One of my earliest memories involves the film Friday the 13th (those who know me are rolling their eyes and thinking ‘This doesn’t surprise me!’) I’m 5 years old and I’m running towards my local cinema, The Odeon in York. I regularly go there when my family venture into town as there are posters and lobby cards outside the cinema to pore over in minute detail. This is especially rewarding when said artwork is for a horror film.
On this occasion Friday the 13th is showing and I’m ogling the poster and lobby cards like they are part of some ancient source of wisdom. What does it all mean? Who could be killing all the teens that the poster states were dying horribly one by one? What does the kindly older lady in one of the lobby cards have to do with this? Maybe she tries to save the teens throughout the course of the film…
It would be a few years before I finally got to see the film on video and my timing couldn’t have been better. I actually saw the first film after Part 3 which had just been released (more of that in a future article). A new, longer and gorier version of Part 1 was newly released on VHS (Warners actually initially got into trouble after it was discovered that an uncut version was originally released on video in the UK. This version has been successfully passed with an X rating for its UK cinema release. After the film was seized by police during the Video Nasties furore, Warners decided to play it safe and release the version that was cut to ensure an R rating in the US instead). This new video version was completely uncut and so I could see the film as it was intended to be seen.
I wasn’t disappointed. But after experiencing the series at Part 3 when a formula had been struck upon, I was surprised at how different the first film was compared to the rest of the series.
The film starts at the site where (most) of the rest of the series takes place, Camp Crystal Lake but here is a sequence that takes place in 1958. A couple of oh so wholesome teenaged camp counsellors have taken a break from singing ‘Michael, Row The Boat Ashore’ to find a more private place to make out. They are then found by an unseen assailant who kills them both.
We then get the credit sequence for the film which consists of the logo for the film crashing through an invisible pane of glass. This is reminiscent of the one-page ad that Sean S Cunningham took out in the film trade press magazine Variety to reserve the name of ‘Friday the 13th’ as the name for a horror movie after Halloween had been such a success. Cunningham was thinking of other occasions that would also be great for the basis of a horror movie and so that no one else would base a film around that day traditionally associated with bad luck. Conversely, if anyone else had already used the same name for their project in the past, they would see the ad and approach Cunningham to ask him to change the title of his projected movie and avoid a potential lawsuit.
The ad was also a great way to see if any potential backers could be encouraged to stump up the cash for the project that didn’t even have a cast, crew or even screenplay attached to it. The project literally just had the film’s name.
The film then flashes forward to Friday 13th June, The Present Day as an onscreen caption informs us. Teen Annie is making the journey to the same camp to be their cook. Annie is very irritating from the outset as she sees a nearby dog, asks it if it knows where Camp Crystal Lake is (the dog whimpers and walks off. And for good reason) and so she ventures into a nearby diner to ask the same question. She hitches a ride with a trucker who during their journey tries to dissuade her from taking on the role. He talks about the camp being jinxed with two kids being killed there in ’58 (the prelude to the film), the young kid who drowned in ’57 (more about him later), fires being started later on and even bad water preventing the camp from being reopened in ’62. Annie takes not one bit of notice of the old coot and ventures onto her new job.
After she is dropped off by her new trucker friend, she is then picked up to complete her journey by someone in a 4×4. Who could this mystery person be? Annie notices that the driver has missed the turn-off for the summer camp and appears to be travelling insanely fast. Annie decides to jump from the moving vehicle and make a run for it from this nutjob, even though she twisted her ankle.
Annie decides to escape through the forest that surrounds her but is pursued and eventually caught by the person who was driving the 4×4, identity still undisclosed who slashes her throat.
Two things are remarkable about this scene. Firstly, it was a young Tom Savini who is doing the special effects for the movie and they are nothing short of amazing. Annie’s death is a prime example. Secondly, the killer’s identity hasn’t been revealed and so it gives the film the flavour of a Giallo film with the film being as much a whodunnit as it is a horror movie.
