Halloween Month: Friday the 13th (1980)
Thirty-three years following its release Friday 13th has proved to be one of the more influential slasher films of all time. The film kick-started a franchise with a total of ten direct sequels, one spin-off with the Elm Street franchise and one remake. Not only that, it paved the way for the popularity of many others of a similar vein such as the Sleepaway Camp Movies and The Burning right up until the present day with the Hatchet trilogy. While stalk n’ slash movies bled onto 1980’s cinema screens left, right and centre, Friday 13th had something the majority of them didn’t- success! Part of this is down to having Paramount Studios behind them, one of the most well-established, highest-grossing distribution studios of all time, however back in 1980 critics displayed disgust that a big studio would release what was considered a low and violent form of entertainment. Friday 13th was the first of its type to achieve backing from a major studio, resulting in it becoming one of the most profitable films of all time and over the years developing a cult following. Paramount went all out and spent a fortune on marketing the film which lifted the box office figures greatly, providing the slasher film with a more commercial appeal. Therefore if anyone is to blame for endless, over-the-top as they go on sequels, its Paramount Studios. But we’re all horror fans here so we love them!
Creator/Director Sean S. Cunningham developed Friday 13th, after gaining inspiration from John Carpenter’s Halloween. Cunningham was no stranger to the genre following working with Wes Craven on The Last House on the Left (1972). His intention was to create something truly terrifying which had comical elements at the same time. The film’s original title was A Long Night at Camp Blood during the early writing stages. Cunningham had already set his sights on his gory, upcoming movie as Friday 13th. He did everything in his power to ensure he could secure the title in order to avoid any copyright lawsuits. Eventually he was successful in obtaining it despite being threatened by someone behind a lesser known title Friday 13th: The Orphan, rumour has it that the person was paid off and Friday 13th was shot in the September of 1979. Cunningham now had the opportunity to make his “real scary movie”.
When anyone thinks of Friday 13th, a flood of images come to mind. The main associations come in the form of brutal killer Jason Voorhees, his hockey mask, machete, the sinister whispers of “kill, kill, die, die” and what appears like super-human abilities. Other than Jason, the setting is key to this film series, Camp Crystal Lake, where the body count is high and the blood shed vast, a number of the films are primarily set there, unless you care to remember Jason Takes Manhattan or Jason X. Camp Crystal Lake is what Haddonfield is to the Halloween franchise. However, while the original film is considered the best of the series and most well-remembered, interestingly it barely features Jason and he isn’t even the killer. The nice, humble Mrs Voorhees takes to the blade first time round, out for blood-thirsty revenge on sexually-active teenagers who were too busy fornicating to notice her precious son was drowning to death in 1958. Her reign of terror doesn’t end there as the re-opening of Camp Blood in 1980 causes our favourite female psycho to unleash a new rampage of revenge on a group of unsuspecting teens, including a relatively unknown Kevin Bacon!
Arguably, Jason could technically still be the killer in the original in spirit, telepathically communicating through his deranged mother. That, or she’s just completely crazy using a split personality in order to project the grief she has for losing Jason, muttering classic lines such as “Kill her Mommy” over and over, played wonderfully by Betsy Palmer. But that depends how you want to interpret it. Palmer admittedly only took the role in order to purchase a new car and despite not thinking highly of the movie, famously saying “What a piece of shit! Nobody is ever going to see this thing.” she eventually came round to thinking fondly of it and even agreeing to perform a cameo appearance in the sequel the following year. Palmer, without a doubt contributed to creating one of the most iconic female roles in the genre with her unforgettable performance.
Jason’s iconic image of how we love and know him today didn’t make an appearance until the third film, Friday 13th Part III: 3D (1982). In part one he’s the mutated boy in the lake, in Part 2 he hides his identity by wearing a brown sack over his head. Allegedly Part 3 was intended to be the final film in the series. The filmmakers did not foresee back then that the hockey mask would ultimately become Jason’s trademark nor was it intended to be. The decision was made in production during a lighting check where the hockey mask was placed on Jason actor Richard Brooker as the special effects crew had decided they did not want to apply make up just for the purpose of checking the lighting, therefore the entire thing came as a complete accident. Part 3 did receive generally negative feedback from the critics, despite grossing highly at the box office on its opening weekend. Its pretty fascinating that a well-recognized image, famous in pop culture happened by accident in a film that wasn’t highly regarded or even as well-remembered as its original. However its not unusual to hear people discuss the original Friday 13th with reference to the iconic monster that is Jason Voorhees. In theory, it separates itself slightly from its two big rivals, the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, where the main killers are established from the first instalments.
