There are certain mediocre films that, due to public consciousness and popularity, can actually achieve classic status after their time. Many of these are sci-fi or horror films that had one eye-catching original film and then a vast set of diminishing sequels, like the film I wish to discuss today. In the late 1970s, Sean S. Cunningham, who had not achieved much success with his more family-oriented features, saw John Carpenter's Halloween and was amazed at how effective this low-budget chiller was (and also how financially successful it was). He took this 'slasher' concept and decided to make his own version. This was going to be a real scary movie, but also be shocking and graphic in a way that Halloween wasn't. The script by Victor Miller then began as "The Long Night at Camp Blood" but Cunningham insisted in a title change that reflected Halloween...and horror history was born. So let's pack our bags and head to camp as we go through Friday the 13th
In the summer of 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake, two teenagers are savagely murdered by an unseen killer while making love...causing the camp to be shut down. Over the years, numerous fires, accidents, and various other instances of bad luck at the property have caused the locals to believe that the camp has a curse on it. Despite this, the Christie family is insistent on opening the camp back up and putting it to work. Finally, in the summer of 1980, Steve Christie looks to be the first person to have the camp open in over 20 years and he has brought in seven teenaged camp counselors to help him bring the place up to code and then interact with the campers when they finally arrive. However, a sinister atmosphere seems to hang over their efforts. A snake is found in one of the cabins, a crazy old man preaches that they're all "doomed", and an unseen presence is watching and waiting in the shadows...waiting to strike out at anyone who goes off alone. One-by-one the counselors begin to disappear until only one is left to fight for her life in the "long night at camp blood".
You know, for a horror film that received nothing but negative reviews (and a letter writing campaign championed by Siskel and Ebert for indecency in films) and has one of the worst reputations...this is one solid little thriller. By no means does it achieve the heights of Halloween, but it certainly creates quite a bit of suspense in many of the stalking scenes that has not been matched in its myriad of sequels. What
Friday the 13th does so well, even though it is a body-count film that is a blatent rip off of the earlier film, is to rise above it's filmmakers' expectations. They were making a cash-in that they hoped would be successful...but what they managed was a marvelous whodunnit with gross-out effects and a killer who actually has a legitimate motive. The fact that Friday the 13th recieved some of the worst press of all the slasher films from the 80s (including the much more nausiating The Burning) has given the film and it's series a stigma that has been very hard to shake (and has been so embraced by its fan base that nothing "classy" could ever really be made and be called Friday the 13th). It is that stigma that has kept historians and fans from really examining it as a valid suspense film...and indeed, it is suspenseful and scary. There are 3 gore effects in the entire film and those are even more tame than most people think. Yet, the way the film taps into the idea of summer camps as being sinister (indeed, who didn't hear a story at their camp about how a tragedy had cursed the place for years to come?) and plays that for all that it's worth. 9 times out of 10, even though I know Halloween is a better film, I'll find myself more anxious to turn on Friday the 13th because of its rollercoaster pace and likeable characters. It isn't for everyone, but it is certainly a film that gets less than it deserves due to it's more well-reviewed cousins.