Rightfully so, 1978’s Halloween gets a lot of credit for making the slasher sub-genre of horror so popular as we headed into the 1980’s. The film was highly successful and eventually struck a nerve with critics to declare it one of the scariest films of all time. The film was made on a small budget and the return on investment caught the eye of many up and coming filmmakers that figured they could come up with a scary tale that could turn a huge profit.
Producer and director, Sean S. Cunningham saw the potential in the success of these kinds of films. He had worked with Wes Craven on The Last House on the Left and knew if he could come up with a simple and effective concept it could be made on a micro budget and even if the potential profit was small, he could still come out ahead with a fairly successful venture.
Enter Friday the 13th, which began its life merely as a title and a logo. Originally the film was titled A Long Night At Camp Blood but Cunningham saw potential in playing on the superstition of Friday the 13th. Much like Halloween, the name alone could elicit a little fear and peak some interest. Cunningham quickly rushed out an advertisement to Variety magazine because he feared someone would pick up the rights to the title and he wanted to avoid any potential lawsuits. He commissioned a New York advertising agency to develop his concept of the Friday the 13th logo, which consisted of big block letters bursting through a pane of glass and this was all done before a script had even been written.
The script would end up being written by Victor Miller, who delighted in inventing a serial killer who turned out to be somebody’s mother, a murderer whose only motivation was her love for her child. Miller said,
“I took motherhood and turned it on its head and I think that was great fun. Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I’d always wanted—a mother who would have killed for her kids.”
Miller also knew the importance of keeping his young would-be victims away from adult supervision. Witness how Steve Christy, the character in charge of setting up Camp Crystal Lake, departs from the scene before any of the mayhem occurs. Miller understood that he could create a film of kids behaving badly while they were blissfully unaware that a killer was in their midst. This is what attracts a young audience to films like these and Miller was in touch with this concept.
Miller also realized that any horror film needs a heroine, someone a bit more angelic than the rest of the gang. Alice, played by Adrienne King, served that role and while she lacks the nuance of Laurie Strode, she’s effective in the sense that she’s likable and we root for her survival. King doesn’t quite get her Scream Queen due but watch her progression throughout the film and it makes her tumbling in the dirt with Pamela Voorhees during the film’s climax all the more exhilarating. She arguably gets one of the best serial killer kills in horror. Who doesn’t remember Mrs. Voorhees getting the machete to the head?
Before Mrs. Voorhees meets her demise, we are introduced to her during the film’s final few minutes. Throughout the film, we only see legs, hands, or feet and we don’t even suspect that the killer would be a woman. Once we finally see her in the flesh the filmmakers knew that they needed a fairly recognizable name to give the role the impact it needed. The late Betsy Palmer would end up taking the role but it was accepted with a lot of love and open arms. She didn’t understand why they wanted her and she honestly wasn’t their first choice. They initially wanted Estelle Parsons but she deemed the film too violent. Palmer would only end up accepting the role because she needed to purchase a new car and really felt, in her own words, that the film was “a piece of shit.”
Despite her feelings, Palmer was a pro and she put her all into the part. Cunningham didn’t want her to be campy and over the top and Palmer felt the same way. Palmer even added more to the character than was in the script. Palmer explained how she got into the psyche of Mrs. Voorhees:
“Being an actress who uses the Stanislavsky Method, I always try to find details about my character. With Pamela … I began with a class ring that I remember reading in the script that she’d worn. Starting with that, I traced Pamela back to my own high school days in the early 1940s. So it’s 1944, a very conservative time, and Pamela has a steady boyfriend. They have sex—which is very bad of course—and Pamela soon gets pregnant with Jason. The father takes off and when Pamela tells her parents, they disown her because having … babies out of wedlock isn’t something that good girls do. I think she took Jason and raised him the best she could, but he turned out to be a very strange boy. [She took] lots of odd jobs and one of those jobs was as a cook at a summer camp. Then Jason drowns and her whole world collapses. What were the counselors doing instead of watching Jason? They were having sex, which is the way that she got into trouble. From that point on, Pamela became very psychotic and puritanical in her attitudes as she was determined to kill all of the immoral camp counselors.”
There is a reason that this character would endure as a memorable one in horror. Later in her life, Palmer embraced the role and her fans who actively supported Mrs. Voorhees, despite her being a murderer. Palmer didn’t always get it but she certainly appreciated the fans who saw more in the role than her just being mentally unstable. Before her death in 2015, Palmer attended many horror conventions and was a favorite among the fans who attended.