A kind of moral backlash did flare up following the film’s release. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the most vocal reviewers about the disgust they harboured for the film, deeming it exploitative against women and a new low in American cinema. Ebert stated that the films portray women in films of this nature as “helpless victims” while Siskel voiced that because more of these sort of films were being frequently generated, that was the principal image of women, tortured, attacked or raped that was being depicted to the country at the time. They were incensed that audiences were identifying with the killer rather than the victims, providing a very disturbing cinematic experience for them and saw it as an attack on the women’s movement. Placing the audience in the same position of the killer had already been done in earlier films such as Peeping Tom (1960), the difference is, when that film was released there was uproar and it compromised director Michael Powell’s career, however by 1980 this was becoming a more prominent feature of American horror films and a “trend” as Siskel and Ebert described.
Even though Siskel and Ebert raised interesting points against 1980’s horror, their views are problematic when they primarily focus on women’s role in slasher films but don’t take into consideration there are also male victims and female serial killers, especially in our beloved Friday 13th. Mrs Voorhees motive echoes back to Psycho’s legacy with the maternal instinct subtext. A mother would do anything for their child and for me, this is what the film’s ultimately getting at. But for some its hard to see passed the violent imagery in order to dig deeper regarding the film’s message. Friday 13th acted as a fable for the youth, using the horror metaphor to emphasize that actions will have consequences, the main one being sex. Siskel and Ebert felt films were simply exploiting this angle in a sleazy manner. But in Friday 13th’s case it didn’t just capitalize solely on women’s behaviour, it demonstrated how both male and female characters were so self-indulgent that they didn’t notice the death of a child. However nothing had changed from the 1950’s to the 1980’s as the youth were still engaging in the same behaviour. The young people who were oblivious to Jason’s drowning were the camp counsellors and failed to act responsibly in the situation. With the fear of AIDS and teenage pregnancy rife in society at the time, its no surprise that films were fictionalizing people’s fears for future generations and it sort of encourages the practice of safe sex and for teenagers not to be identified solely by it. Therefore I would conclude that Friday 13th is about accepting consequences and to act responsibly rather than exploiting women and their bodies in sadistic ways which is how Siskel and Ebert interpreted the film. Their reaction came across as fearful especially warning prospective audiences from seeing the film which in my view was extreme. By advising against the film and announcing its twist ending in the hope it would affect box office figures was more likely going to drive audiences towards it rather against it. Cunningham’s intention with the film was purely to scare and clearly evoking these reactions demonstrated that he did a good job.
Friday 13th was a film I adored as a gore-curious thirteen year old, however after many viewings over the years, I would argue that overall its not the most well-made film ever. Its possible that from growing up into a generation where CGI was becoming more prominent that myself and those around my age are spoilt when it comes to film. That said, I do appreciate the classics and as a horror fan I did turn to all the older films to get my fill of blood, guts, gore and ghouls even before the surge of remakes unleashed hell upon our beloved genre, the majority I usually avoid. For me old skool FX are far more appealing than CGI as they provide a raw feel and DIY approach. By that point the most recent horror movie I had seen was Final Destination (2000). After re-watching Friday 13th in 2013, I’d say it still has its merits, the glass smashing, bursting the title onto the screen accompanied by the score still gives me goosebumps and remains a powerful title sequence in horror. The kills are brutal and Pamela’s performance just makes the film for me. Its not overly scary however and comes across as comical and campy throughout featuring caricatures rather than actual characters. I don’t feel the same for the characters in this as I do for Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson or Sidney Prescott. Arguably, Alice Hardy isn’t considered the best final girl in the franchise, Ginny Field from the second instalment occupies that title. Its barely a masterpiece or even unique but enjoyable all the same.
What does make Friday 13th more popular than other films that came out in the same era in a similar vein? Well, it stands out for its importance to the slasher sub-genre and the horror genre as a whole. Mark Kermode hit the nail on the head when he emphasized that the reason the film has maintained such a legacy is because it was the type of film that had never been associated with mainstream cinema before or distributed by a successful studio. It transcended seedy, violent horror from grindhouse cinemas to more commercial audiences. Kermode pin points that at the time this was a “novelty” but since then has been done over and over again. But back in 1980 this movie did something special for the genre. Horror wouldn’t be horror without the series as its influence still carries on to this day.
So, why should you take a trip to Camp Crystal Lake this Halloween? Well, for one its a classic and a must-see for any horror fan, its interesting as a film for its significance on mainstream horror cinema, its suspenseful with some cool, memorable death scenes, an arrow through through the throat and the axe to the head are personal favourites and who could forget Mrs Voorhees beheading! It features a female serial killer which was revolutionary for its time and it began a legend.
Hayley Alice Roberts.
Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut by J. A. Kerswell (2010).