In the Margins of Cunningham’s Friday the 13th

Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is hard to evaluate. It’s not particularly suspenseful or frightening, mostly because the viewer understands the slasher formula as a ‘closed system’: You know exactly what will happen and how. Most readings of the genre fall into two camps. The first and probably most common being that the genre connotes and critiques the American sociopolitical climate of the 1980s: deregulation and militarization in the west, a kind of generational conflict between liberal and conservative values, rural and urban lifestyles, Baby Boomers and their children. The second is largely structuralist-feminist and examines the genre’s tropes: naming conventions such as one-syllable unisex names, the ‘final girl,’ female neurosis, etc.

Both camps are valid -because there is certainly something to be said about the cathartic aspects of violent and abject images in a slasher register from a Freud-Kristeva perspective- but the two camps also focus heavily on ‘meaning’ rather than on the actual experience of watching the film. I don’t mean ‘experience’ in the sense of a ‘nostalgic experience’ but in the sense of a phenomenological one: Not only is the attribution of ‘meaning’ contingent on content, but at the same time a film’s content isn’t by necessity relevant to the overall viewing experience of a film. Therefore, like giallo or rape-revenge films or otherwise, I think it’s necessary to parse a film’s content from a film’s style. Slasher films are, for the most part, exploitation films: part of the intention is to deliver on violence, blood, sex and nudity, content-wise.

Friday the 13th is of course an exploitation film that was made, ostensibly, in order to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Yet according to Richard Nowell’s book on the emergence of the slasher film in North America (and contrary to popular belief) no major studio or financier wanted to replicate the success of Halloween, primarily because studios -who in the late 1970s were beginning to come out of bankruptcy- didn’t want to tarnish their reputations with critics and with the MPAA with overtly violent films (this is ironic given that these studios had made their fortunes back with American New Wave directors who used the language of genre and exploitation to create ‘legitimate’ films loved by critics -Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Friedkin, et al.). Keep in mind that the only way one heard about new films at the time was either by word-of-mouth or by media channels controlled by professional critics: radio, television, and newspapers. The genius of the slasher film -like most exploitation films- is that it is largely ‘critic proof,’ which critics of course hate because this undermines their attempts to shape demand with audiences.

Most histories of the slasher subgenre cite either Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) or Halloween (1978) as the ‘prototype’ of the subgenre, but the slasher template originates, arguably, with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939), wherein a group of people are ‘isolated’ from the world and killed one by one by an unknown assailant. Mario Bava loosely adapted Christie’s story into a giallo register, Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970), and a year later, again taking his cue from Christie, ‘created’ what we understand to be the slasher when he combined the explicit sex and violence of the European giallo film with a whodunit mystery in A Bay of Blood (1971). Theodore Gershuny’s Silent Night, Bloody Night, shot in 1970 though not released until 1972, is arguably the first film produced in the United States that resembles the 1980s slasher. Like Christie’s story, Friday the 13th is set in isolation at a summer camp, where a group of young counselors are stalked and eventually killed by a mysterious figure.

The origins of Friday the 13th are largely unimportant to the film proper although one might keep in mind that Cunningham’s film has more in common formally with the ‘ancestral’ slashers of the 1970s, with which one might include John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and David Paulsen’s Savage Weekend (1979). Like those films (and unlike the films that succeeded it), parts 1 and 2 of Friday the 13th have a distinct sense of setting and environment.

There is a genuine sense of economy or simplicity in the film’s construction, which is mostly accomplished with extended wide shots and handheld shots. Certain scenes contain shots that linger on inconsequential action long after most films of this kind would cut away. Consider a scene where Ralph (Walt Gorney), after appearing out of a pantry and warning the kids that they are ‘doomed,’ rides away on his bicycle and eventually out of frame, another where Annie (Robbi Morgan) is dropped off outside a rural cemetery on her way to the camp and walks completely out of frame, and another where Mr. Christy (Peter Brouwer), after having been dropped off near the camp by a police car, slowly walks out of frame despite the rain (the car then slowly drives away and eventually out of frame in the same shot). Scenes such as these indicate, arguably, the film’s use of the production’s small budget to enhance the film’s sense of remoteness and isolation from the world.

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A common positive critique of this film that I agree with is the comparison to a documentary: It ‘sometimes feels like you’re watching a documentary,’ or ‘has a documentary-like quality,’ and so on. What these comments refer to is not realism or mimesis (given what takes place) but a sense of immediacy and of the film simply ‘happening’ to you. It’s in the scenes where no sex or violence takes place where you get that sense of being immersed, and I think this is due largely to the fact that the first two films were shot entirely on location in the northeast United States (the first film was shot in Warren County, New Jersey, the second in Litchfield County, Connecticut). There is a ‘lived-in’ quality to what are essentially superfluous scenes: characters sitting around a fireplace, walking along a dock, etc.

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Adrienne King on location at Sand Pond, Warren County, New Jersey

To that end, the film uses hand-held shots to both immerse the viewer in its remote setting and to provide the viewer with a sense of the characters being surveilled -often in the same scene. Many of these shots have come to be known as ‘killervision,’ so named because the viewer allegedly sees the film’s victims from the killer’s point of view: The shot is usually hand-held, revealing one or more protagonists from a distance, as if they are being stalked or hunted. The notion of killervision is reductive, however, and was popularized among filmgoers in the early 1980s by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who in response to Friday the 13th devoted an entire episode of their television show to deriding the slasher film, arguing that the filmmakers of slashers not only somehow ‘introduced’ or developed killervision but did so in the hope that audiences would identify with a film’s antagonists rather than its protagonists. Their comments in that episode reveal their lack of (or withholding of) knowledge about genre cinema, particularly in Europe, where this visual device had existed much longer than they might have known. Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), regarded as a staple of the European giallo film and predating Friday the 13th by a decade, contains such a device.

