Before there was Jason Voorhees, the iconic hockey mask wearing unstoppable killing machine, there was simply a boy named Jason who died at Camp Crystal Lake and left behind a heartbroken mother. Following the smash success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, executives put out a mandate to rip off the formula and create their own money making machine. Director and producer Sean S. Cunningham collaborated with writer Victor Miller to create a low-budget slasher flick set at a summer camp. The resulting product ended up catching fire at the box office and inadvertently paved the way to countless sequels that would become commonplace in horror. Jason Voorhees as a horror icon may hold more cultural currency than the original Friday the 13th itself, but, without this little movie that could, the genre of horror movies would be missing one of its Mount Rushmore figures.
A year following the tragic drowning of a boy at Camp Crystal Lake in 1957, two camp counselors are killed when they sneak off to participate in some intercourse in a storage cabin. Twenty-one years later, the owner of the camp has decided to open Camp Crystal Lake after a series of unfortunate incidents on the premises has left it abandoned for years. They are a few weeks away from welcoming kids back when the counselors arrive to help get the property refurbished to its former glory. As any good horror fan can tell you, it does not take long before an unknown figure starts picking people off one by one. The counselors provide a wide-range of archetypes from the insufferable goofball (Mark Nelson) to the horned-up couple (Kevin Bacon and Jeannine Taylor) to the even keeled final girl, Alice (Adrienne King). The plot is simple, but very effective. The film does not waste time getting to know these characters because the filmmakers thought it would be cruel to the audience when they were just going to be picked off. They are just fodder for an interesting escalation of violent kills that crescendos in a final reveal and confrontation.
Friday the 13th has earned its place in the pantheon of horror for its consistently eerie tone and gruesome special effects. The haunting POV shots of the killer with the iconic, creepy whisper sounds creates an atmosphere that is truly unsettling as you await the unfortunate fate that is in store for these young people. Unlike later entries that lean more on the supernatural, this situation is just an unstable person with access to weapons and a desire for some type of vengeance. Special effects master Tom Savini continued to hone his skills that made him a name with Dawn of the Dead by delivering some practical, gory effects that were especially convincing for the time. There isn’t an abundance of over-the-top kills; the movie relies mostly on just having a killer with a penchant for hacking and stabbing. There is one particularly gnarly kill that involves an arrow that will get you a little choked up. New movies can have their fancy CGI killings; Friday the 13th endures because of the practical aesthetic choices it made.
It is hard to imagine where the franchise would eventually lead when you view this film for the first time. The sequels are very much hit or miss depending on the entry, but the original Friday the 13th works incredibly well independently as a well-executed piece of low-budget horror. The cast is not performing Shakespeare, but they inhabit their roles well enough, and it is a blast to see a young Kevin Bacon making his mark. The shoestring quality of the film gives it a more visceral, real-life feel that makes the scares that much more terrifying. If you are a classic slasher fan, you have likely seen this one a million times, but viewers new and old owe it to themselves to check this one out again to see the foundation of one of the most enduring franchises in film history.
This new Steelbook release is the exact same disc as the 2009 release, so there is no uptick in quality on any technical fronts. The good news is that the video quality of that release was pretty solid for a low budget horror flick. This is not the prettiest movie to ever be released, but there is a nice amount of detail in the brightly lit scenes. Skin tones look natural and offer up fine features like stubble or blood. The few splashes of color that the film provides definitely stand out as more natural than previous releases. There is a solid amount of film grain that edges a bit into the unwanted video noise territory, especially in the outdoor nighttime scenes. Black levels are the weakest part of this presentation with a lack of distinct detail in a majority of the darker scenes. The film could use a fresh scan to really make this transfer sing, but the quality is no slouch as it is.
This Blu-Ray release comes with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless track, along with a mono presentation, that serves the movie quite well. As with the video portion, the audio is as nice and lively as the source allows it to be. The standout portion of the track is the excellent score from Harry Manfredini that is given a whole new life. The score sounds more full and alive than ever as it envelops you through the surround speakers. Dialogue mostly comes through clearly and avoids getting clipped by any sound effects. This is a very front-heavy track that does not utilize the surrounds and subwoofer as much as it could, but there are some fun nature effects to remind you that you have rear speakers. The most important aspect of the sound is making you feel that the killer is closing in on you, which it accomplishes really well.
The main reason for this new release is to get the film in a sleek new Steelbook that is truly gorgeous in person. The front artwork is based on the original theatrical poster and the rear features an iconic quote from the film. The interior is an illustrated version of Crystal Lake that looks quite lovely. Photos of the Steelbook can be found at the end of this review.
- Audio Commentary: A commentary track with director Sean S. Cunningham, author Peter Bracke, screenwriter Victor Miller, and others including cast members Betsy Palmer and Adrienne King. This is an informative track, but very strange in that is composed of alternating snippets of audio from each participant in which they are commenting generally on their experience with the film as opposed to discussing what is actually on screen. Peter Bracke provides an overview of who is talking from snippet to snippet.
- Friday the 13th Reunion: A nearly 17-minute panel discussion from 2008 including special effects make-up artist Tom Savini, “The very first Jason” Ari Lehman, writer Victor Miller, actresses Betsy Palmer and Adrienne King, and composer Harry Manfredini. There are a lot of interesting tidbits revealed including why Adrienne King didn’t play a bigger part in future installments and why Betsy Palmer originally said no to the project.
- Fresh Cuts – New Tales from Friday the 13th: A 14-minute featurette which covers the development of the concept with writer Victor Miller, casting young Jason, the music and more. This has fun anecdotes in every segment including young Jason actually scaring Adrienne King before a take.
- The Man Behind the Legacy – Sean S. Cunningham: A nine-minute discussion with director Sean S. Cunningham in which he reveals the impact the film had on his life, why he feels the movie was a success, the special effects process and more.
- Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1: An 8-minute short with poor acting and production design where a couple is killed in their home by someone who may or may not be Jason. Not really worthwhile.
- The Friday the 13th Chronicles: A nearly 21-minute deep dive into various aspects of the film, some of which is not covered in the other features. One of the more informative extras on the release.
- Secrets Galore Behind the Gore: A nearly 10-minute dissection of the various kills with special effects wizard Tom Savini. He is a master in the genre and he clearly loves getting as gnarly as he can on his films. It’s pretty great.
- Theatrical Trailer: The two and a half minute trailer is presented in high definition. This ratchets up the tension and sell the movie effectively with teases of killings.
While the common person may forget that there was a time before hockey masks, horror fans know everything started with an effective little low-budget slasher flick that had a few surprises up its sleeve. Friday the 13th remains effective after all these years by keeping the scares within the realm of believability. The new Steelbook packaging is gorgeous in person, but it may only be something that hardcore collectors need to pick up if they already own this disc in other forms. For those who do not own it yet, there are a lot of interesting extras and a fairly solid A/V presentation. Recommended
Friday the 13th (Steelbook Edition) is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.