Exploring the legacy of one of horror’s great commercial coups
I find it telling that, whenever Friday the 13th rolls around, Sean Cunningham’s original Halloween derivative is one of the last instalments I consider reaching for. The reasons for this I will explore shortly, but the one that stands a decapitated head above the rest is Jason Voorhees. Jason would first emerge as a secondary character, the victim of a tragic camp tale that proved fatal for a group of unfortunate teenagers looking to get their rocks off almost a quarter of a century after his supposed death. Thanks to the negligence of some highly-sexed camp councillors, an adolescent Voorhees would succumb to the hazardous waters of Camp Crystal Lake, sparking one of the slasher sub-genre’s most memorable killing sprees.
That particular spate of murders was undertaken by someone most people, at least back in 1980, would not have expected. The gender landscape has changed rather dramatically in the decades since the film’s release, but the idea of a female slasher killer was still relatively anomalous at the turn of the 80s, particularly when cries of moralistic foul play put women firmly in the victims category. Okay, so the concept of a female killer wasn’t exactly new. Strait-Jacket (1964), Frightmare (1974), Deep Red (1975), Alice Sweet Alice (1976) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) had all featured female antagonists, to name but a few, but when most people think Friday the 13th they have only one killer in mind, and he’s wearing a hockey mask, not a knitted sweater.
Of all those female killers, Betsy Palmer’s Norman Bates in reverse, Mrs. Voorhees, is arguably the most memorable. Wild-eyed and distinctly vicious, the faux-motherly pretence used to lure final girl Alice (Adrienne King) into a false sense of security is still as creepy and perversely satisfying as ever, as is the savage, one-swing decapitation that abruptly curtails the madness ― a more than a fitting end for a woman pushed far beyond the realms of human compassion. Along with the campsite setting and gimmicky title, it is Palmer’s appearance, however brief, that made Friday the 13th one of the most talked about and financially fruitful entries in the entire genre. So famous is Friday the 13th that it has acquired a legendary status, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with superior mainstream efforts as one of the genre’s leading giants. But after all these years, does it really stand up to such a legendary reputation?
Mrs. Voorhees: Did you know a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed? The counselors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned. His name was Jason.
There are many things to consider. Firstly, much of the movie’s popularity can be accredited to what came afterwards. The original was easily the most profitable, thanks in no small part to the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film that Cunningham set out to imitate completely, calling writer Victor Miller and telling him, “Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off”. Since its post-Halloween debut, the series has grown into a very different animal, amassing legions of hardcore fans with a gimmck-laden franchise that transcends the original instalment, transforming marquee killer Jason into one of the biggest cultural phenomenons in modern horror. First they brought him into the fold as a commercial attraction, presenting us with the kind of masked killer teenagers could fully buy into, and his influence went from strength to strength, resulting in an amoral antihero more concerned with clocking up a kill count than providing genuine scares. Suddenly, horror wasn’t about peeping from behind your fingers with fear. It was about getting loaded and cheering on the murderer. By the time Jason got into full swing, dear old Pamela was but a distant memory.
In that regard, the franchise really is an anomaly. It’s a rare occasion that the first instalment of a series slips so far down the pecking order since they are typically the most memorable, and the original Friday the 13th will always be the go-to instalment for a certain generation, but in all honesty it hasn’t aged too well. Some of those sequels haven’t aged too well either, but they were pure trash cinema, and knowingly so. The original Friday the 13th is held in such high esteem that you can’t help but be a little disappointed. I can only imagine what today’s horror fans would think after first seeing what is still one of the most famous horror titles out there and will probably continue to be so if the current legal wrangles preventing the release of more instalments is ever settled. Don’t get me wrong, the movie still possesses a nostalgic charm with its throwback aesthetic and a series of memorable kills conjured up by one Tom Savini, but so synonymous has Jason become with the Friday the 13th franchise that it almost feels like the movie doesn’t belong to the series. I mean, on Friday the 13th, which instalment are you reaching for? For those of you just discovering the series, dollars to doughnuts it was a Jason-led instalment, and when you finally did get around to seeing the original, I’m sure many of you were shocked to discover that Jason wasn’t the killer from the offset.