Further, a hand-held shot that reveals a protagonist from a distance is not by necessity one that exists from the POV of an antagonist. Friday the 13th often toys with the audience by conflating POV shots with simple hand-held footage. One type of hand-held shot would be that of Annie walking through town on her way to the camp, which regards her from only a few feet away. Another type of hand-held shot would be that of the counselors swimming, which regards them from a distance and through foliage, thus suggesting that they are being watched. However, certain scenes combine the two types, such as one where the viewer at first sees Alice (Adrienne King) from a distance walking toward the lake to meet Bill (Harry Crosby). The scene ends with Alice practically walking up to the camera and eventually past it and out of frame, as if not being watched. Thus the ‘killervision’ is arguably not the point of view of the killer at all, but events being regarded as phenomena from a distance, as in a documentary, providing a handmade sense of onscreen events simply ‘happening’ rather than being ‘performed’ or staged.

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Being watched in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)
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From being watched to being regarded in Friday the 13th

By contrast, scenes taking place indoors are static, often filmed in unbroken shots, and tend to focus on characters doing ubiquitous things. Consider two shots of Alice in the cabin’s kitchen at the beginning and end of the film: The earlier shot frames Alice, Bill, and Jack (Kevin Bacon) from a high angle looking down at a light bulb that has just gone dark. The camera focuses on the light bulb and faces of the characters close to it, who eventually turn away and move out of focus. The later shot lasts two minutes and pans back and forth following Alice as she lights a gas stove, prepares instant coffee, and retrieves sugar from the pantry. Both shots establish the cabin as a three-dimensional yet enclosed space where motion is limited relative to what takes place outdoors.

Like the camerawork, the film’s characterizations have a similar ‘handmade’ quality, in part due to the cast being comprised of young and relatively inexperienced stage actors from New York. Late in the film, Marcie imitates Katherine Hepburn’s affected Connecticut accent to a mirror (she is played by Jeannine Taylor, who is originally from Connecticut). Ned (Mark Nelson)’s body language and physical performance appears largely improvised. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) lures Alice and Bill into a game of ‘Strip Monopoly,’ and the film later implies that she may be attracted to Alice. It is when Alice begins to remove her shirt that Brenda suddenly has to leave “…just when it was getting interesting.”

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The characterizations in the first two Friday the 13th films largely undermine one of the most common readings of the slasher film at large, which is that the narrative typically follows a group of crass and callous teenagers whose deaths are a type of moralizing retribution for their behavior -usually sexual behavior (‘If you have sex, you die.’). This reading assumes, however, that a slasher film provides a mimetic depiction of human beings, which is arguably not the case. But assuming that that was the case, Friday the 13th negates that reading in that its young characters -at least in the first two films- come across as genuinely nice people who are no more or less sexually active than other young people. There is nothing cynical or mean-spirited about them, which makes certain murders in the first two films particularly cruel. According to Victor Miller, who wrote the original screenplay, Alice survives not because she is necessarily more ‘moral’ than the other characters. The film implies that Alice may have had a sexual encounter with Mr. Christy after arriving at the camp, and establishes Bill as a possible sexual partner.

Friday the 13th routinely uses film language to break down its images into elemental forms -primarily with film editing and spoken dialogue. A recurring transition throughout the film is the fade to white. In two scenes early on -both taking place after a murder- the image dissolves in this way. The first arrives at the end of the opening scene, wherein the camera slowly zooms in on a freeze frame. The image moves into an extreme close up of the face of Claudette (Deborah S. Hayes) to the point where the grain of the frame nearly abstracts the image. The second arrives after Annie’s murder, wherein she falls out of frame and the shot -an image of an uninhabited forest- floods with white. Visually, the fade to white is often indistinguishable from a gradual increase in film exposure where light eventually saturates the frame. One might compare the effect to the film’s various shots of the sun breaking through foliage. The fade effect thus provides an immersion for the viewer similar to the experience of walking through the woods.

fade to white

fade to white

The film’s dialogue also suggests elemental forms beneath surface images. A scene where Marcie has a monologue describing a recurring dream to Jack makes such a suggestion. They are framed in a head-and-shoulders shot as she recites it, there is no music, and the only sound is of the lake and the woods. She says: “I’ve had this dream about five or six times where I’m in a thunderstorm and it’s raining really hard. It sounds like pebbles when it hits the ground. I can hear it. I try to block out the sound with my hands, only it doesn’t work. It just keeps getting louder and louder. And then…the rain turns to blood. And the blood washes away in little rivers, and then the sound stops.”

Marcie pauses and then stares off-camera. They eventually both stand up and leave. The film then cuts to a series of shots of the area around the lake as a storm moves in: rowboats by the banks, wind rustling the trees, and so on. Aside from perhaps foreshadowing the film’s murders with the description of a forthcoming storm, the scene has nothing to with the narrative. Her speech alludes to water and blood -elements the viewer sees immediately following the monologue and throughout the remainder of the film, respectively.

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When one regards it at face value, one ultimately sees in Friday the 13th the connective tissue between the last vestiges of the 1970s horror film -based largely on urban legends, cautionary tales, and campfire stories- and the slashers of the early 1980s -steeped primarily in youth culture and youth markets. What makes the film unique despite itself is that it would still have value if you omitted the exploitative content. Absent of that content, various elements of film language emerge that generate a distinct sense of environment or atmosphere -specifically a sense of economy in the film’s construction and a sense of the elemental in its form.