Annie’s murder happens in front of our eyes as does the demise of several other characters but the film also shows that it can be very restrained and wasn’t just interested in blood and gore. The characters of Ned and Brenda are both murdered off-camera with their corpses being revealed later to the audience throughout the course of the film. Ned goes to investigate a noise that he’s heard and his mutilated corpse is later shown to be on the top bunk of a bed whilst Jack and Marcie make love in the bunk below.
Brenda goes to respond to a cry for help in the pouring rain at the archery range later in the movie but we don’t get to see her death but just hear her scream. Her body is then thrown through the window when Alice has barricaded herself in a cabin after discovering Bill’s dead body pinned to the generator door.
Likewise, Bill’s dead body resplendent with arrows is discovered by Alice but the actual murder is never shown. The script for the film references his dead body as being ‘in a travesty of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian’ (the painting of San Sebastian below is by Andrea Mantegna)
The characters who make up the counsellors are actually quite endearing rather than the irritating specimens from other slasher movies who you can’t wait to bite the bullet. And yes, one of the actors (Kevin Bacon) went on to much bigger things. Bill is also played by Harry Crosby whose Dad was Bing Crosby.
The person who is reopening the summer camp is Steve Christy, the son of the original owner from decades before. I love the fact that he looks like he belongs on the cast of a 70’s gay porn movie. A coloured hankie (worn around his neck rather than in either his left or right back pocket), bare chest, denim shorts (almost Daisy Dukes) and lumberjack boots are all dead giveaways. Maybe he mistook Camp Crystal Lake for Fire Island.
Fun fact- the movie was filmed at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Blairstown, New Jersey. The guy who owned the site was called Fred Smith and he kept talking about his neighbour called Lou. And then his neighbour came to the set for the first time. And it was Lou Reed! People on set said that he visited the set several times and was super nice with everyone. One day, he even pulled out a guitar and performed a few songs for the cast and crew. Can you imagine being on the set of Friday the 13th and watching Lou Reed perform?! That’s a truckload of awesome right there.
Cast members also say that because the crew were all from New York City they would constantly play the likes of The Ramones and Patti Smith on set which is also awesome.
The final girl Alice shows from the outset that she is resourceful whether it’s getting cabins ready or nailing up guttering. She is also shown to be artistic judging by her drawings.
But more importantly, she is later shown to be resourceful and logical when under pressure such as after she has discovered Bill’s body pinned to the back of the generator room door. She dashes back to the main cabin and starts to try and secure the front door with a rope lassoed over a wooden beam and barricading it with a chest of drawers, a chair and logs. She then arms herself with a baseball bat and cooking fork.
But she also diverges from the so-called slasher movie conventions for Final Girls as stipulated in Carol J Clover’s seminal mediation on gender in the slasher film genre, Men Women and Chainsaws. She is seen to be in an on-off relationship with Steve Christy rather than being a chaste virgin. She is also shown to participate in a game of Strip Monopoly and can even be seen having a sneaky toke on a spliff.
But, Alice also has the Final Girl quality of foreshadowing or being almost psychic that something bad is going to happen. When things start to go wrong later on in the film and Bill and Alice are looking for their co-counsellors, Alice senses that things aren’t right. She even suggests that they could hike out of the camp to get away to safety.
Another facet of Friday the 13th that sets it apart from the other movies in the franchise are the moments of comedy that occur. The character of the cop on his motorbike comes out of nowhere and feels like a prototype Tackleberry from Police Academy.
Crazy Ralph acts as both a comedy figure (watch the hilariously awkward cycling scenes) and as a freaky, quasi-religious doom bringer (‘I’m a Messenger of God!’ ‘It’s got a death curse!’ ‘You’re all doomed!’) who can be seen as another and lesser source of fear for the film’s characters. Check out the scene in which Ralph steps out of the pantry and startles Alice.
