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From the Vaults: 'Friday the 13th' (1980)

August 23, 2010 |  2:36 am

F13poster *claps hands to face, shakes feathered hair, screams*

I'm sorry! I meant to do this last week. Larry pitched this idea when he first started running posts from 1980, and I thought "ooh, there's a Friday the 13th in August" and then I didn't think about it again until, well, last Friday morning, when my "House of Usher" post had just gone live. Well... "Friday the 13th" itself was released on May 9, 1980, so at least there is precedence for not getting the date quite right. That counts... right? ....

Besides, there's no actual mention of Friday the 13th in the movie. It's given as the date for much of the action, but nobody ever says "Boy, I sure hate Friday the 13th! Things always get crazy!" or anything like that. This is fitting; the movie intentionally follows the template of the tremendously successful "Halloween" (1978), which was originally titled "The Babysitter Murders" and involves the holiday largely as window dressing. In the coming years "My Bloody Valentine" (1981) and "April Fool's Day" (1986) would treat their own holiday themes much more seriously. For the original F13, though, it's just all about the camp counselors.

And what counselors they are! Not a single camper is to be seen in this film, unless you count the drowning Jason (was he a camper or just an employee's kid that nobody was really in charge of?) shown in flashback. This film is concerned about the counselors, thank you, the nubile teenagers in high-waisted shorts and crisp white panties. This film clearly knows which side its bread is buttered on! All the action takes place on the day before Camp Crystal Lake is to open, so at least there's a good reason: the story centers on the counselors who are helping get the camp ready. Sadly for them, that will never happen.

F13kevin Not much plot, but here's what there is: About 20 years ago, a boy drowned at Camp Crystal Lake. The next year, somebody killed two counselors. An exposition-providing truck driver in the present day also mentions "Buncha fires. Nobody knows who did any of 'em." But now the camp is being reopened by Steve (Peter Brouwer), with help from counselors Alice (Adrienne King), Jack (Kevin Bacon!) and assorted expendable others. A local named Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) tries to warn the counselors that it isn't safe to return to "Camp Blood." But, well, this is 2010. We all know what happens.

Tonight was only the second time I've seen this movie, and for a relative newcomer, it holds up astonishingly well.The counselor mayhem is gratuitous, sure, and it's not the taut masterpiece that "Halloween" is. Some of the acting is really problematic, especially from poor King, who precedes every line with a "wait, I have to get my acting face on" sort of scrunching expression. (Although it's fitting for a final girl to be shy and repressed!)

But the best thing about this movie is the fantastic sense of place. A friend of mine once said of "Das Boot" that "By the time it's over, you know what a submarine smells like." Well, after 15 minutes of this movie, you know what Camp Crystal Lake smells like. If you've been to camp at all, you've been there.

There's something unsettling about camp, really, for campers and counselors alike. You're free to run around, but you're still subject to someone else's rules and someone else's schedule. The woods are nearby, and if you're a counselor, there's the constant underlying fear that you'll screw up when you're supposed to be responsible for a bunch of kids. For a certain generation of teenager, the camp-counselor spot is a very vulnerable one. (It's not unlike babysitting, when you're in someone else's house, unfamiliar with the exits or potential weapons, and in charge of the most valuable possessions.)

F13aalice And the best moments of "Friday the 13th" are the ones that just go to town with the camp-ness. Cabin doors squeak. You need a flashlight to use the bathroom late at night. Beds are spare -- check out the bare ticking on Kevin Bacon's pillow, above. I love when Alice (left, resting) makes coffee on the old-fashioned stovetop and it takes 10 minutes and it feels like real time. I love the tatty old archery range where Brenda meets her doom. I really love the bit where the killer has Alice cornered behind a wooden door, and the light shines through the wide slats between the boards.

And the storm that sweeps through the valley "like a son of a gun" (as Bacon says) feels real; to a Southern Californian, wind and rain and the sound of insects at night and the sound of loons on the water, well -- that's alien enough to be creepy!

This movie is also lovable for its idiosyncratic bit characters: Besides Crazy Ralph, there's the diner lady, and the exposition-providing truck driver (Rex Everhart), and the police officer who is convinced that all the counselors are smoking dope (Ron Millkie). I also love camp boss Steve's first scene, where he's chopping wood in denim shorts with a red bandana around his neck. The special effects by gore god Tom Savini are fantastic, too; I never get tired of the arrow-through-the-throat trick.

And there are moments of surprising beauty. My favorite is when Alice, clad in a yellow slicker, finds her friend's red poncho and holds it up in front of a bright light. The composition of that shot is gorgeous. All the colors look carefully considered, but the sets always look lived-in; it's nothing like the clinical coldness of the 2009 remake.

And then there is Betsy Palmer, who is the most amazing thing ever. Can I be her when I grow up?

For those baffled by the slasher genre, I recommend the wonderful Final Girl blog (it was her F13 blogathon three years ago that got me to see this film for the first time) and also the documentary "Going to Pieces."

If you're curious and haven't seen this film in a while or ever: Check it out now! It holds up beautifully. The first sequel with Amy Steel is good too.

Next week: We'll class things back up with a historical silent epic from 1920. No axes, I swear! Unless you're Anne Boleyn...

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon