If watching a hockey mask-clad serial killer butcher his way through a seemingly endless parade of idiot horny teens sounds like your idea of fun, then, as any horror fan will tell you, Sean S Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th isn’t the film for you. Although he's one of the most famous monsters of contemporary horror cinema, Jason Vorhees doesn't pick up his trademark costuming element until Friday the 13th Part 3 in 1982. But in the original movie, the slasher icon and his bloodthirsty mum lay the macabre, perverse groundwork for the cult franchise long before protective sportswear entered the equation.
Although Vorhees and the slasher subgenre more generally have become broadly synonymous with that round white facial covering, it was mere chance that saw technical advisor Terry Ballard bring an old 1950s hockey mask on to the set of the third instalment of the series. Director Steve Miner saw it and incorporated it into the series, making horror history.
Masks, head coverings and deceptive facial features had long been a part of the franchise – the second film featured Jason in a sack mask similar to that made famous in the cult horror film The Town that Dreaded Sundown. In the original Friday the 13th, the vulnerability and volatility of face-centric identity is also central. Throats are slashed as we realise with twisted delight that heads might literally roll, and the destruction of the film’s villain hinges around a graphic decapitation scene brought to life by horror FX guru Tom Savini.
But the delights of the first Friday the 13th stem as much from who is cut up as the whys and hows. Conventional wisdom vaguely suggests that something conservative, even puritanical, is at play behind slasher cinema’s tendency to punish its army of hormone-crazed adolescent sex addicts, the assumption being that we want promiscuous sex penalised in some weird regressive cinematic blood ritual. This misses a vital element that becomes glaringly obvious in Friday the 13th – the pleasure I get from watching this film is not that its victims are horny teens, but rather that they are smug, shallow idiots, boys and girls alike.
In fact, the sex scenes are almost a relief, not for their sleazy titillating spectacle, but because for a few moments these genuinely unlikable people stop talking. These moments are privileged according to the film’s own internal logic, not simply because of the bodily spectacle of sex and death, but because it’s a relief to have a reprieve from the inane banter of these middle class white brats (including a 22-year-old Kevin Bacon in his breakout role, impressively layered haircut and all).
Almost all of them, that is. Despite the fact that slasher films traditionally have a reputation of offing their sexually active young women characters over the just-as-promiscuous men, in recent years the identification of the so-called "Final Girl" character has seen fans and critics rally around the genre as a perhaps surprising arena where strong female characters not only exist, but, due to their bravery, strength and perseverance, are the only survivors.
Friday the 13th introduces one of the best, Adrienne King’s plucky Alice. Unlike her peers, Alice is smart but not a smart-arse, and her survival is a direct result of her intellectual, physical and emotional strength. We celebrate her survival for the same reason we do so many other Final Girls – not because of her comparative prudishness, but because she is not an idiot like virtually every single one of her peers.
With an aggressive first-person camera dominating its numerous blood-soaked and deliberately ludicrous murder vignettes, Friday the 13th unapologetically invites viewers to share the thrill of its increasing body count while at the same time rooting for Alice, the one person nice enough that we hope she doesn’t die. In later instalments, Jason grows up and becomes more central to the dramatic action, but at its moment of conception, Friday the 13th is less about the killer as it is Alice herself, its original Final Girl.
Like slasher ancestors including the Italian giallo films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and previous horror movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween, Friday the 13th is less interested in the whodunit component of its ostensibly crime thriller structure and focuses instead on the visceral thrills of the murders themselves. Whether it’s a sack worn over his head or his iconic hockey mask, Jason later gives a literal face to the pleasures these slasher scenarios and their endless repetitions afford us throughout the series.
But here, Alice is our moral anchor and grants the film much-needed heart. Without Alice we lose our humanity, but with her we can cut loose to revel in the outrageous, perverse absurdity of this, one of the most simultaneously delightful, silly and grisly cult horror films ever made.
Watch Friday the 13th on Monday 9 October at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.