All the ingredients were in place to make a film that could be memorable but what would make it stand out is what makes it more of a father of 80’s slasher films as we came to know them. Halloween was a pretty bloodless affair that generated scares based on suspense. Friday the 13th had the suspense, albeit not as unique as Halloween’s, but it stepped things up in the area of gore effects. Gore master, Tom Savini, had made a name for himself with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and he was brought on to create gore effects that would stick with the audience. Savini did that and then some and while it seems pretty dated by today’s standards, they still pack a punch. Whether it’s Kevin Bacon getting a spear through the neck, or a deformed Jason Voorhees emerging out of the water to take down Alice, it certainly is unique in the genre because slasher films hadn’t quite gone that far in terms of showcasing so much violence and gore. It would become a motif for the franchise, for better or for worse.
Would audiences eat this up? It was clear by opening weekend that they would. The film was made for $500,000 and Paramount Pictures picked up the distribution rights for $1.5 million. The film opened on May 9, 1980, and grossed $5.8 million on its opening weekend, which meant that it was already turning a profit for the studio. It would go on to make $39.7 million domestically and another $20 million from overseas grosses. An independent horror film getting an international release, with virtually no recognizable stars, was unheard of at the time but it paid off handsomely for the studio. The film also outperformed other high profile horror releases that year such as The Shining, The Fog, Prom Night, and Dressed to Kill.
Despite the windfall of money and praise from horror fans who embraced it, the film was met with extreme negative criticism that would plague the franchise for its entire run. One major vocal critic who was against the film was the late Gene Siskel. He called Sean S. Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business” and he actually published the addresses for Charles Bluhdorn, the chairman of the board of Gulf+Western who owned Paramount Pictures and Betsy Palmer to encourage others to write them and express their contempt of the film. This was pretty much as bad as it gets but publications like Variety and critic Leonard Maltin also showed extreme disdain of the film. As fans of the franchise know, this only added fuel to the fire for those who loved the film. If those old guys hate it, then the film is a definite must-see. It’s interesting that they tried so hard to keep people away but it probably only helped the box office.
Before a sequel for the film was made, its impact was felt. Low key suspense was out and gore was in. Instead of creating the next Halloween, filmmakers were creating films like The Burning (oddly enough a film Savini worked on rather than returning for the second Friday the 13th). Audiences clearly responded to the more visceral impact of blood and guts because these films were made on the cheap and had varying degrees of success but usually just enough to warrant their existence. Even Halloween II adopted the gore approach and became the film it helped spawn. This is where the money was and we have Friday the 13th to thank for ushering in this new brand of horror.
Eventually, a sequel had to be made, even though the film was intended as a self-contained story. The ending scare with Jason jumping out of the lake and attacking Alice was meant to be a mere hallucination and not a set up for a sequel. That didn’t stop Paramount Pictures from moving full steam ahead with Friday the 13th Part 2 and bringing on an adult Jason to be the killer this time around. Essentially he witnesses the death of his mother in the first film creating a thirst for blood and a journey to exact revenge. Our heroine Alice returns for the opening scene but has a nasty run run-in with an ice pick, meaning we meet a new group of hapless victims for Jason to take out his anger on.
The sequel follows the same trajectory as the original. Not much was done to make it stand out but if you have something that isn’t broke yet, why fix it? Taking place five years after the original (although released only a year after the first film), the movie has a group of counselors setting up shop near Camp Crystal Lake for a camp counselor training camp. This is too close to Jason’s territory so of course they all must be dispatched.
Despite a sense of familiarity, the film has two things working in its favor. The first is that this is the only time Jason comes close to being remotely scary in the franchise. This is before he dons his signature hockey mask so he’s presented here wearing a burlap flour sack that makes him look like something out of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It’s actually a pretty eerie representation and he actually makes a bit of an impression.
The second crowning achievement is our heroine played by Amy Steel. Ginny Field is actually one of my favorite horror movie heroines because she’s likable but feisty. She was able to come off as vulnerable but strong in the same breath. There is a reason why many fans wish she would’ve returned in the next film. She makes an impression and makes the movie worthy of a watch.
Because the film came out so soon after the first, the heat was still on the building franchise. The film opened to $6.4 million on opening weekend and although its final gross of $21.7 million was less than the first film, it still more than surpassed its $1.5 million budget. Paramount Pictures was happy with the financial outcome but they were still met with scathing critical reviews. Roger Ebert famously said about the film that it was, “a cross between the Mad Slasher and Dead teenager genres; about two dozen movies a year feature a mad killer going berserk, and they’re all about as bad as this one. Some have a little more plot, some have a little less. It doesn’t matter.”