Note: This article contains spoilers for Friday the 13th (1980).
There are a lot of films throughout the course of the history of the medium that age into obscurity. For every Hitchcock or Kurosawa, there are hundreds of other filmmakers whose work has vanished from the public consciousness. As societal norms shift, so does the perception of the art that preceded it. Several films considered monumental for the early days of the medium are often perceived by modern viewers as boring, unimportant, or downright offensive. The opposite effect can apply to films as well, hence an ever-expanding circle of cult films that continues to grow, with titles from all over the history of cinema earning the distinction year by year. But what happens when films start out with lukewarm or even negative reception, then grow to be regarded as classics?
The growth of a film’s popularity and regard is not a hard thing to find. John Carpenter’s The Thing was savaged by critics upon its release for its nihilistic tone and (on the surface) thin character work. In the decades since, it has been reevaluated by critics in and out of the horror genre as one of its tentpoles, without much of an explanation as to why the consensus shifted other than a change in sensibilities. Horror and slasher films are arguably the most likely to achieve the fabled cult status, but Sean Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th is a special film that has seemingly achieved a legendary reputation through the sheer willpower of Paramount and their relentless production of Jason-starring sequels.
For its 40th anniversary, I revisited Friday the 13th, and was delighted at how much I enjoyed it after so long since my first time watching it. However, I feel I should get some of the obvious complaints out of the way. The slasher genre is already an acquired taste, and the low production values of this film can lead some modern audiences in 2020 to unintentional laughter. For me, all of those things make the film even more fascinating. The real locations where the film is shot feel lived-in and grimy, and the simple cinematography doesn’t do anything to make it look any better. On the surface, there isn’t much that makes Friday the 13th look any worse than its contemporaries from the time, really. Black Christmas and Halloween, arguably the two direct predecessors, have never gotten huge compliments for their production values either. What I can’t exactly excuse is that some of the performances in the movie are quite bad. Most of the actors are serviceable when they’re just playing normal teenagers (Kevin Bacon especially), but when a couple of them have to show fear convincingly, they fall on their face.
This film was berated upon release in 1980. Siskel and Ebert spent a whole episode of their show complaining about it and other films of its kind, accusing them of letting audiences root for serial killers. For a genre with middling critical praise, this was nothing new, but Friday the 13th seemingly hit a new low. It was given some praise at the time by Linda Gross of the Los Angeles Times, who pointed out the film’s cinematography, naturalistic performances, and Harry Manfredini’s score as worthy of praise. Forty years later, however, it’s become one of the staples of the slasher canon, and for one specific reason: sequels. So many sequels. Ten main series, a seemingly non-canon crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street, a short-lived and Jason-less television series, and a remake in 2009 make up the twelve films in the franchise. All that we’ve had this decade is a video game that was developed with help from Cunningham, Manfredini, and Kane Hodder, the stuntman to thank for some of Jason’s best outings in the films. A new remake/sequel has been in development hell for quite some time, but perhaps that magic 13th entry will come to us some time this decade. This plethora of sequels is one of the reasons why the first film is so fun to watch nowadays. It feels quainter, with a simple story and relatively simple gore crafted by the blood elemental that is Tom Savini.
Jason has become a cultural icon, but to the surprise of most watching it for the first time today, there is no Jason. The twist in the first film is even more effective since the most iconic hockey-masked villain in the history of cinema never rears his ugly head. The iconography of Jason as a presence makes the reveal that his stark-raving mad mother is the killer all along even more impactful forty years after the initial release. The franchise has aged into an anomaly bigger than the sum of its parts, but the first film is still a very rewarding to revisit all these years later. It has certainly grown into a much better reputation, even if it’s still not up to par with some of the slashers that came before or after it.