They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? Chris Coffel explores.
Following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, many filmmakers attempted to cash in at the box office by mimicking the landmark slasher. None did a better job than director Sean S. Cunningham, who partnered with writer Victor Miller to craft a tale about a group of summer camp counselors who are brutally murdered as they prepare to reopen a long-abandoned camp. Cunningham used the Halloween template but upped the graphic violence with the assistance of the legend that is Tom Savini, and thus Friday the 13th was born.
Cunningham’s film was a massive hit. Not only did it perform well at the box office, but it spawned 10 sequels and one reboot to become arguably the most beloved horror franchise of all time. At the very least, it’s the most ranked horror franchise to ever exist. Our very own Rob Hunter ranked them just four years ago (he put forth an admirable effort, but his ranking is terribly wrong, in my opinion).
Certainly, a film this popular with lasting power received rave reviews, right? Well, not exactly.
Variety‘s unnamed critic chastised the film for having “no apparent talent or intelligence to offset its technical inadequacies.” In the end, they felt it was “low-budget in the worst sense,” unable to muster “even vague suspense” or build a “modicum of tension.”
Ron Pennington described the film as “a sick and sickening low budget feature” in his review for The Hollywood Reporter. Pennington wasn’t a fan of the extreme violence and ultimately concluded that “there is nothing to recommend about this ghastly effort.”
Writing for The Evening Sun, Lou Cedrone called the slasher a “shamelessly bad film, but then Cunningham knows his audience,” implying the director was intentionally targeting kids with filthy cinematic trash. Cedrone felt the film would be bad for sex education, stating that impressionable youth would walk away thinking “sexual intercourse is inevitably followed by a cut throat or an ax in the face.”
Perhaps the most infamous takedown on Friday the 13th came courtesy of Gene Siskel. In his mini-review for the Chicago Tribune, he opened by spoiling the film’s surprise ending in an effort to dissuade potential viewers from seeing it. It’s a dick move, but one I strangely respect. If you are going to go at a movie, go hard.
Cunningham, already on shaky ground with critics thanks to his involvement with The Last House on the Left, received the brunt of Siskel’s wrath. A director receiving criticism for a poorly received film isn’t odd, but rarely do we see them labeled as “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business.” Thankfully Siskel was one-of-a-kind and no attack was beneath him.
Siskel didn’t just pick on Cunningham, however. He made sure readers knew which town star Betsy Palmer lived in. You know, just in case they wanted to send her angry letters for acting in a fictional movie.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin was far kinder than Siskel, though she too spoiled the film’s ending in the opening paragraph. In her defense, she claimed to do so because the “casting is telltale anyhow.” Maslin didn’t appear to hate the film, even going as far as to call it “reasonably suspenseful,” but she was annoyed by the post-murder cleanliness of Palmer’s sweater and didn’t care for the young counselors sitting around “chatting about vitamins and playing Monopoly.”
Not every review was all doom and gloom. The Los Angeles Times‘ Linda Gross credited Cunningham with delivering scares but thought he failed on the mystery element, writing that “the villain is as much of a surprise as a sunburn after a July 4th beach party.” Gross felt the young cast was “natural and appealing” and enjoyed Harry Manfredini’s now iconic score.
Bill von Maurer of the Miami News felt the movie would “scare the bejabbers” out of viewers and credited Cunningham for his ability to “get an audience all strung out and laughing out loud in nervous relief.” Von Maurer felt the movie stumbled towards the middle, building tension that didn’t know where to go, but he concluded that the film was “pretty good” and those that “can stand the sadistic, kinky murders and the buckets of gore” would be in for a treat.
The film’s less than stellar critical reception did nothing to thwart its longterm success. Forty years later and Friday the 13th is not only a favorite amongst the horror community but has established itself as a permanent fixture in pop culture. With constant rumors of a new remake/reboot/sequel in the works and a neverending stream of other media adaptations, Friday the 13th is proving to be the ultimate horror villain, incapable of ever dying.