Posted in: Film Reviews, Horror

Review: Friday the 13th / Prom Night

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

You don’t review movies like these, you step on them. One could probably trace the existence of several dozen Halloween ripoffs jockeying for a starting spot sometime during the 1980 drive-in season—some of them aiming not only to be take-the-money-and-run successes at the box office, but also to announce the availability of one more sharply talented John Carpenter type on the Hollywood scene. There is the rub, of course: we don’t need John Carpenter types when we have John Carpenter. And these are Carpenter types in emulation only: when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, do-you-know-what-a-camera-is-for?, do-you-stand-deliciously-in-awe-of-images-in-motion? level where the auteur of Halloween has proved himself, most of these yoyos show their true colors the instant we have something to look at onscreen. To say that Friday the 13th and Prom Night bear structural or technical similarities to Halloween is like saying Hitchcock and William Castle both made movies about homicidal maniacs (Psycho vs. Homicidal). Cunningham, Lynch, & respective companies seem oblivious to the notion that a film should generate a rich interior logic of its own and sustain it. The subjective camera identified with the killer in Halloween—subjective in its moment-to-moment sense of form and framespace as well as in those instances when we are (maybe) looking through the eyes of an assassin—is corrupted in these films into a blunt instrument that works only if the audience is willing to let it, indeed, to do all the work themselves: there’s a killer loose, you know, so let’s all guess whom, when, and how he’s going to strike; we guarantee a minimum of one gory demise every ten minutes once the real action gets underway.

Friday the 13th tips its lameness in advance with a special credit for “atmospheric effects.” After that, it relies on a plethora of characters (many more than Carpenter needed), each of whose minds operates like: “Here I am in an isolated cabin on a stormy night, and even though Billy and Frances and Fred and Suellen and Portia and Nutsy and Dagmar seem to have disappeared mysteriously, I think I’ll go see who that weird figure holding an axe in the bushes is….” In the process, many wishfully bravura shtiks are appropriated from Carpenter, Hitchcock, De Palma, and Bernard Herrmann—also a combination Carrie/Deliverance gag for a wow twist at the finale—plus one appealing small-town location with a nifty hillside street that is the first and last interesting thing we see after the opening titles. The cast is a collection of nulls (save for the killer, who is formally introduced shamefully late in the game), so following the proceedings becomes all the more tedious and exasperating.

Prom Night at least offers Carpenter heroine Jamie Lee Curtis as an earnest of value, but she is given nothing more provocative to do than to walk around at one point with her well-filled bra on unlikely display. The high school where this film’s mass murderer eventually does his thing remains a collection of unconnected spaces so that the trajectory of the would-be suspense goes unarticulated, just like the reason why this particular night should be the occasion for revenge that’s been brewing for many years. Friday the 13th did gonzo biz, largely because of an effective ad campaign (some very evocative art—much more satisfying as “atmospheric effect” than anything in the movie); Prom Night much less so, like many of the subsequent horror shows that have glutted the market. If the cycle has indeed worn out its welcome with the general public, at least to the extent that few individual titles can be expected to rack up monster grosses, then I’m relieved. And I’m thinking less of the genre’s much-deplored violence, especially violence against women, than of the grinding ineptness of the films, and the fact that viewers had seemed willing to settle for so very little—in effect, to make a movie for themselves where the filmmakers had failed to provide one.

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

2009 afterword: Yes, one of the “nulls” in Friday the 13th turned out to be the estimable Kevin Bacon. Should I have caught hints of his future estimability? If so, my bad. I’m not going back to check.   RTJ

Direction: Sean S. Cunningham. Screenplay: Victor Miller. Cinematography: Barry Abrams. Art direction: Virginia Field. Editing: Bill Freda. Music: Harry Manfredini. Production: Sean S. Cunningham; associate producer: Stephen Miner.
The players: Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Betsy Palmer, Steve Christy, Rex Everhart, Ron Carroll, Ron Millkie, Walt Gorney.

Direction: Paul Lynch. Screenplay: William Gray. Cinematography: Robert New.
The players: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Michael Tough, Antoinette Bowers.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.