Has it really been nearly 30 years since Friday the 13th came out? If, in 1980, you had asked me to watch a film from 1950, I’d probably have wondered why you were forcing such an old movie on me. Maybe Friday doesn’t seem that old because I actually saw it in a theater during its initial release. Now, I couldn’t tell you how it came to pass that I actually managed to convinced my father to take me: I was way, way too young to fake my own way into an R-rated movie – perhaps he was under the impression that it was a modern spin on “10 Little Indians,” but it’s more likely that he simply didn’t know anything about it at all and I had been badgering the poor man to take me ever since seeing the first ads on TV. And what ads they were – who can forget the memorable ‘body count’ trailer that was later adapted into television spots? In NY it seemed like the ad played on channels 5, 9, and 11 around the clock; I was already flirting with disaster by staying up on Saturday nights watching Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and seeing that ad during the breaks had me absolutely petrified with fear – and things didn’t get any easier in the theater. Even now, while driving by a heavily wooded area, I think back on poor, doomed Annie’s flight from the unseen killer after an unwise attempt to hitchhike to her new job at Camp Crystal Lake. I wasn’t much of an outdoors-man back then, but after that fateful matinee in 1980, I’ve managed to successfully avoid being in any sort of camping or hiking situation. I absolutely cowered in my seat, afraid to look at the screen or admit defeat and leave the theater (an offer that was made several times by my parent and guardian). Does that make Friday the 13th a masterpiece? Nope – but it’s damn effective, and that’s enough.
After failing to recapture his early success producing Last House on the Left by directing a pair of ill-advised family comedies (the just-above-execrable Manny’s Orphans and Here Come the Tigers) Sean S. Cunningham decided to return to familiar territory with another horror tale. Halloween had proved how lucrative the genre could be for a low-budget picture that was smartly advertised and slickly presented, and in true exploitation tradition – without money, cast, or even a script – Cunningham placed a striking ad in Variety for “The most terrifying movie ever made” featuring bold block letters shattering through a pane of glass and spelling out “Friday the 13th.” In short order, he had investors lined up and a script written by Victor Miller that took a more maternal outlook on the traditional killer, giving the film a relatively unique twist in its closing moments. The story follows a group of teens attempting to re-open a long-closed summer camp that is rumored to have a “death curse” ever since the drowning of a young boy several years previous; the camp counselors are killed off in graphic fashion until only one remains to see the face and learn the motive of the murderer. Filming took place at an actual Boy Scout camp in New Jersey, giving the production access to lots of young, hungry, and (except for Betsy Palmer) mostly unknown acting talent in nearby New York, including the fetching Adrienne King as the virginal “final girl” Alice; Bing Crosby’s son, Harry, as future archery target, Bill,\: and a 22 year old Kevin Bacon as Jack, who doesn’t check under the bed.
While filming on a shoestring budget in the middle of Jersey, it’s a safe bet that the notion of creating a franchise that is still going strong three decades hence didn’t occur to anyone, least of all its director. Cunningham’s reputation as a genre producer in the Roger Corman mold is secure, but directing isn’t his strong suit; the success of Friday got him a more prestigious directing gig adapting Mary Higgins Clark’s suspenseful A Stranger is Watchinginto a tepid mess a few years later. But Cunningham kept to a very simple filming style on Friday, relying heavily on a stalking, subjective camera simulating the killer’s viewpoint. But the final key to Friday’s success was composer Harry Manfredini’s iconic musical score, featuring the indelible “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”, whispered throughout the score and inspired, according to Manfredini, from Mrs. Voorhees repeating “kill her, mommy…kill her!” during the conclusion (though what remains is a near libelous lift from Hermann’s Psychoscore). And while that conclusion along with its last act reveal might seem trite and overly familiar today, it played beautifully before the horror market was over-saturated with out-of-left-field twist endings (thank you, Sleepaway Camp).
Though often cited as the tipping point for the modern “body count”-style horror movie, it was far from the first. Cunningham was smart enough to steal from the best, namely Mario Bava’s 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve – a film to which Friday’sfirst sequel would owe an even bigger debt. Bava’s violent thriller was basically a chamber mystery – revolving around a pricey parcel of land and the motley crew of fortune-seekers that assemble to vie for its inheritance (which itself is an extension of what Bava began 7 years earlier in Blood and Black Lace, setting a black-gloved killer loose in an Italian fashion house) – that reveled in the method of murder over motive. I’ve sat through Twitch at least twice and I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about the plot; what I do remember are the inventive and graphic (for the time) murders, which generated some unusually negative press for the acclaimed director.* This is particularly true of a section that has a group of twenty-somethings drop in near the estate for some general teen-type partying. This passage always had a different vibe from the rest of the film – almost as if spliced in from another movie – but it’s this segment that marks the true beginning of the modern slasher film.