But he also acts as a genuine predictor of bad things to come at the camp as we will see throughout the film’s running time. Notice when Ralph is actually on campgrounds. He can’t wait to get away fast enough whether on foot or on his pushbike.
Within the slasher movie conventions there normally is one member of the ensemble who displays almost psychic qualities and who very quickly foresees the terror that awaits everyone and in some instances, they can become quite hysterical because of it. A good example of this in a horror/quasi-slasher movie in which a group of people get picked off one by one is Lambert in Alien.
There’s also the speech from Marcie regarding her not liking storms after one has started at the camp. It’s because of a dream she’s had on numerous occasions in which she’s watching a storm with the rain coming down heavier and heavier which then suddenly turns to blood. This was actually the piece of dialogue from the screenplay that the actresses auditioning for a part in the film would have to recite.
But the jewel in the crown of Friday the 13th is the killer and the person who portrayed her. Firstly, the killer is shown to be Pamela Voorhees- a woman. This was completely unheard of then in horror movies and a massively unexpected twist for the film. The idea of a psychotic woman was still taboo in real life and the movies and this is something that the movie uses beautifully. Mrs Voorhees is introduced near the very end of the film. Events that happen after this are worthy of in-depth analysis to highlight what an extraordinary character she is and what a truly awe-inspiring performance this is.
But first, we have a slight detour. Notice how Alice’s raincoat gets caught on the handle for the oven? She just allows it to come off naturally rather than unhooking the part that has become caught. Was this because the later fight scene that was to come involved biting? Even Mrs Voorhees couldn’t have made much of an impact on trying to bite through the thick yellow plastic of a raincoat (although with her gnashers she might have been able to…more on that later).
Also, notice how after we’ve seen Alice barricade the front door we then see her remove all of the furniture she had placed in front of it because she sees some headlights approaching. It’s a wonderfully surreal moment.
The killer being female works well within the film. See how after Alice has started to uncover the dead bodies of her fellow camp counsellors, on running outside she sees Mrs Voorhees and after asking who she is (‘Why I’m Mrs Voorhees, an old friend of the Christies’) she is happy enough with the explanation to run into Pamela’s arms for reassurance and to tell her about the horrors she has just discovered. If this person had been male, Alice would have been a lot less trusting and more suspicious. He could have been the person responsible for these atrocities. But with this stranger being female and traditionally seen as nurturing, caring and empathetic, Alice feels satisfied to try to get her help and get to safety.
Betsy Palmer played the role and had been typecast throughout her career as ‘the girl next door’. For an actress with a reputation for being wholesome and unthreatening to take up this role was a massive shock. Palmer had up until this moment been eager to break this typecasting but had actually taken on the project after her car had broken down. She had seen an ad for a cool little car called a Scirocco which her role in this film would pay for. She read the script, thought it was in her own words ‘a piece of ****’ and thought that the movie would disappear without a trace but she’d still get her car!
But Ms Palmer was too much of a consummate professional to just turn in some anaemic performance by numbers and gives us such a turn that her performance is still one of the most chilling and insane depictions I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.
A red flag that appears for Alice at the start of this encounter is that Mrs Voorhees doesn’t appear to be afraid whatsoever and goes into the cabin to investigate even though Alice has told her about the camp counsellors who have been killed and whose bloodied and mutilated bodies she has been unfortunate to have seen. She even tries to gaslight Alice by saying that it’s the storm that has made her afraid rather than anything else. When Pamela insists on investigating further, Alice pleads with her not to as she could be killed too. ‘I’m not afraid!’ Pamela asserts and ventures into the cabin. The fact that Mrs Voorhees isn’t scared about this strongly suggests that she’s either, very brave, very dumb or that she’s the killer.
On entering the cabin, Pamela sees Brenda’s body and laments about how young she was and ponders what kind of monster could have done such a thing (a huge red flag as she is the killer. She appears to be unable to reconcile herself with the fact that she is the killer or she suffers from multiple personalities). She also opines how Steve should never have opened the place again as there’s been too much trouble.
