way of coming out. This one scene wordlessly expresses the essence of the horror genre and why it is so effective. Some don’t like the evil lurking the shadows but the horror genre shows that denial or blissful ignorance is not the answer. In the end, evil will emerge no matter how well it’s suppressed; it’s how we address it that’s makes the difference.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing