Has there ever been as unlikely a cinematic phenomenon as 'Friday the 13th?' Who would have thought that such a low-budget, inauspicious drive-in shocker as this would go on to spawn ten sequels, one remake, at TV series, countless imitators, and a cottage industry of reunion conventions, merchandise, and tie-in products? Produced in 1980 on a shoestring budget, with an unknown cast, and blatantly made to cash-in on the success of John Carpenter's pioneering slasher flick 'Halloween,' the original 'Friday the 13th' remains a landmark film despite being of such debatable artistic quality that upon first release not a single mainstream critic gave it a good review. Against all odds, 'Friday the 13th' -- and the iconic movie monster Jason it created -- has etched itself a permanent place in the pop culture pantheon, for better or worse.
Even at the time of its original release, the plot (as it were) of 'Friday the 13th' was hardly original. Borrowing liberally from 'Halloween,' as well as summer camp teen flicks like 'Meatballs,' and throwing in a dash of gore straight out of Italian giallos and 'Dawn of the Dead,' the film barely constitutes a story. Following a brief prologue that sets up a previous horror at Camp Crystal Lake, a group of naive counselors (including a pre-fame Kevin Bacon) returns five years later to re-open the camp. Failing to heed the warnings of the locals, we enjoy a few scenes of silly banter and innocuous games of "Strip Monopoly," before the unseen killer strikes, picking off each counselor in a series of escalatingly gruesome and creative murder sequences. The film concludes with our Final Girl (Adrienne King) unmasking the killer, after which an extended chase culminates in a gruesome piece de resistance. Add in a still-corker of a chair-jumping fake ending involving a certain funny-looking boy named Jason, and voila! -- an instant slasher film classic is born.
Anyone who has ever seen a slasher movie (or even 'Scary Movie'), will recognize this plot. And certainly, 'Friday the 13th' is crudely made, obvious in its motives, and gleeful in dragging out every murder sequence and suspense moment to the point that you want to see the counselors die just to get it over with. But what 'Friday the 13th' lacks in artistic finesse -- director/producer Sean Cunningham and writer Victor Miller have never denied the creative failings of their creation -- it makes up for with such documentary-like verisimilitude and eagerness to please the audience that it's hard not to enjoy it on a gloriously tacky, B-movie level.
Without a doubt, much of 'Friday the 13th's initial appeal was due to its much-repudiated gore. Unfortunately, thirty years of ever-more-graphic horror films has blunted 'Friday the 13th's blade considerably. It's hard to imagine that anyone, let alone critics, were once shocked and outraged at the live-on-the-set illusions in the movie. Today, 'Friday the 13th' is almost quaint. Tom Savini's then-pioneering effects work, while still an example of fine craftsmanship, now looks like just what it is -- latex and fake blood. Ironically, the curtain is pulled back even further on this "Uncut" Blu-ray, which features (for the first time in the US) the gorier, "International" version of the film. The camera now lingers longer on the hackings and stabbings to the tune of about 14 extra seconds, though some shots (particularly Bacon's death scene) are arguably now less effective because they look even more phony. It's cool for fans to finally have this uncut version, but given the dated nature of the film's effects, in this case less may actually be more.
However, like 'Halloween,' it's easy to forget that 'Friday the 13th' once resonated as a modern campfire tale for the teens of 1980. Cunningham and Miller have a lot of fun toying with our fears of dark places and staging rudimentary peek-a-boo scares that, if a bit slow-paced, remain effective. 'Friday the 13th's biggest asset today is not its murders, but the set-up. This is helped by the young cast, especially Bacon, King, and Mark Nelson and Laurie Bartram as another pair of hapless counselors, who are all far more likable than the blandly photogenic, WB-ready models we usually get in today's PG-13 horror movies. And lest I ruin the hardly well-kept whodunit, 'Friday the 13th's killer is not who you think it is. The eventual reveal remains one of the film's loopiest, best scenes, and the extended catfight with the Final Girl is camp-horror at its finest.
Despite its title, then, 'Friday the 13th' is the luckiest horror film ever made. Bearing few marks of distinction, it's very success nevertheless has given it a legitimacy even its harshest critics can't deny. Even if you've never seen a 'Friday the 13th' movie, you know exactly what it is and what it's about, and you know Jason. 'Friday the 13th' is now a full-on, undeniable movie brand, and along with 'Halloween' and 'A Nightmare on Elm Street,' a part of the the canon of the modern horror film. Whether the film deserves it, I'll leave up to you.
'Friday the 13th' hits Blu-ray the same day as a standard-def DVD re-issue, and both versions contain -- for the first time in the US -- the fabled "international" cut of the film (the theatrical version is not included here). Added is about 14 seconds of additional gore, presented in a high-def transfer that is minted from a different master than that found on previous domestic DVD releases.
As seen on this Blu-ray, 'Friday the 13th' looks about as good as such a low-budget slasher could. Compared to the previous R-rated DVD, this transfer is considerably brighter. Details that were lost in black before are now visible. The trade-off is noticeably increased grain and slightly flatter colors. 'Friday the 13th' never looked very vibrant anyway, but the infused contrast washes out the image somewhat. Detail isn't great, but it's largely indicative of the limited photography. To be fair, this is by far the most textured and sharp the film has looked on video. Finally, this is a clean encode, as I noticed no apparent artifacts. All in all, 'Friday the 13th' looks good considering the material, and fans should be happy.
Paramount has remastered 'Friday the 13th' in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit), culled from newly-discovered source elements. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this mix. It sounds louder and harsher, but not necessarily better.
The source remains poor. High end is screechy and irritating, particularly on the shrieking strings of Harry Manfredini's score. Dialogue can also sound muffled and indistinct in the mix. Don't expect much in the way of low bass, either, with the entire soundtrack falling flat throughout. Surround use is also non-existent -- I would never have guessed this was a 5.1 remix if it hadn't said so on the back packaging. 'Friday the 13th' is hardly a sonic tour de force, but a little atmosphere would have been nice. Luckily, the original mono mix is also included on this Blu-ray, and quite frankly I preferred it to the TrueHD.
'Friday the 13th' is making its second trip to DVD as a special edition (the first was released in 2005), and Paramount has produced some new features exclusive to the release. They're also bringing over the same set of extras for this first-ever Blu-ray release, and it's a spotty package. There's some good material here, and some that feels a bit like padding. Most of the video material is presented in 1080 HD, with the same subtitle options as the main feature.
'Friday the 13th' is a slasher classic, a meat-and-potatoes horror film that the critics hated but audiences flocked to in 1980. It's legacy is less a result of its artistic quality than the fact that it spawned so many sequels and imitators, but it's still a fun flick to watch almost thirty years later. This Blu-ray is notable for boasting the international cut of the film, with good video quality, though the audio is lacking. The extras are mixed bag, but at least Paramount went through the trouble to produce some new features. This is not a perfect Blu-ray, but fans should find it overall worth the upgrade. (Editor's Note - And again, our own Peter M. Bracke serves as a dynamite host for the audio commentary!)