We revisit the start of the Vorhees dynasty for some groundbreaking blood and guts.
Who made it?: Sean S. Cunningham (Producer/Director), Victor Miller (Writer), Georgetown Productions, Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby.
Tagline: “They were warned… They are doomed… And on Friday the 13th, nothing will save them.”
IMDb rating: 6.5/10.
Friday the 13th was made purely for monetary reasons, which makes the never-ending series of sequels, a reboot, and a crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) all the more impressive. It sparked what could be the most successful franchise in the horror genre. Producer/director Sean S. Cunningham certainly didn’t anticipate its runaway success, making it as a cash-in on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which had been raking in the dollars across America. While he had faith in the project, Friday the 13th wasn’t built to be a phenomenon, just a quick and cheap exploitation flick that would storm the drive-ins and make some fast cash. And despite its dated aspects, amateurish acting, hackneyed plotting, and a decidedly cheesy appeal, it still manages to be entertaining fun. Like it or lump it, Cunningham’s film ushered in the era of the Slasher Movie, a sub-genre that had its genesis in Psycho (1960) before reaching its apotheosis with Michael Myers.
Like any film about a killer on the loose, the synopsis of Friday the 13th reads like a Greatest Clichés checklist. The movie opens with a shocking event from the past (as did Halloween), which introduces us to the dreaded Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. Two camp counselors are viciously murdered by an unseen assailant, interrupting their plans for coitus. After quite an amusing opening credits sequence, we flash forward to the present, June 13, 1980. Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) is getting Crystal Lake up-and-running again with Steve Christy (Paul Breuwer), who has employed a new crop of counselors to get the place in order for the summer season. They include Marcie (Jeannie Taylor), Annie (Robbi Morgan), Bill (Harry Crosby), and Jack (Kevin Bacon, yes, that Kevin Bacon). But before you can really get to know any of them beyond their key personality traits, a pissed off killer starts picking them off one-by-one. Agatha Christie was on to something when she cooked up Ten Little Indians, because this is a formula that more or less writes itself.
Cunningham was no stranger to the genre, of course. He had produced Wes Craven’s ultra-low budget sleaze-fest The Last House on the Left in 1972, a film that branded the pair of them as perverted sadists. Like his more famous pal, Cunningham struggled to escape the exploitation or horror genres, even directing soft-core porn with trash like The Case of the Smiling Stiffs (1973). After segueing into unsuccessful family films with writer Victor Miller, he realised that horror would be the key to his ongoing success. The framework of Halloween had given him the idea for a title, Friday the 13th, but he had no story or setting in mind. Despite the lack of a script, Cunningham took out a full-page ad in Variety featuring the title crashing through a sheet of glass (which was faithfully recreated for the opening credits). It also announced that the picture was to be “The Most Terrifying Film Ever Made.” The ruse worked, and soon financiers from across the country were willing to pony up some of the budget. Cunningham then hired Miller to pen the screenplay, which required the non-horror viewer to watch Halloween several times and take vigorous notes. While the ties to Carpenter’s masterpiece are numerous and obvious, Miller’s stroke of genius was setting the film at a summer camp, a relateable location for Americans of all ages, and a perfect place to give the film some atmosphere.
While Friday the 13th just about deserves its lofty place in the horror pantheon, it really boils down to a simple case of what works and what doesn’t. Let’s start with what works:
First, that all-important location. Filmed at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in New Jersey, Cunningham and his cinematographer did an admirable job giving their setting some menace. The feeble production budget (estimated at $550,000) certainly didn’t hinder the look of the film. It is a no-frills venture, sure, but the lighting during the stalk-and-slash scenes is precise, and the use of shadows is effective. Very few of the sequels managed to replicate the sense of malevolence on show here. This is a good-looking flick, even when the shoestring origins are apparent. Composer Harry Manfredini also gave the visuals an iconic score that audiences have imitated for the last three decades. The strange, repeated refrain “Ki-ki-ma-ma” instantly sticks in the mind, and it’s tough to imagine the Friday the 13th films without Manfredini’s theme.