Her speech then becomes more agitated when she starts to talk about a young boy who had drowned years before and how the young counsellors who should have been watching him had been too busy making love. Notice Alice’s body language here. She knows all is not right with her current situation and her new acquaintance.
Pamela explains that the person who drowned was actually her son and that not only was she the cook at the camp then but was actually working the day he drowned. Her ability to unpredictably become violent is shown as she says that Jason ‘should have been watched every minute’ and grabs Alice by the arms and gives her an abrupt shake to emphasise the point. She is just about to disclose that her son was disabled but quickly stops herself and mentions that he ‘wasn’t a very good swimmer’ instead (this also stops her reminiscences that are becoming violent and brings her back to earth again).
She then suggests that Alice and her ‘can go now’ as she strokes Alice’s hair. But Alice’s hunch that all is not right means she resists this as she says that instead, they should wait for Steve Christy to come back. Voorhees says ‘That’s not necessary’ which is another red flag (as she’s killed Christy) before she starts to have flashbacks to her son drowning. She even starts to respond to her son’s pleas for help within the flashback. Oh boy.
This part of the scene is also very interesting as within the original script it was very different. There was a whole plotline in which we’d have a clue as to the killer’s identity. The murder of Barry and Claudine (the frisky counsellors who are the first to be killed during the film) originally would see Mrs Voorhees (who would still remain faceless within the sequence so that the film still had the ‘whodunnit’ aspect to it) lose her small finger. During the scene in which Mrs Voorhees’ character is introduced and Alice is realising that she’s a nutjob, when she says to Alice that they ‘can go now’ Pamela was going to stroke Alice’s hair and the audience would see that she’s missing her little finger thus revealing that she’s the killer. This ‘missing finger’ idea feels like something from a Giallo movie and was used a couple of years after in Lucio Fulci’s movie The New York Ripper which featured a character who was missing two fingers from his right hand.
This part of the scene shows that Alice’s hunches were spot-on and she’s now with someone who is very deranged and very dangerous. Mrs Voorhees explains that Jason was her son and today is his birthday (whilst fixing a very scary grin on her face). Alice asks about where Mr Christy is but this goes unheard by Pamela who is in the zone and thinking aloud that she couldn’t let them open the summer camp again, could she? Not after that had happened. She then laments her ‘sweet, innocent Jason’ whilst again visualising him drowning.
However, this is abruptly shattered as she then starts to personally accuse Alice of letting her son drown and of not paying any attention. Her raison d’être is now revealed. She is forever avenging the death of her son by killing the camp counsellors who are just as horny and irresponsible as Barry and Claudine who weren’t watching Jason. If they had watched him he wouldn’t be dead now.
To emphasise that she has now turned very nasty indeed she knocks over a table that is in her way.
Mrs Voorhees then reveals that she is wearing a knife in a holder strapped around her waist (one hell of a way to accessorise) that instantly reminded me of the Manson Family and also the character of Crackers in the John Waters film Pink Flamingos who also wore the same thing which is visible during the home invasion scene within the film. Waters was seemingly Manson obsessed at the time and so the two could have been connected.
Pamela goes for Alice with the knife but it is batted away with a poker that Alice grabs who then hits Pamela with it on the back as she falls down.
What happens next is that Alice discovers more bodies in what constitutes a kind of ‘Big Reveal’ or ‘shocking denouement’ in which The Final Girl (Alice) is in no doubt that her adversary (in this instance, Mrs Voorhees) is murderous and that her life is in serious danger. She must now fight for her life against this foe or she will end up the same way as the other victims that have now been revealed to her in such a dramatic fashion. The idea of the ‘Big Reveal’ is a slasher movie convention with the most obvious example being from 1978’s Halloween in which Laurie goes over to the house across the street and finds the victims of Michael Myers that are revealed in ghoulish fashion.
