Friday the 13th: Uncut (US - BD)
Gabe revisits Mama Vorhees' first adventure in Hi, Hi, Hi... Def, Def, Def...
When is a classic not a good movie? When that classic genuinely changed the language of film, as is the case of the original Friday the 13th. Sure, Psycho, Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Black Christmas, and (especially) Halloween had already made names for themselves with terrifying boogie men (and women) stalking and killing people in horrible ways, but until money loving producer/director Sean Cunningham got his hands on the archetypes the genre didn’t even have a name. After Cunningham and company finished, there would be a typhoon of mimicry in the newly dubbed ‘slasher’ films, and though they’d ebb and flow in cycles, they’d never go away.
The godfather of cinema gore Hershel Gordon Lewis once compared his films to Walt Whitman’s poems. ‘They aren’t any good, but they were the first of their kind.’ Friday the 13th started life as a cash-in on Halloween, but out of mimicry came a sort of novelty—Tom Savani’s graphic make-up effects. Cunningham’s lack of creative control over filmic suspense is an obvious problem, and in true exploitation film fashion this shortcoming was glazed over by an increase in the on-screen violence. Friday the 13th didn’t break any gore barriers in terms of frequency or volume, but it was one of the first times the Grand Guignol had gone mainstream.
Savani’s most groundbreaking work at the time had been Dawn of the Dead, but with no rating, no Hollywood backing, and a two plus hour runtime, George Romero’s film wouldn’t find the giant audiences Cunningham’s wouldn’t. Dawn was like a pebble in a pond for gore on screen. There had been plenty of gore in H.G. Lewis’ repertoire since the early ‘60s, and Romeo himself had pushed the violence envelope with Night of the Living Dead, but the ripples of Dawn were still far spreading. Generally speaking, only Japanese martial arts and yakuza movies, Italian giallo and cannibal movies, and a handful of the roughest underground American exploitation (like Cunningham and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) delved into really graphic horror in the ‘70s. After Dawn (1978-79) Savani scored his gig on Friday the 13th, which led to more jobs on more gory slasher films (because paying a magician is easier than writing an interesting story, or developing suspense). Dawn and Friday the 13th then opened up cash-in artists in Italy to feature even more graphic violence in movies like Fulci’s Zombie, Argento’s Tenebre, and D’Amato’s Buried Alive.
Friday the 13th’s script is mostly a mix of Agatha Christie’s ever popular murder mystery tropes (which are found in most slasher and giallo genre movies), and a base level understanding of the things that made Psycho and Halloween work. There are no claims made by the writer or producer pertaining to originality, but they do deserve limited credit for setting the film at a summer camp, which would become one of the norms for the genre (though the child campers were very rarely put in any real danger). The closest thing I can recall is Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, which is pretty well established as one of the biggest inspirations behind the first two Fridays.
Cunningham’s direction is fast and sloppy. There’s a reason that most people’s visual memories of the film are based entirely in Savani’s effects—Cunningham has little understanding of filmmaking beyond pointing a camera and shouting action. However, he is pretty good with actors, and that’s the one big difference between the first four Friday the 13ths and their follow-ups and rip-offs is the general quality of acting. No one’s going to accuse these folks of showing up O’Toole, but they sell their less than stellar lines, and generally charm as they run from Betsey Palmer.
Friday the 13th is a low-budget grindhouse movie, it just happens to be popular and owned by a major studio, so most fans should know not to expect miracles from this Blu-ray transfer, even if it is made from a 35mm print. In fact, I’m pretty sure many of the hardcore Jason fans are considering avoiding the film in hi-def, afraid that it might ruin the dated effects and gritty look. This assumption is partially true, as the newly naturalized colour schemes can reveal difference in skin tones, and increased detail can reveal the edges of make-up appliances. These problems are minor, and for the most part the transfer is an improvement in a good way. I’m very surprised how relatively smooth this presentation is based on previous releases with heavy grain, and there is an improvement in definition in darker shots, where things were often entirely obscured on previous video releases. I do kind of miss the less subtle gradations of older versions, but the blacks here are plenty deep and effective.
As is so often the case this newly minted Dolby Digital 5.1 track is an awkward and echo laden mono track. Really, only the big sound effects and the music find their way into the rear and stereo channels, and the difference in audio quality between the centre and surround channels is a bit jarring. The sound effects sound canned, and the music is just too clean. I’d recommend skipping over the new track and going right to the original mono track, which hasn’t been altered at all from the previous release as far as I can tell. The only reason to stick with the 5.1 track is the music, which I don’t think blends in surround, but certainly does sound better than it ever has, and hearing that familiar ‘Ki, Ki, Ha, Ha’ whisper in surround is pretty cool.
The extras begin with a group commentary track, moderated by ‘Crystal Lake Memories’ author Peter Bracke, the track features Cunningham, the editors, writer Miller, composer Harry Manfredini, and lead actresses Betsy Palmer and Adrienne King. The track is full of gems that most genre fans probably already know, but if you’re not obsessed with learning about outdated horror movies you’re in for a treat. My favourite moment is where Bracke tries to explain the popularity of slasher movies with gay men. What we don’t need, however, is another old man filmmaker complaining about digital effects.
The commentary track really contains all the facts of the case (unless you want to read ‘Crystal Lake Memories’), but if you’d rather see the participant’s faces as they tell their stories you should be sure to take a glance at the disc’s new featurettes. ‘Fresh Cuts’ is a fifteen minute collection of new interviews with all the people on the commentary, set to behind the scenes photographs and scenes from the film. It’s a lean, but genuinely informative little piece. ‘The Man Behind the Legacy’ is a more personal discussion with Sean Cunningham. For nine minutes fans can get a glimpse into Cunningham’s home life, and his reasons for creating the enduring film (hint: it was the money). ‘Friday the 13th Reunion’ is seventeen minutes of footage from a horror convention (I’m not sure which one). It’s kind of repetitive and boring after the other extras, honestly.
There are two featurettes on the Blu-ray that aren’t found on the new DVD release, which ironically enough are the only extras not presented in hi-def. But DVD fans fear not, ‘The Friday the 13th Chronicles’ and ‘Secrets Behind the Gore’ were first made available on the previous series collection release from Paramount. ‘Chronicles’ is repetitive after the new extras, but ‘Gore’ features interesting interviews with Tom Savani, and includes many behind the scenes photos.
The disc is completed with Lost Tales from Camp Blood: Part One, a short fan film where a couple is offed by a hockey masked killer, and the original ‘countdown’ trailer in hi-def.
You don’t need Friday the 13th in high definition, but you might want it, and if you do buy it you probably won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray transfer isn’t going to blow any socks off, and the new extras are pretty close to the old extras, though the commentary track is a nice touch (and apparently a long time coming, Cunningham mentions making Freddy Vs. Jason at the time). The disc—and the new DVD release—is marked as ‘uncut’. Passing fans probably shouldn’t be persuaded by this, as the cuts total something like ten seconds, only adding to the tail ends of the first throat slashing, and the final beheading.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 3rd February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English, Spanish, and French
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Cast and Crew Commentary, 'Fresh Cuts', ‘The Man Behind the Legacy’, 'Friday the 13th Reunion', 'Friday the 13th Chronicles', 'Secrets Behind the Gore', 'Lost Tales of Camp Blood: Part One', Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Bartram, Peter Brouwer, Ronn Carroll, Harry Crosby
Length: 95 minutes