Beating the visuals and score for overall impact, however, is Tom Savini’s truly innovative make-up effects. Recommended for the project after his work on Dawn of the Dead (1978), Savini took his talents to a whole new level here. The gore still looks pretty fantastic, whether it be an axe slamming into someone’s face, or an arrow piercing another soul’s throat. You can see the seams now, but the bloody moments remain Friday the 13th‘s crowning achievement. That isn’t really a reason to recommend the film, but the prosthetics were incredibly influential. I also forgot how fleeting these shots are, with a few seconds here and there. Friday the 13th was regarded as a non-stop gore-a-thon at the time, but it’s positively restrained now. You’ll be marvelling over Savini’s prowess instead of recoiling in disgust. The sequels would continue to push the envelope regardless of good taste.
The flaws begin, perhaps inevitably, with the performances. Many of the actors were just starting out and everyone here over-acts to the nth degree. Although there’s been worse in a thousand other slasher films, it’s still bothersome to see such hammy theatrics in a supposed “classic.” That said, Adrienne King makes a good enough Final Girl, conforming to the unwritten rule that slasher heroines should be pure and virginal. I would also be remiss not to mention Kevin Bacon, and while he doesn’t deliver anything special due to the sub-par dialogue, his screen presence is clear. He also gets my favourite death in the entire film.
Stealing the show is Betsy Palmer. Known as a “girl next-door” in her day, she subverted her reputation as a light entertainment host to play the dastardly Pamela Vorhees. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal her as the killer these days. The opening of Craven’s Scream (1996) spoiled the twist for many, and we all know Pamela’s “dead” son, Jason, will take over the hacking duties in part two. Her wildly OTT entrance in the film’s last act might cause titters these days, but she’s a memorable antagonist and the undisputed Queen of the Slashers, spurred on by the memory of her son’s drowning decades earlier. This psycho’s modus operandi isn’t fuelled by an insatiable blood lust, but a desire to stop other children from meeting a watery grave at the unluckiest camp in the world.
The last scene of Friday the 13th has Mrs. Vorhees’ supposedly dead offspring leaping out of the serene lake to attack Alice. Jason hasn’t aged a day and is revealed to be a Mongoloid (??!!). Then, Alice wakes up in the hospital and we’re led to believe it was all a bad dream. No, it’s never made much sense to me either; a hollow attempt to give the film one last jump-scare. Also, rumour has it that the scene is what convinced Paramount Pictures to purchase the film, an unprecedented move for a low-budget nasty at the time. It would go on to earn over $39 million domestically, much to Cunningham’s surprise. Critics were outraged, feminists were less than impressed, and middle-America had a moral panic, but such hysteria only helped to drive the box office success.
Friday the 13th will never be mistaken for a fine piece of horror cinema, especially now that it fails to scare like it used to. It’s too crude and cynically designed to entirely live up to its inflated legacy, and the formula is so shop-worn that sitting through it can put some viewers to sleep. This might sound overly harsh for long-time fans of the series, but I regard Friday the 13th as a fun, unpretentious product of its time. It is what it is, warts and all. And what it is is an excuse for a bit of gore and T&A. Your mileage may vary.
And a star career was born…
- Betsy Palmer said that if it were not for the fact that she was in desperate need of a new car, she would never have taken the part of Pamela Voorhees. In fact, after she read the script she called the film “a piece of shit.” One critic was so angry at her role in the movie, that he published her address in his magazine, and encouraged people to write to her and protest. He published the wrong address.
- Camp No-Be-Bo-Scoe is still in operation, and has a wall of Friday the 13thparaphernalia to honour that the movie was set there.
- Composer Harry Manfredini has said that contrary to popular belief, the famous “Chi, chi, chi; ha, ha, ha” in the film’s score is actually “Ki, ki, ki; ma, ma, ma.” It is meant to resemble Jason’s voice saying “Kill, kill, kill; mom, mom, mom” in Mrs. Voorhees’ mind. It was inspired by the scene in which Mrs. Voorhees seems to be possessed by Jason and chants, “Get her, mommy! kill her!” Manfredini created the effect by speaking the syllables “Ki” and “Ma” into a microphone running through a delay effect.
- The scene with the snake was not in the script and was an idea from Tom Savini after an experience in his own cabin during filming. The snake in the scene was real, including its on-screen death.
- There is a township named Voorhees, New Jersey, which is about eight miles away from Haddonfield, New Jersey, which was inspiration for the fictional town where Halloween took place.