Background

Friday the 13th was directed by Sean S. Cunningham with special effects by the brilliant Tom Savini in 1980. Cunningham not only directed, but also wrote the story for the film with Victor Miller writing the script. Cunningham and Miller later admitted that they were purposefully riding off the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) in creating this film. It’s connection to Psycho (1960) is also VERY clear through the film’s score and the prominent mother/son relationship at the film’s center. In order to separate Friday the 13th from these earlier films, Cunningham wanted to include gore (for which reason Savini, fresh off of his work for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, was the first crew member to be hired). Savini added not only artificial gore (based on his time in the Vietnam War), but he also included the infamous snake death scene. In order to show that the teenagers in the film were capable of violence, he had one of the actors machete a real snake to death. This scene appeared in the film.

According to Cunningham, he looked for actors to play the teenage counselors by looking for “good-looking kids who you might see in a Pepsi commercial.” A young Kevin Bacon was amongst the casted teenager counselors (most of whom were New York theatre actors).  Cunningham also assumed that the film would do good just based on the film’s title alone. Given Halloween‘s success, Cunningham thought another eerie holiday title would sell.

The independent film received a ton of negative criticism. It was nominated (though didn’t win) two Golden Raspberry Awards, the Worst Picture and Worst Supporting Actress for Betsy Palmer, who played Mrs. Voorhees and was the only well-known actor in the film. The most famous critical attack against the film came from Gene Siskel who described Cunningham as “one of the most despicable creatures to ever infest the movie business” and published Betsy Palmer’s home address in his review, encouraging others who hated the movie to tell her about it. Thankfully for Palmer, he posted the wrong address.

Betsey Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees

 

Despite the overwhelmingly negative critical reception, the film did so well at the box office that it became the 18th highest grossing film of 1980, an amazing feat for a small independent feature. The budget for Friday the 13th was a meagre $550,000 (according to IMDB). Its gross sales in the US is $39,754,601 and its worldwide gross is $59,754,601. Because of its popularity, Friday the 13th went on to become a major horror film franchise, however, it was not until the sequel that Jason Voorhees became the franchise’s killer and not until the third film (a 3-D feature) that he dons the iconic hockey mask.

Plot Summary

A group of teenage camp counselors meet at Camp Crystal Lake, in New Jersey, on June 13, 1979, to help the camp director get the camp ready for its reopening. The camp had been closed since it gained its local reputation as “Camp Blood” after a boy drowned and two counselors were murdered in 1958. Despite warnings from the town’s local doomsday prophet, “Crazy Ralph,” and the early disappearance of the cook, the counselors continue to set up the camp while having some fun (pranks, swimming, sex, booze, weed, board games, music, etc.). One by one, the teenagers are killed off by some unseen presence. Alice (Adrienne King) is our final girl. Once she is the last person left, she happens upon a kindly looking older woman, who introduces herself as Mrs. Voorhees. Unfortunately for Alice, Mrs. Voorhees is not there to help Alice, but is actually the person who has been killing all of the counselors in an effort to gain revenge for the death of her son due to the negligence of the camp counselors in 1958. Alice flees from Mrs. Voorhees and discovers multiple bodies of her former co-workers/friends/lovers. She fights Mrs. Voorhees in a final show-down and manages to behead (!) Mrs. Voorhees using a machete:

Alice goes out onto the lake in a canoe in order to spend the rest of the night away from all of the violence and carnage on land. In the morning, the police arrive, but Jason leaps from the water (it turns out, he’s been alive this whole time!) and pulls Alice in. She wakes up in a hospital where a number of authority figures (police officer, doctor, nurse) clearly don’t believe that Jason is still out there. Perhaps it was just a dream…