She races outside to the 4×4 that Mrs Voorhees arrived in and sees the dead mutilated body of Annie the camp cook who never actually made it to the camp (not alive anyway. Does that mean that Mrs Voorhees was driving around for most of the day with Annie’s dead body in the passenger seat?! I hope so) and then the body of Steve Christy who has been suspended upside down from a tree and suddenly flops down as Alice approaches.
As Alice is revealing the bodies that have been placed in her path, Mrs Voorhees gets up after being struck with the poker. This sequence is another example of how ‘in the zone’ Betsy Palmer was. Notice her gait and body language as she gets up and gets ready for Round 2. She looks almost inhumane, almost supernatural. As we’ll see later, Betsy Palmer truly went the extra mile for this performance and made her character into something almost paranormally chilling not just with the delivery of her lines but also through her body and the shapes she throws as the character. This performance really is something extra special.
As Alice runs into the woods we see Pamela recover from the blow from the poker and rise to her feet. She sees her quarry running away and starts talking in her son’s voice. ‘Kill her Mommy! Kill her! Don’t let her get away, Mommy! Don’t let her live!’ to which she responds in her own voice, ‘I won’t Jason! I won’t!’
This internal monologue that we’re privileged to see where Pamela is taking on the voice and persona of her dead son and then replying as herself is really something to behold. If there’s only one thing scarier than Pamela’s voice here, it’s when the camera cuts back to her to an extreme close-up of her eyes, nose and mouth. And this shows another scary thing about the film and Mrs Voorhees’ character- her teeth. She appears to have twice the number of teeth of an average person and in certain shots, she looks like half-woman, half-piranha.
Alice makes it to another cabin and finds a gun but no bullets. Mrs Voorhees enters and states ‘Come, dear. It’ll be easier for you then it was for Jason!’ She then channels her dead son whilst saying (with the camera in extreme close-up of her face again which is again very unsettling) ‘Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!’ whilst advancing on Alice. Alice tries to strike Voorhees with the gun but this is quickly batted away by Pamela. Check out the noise she makes when she does this. It’s a cross between a really evil alley cat and something otherworldly and completely pissed off. I love the part of this sequence in which Alice throws random objects at Voorhees who merely deflects them away with her arms (and even underneath her chin!) with a rictus grin on her face.
When Pamela actually gets to Alice she gives her a good slapping and then throws her onto a table and gives her another round of slaps (this part of the sequence is fantastically directed with the camera acting as a POV shot for Alice so that it looks like Mrs Voorhees is actually slapping around the audience. And look at how chilling and otherworldly Palmer’s performance is here).
The camera as the POV for Alice also gives us an idea of how close to Alice Mrs Voorhees gets which makes the experience so much more unsettling and chillingly personal. This was a great directorial device.
Alice then uses the rifle to strike her in the crotch (yes, really) and then in the face.
Again, as Alice gets away we get to hear Voorhees in voiceover as she says in her son’s voice ‘Kill her, Mommy! Kill her! She can’t hide! No place to hide! Get her, Mommy! Get her! Kill her! Kill her!’ Her mouth is then superimposed over footage of Alice getting to the main cabin again as she speaks as Jason.
Alice then hides in the pantry and hears Pamela entering the cabin as she can hear objects being broken and smashed to the ground. There is a very creepy shot in which we see the lights in the cabin being switched on and light streaming in between the gaps of the planks that make up the pantry’s wooden door. There is also a great shot of the door handle that Alice is crouched below suddenly turning.
And what happens is the second most famous (or infamous) scene of someone breaking down a door in film that year. The first, of course, is that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. This is interesting as well as Betsy Palmer says that when her performance was getting a little too over the top, Sean Cunningham would rein her back in by saying ‘Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining’ as if to remind her not to get too exaggerated as Pamela Voorhees. The only thing is that The Shining hadn’t been released by the time shooting started on Friday the 13th. Maybe time had affected memories and facts.
