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 summer camp slaughterhouse 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 Friday the 13th‘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. 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 against-type appearance, however brief, that made Friday the 13th one of the most talked about and financially fruitful entries in the entire genre. In the ensuing years, Friday the 13th would acquire 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 hold-up to such plaudits?
There’s no doubting the original Friday the 13th‘s commercial status. The movie was easily the most profitable instalment, managing an incredible cumulative worldwide gross of $59,754,601 on a budget of approximately $550,000. Much of the film’s success can be attributed to John Carpenter’s Halloween, a similarly low-risk venture that paid dividends, inspiring a struggling Cunningham to call up screenwriter Victor Miller and unashamedly suggest, “Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off”. The budding filmmaker/producer barely had a premise at the time, just an incredibly marketable title in the holiday horror mode, one he knew he could sell regardless. One thing that wasn’t necessarily considered in an era of franchise naivety was the possibility of a sequel. There was no way Cunningham could have gauged just successful the film would be. When Mrs. Voorhees died, it kind of killed the series from a narrative perspective. At least in theory.
Mrs. Voorhees: Did you know a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed? The counsellors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned. His name was Jason.
Though Jason had supposedly been dead for many years (how he was able to survive in the wilderness for so long is anyone’s guess), Paramount were looking for a marquee killer they could unleash on a regular basis, immediately dredging him from the legend of Crystal Lake. Their goal was to forge a masked killer very much in the Myers mode who teenagers could buy into, and Jason’s initial outing was much a transparent derivative, but through sheer cynicism he would become an entirely different entity, an amoral antihero more concerned with clocking up a kill count than offering any genuine scares. With Jason as the sub-genre’s poster boy for moral outrage, horror was no longer about peeping through your fingers in fear. It was about getting loaded and cheering on the murderer, buoyed by the thrill of seeing just how brutal affairs could get. By the time Jason was in full swing, dear old Pamela was but a distant memory.
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 critically relevant. The original Friday the 13th will always be the go-to instalment for a certain generation, introducing a summer camp setting redolent of campfire urban legends they could fully relate to, but in all honesty it hasn’t aged too well. Some of those sequels haven’t aged too well, either, but the genre had grown self-aware by the time Jason headlined the mask-procuring Part 3. The returning character’s original instalment would tread the POV shadows, placing a stronger emphasis on mystery and tension, with the added bonus of a classic whodunnit to keep audiences engaged. To an extent, the same can be said of the first sequel, but beyond that Jason’s infamous killing spree was blatant trash cinema from the outset.
The original Friday the 13th is held in such high esteem that you can’t help but feel just a little disappointed. It’s still one of the most famous horror movies ever conceived, but there’s nothing fresh or unique to set it apart as a true innovator; unless you were there to experience the film first-hand, it’s pretty unremarkable in the realms of slasherdom. I still enjoy the movie, but it doesn’t possess the elusive mystique of Halloween, the game-changing qualities of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the bargain-basement artistry of The Evil Dead. It has a nostalgic charm with its throwback aesthetic and a series of memorable kills dreamed-up by the inimitable Tom Savini, but Jason has become so synonymous with the series it almost feels like there’s something lacking. I’m sure younger generations who came to the series late were surprised to discover that Jason wasn’t the killer from the very beginning.
Those who are familiar with the series will 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. Some of those later instalments, for reasons creative and financial, were really scraping the barrel, directors running into all kinds of problems with executives whose only goal was to squeeze every last drop of blood out of their fruitful, low-cost venture while simultaneously condemning it to the cutting floor. 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. Because of the seemingly inexhaustible longevity of the franchise, silliness had become a part of Jason’s charm, the character transformed into a mindless meta villain for the MTV generation. By the time Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning arrived on our screens in 1985, a kind of X-rated Scooby Doo mystery that replaced Jason with a copycat killer with the intention of taking the series in a new direction, ‘Friday the 13th’ no longer stood for horror in the traditional sense. It represented something else entirely.
When Wes Craven revived the moribund slasher in 1996, our relationship with the sub-genre was all but confirmed. The hugely popular Scream would not only revamp stalk-and-slash depravity for a new generation, it would shine a self-reflexive light on events, sending a not-so-subtle wink to those weaned on the likes of Jason Voorhees. Those audiences were now approaching middle age, and could appreciate a cast of informed characters foreshadowing their own deaths based on the predictability of the genre. Tellingly, there is a moment in Scream that reaffirms the point of this article. When Drew Barrymore’s character, Casey Becker, is forced to answer a series of horror movie questions in order to prevent the death of her boyfriend from the slasher-obsessed fury of the genre’s latest marquee killer, she is asked to name the killer in Friday the 13th. In her haste, she calls out, “Jason!” By the time she has realised her mistake, it’s too late.
Mrs. Voorhees: Come, dear. It’ll be easier for you than it was for Jason.
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. As already mentioned, it did introduce American audiences to the summer camp setting, which would become a staple of the sub-genre going forward, but it is less a genuine filmmaking exercise, more a feat of commercial chicanery. In those terms, it was something of an innovator, a deluge of sleazy Cunningham-style clones emerging in its wake. So successful was the producer’s original instalment that it 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. No mean feat.
Creatively, it’s a very different story. As well as taking its cue from Halloween, Friday the 13th also borrows rather liberally from Black Christmas and Psycho, and does a rather fine job of it. As a textbook 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 rusty cello. Composer and series stalwart Harry Manfredini would tinker with the ‘Friday’ theme throughout his tenure, but this is the version most entrenched in conventional horror, often elevating events above low-budget mediocrity. In comparative terms, the film benefits from a superior cast at a time when acting ability was still fractionally more than peripheral, the likes of Kevin Bacon getting his start here. There is also some admirable cinematography from the late Barry Abrams, who helped create the kind of desolate, leafy retreat 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 fabled Hitchcockian harbinger of death, a character whose vocabulary seems to stretch no further than cliched forewarnings such as, “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 commercial boxes for uneducated teenagers flocking to the theatres in their droves. However second-hand 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.
The movie’s real strength lies with Tom Savini, 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 depravity on show, resulting in some of the finest feats of practical effects artistry the industry has 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 a traditional exercise in slasher filmmaking, the original Friday the 13th is more effective than the majority of the franchise, but despite 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 forged him. A Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween would both tread similarly farcical ground as the genre lurched towards early 90s inanity, the latter ironically borrowing from its biggest imitator by upping the kill count to adapt to commercial trends, but ask anyone for their favourite entry in those franchises and the majority would tell you 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. This was only confirmed by the response we got to 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.
For all the reasons explored, Friday the 13th has become something of a series outlier. This is less to do with comparative quality, more with the evolution of an inexhaustible series that would grow into a very different entity with our masked attraction at the helm. The original may have been a box office titan that dwarfed even the most successful Jason-led instalments (adjusted for inflation, the movie would have raked in somewhere in the region of $190,000,000 on a budget of $1,500,000), but Pamela’s initial killing spree doesn’t immediately leap to mind when you think of the Friday the 13th series. It was enough to get Cunningham’s foot through the door, 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.
Characters like Freddy and Jason are so beloved, are discussed in such scholastic detail by genre die hards, that producers would even pit them against one another long after the slasher craze had settled, fully aware of the concept’s box office power. The likes of Mrs Voorhees would never make it in that regard, 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?