Notes & Quotes

  • This film played a major role in creating the slasher film genre. Because of this, it’s impossible to not bring up Carol Clover and the final girl in a discussion of Friday the 13th. The film does a bit of a psych out at the start of the film (but maybe only fans of slashers or readers of Clover would be psyched out by it?) where we are introduced to Claudette (Debra S. Hayes). She is hitch-hiking her way to Camp Crystal Lake where she plans to work as both a cook and a counselor. Normally, the final girl is the first person that the audience is introduced to, and the person who we immediately realize is the main character of the film. Not so here. Claudette, despite her slightly masculine attributes, is picked up (assumedly by Mrs. Voorhees, who was also a cook at Camp Crystal Lake once upon a time) and murdered within the first ten minutes of the film. It is her scream that brings us to the title frame. It is revealed that Alice, who turns out to be the final girl, has had sexual relations with two of the other characters in the film, Steve (Peter Brouwer), the camp director who is ten years her senior, and Bill, a fellow counselor. Typically the final girl is sexually unavailable, but Alice is a little more complex here. She never has sex in this film (although she does come close to taking off her top in a game of strip Monopoly), however, she agrees to try to make it work with Steve at the start of the film and clearly has feelings for Bill by the end. Alice is very resourceful in a pinch, which Clover describes as a major part of the final girl’s role. She knows how to tie knots and effectively wield a machete.

 

Steve and Alice discussing their relationship at the start of the film

  • In order to maintain the mystery of who the killer is, as well as the surprise that it is a middle-aged mother, the murders are filmed completely from the perspective of the killer. The camera often also watches the teenagers from a distance, as if it is lurking in the woods or in a nearby cabin. The fact that Jason is still alive at the end makes me wonder if sometimes the camera takes on Jason’s position as well as his mother’s, or if it is just supposed to be Mrs. Voorhees’s perspective the entire time. Once she is revealed as the killer, the camera’s identity shifts, and we watch her attack Alice from either an omniscient position or from Alice’s own perspective. This fits well with Clover’s reading of the slasher.
  • Friday the 13th is often cited as a majorly conservative horror film of the Reagan era. Near the beginning of the film, a cop visits the counselors and, after asking if anybody there was smoking weed, warns the teenagers that the town “ain’t gonna stand for any weirdness out here!” This is very similar to Mrs. Voorhees’s point of view, it seems. All of the teenagers are killed after (sometimes immediately) having sex or partaking in drugs and alcohol. I think the representation of the American family is particularly interesting here. Sex is something that should not take place outside of a marriage with an interest in procreation. Mrs. Voorhees is upset that her son was killed, however, perhaps this happened because of the shift in American families. There seems to be no Mr. Voorhees present and the only reason why Jason was killed, according to Mrs. Voorhees, is because counselors were watching him while she was working as the camp’s cook. Early in the film, Claudette explains that Camp Crystal Lake is meant for “inner-city youths.” This camp is where children go whose parents can not (and maybe will not) look after them. I’m very interested in re-reading Melinda Cooper’s Family Values with Friday the 13th in mind.
  • I’m interested in the role that the wilderness plays in this film. If it is a rip-ff of Halloween, then Cunningham, for whatever reason, has moved the action from suburbia to the woods. Jason himself, when he finally appears, seems to be feral and is covered in muck and mud from the lake. He is a sort of monster of nature and, somehow, has managed to exist for twenty years alone in the forest. The excess of trees and the lightening storm add to the film’s horror tone by making it difficult for the characters to easily move fast, see ahead of them, and hear each other’s screams. The final scene on the lake is also fascinating because of the way that the trees reflect on the lake and how isolated Alice appears, despite the fact that the police have arrived.

The original poster for the film also depicts the killer’s body by infusing it with an image of the campground. By doing this, the marketing has tied the killer to nature. Even if this was done just to feed into our cultural fears and anxieties surrounding wilderness, it’s worth examining.

  • Finally, I’d like to think more about Friday the 13th as a franchise. The amount of films that came after this one is pretty amazing. It’s also crazy to think about how bad and how weird some of the were (Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes to Hell, anyone?). Jason Voorhees has been sent to space (Jason X) and made to battle with a telekinetic teen (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood). He even has battled Freddy Krueger (Freddy Vs. Jason). The first film barely had a plot, and the ones that followed (I’d argue) have even less of a story line to follow. These films have truly become all about the kills (make them gory, make them unusual) and the body count. According to Rotten Tomatoes’ Killer Body Count GuideJason is at the top of the list for kills by any movie killer at an astounding 146- despite the fact that he doesn’t kill anybody in his first film!

Friday the 13th (1980) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.