The shameful reality is: I had never seen this movie before. Mostly because I spent many of my formative years uninterested in horror films, and, well, they scared me. So as part of my drive to fill in all the glaring gaps in my knowledge, I threw this chestnut on the list.
The movie opens with a bunch of camp counselors sitting around singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” with a guitar. Ah, those hard-partying teens of yesteryear. But before you surmise that this movie is set in a Christian New Life camp, two of them run off to fool around, and are promptly killed. Then the 3-D graphic of the title comes forward and seems to shatter the glass of your television, and soon we note that the makeup here was handled by Tom Savini.
So then this chick who is to be the camp cook is trying to get a ride to Camp Crystal Lake. The locals think it odd that she’s heading there, but one of them agrees to give her a ride most of the way. On the way out a crazy old man says “You’re going to camp blood! It’s got a death curse!” For some reason I just love the convention of having people warn someone before they go off somewhere. It’s second only to refusing to take them all the way to someplace [“The horses will go no further!”], which I suspect originated in Dracula. We get double for our money here [and a bonus booster later] when the truck driver also emphatically warns his hitchhiker, but she’s a “dumb kid” and won’t listen. Within a few minutes she’s dead.
Next we are introduced to a young Kevin Bacon. During this time we have lots of “killer cam,” that is, seeing the victims from the stalker’s perspective. Do you remember when this was a hot issue? Like part of the ways horror films are a shocking detriment to our society is that teens, through use of point-of-view, would vicariously experience what it’s like to be a crazed stalker, and theoretically want to stalk and kill for themselves? But none could stop the march of horror commerce, and now we’re all warped individuals, part of our overall sick society. I can vouch that I personally want to stalk and kill for myself, and probably SOLELY because of point-of-view shots.
There’s lots of “something scary happens... but it’s just another one of the counselors” moments, including one where a guy shoots an arrow to barely miss a girl, then comes out laughing like he did no more than yell “boo!” She is pissed, but eventually that gives way to a flirtatious attitude. This would seem to give credence to those who believe that films like this foster messed-up relations between the sexes, as, for a joke, the man almost shoots his intended with an arrow? Oh, but it’s all in fun. Let’s flirt via chainsaw next time.
I was pleased to see that not only is this movie a classic, but it’s a classic because it’s pretty good, noticeable in a long, masterful stalking sequence in the woods. It is 23 minutes before we see so much as a hand of the killer, the rest of it so far being “killer’s-eye-view” shots, which is sort of unexpectedly cerebral when you think about it: the audience is being scared by a point of view.
Then there’s a scene in which one girl discovers a snake in her cabin, and they have to flush it out from under the bed. I found this relatively creepy, as I do not enjoy the thought of venomous vermin potentially in the dark corners of my lodgings. They find it and kill it [I think they kill a real snake on screen], but if it were me, I would SO be out of there, as who's to say the snake didn’t tell his brother where he was going, and to check on him if he isn’t back in 15 minutes? I used to totally think that about spiders I would kill in my room when I was younger.
Then one of the male counselors is jumping around in a bikini and Indian headdress as the local sheriff arrives. The sheriff tells the kids that “we ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness around here.” Then the crazy old coot shows up AGAIN to warn them [it’s triple-bonus day on ominous warnings!], and all along we have been noticing that this film actually features quite nice nature cinematography.
There are quite a few chucklers, like when a counselor is walking along a path and sees an ominous figure lurking in the doorway of an abandoned cabin, and says “Hello? Can I help you?” even though HE is the stranger there. And right after this another counselor says “Oh! The wind has come up!” even though it’s obvious that the night is as still as a rock.
Soon after, Bacon and a girl run off to a cabin to fuck, which they do, then he decides to smoke some weed [which, it’s like; you didn’t want to smoke that before…?] But he soon receives some sharp pointers in checking beneath the bed before reclining while at cursed campgrounds, and during this shot you’ll notice that his entire head is a rubber cast articulated to make a very convincing gasping mouth motion. I think.
One also cannot escape noticing that these randy teens are clad in the skimpiest of outfits, and see very little reason to clothe themselves. For example, the woman who suggests that they play strip Monopoly, who gets down to a bra and panties, sees no reason to don anything other than a raincoat to go “close the windows in her cabin” [because it’s raining… you remember how the wind was coming up earlier]. None of them seem to find anything creepy or odd about being at a deserted campground where everything is old and dangerous and there are snakes in the cabins. Whatever, let’s play strip Yahtzee!
SPOILERS > > >
So they’re all killed one by one. We don’t see so much of the actual killing as we do the gruesome aftermath, as in many movies. Anyway, the Final Girl [I didn’t bother to learn any of their names] finally runs out and meets this nice, somewhat dykey-looking suburban mom, whom she implores for help until she realizes—MOM’S THE KILLER! Mom is all pissed [and a touch nutso] because her son Jason drowned while the counselors who were supposed to look after him were busy hiding sausage, and so I guess she carries a grudge against all camp counselors now. The final girl in question here knocks Mom out like four times and Mom still gets up to dish out some more. She must take her one-a-day Centrum Silver or some shit. This puts me in mind of one of the central tenants of life that I learned from horror movies: when you knock the killer out, make the extra effort to separate the head from the body. Too many young women just knock the killer out and run, and look what happens.
One notable thing is that the killer of Friday the 13th 2 through 345, Jason Voorhees, does not appear here [well, maybe in a vision at the end, his scrawny, half-decomposed body suggesting that he instituted a high-impact weight training routine prior to taking over mom’s psychotic killer duties in further installments], and there is no trace of a hockey mask throughout the entire movie. Interesting that the legendary killer figure that represents the series isn’t even in the first movie. Personally, I think they should have left it with the Mom. There’s just something so fun about this suburban soccer mom slicing and dicing [and gouging and stabbing] horny teens. If only Serial Mom had been better. Or in any way coherent.
< < < SPOILERS END
This movie is definitely the archetype of a certain kind of slasher film, and I was happy to find that it is so famous because it does everything so successfully. Many of the stalkings are very scary, first-class examples of the art, and I was not all that bored and driven to fast-forward as I usually am during these kinds of things.
The trailer counts to 12, with 13 being the title of the film. This is also a canny way to promise the potential viewer 12 killings [though I think the actual number may be less]. It ends with a rather funny tagline that unknowingly derides the movie: “You may only see it once, but that may be enough.” This reminds me of an amusing but utterly unrelated self-congratulatory story. About ten years ago I lived in Michigan and worked for the main office of Borders Books and Music, where my job was to write all the blurbs for music and video that were in the stores and their catalogs. Everything I wrote had to be positive, so when I had to write about Kenneth Branagh’s horrendous, full-length version of Hamlet, I wracked my brain to think of something that sounded laudatory--but was actually insulting. What I came up with was: “Kenneth Branagh’s film will make you never want to see another Hamlet.”
Of course, though I suspect that you’ve seen it already.