For those of you who are familiar with the series, you’ll understand what the majority of it represents. The blueprint slasher would suffice for two instalments, a style that was arguably bettered in Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 2, which reintroduced the presumed-dead Jason, a peephole pillowcase replacing the yet to be established hockey mask that would alter the series forever. Beyond Part 2, Paramount would turn to all kinds of gimmicks to keep the series relevant: Reagan-era 3-D, false promises about final chapters, a fan-dividing copycat killer, telekinetic Carrie clones and even a brief, cost-cutting trip to Manhattan. When New Line eventually bought the rights to the series with a view to producing a dream Freddy vs. Jason death match, body-swapping journeys to hell and space-bound slayings would be added to the menu of bizarre hors d’oeuvres designed to keep the punters coming back. Which they did. Barely.
Perhaps even more of a draw than the annual gimmick was seeing just how creative Jason would get with his favourite pastime, and, as the series narrative became more and more dubious, how in the hell he would manage to return from the brink this time around. During his tenure, Jason was stabbed, hung, slashed, shot, melted, set on fire, blown-up and buried alive, and each time writers found convenient and highly dubious ways of explaining his return. This, along with the censorship crusades of the MPAA and BBFC, led the series along an increasingly self-reflexive avenue, transforming Jason into horror’s equivalent of an eyebrow-raising Roger Moore. By the time Tom Mcloughlin’s ode to Universal monsters Jason Lives! arrived on our screens in 1986, ‘Friday the 13th’ no longer stood for horror in the traditional sense. It represented something else entirely.
It’s amazing to see just how far detached something like Jason Goes to Hell is from the original Friday the 13th. So inexhaustible was Jason’s appeal that Paramount and New Line went to ludicrous lengths to keep the series fresh long after the slasher revolution had faded into obscurity. By that point, the sub-genre had grown old hat, the likes of Scream — a movie that would breathe life into the formula — still a few years away. In that particular movie, Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker, was forced to answer a series of horror movie questions to save her boyfriend from the slasher-obsessed fury of the genre’s latest marquee killer, Ghostface. This being a horror movie, one of those was a trick question that perfectly sums up my point. Having been asked for the name of the killer in Friday the 13th, Becker hastily called out ‘Jason!’, before realising she had in fact been duped. Luckily for her, there was a bonus round.
The fact that Friday the 13th took such precedence in a movie about the horror genre at large proves the extent of its legacy, but its place there is rather tenuous. Everything borrows from something, but those movies which share its lofty vantage as a marquee slasher were much more unique and inspirational. Halloween, itself borrowing from the likes of Psycho and Black Christmas, was so innovative and groundbreaking that it inspired a whole generation of filmmakers to pick up a camera, and in all likelihood was the main catalyst for a half-decade of sleazy, Sean Cunningham style clones — not least Friday the 13th itself. Though released towards the end of the slasher’s golden age, A Nightmare on Elm Street was similarly influential, director Wes Craven’s game-changing concept sparking years of copycat filmmaking, while actor Robert Englund took the killer-as-celebrity motif to a whole new stratosphere. Then you have Tobe Hooper’s monumental backwoods slaughterhouse The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a raw, visceral classic that according to Craven, “looked like someone stole a camera and started killing people.”
Mrs. Voorhees: Come, dear. It’ll be easier for you than it was for Jason.
Conversely, Friday the 13th thrived on imitation, despite its apparent influence on a generation. As already outlined, it’s no secret that producer/director Sean Cunningham capitalised on Halloween‘s success when releasing Friday the 13th barely a year later, but he also looked to foreign cinema for influence, particularly Italian filmmaker Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve. Cunningham has since denied having any knowledge of the movie, refuting its influence, but I’m just not buying it. He may have been unaware of the film himself, but someone from that crew had to have been in the know barring some sort of miraculous coincidence. A year later, Friday the 13th Part 2 would even give us two like-for-like kills lifted from Bava’s proto-slasher, a machete to the face and the infamous double kill that sees two unlucky teens turned into a crude kebab in a scene that is so similar to Bava’s it may as well have been culled directly from the movie.
Technically belonging to the giallo genre, A Bay of Blood would feature elements that the likes of Friday the 13th would popularise on American shores, namely a sub-narrative involving a group of promiscuous teens in a summer retreat setting. In America, summer camp would become the setting most synonymous with the slasher, a spate of popular entries such as The Burning and Sleepaway Camp among the most notable, but whenever one thinks of summer camp they think of Friday the 13th. It’s a part of modern folklore. For those who were unfamiliar with foreign language films, Friday the 13th proved quite the innovator, and for those investors looking to tap into the slasher craze, a blueprint for financial success. In fact, the movie famously sparked a bidding war upon completion, and was the first independent film of its kind to secure distribution in the US through a major studio.
