When the names of the players flash on the screen in "Friday the 13th" (now playing at several local theaters), it is not so much a list of the cast as a body count. Practically everyone who spends more than five minutes on camera dies horribly -- in close-up. Considering the quality of the acting, most of them deserve no better.
The scene is Camp Crystal Lake, known to people in the nearest town as "Camp Blood." It has been closed for more than 20 years, after young Jason Voorhees drowned in 1957 and two counselors were murdered the next year, but now Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer of "As the World Turns") is opening it up again.
It doesn't take much time or evidence (a couple of artistically slit throats are quite enough) for the audience to notice that a mad killer is stalking out there in the woods, but the young counselors at Camp Blood (those whose throats are still intact) take quite a while to catch on. They continue clowning around (and generating a couple of cheap thrills for death freaks) on the archery range and in the swimmin' hole, playing strip Monopoly or copulating in the cabins while the mad killer picks them off one by one.
Except for the portions that earned the picture's "R" rating, the content of "Friday the 13th" looks and sounds remarkably like a summertime Pepsi-Cola commercial. The "R," by the way, is well-earned -- not by the sex, which is scanty and desultory by today's standards, but by the violence, which is graphic, lavishly detailed, artfully varied, and arranged in a climactic order that film pornographers might envy.
Since this is a sort of suspense picture, convention forbids a revelation of the plot. Fortunately, there is none. There may be a mild interest in who will get it next and who is doing the killings, but the real suspense (after the basic slit throat or blade in the gut begins to seem banal) hinges on how the next victim will be offed. There are quite a few false alarms -- a snake who gets cut into wriggling pieces and who was harmless anyway; a prescence lurking in a closet who turns out to be the local nut, Ralph, with a message from heaven: "You're doomed if you stay here." There is some foul play with the generator, plunging the camp into darkness, and the phone wires are cut, of course, but the violence doesn't really become art until Jack (Kevin Bacon) gets it in the neck.
Jack is lying on the bunk in a postcoital daze, and it turns out that the killer is hiding under the bunk. A hand comes up, covering his eyes and holding him down, and then the knife blade comes out through the front of his throat, followed by a little fountain of blood.
How do you top that screamer? Well, next you show a close-up of a girl getting an axe in the forehead, and a boy pinned to a wooden door by arrows, a mutilated corpse flying in through a closed window, and finally a 20-minute cat-and-mouse routine when there is only one potential victim left and the formerly efficient killer is apparently getting a bit tired.
The film's director, Sean S. Cunningham, has learned that audiences will scream at certain stimuli, involving darkness, isolation, a feeling of helplessness, the sight of blood or raw, human meat, and people or things appearing unexpectedly from secret places. He exploits these reactions with some skill, but saves the best for the end, when Betsy Palmer gets it.
Betsy is decapitated in slow motion with one sweep of a sword; her head flies away and she stands there for a moment while the camera closes in on the decapitated neck -- veins, windpipe, bones and muscle, useless, but still palpitating. Her hands come slowly up to shoulder height, trying to clench and not quite making it before she drops. When you hire an expensive star like Palmer, you expect a little extra. She has a fascinating carotid artery.
Outside of Betsy, the players are mostly unknown, veterans of minor roles on television and given no opportunity at all in their film debut to show whether they have any acting talent. The film's real attraction, if it has any, is the work of special effects expert Tom Savini.