Friday the 13th’s attractive cast is also genuinely like-able; not that the characters are memorably written (bluntly put, they were written to be killed), but the actor’s performances are effective. After a 1958 prolog in which two counselors at a seemingly thriving Camp Crystal Lake are murdered during a make-out session, we flash forward to the “present day” (present in this case being 1980) and meet Annie, an attractive young girl hitchhiking her way to a job at the very same camp, about to reopen for a new season after several abortive attempts over the previous 20 years. After shrugging off the warnings of locals in a diner that anyone attempting to reopen the camp will be “doomed,” Annie continues on and accepts a ride for the final leg of the trip from an unseen driver of a Jeep. Now, you don’t have to have seen the movie to know that Annie’s life expectancy clock has hit the under 5-min mark; in fact, she doesn’t even make it to the camp! In the typical modern horror movie, female characters almost always fall into one of two categories: supermodel hot or eyeglass-wearing bookworm that eventually takes off her glasses to reveal – a supermodel. Annie is played by actress Robbi Morgan, an attractive, curly-haired brunette (probably no older than 19 when the film was shot) who appears very much the normal girl. Perky, a bit tomboyish (in a non-sexually intimidating way) and utterly believable in a flannel shirt and backpack on her way to a summer job, we’re instantly engaged and feel a genuine affection for her, making her inevitable fate surprisingly tragic. The waif-like WB castoffs that typically populate horror films today seem even more plastic by comparison, weighing down every scene with phony ennui that can only come from having a cadre of assistants constantly telling you how tough your job is.
Equally strong is Adrienne King as Alice, pigeonholed after the film’s release as the archetypal ‘final girl’, a term proposed by feminist authors in the ’80s to support the notion that the men who wrote and directed these films thought of most women as either virgins or whores, with the latter deserving of a grisly end, elevating a single girl – typically both virginal and somewhat masculine, conforming to Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode in the original Halloween – to survive and face the killer. Though Alice is somewhat dowdy in comparison to her fellow counselors, it’s sexism of a different color to assume that she’s a virgin simply because she doesn’t sleep with Kevin Bacon or tie the tails of her oxford shirt over her bellybutton. Alice is in the midst of an affair with one man when the film begins, and doesn’t flinch at the suggestion of strip Monopoly. Empathy is what’s important here, and King is particularly good at allowing the audience in, even as the cinematography puts us in the place of the killer.
The completed film was picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures, who invested heavily in its advertising and were rewarded with both a huge moneymaker, and a string of sequels that could each be counted on to bring in many times its meager budget before finally losing the character (and Cunningham) to New Line in the ’90s. Though New Line could have continued to use the Jason character as much as they wanted, the participation of Paramount would be required to use the very marketable title, and this year the remake stars finally aligned and the Michael Bay-produced remake of Friday the 13th opens nationally on, fittingly, Friday, February 13th.
Kicking up a bit of publicity, Paramount has re-released the first 3 films in the series on DVD, with the original also getting a Bluray release. Now, Paramount has already put out DVDs of the series individually, in two-movie sets, and in a large box set (the first release to include any value-added content). What makes the new release of the original special is that America will finally be able to see the film in its complete, unrated version, restoring roughly 10 seconds of bloodshed. But anyone expecting a gore-fest will be sorely disappointed; Friday came out at a time when the MPAA was being particularly tough on horror, routinely targeting genre filmmakers like Wes Craven and Brian DePalma and insisting on myriad cuts from most slashers before passing with an all-important ‘R’ rating. The level of tension that Friday so deftly maintains throughout makes the film seem – like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before it – much more violent than it actually is. Only Kevin Bacon’s demise is noticeably augmented by the extra bloodletting, but it has the curious effect of calling attention to the Tom Savini-created effect and actually detracting from the moment; however, Paramount should be congratulated for finally making the footage available. The new edition also features a commentary track cobbled together from separate interviews (a practice we’re not fond of, but understand the need for) with Cunningham, writer Victor Miller, Crystal Lake Memoriesauthor Peter M Bracke, actresses King, and Betsy Palmer (Mrs. Voorhees), editor Bill Freda, assistant editor Jay Keuper, and composer Manfredini.
Featurettes include “A Friday the 13th Reunion,” which is actually a panel from a horror convention (featuring Palmer, as ever, wearing that famous cable-knit sweater).”Fresh Cuts: New Tails from Friday the 13th” is a more formal collection of interviews featuring many of the above participants, including our favorite victim, Robbi Morgan. “The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S Cunningham” features an interview with same. Also available is the famous original trailer and the inexplicable “Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1,” a short film about a couple who hear noises in the middle of the night, go out into the hallway of their home to investigate, and are killed in short order by a masked, Jason-like figure. It doesn’t really have anything to do with Friday the 13thexcept that the creator is most likely a fan; its inclusion is somewhat baffling. If it appeals, the story continues on the new disc for Part 2. The 1080p Bluray picture brings out clarity and detail in the image that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and is well worth the upgrade if you’re so equipped. Midway through the film, Ned (Mark Nelson) calls out to a hooded, shadowy figure in a cabin doorway where it’s clear for the first time since the original theatrical prints that it’s actually Betsy Palmer, making the most of her 10 shooting days. Paramount also gets high marks for including the original mono soundtrack in addition to a newer surround mix. Highly recommended.
Read about this week’s other Friday the 13th DVD releases in this edition of our weekly Laserblast column.
*Writing in the Fall 1975 issue of Cinefantastique, Jeffrey Frentzen called TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE Bava’s most “complete failure to date” and accused the director of having an “obnoxious eye for detail” in regards to the violent murders.