Friday the 13th also borrows rather liberally from Black Christmas and Psycho, and does a rather fine job of it. As a textbook Black Christmas stalk-and-slash, the movie is a fairly tense affair, with patient POV builds and a genuinely refreshing twist. It also features a superior Herrmann-esque score that plays with your nerve endings like a rusted cello. Composer and series stalwart Harry Manfredini would tinker with the ‘Friday’ theme throughout his tenure, but this is arguably the version most entrenched in conventional horror, and it does its job impeccably, often elevating events above low-budget mediocrity. In comparative terms, the film also benefited from a superior cast at a time when acting talent was still fractionally more than peripheral in the slasher genre, the likes of Kevin Bacon getting his start here, while some rather fine cinematography from the late Barry Abrams helped to create the kind of desolate, leafy retreat that generations could relate to.
The shadow of Hitchcock also looms large. The imagined connection between Pamela and her fallen offspring, though a transparent imitation of the one Norman Bates shares with his deceased mother, is executed rather wonderfully, and in local ‘lunatic’ Crazy Ralph, Cunningham even throws in the Hitchcockian harbinger of death, a character whose vocabulary seems to stretch no further than “We’re doomed, I tells you!” With a plethora of horror ingredients hand-picked from the tree of established success, what Cunningham delivers is a pastiche that would tick all the boxes for uneducated teenagers flocking to the theatres in their droves (the movie would manage an incredible cumulative worldwide gross of $59,754,601 on a measly budget of approximately $550,000). However derivative Cunningham’s master plan, he stole from the best and managed to pass it off as something fairly original. For such a low-budget and transparently derivative outing, the movie has achieved an incredible degree of stature.
But the movie’s real strength lies in Tom Savini’s practical effects, a series of grisly, largely uncut murders that would set the tone for a decade of Jason-led brutality. Unlike Halloween, Friday the 13th scrapped bloodshed of the largely implied variety for painstaking attention to graphic brutality. Axes in the face, spears through the throat, arrows protruding from every orifice imaginable; it was all quite the novelty back in 1980, and for American teenagers a rebellious outlet that provided vicarious thrills aplenty. The censorship boards would soon unleash the guillotine, but for a brief period there were few limits to what the likes of Savini could do, and in a burgeoning home video market no regulations on the extent of the depravity on show, resulting in some of the finest feats of practical effects artistry the industry had ever known. According to Making Friday the 13th: The Legend of Camp Blood by author David Grove, Cunningham wanted his picture to be ‘shocking’ and ‘visually stunning’, and for the most part he succeeded.
Mrs. Voorhees: [high voice] Kill her, Mommy! Kill her! Don’t let her get away, Mommy! Don’t let her live!
Mrs. Voorhees: I won’t, Jason. I won’t!
As an exercise in slasher filmmaking, the original Friday the 13th is streets ahead of the majority of sequels, but in spite of their shameless lack of artistry, those Jason-led instalments are much more distinctive. With Jason, Paramount created a marquee attraction who would outlive the era that made him. Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street would both tread similarly farcical ground as the genre lurched towards early-90s inanity, but ask anyone for their favourite instalment and the vast majority would say the original. Conversely, nothing divides opinion quite like the Friday the 13th Franchise. Ask fans to give you their favourite instalment and see how surprised you are by their answer. This was proven by our own series ranking. Our readers may not have agreed with the final order, but there were no complaints either, even when the original Friday the 13th came in at a lowly fifth. This decision was based on factors other than standards of filmmaking, and those who are familiar with the series will understand exactly why.
Fans generally accept the status of the original Friday the 13th as something of an outsider, as a movie that in many ways stands alone. I mean, how many of you would rank the original as their favourite in the series? I’m sure there are lots of you out there who would, but it’s far from unanimous. It’s an odd situation really, but an understandable one. With Friday the 13th, Sean Cunningham made the kind of calculated genre clone that tapped into the trends of horror filmmaking with devastating effect, but for a producer with aspirations of establishing an annual, money-spinning franchise, something more was needed, and that something came in the form of Jason, a character who would quickly make the series his own. That’s no slight against Friday the 13th. After all, the original is the original, a movie that rolled the commercial dice and won, forming the basis for one of the biggest horror juggernauts in genre history.
So popular have these characters become that fans think of them almost like family, analysing their every move with the kind of scholastic detail that would convince producers to pit them against each other on the big screen, knowing just how popular such a concept would be. But next time someone asks you which of horror’s commercial behemoths would win in a fight, please spare a passing thought for Pamela, because without her there would be no Jason, and who in the world would want that?