FRIDAY THE 13TH, released theatrically on 1100 screens by Paramount Pictures on Friday, May 9, 1980, is one of the most financially successful and influential horror films ever made. It opened at #1 at the box office, just ahead of Universal’s new comedy, the disappointing THE NUDE BOMB, a movie version of GET SMART starring Don Adams as bumbling TV spy Maxwell Smart. Although technically not the very first "body count" film (I suppose 1964's Italian BLOOD AND BLACK LACE may have been the first), it was the first to reach a wide mainstream American audience via a major Hollywood studio. Director Sean S. Cunningham's ragged slasher has spawned ten sequels to date, as well as countless homages, ripoffs and parodies. What's tricky about watching it today is trying to see it through 1980 eyes, when the storyline of vapid teenage camp counselors being systematically sliced and diced (courtesy of Tom Savini's makeup expertise) must have seemed fresh and exciting.
The plot is fairly simple, drawing as it does from a variety of influences, including PSYCHO, BLACK CHRISTMAS and the Italian horror movies of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Seven good-looking teens (presumably college-aged) hire on to serve as summer camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, nicknamed "Camp Blood" by the locals because of a pair of unsolved murders that occurred there more than twenty years before that have left the facility abandoned. Haunted by the camp's grisly legend, as well as the drowning death of a young boy named Jason Voorhees that happened a year before the murders, the seven kids decide to spend the two weeks before the campers are due by drinking, getting high and having sex. And by now, you all know what happens to teens who engage in that sort of activity in a remote area where a serial killer may be loose. What’s important is that, in 1980, you didn’t. What is cliché now, thanks mostly to SCREAM and its sequels, was not so when FRIDAY THE 13TH and screenwriter Victor Miller (who went on to become an Emmy-winning writer on ALL MY CHILDREN) created it.
What's surprising about FRIDAY THE 13TH all these years later is how tame Savini's gore effects seem. Whereas they were quite notorious in 1980, leading to much controversy and protests, the FX were clearly cut somewhat to appease the MPAA and earn the film an R rating. Savini has done better work elsewhere, such as in the unrated MANIAC and DAWN OF THE DEAD, but those films were likely seen only by horror buffs. Paramount's push and the R rating opened Savini's craft up to countless audiences who had probably never seen throats slit or bodies slashed with such graphic impunity, and the shocking death of one character who has his throat punctured by an arrow was probably quite a shocker to them.
F13's secret weapon may be Harry Manfredini, the composer whose "ki-ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma-ma" score has since been copied to death. Manfredini's music is very good and keeps one's nerves consistently jangled, even when not much is happening on screen. That much of F13's success is due to Manfredini's music is clear when you consider he became typecast as a "horror composer" and was invited back for nearly all the sequels (Fred Mollin did Part 8 and Graeme Revell FREDDY VS. JASON).
FRIDAY THE 13TH does what it sets out to do--kill many young people in relatively shocking fashion--and it does so reasonably well. The killer's revelation had long been spoiled for me (by SCREAM, if nothing else), and the very effective final shock was a staple of the period (see PHANTASM, CARRIE...). It was reenacted more recently in I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, as well as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 even. Of course, F13 is now notable as one of Kevin Bacon's first films (he also has the most memorable death scene), although it's the perky Adrienne King who is the star, one of horror’s sweetest Final Girls. Believe it or not, FRIDAY THE 13TH was the 18th highest-grossing film of 1980, and remains the second most successful film of the series (behind FREDDY VS. JASON).
The trailer is excellent, and undoubtedly lured a lot of teenagers to buy tickets.