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Friday, October 16, 2009
Retro Review: Friday the 13th
This week brings a very special Retro Review, as I had the distinct honor and privilege tonight of watching the original Friday the 13th with the lovely Pamela Voorhees herself, Ms. Betsy Palmer. It all went down at the Avon Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, and it's not an evening I'm soon to forgot. It was freezing cold tonight in CT, complete with unseasonable sleet and driving wind. Yet so completely worth that 18-mile drive down I-95...
Betsy was completely disarming, glowing at age 82 in her Japanese blouse (which, she admitted, was a poor replacement for her classic cable-knit sweater). She was exceedingly patient with her adoring fans, and took the time out to provide us all with great insights and opinions on her part in horror movie history.
She informed us, for instance, that she thought Victor Miller's script was "a piece of shit" (sorry Victor!), but agreed to do the film because the $10,000 paycheck was exactly the price of the new car she wanted to buy. Horror movies have never been her cup of tea, and she has never even seen any of the myriad F13 sequels. And yet she remains humbled and pleased by the tremendous success the movie has enjoyed (although as she also informed us, it has not brought her dime one in residuals).
But by far, Ms. Palmer's most fascinating insight involved her telling us all, in great detail, of the involved backstory she created for Pamela Voorhees in preparation to play the character. The audience sat in rapt attention as she told us of Jason's mom, as she pictured her: A pregnant teenager in the 1940s, disowned by her family, rejected by her deadbeat boyfriend, forced to live in a home for unwed mothers, who eventually comes to Camp Crystal Lake as a way to make some money over the summer and provide a safe, happy environment for her young, troubled son.
What happens to the boy at that camp, she explained, gives Pamela all the justification she needs to do such horrible things. She never wants what happened to her to happen to another young mother and child. And even though Ms. Voorhees clearly has "a few screws loose", as Betsy explained, she felt the need to give her all this "justification" in order to do the role justice.
And honestly, it all shows on the screen. I have to say, I never imagined it, but I found myself getting emotional during that one moment when Ms. Voorhees flashes back to her handicapped son drowning in the lake as he calls out to her. Pretty crazy. And yet Betsy is that good in the movie, in what is admittedly a smaller role than I remembered. She literally brings the movie to another level when she sppears on screen, and is head and shoulders above the rest of the cast.
That's not to say the rest are no good. In fact, far from it; even though Halloween is a far superior film, it's not from an acting point of view. This crew of young people outshines the porno-level acting of most of the young cast in John Carpenter's movie.
Although I will say that one thing that bothers me is what often bothers me about a lot of slashers--the sloppy characterizations. I know it might be a bit pretentious of me to look for character development in slasher flicks, but sometimes the writing can be frustrating. Why, for example, introduce the concept of Steve and Alice's prior relationship, and how Steve is trying to win her back, if it will never be referenced again, nor pay off in any way? Why do we learn about Brenda's bizarre childhood dream, and get to know her and Jack as a couple, only for them to be killed off in the next scene with no rhyme or reason?
Sometimes this stuff can feel like filler, leading up to the "good stuff". But hey, maybe I'm asking too much. This will never be a film on the level of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, as far as I'm concerned, but it is a damn fine little slasher flick. And certainly far better than any of the crap that followed it in the series. In fact, watching this movie again makes me wish that big guy in the hockey mask never existed. This is Friday the 13th as it should be remembered, and yet this is probably the most overshadowed original movie of any franchise in existence.
The movie manages to both build real suspense, and deliver on the gore--a balance rarely seen in '80s slashers. Tom Savini, fresh off Dawn of the Dead, is at the height of his powers, giving us opened throats, axes to the face, and of course the very famous arrow through Kevin Bacon's neck. Then there's that amazing beheading of Ms. Voorhess in slow motion--complete with the grasping hands of the headless corpse as it collapses to the ground. Nice touch.
And yet Sean Cunnungham does seem to know how to create some serious tension. In particular, the scene in which Adrienne King is making coffee alone in the cabin, not realizing she is the only survivor left. It's an understated, taut little moment unlike anything we'd get in any of the hamfisted sequels.
Plus, a large amount of the tension can also be attributed to one hell of a score by Harry Manfredini, one which doesn't get nearly enough credit beyond the whole "ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha" thing. There's a strong influence of the Bernard Hermann Psycho score here, almost bordering on rip-off, but it works.
It was great fun watching this movie on a big screen with a live audience. Listening to the screams at all the right moments. There was a surprising amount of people who had never seen this movie before, and I think they were a little surprised at what they saw. It certainly has one of the most unconventional killers of any movie of its kind. The fight at the end, in particular, is very physical, and very real.
Ironically, it's reality that sets this movie apart from most of its successors. There is no unstoppable killing machine here. And when Ms. Voorhees struggles to kill Alice at the end, it's down and dirty stuff. For the most part, this movie is actually plausible--this all could happen. Betsy Palmer is so believable, in her infamous blue sweater (worn, she explained, to make her look more bulky so her feats of strength would be more believable), creepily intoning those words, "Kill her mommy..."
I got to hear Betsy utter those exact words to a live audience tonight. That alone made it worth the drive through all that sleet and wind. I also got to be in the audience with her as she watched it for only the fourth time. And she came away for the first time realizing what a truly scary movie it is. I'm glad I could be a part of that. Thank you, Betsy Palmer.