- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

Twenty-nine years after Jason Voorhees left a trail of dead college kids in the original “Friday the 13th,” the masked killer’s legacy includes, among other things, a horror franchise slashing through three decades, the decline of slasher horror into knowing farce, more than 100 on-screen victims, a generation that associates hockey masks with murder more than with sports — and the career of Kevin Bacon.

Since its premiere, the franchise and its machete-wielding star have inspired imitators and antagonists, ironic fans and academic criticism, outraged parents and devoted teenagers. Indeed, adolescents flocked to the R-rated film and its increasingly graphic sequels, although not always with their parents’ permission. Sneaking into one of the movies became something of a rite of passage for 1980s teens. Yet despite bursts of gore, the original is surprisingly flat, and rather than empowerment, its message to teens is that maybe they’re not quite ready for independence after all.

Certainly, teens were likely to have more of it in the 1980s than they had had before. Like the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween” franchises, “Friday the 13th” succeeded as the effects of dual-earner families were being felt across the nation: During the 1970s, the percentage of married women in the work force rose from 41 percent to 51 percent, and the number continued to rise throughout the ‘80s. Many of the women were mothers with young children; their work-force participation doubled between 1965 and 1985.

The protagonists of the series’ first film are college-age camp counselors, but it targeted high school age teens and their desperate-to-grow-up-faster younger siblings as well. Many of them were school-age “latchkey kids” who returned home each day to newly parentless homes and a greater measure of independence. “Friday the 13th” capitalized on their fears and anxieties, suggesting that at any moment, their forays into adult-free independence — however successful they felt — might go wrong.

When the counselors arrive at camp, they’re brash, full of themselves, confident that no adult supervision is needed. The first counselor we see has struck out on her own, hitchhiking alone toward the camp. While en route, she brushes off a warning from an old truck driver that the camp has a bloody history and may be dangerous. Accordingly, the young woman is the first of the counselors to die.

Much of the film’s first hour is concerned with the other counselors’ efforts to prepare for their summer at camp. They’re playful, disorganized “babes in the woods,” as Steve, the camp’s one adult, describes them. He leaves them early on, allowing them to build confidence in their ability to provide for and protect themselves — setting up a generator, killing a cabin snake — with no idea of the danger lurking around them. Eventually, they begin to flirt and play.

The counselors have fun, but the dirty secret of the first film is that ultimately it’s rather boring. Some of that is a result of the hyperactive tenor of contemporary Hollywood, which has conditioned us to expect a frenetic pace. Yet even by the standards of its day, “Friday the 13th” lacked tension and terror. The attractive camp counselors work, frolic, play games and flirt. But even the sexual frisson — one couple sleeps together, others start a game of strip Monopoly — is hardly reason enough to wake up. All in all, it reflects rather well the idle, frivolous lives of the teenagers it targeted.

Indeed, there’s no nudity in the film and little suspense until the final half-hour, when those left alive finally realize something is terribly amiss. Otherwise, it’s blood-soaked banality: unhurried scenes of an idyllic lakeside summer interspersed with brief flashes of grisly butchery, all playing on the fear of many newly independent teens that if something goes wrong, no one will know until it’s too late.

The butchery, and Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked menace behind it, eventually would become the series’ chief reason for being. Yet Jason didn’t emerge until the sequel. Instead, the first film’s killer was Jason’s crazed mother. Her motive? To keep the camp closed after two counselors failed to save her son from drowning in the lake decades earlier. Mrs. Voorhees, it seems, had left little Jason in the care of the counselors while she worked at the camp.

Parental guilt feelings and teen anxiety thus combine to form the twin sources of the film’s mood of psychic unease. Adolescent self-doubt and adult self-recrimination - is there a better summation of the emotional fallout of the home-alone era that supplanted the traditional single-breadwinner model of the American nuclear family?

All of the underage people who snuck into the blood-spattered, R-rated film no doubt felt nervously sure they were ready to grow up and watch grown-up movies. Little did they know they were signing up for a 90-minute nightmare about what might happen if they weren’t.

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