Friday the 13th: 30th Anniversary
Has it really been thirty years since Jason Voorhees first popped his decayed bulbous head out of the serene waters of Crystal Lake and changed the way we look at horror movies forever? Yes, as of May of this year, the initial entry in the film series that tanked summer camp attendance and gave hockey goalies a bad name has passed the triple decade mark. Back in early 1980, the slasher film craze, which began two years earlier with John Carpenter’s Halloween, was just starting to pick up speed and this modest budget movie of murder and mayhem was in the right place at the right time. Now thirty years, ten sequels, one remake and countless tie-ins, cash-ins, and imitations later, Retrorama looks back on the film that started it all.
Sean S. Cunningham and collaborator Steve Miner had spent the better part of the 1970’s working on feature films, most notably another cult sensation, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left. By the end of that decade, they were concentrating on family films with two features designed to cash in on the success of The Bad News Bears – Manny Orphans and Here Come the Tigers. While waiting on the box office returns from these movies and a possible television series based on the soccer themed Orphans, the duo needed to come up with a new project to pay the bills. Reviewing their previous films, it was clear that the easiest way to generate a profit in a short period of time and with a small budget was to do a horror film similar to Last House. Having nothing more than a title and the vague concept of teenagers, a demographic who traditionally considered themselves invincible, in peril, Cunningham announced his forthcoming horror film, Friday the 13th, in the major trade newspapers.
The advertisements generated a surprising amount of interest, due in large part to the recent success of Halloween, another horror film tied to an event on the calendar. With funding secured, Miner and Cunningham wracked their brains for enough of a plot to flesh out into a script. They finally settled on a reworking of an old campfire tale, usually referred to as the “Cropsy Maniac” or “Cropsy Murders”, concerning the badly disfigured victim of a summer camp prank seeking vengeance on his tormentors. For their story, they kept the revenge motif and setting of the summer camp but changed the motivation to a drowned child and the mother’s assignment of blame on young, sexually promiscuous, camp counselors.
The film opens with a new group of teenage counselors busy renovating Camp Crystal Lake which has been closed for years due to a drowning that was followed by a number of mysterious events. The residents of the nearby town consider the camp bad news and would prefer it remain closed, so they don’t offer much of a welcome to anyone associated with it. The first half of the film moves at a leisurely pace that is only broken by a few hints at the carnage to come as it introduces the characters. Chief among these is Alice, a slightly more mature counselor who is shown to be resourceful and hard working but unsure if she wants to continue with the camp. Some previous romantic involvement between her and the person in charge of the camp reopening is hinted at but never revealed.
At the half way mark, Friday the 13th kicks into high gear when the isolated teens start getting gruesomely dispatched one by one over the course of a single hellish night. The true star of this portion of the movie is the ground breaking makeup and special effects work of a young Tom Savini. During this mutilation that includes arrows through the throat, axes to the head, and many other creative kills, audiences were taken on a roller coaster ride of on screen violence that was unlike anything they had seen before. While Savini provided impressive effects for many other films around this time, it was Friday the 13th that brought him to the attention of the general public and launched his career.
As was well telegraphed through the early portion of the film, Alice ends up the final potential victim for the killer as Friday the 13th reveals its final reel twist. One of the people hired to work at the camp is actually the mother of the boy who drowned and the person responsible for all of the recent deaths as she continues her campaign to keep it closed for good. As Pamela Voorhees, Betsy Palmer gives a delightfully over the top performance even providing both sides of her conversations with her dead son. After one very nasty cat fight, she meets a conclusive end from a slow motion machete decapitation that manages to top all of the horror that preceded it. Of course the film wasn’t over just yet since the producers were saving one final sting for the audience that would, quite coincidentally, introduce one of the greatest screen slashers of all time.
Friday the 13th was released to huge box office returns and almost universal panning by the critics. Film reviewers seemed to have almost no concept of the new horror trend that was sweeping cinemas. Some mistook the movie for a murder mystery and complained that, with Palmer being the only recognizable name in the credits, it was obvious she had to be the killer when she didn’t show up until the last ten minutes of the film! Needless to say, this was not a film designed for the Academy Awards crowd but the movie going public was more than happy to deposit their dollars at the ticket counter. It was almost immediately apparent that their would be a sequel but no one in 1980 could have predicted how far reaching the film would ultimately prove to be.
I was already a confirmed horror fan in 1980 but R rated movies like this one were still outside my fourteen year old grasp for the most part. I remember the hype and seeing all the photos in the pages of the relatively new magazine Fangoria and even the old staple Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was clear this was a film I needed to see but getting into the theater wasn’t going to happen. Thankfully the long defunct pay cable channel Spotlight was kind enough to show it as the centerpiece of a horror marathon (that also included the original Night of the Living Dead which was a rarity on television at this time) for Halloween of 1981. I knew the whole plot of the film and the final “surprise” with Jason well in advance of actually seeing the film but I still watched it, along with my friend Chris who was over for the night, with my attention riveted to the small television set in my room. After a wild ride through the main portion of the movie, we eagerly awaited the final moments with Chris perched on the end of my bed and me sitting a few feet away on the floor. When Jason finally sprang to the surface, Chris also sprang about two feet up in the air, moved approximately four feet to his right and collapsed on the floor in a heap! While he was confessing to having just witnessed the scariest thing in his young life, I was just grateful that my own minor moment of being startled had gone unnoticed. Even knowing the ending still didn’t keep that scene from packing a shock!
Schlockarama writer Chris Woods has these memories to share about his initial discovery of this ground breaking film and its resulting sequels:
I first heard about Friday the 13th around the time it came out. I was about seven years old when the film was released in 1980. My uncle was a big horror fan and I remember him telling me about the first film and the first few sequels. When I was a kid I wasn’t into horror films because I thought they were too scary. Friday the 13th was one of the ones that freaked me out even though I hadn’t seen it yet. Where I grew up in Upstate New York, I used to go up north camping a few times and that setting reminded me of a Friday the 13th movie. By the time I was a teenager, I was into horror movies and finally got to see Friday the 13th and its many sequels. I enjoyed the films very much, especially the first one. I liked them all the way up until Part 4 and then the rest went from decent to terrible. The first film has always been my favorite and during the summers in New York in the late 80’s I would often go up north to the small town of Old Forge which felt like a Friday the 13th town and I always thought Jason or his mother would be lurking around the corner or would be hiding in the lake ready to jump out. – Chris
Of course as horror fans like Chris and I suspected at the time, Friday the 13th was a long way from over when the credits rolled on the first film. Paramount Pictures, who had picked the film up for distribution, wasted no time in lining up a sequel while the buzz of the first film was still hot. We’ll take a look at the career of Jason Voorhees, who deserves a Retrorama column of his own, and his cinematic journey of slaughter in the very near future.