Exploring the legacy of one of the great commercial coups of the 1980s
It’s rather telling that the original instalment of the Friday the 13th series is the one I have chosen to cover last. There are various reasons for this, but the one that stands a decapitated head above the rest is Jason Voorhees. Jason would first emerge as the victim of a tragic camp tale that proved detrimental to a group of teenage campers looking to get their rocks off almost a quarter of a century later. 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 that have followed, 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 perhaps 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 makes 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 Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street 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.
Of course, there are many things to consider. For one thing, much of the movie’s popularity can be accredited to what came afterwards. Since its post-Halloween debut, the series has grown into a very different animal, a commercial beast with millions of hardcore fans and a gimmck-laden history that transcends the original instalment, transforming 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 when the first instalment of a series slips so far down the pecking order, since they are typically the most memorable. As a blueprint for the slasher genre, the original Friday the 13th is arguably the best in the series, but so synonymous is Jason with the Friday the 13th franchise all these years later 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 you saw first, 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 sack replacing the yet to be established hockey mask that would alter the series forever. Beyond Part II, 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 deathmatch, body-swapping journey’s 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 pasttime, 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 eyebrow-raising Roger Moore. Gone were all those ingredients that had once defined the genre. ‘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 movie, Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker, was forced to answer a series of horror movie questions to save her boyfriend’s life. 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 horror movies proves the extent of its legacy in mainstream horror, 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 long after the golden era of slashers, 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.
Mrs. Voorhees: Come, dear. It’ll be easier for you than it was for Jason.
Conversely, Friday the 13th thrived on imitation, in spite of its apparent influence on a generation. 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 an Italian proto slasher known as Deep Red or Twitch of the Death Nerve. Technically belonging to the giallo genre, the movie 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. 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, an attractive financial prospect. 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, while some rather fine cinematography from the late Barry Abrams helped to create the kind of 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 plot device, 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.
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 for a generation nurtured during the civil rights movement. The censorship boards would soon unleash the shackles, but for a brief period there were no limits to what the likes of Savini could do, and in a pre-certificate home video market, no regulations on the extent of the depravity, 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 more distinctive. With Jason Voorhees, Paramount created a marquee attraction who would outlive the era that made him; while the slasher movie soon became old hat, Jason was able to survive based on star appeal and absurd gimmickry. Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street would both tread similarly farcical ground as the genre cackled its way to early ’90s inanity, and each would prove just as successful. Still, ask anyone for their favourite instalment from each of those two 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 was a decision that was made based on factors other than standards of filmmaking, and those who are familiar with the series understood 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.
Such celebrities have these unconscionable characters become that people often pose that same old question: who would win in a fight: Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers or Fred Krueger. The next time someone approaches you with that same question, please spare a passing thought for Pamela, because without her there would be no Jason, and who in the world would want that?