As Voorhees gets into the pantry she takes an impressive swing with a machete (some serious foreshadowing for the rest of the franchise here!) but it is batted away by Alice who uses a frying pan which she also strikes Voorhees on the head with. She turns the unconscious Pamela over with her foot and on seeing blood coming from her head decides that she won’t be getting up again and that she is safe.
She then goes down to the beach but is then confronted by Voorhees once again. It is during this tussle that Voorhees bites Alice’s arm.
It is of course this sequence that ends with Alice picking up the machete that Pamela had tried to attack her with and beheads her with it. Check out Pamela as she gets up just before she has her head lopped off. She has all of the abnormal and very scary gait of one of the skeletons modelled by Ray Harryhausen from the movie Jason and the Argonauts. Her body is all right angles complete with a demonic expression on her face.
Her beheading puts paid to this with her startled expression as Alice literally chops off her head. This is Savini’s piece de resistance for a movie that features some of his best work. This sequence would have been outrageous for a horror audience in 1980 as nothing as graphic had been seen within a mainstream horror movie up until this point. The fact that Voorhees’s hands are clenching and opening again as her headless body falls to the floor makes it all the more graphic (and blackly funny). Alice gets into one of the canoes and lets it drift into the lake.
But there is one more scare that Cunningham has up his sleeve for the audience. We see Alice in the canoe with it now being daytime. I love how this scene is softly lit like some kind of sanitary towel commercial. ‘Yes, you too can canoe with confidence! Even during that time of the month…’
Of course, everything points to the fact that Alice is now victorious and safe. The music playing over the soundtrack is piano music along with a slightly off-kilter synth giving the scene a surreal slant.
Then when the audience is lulled into this being the end of the movie with the Final Girl enjoying the tranquillity of the lake, Jason’s rotting and algaed body leaps up out of the water and pulls her under.
And this scene shows another example of Tom Savini’s genius- the rotting corpse of Jason who had been in the lake all of this time.
We are then shaken out of this with a close up of Alice’s screaming face as she’s just been shocked awake by a nightmare as she resides in a hospital bed.
As if events haven’t been traumatic enough for her she then has the indignity of being forced to get a shot of sedative in the butt whilst her doctor and a local policeman look on.
I’m also loving the silent doctor in this scene. The raising of his eyebrows indicates that he’s either an acting genius or was merely brought in at the last minute. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is most likely the case.
She enquires whether there was anyone else who actually survived but the policeman lets her know that there were unfortunately no other survivors. She then asks about the boy Jason who pulled her into the lake that the police recovered her from. The policeman looks quizzically at her and says that there was no sign of any boy. ‘Then he’s still there’ she states. And with this and one last shot of the lake and a ripple on its surface, a horror franchise was born.
It’s great that another star of the movie is given the last shot and that is the beautiful lake and shoreline.
The film was hated by critics on its release. Gene Siskel from The Chicago Tribune got his knickers in such a bunch over the film and the fact that *shock horror* Betsy Palmer could star in such a movie that he published the name of the town that she lived in and asked people to send hate mail to the Post Office there so that the letters of disapproval could be forwarded to her. But he published the name of the wrong town. D’oh! He even relished giving away the ending of the film as to her character being the killer. His review reads more like a narcissistic tantrum from a man-child than a rational review by an adult film critic.
But who cares what stuffy and pretentious film critics thought. The film opened and did amazing business eventually making $59.8m against its budget of $550,000.
Fun fact- the credit sequence for Star Wars cost more than the entire budget for the first Friday the 13th film.
Yes, Friday the 13th isn’t Halloween, the film Cunningham looked to to outline a formula for a film that was familiar enough to make money. But then again, few horror films or indeed any films are as good as Halloween. But whilst Carpenter’s masterpiece is an A+ movie, Friday the 13th is a B+ movie. It’s interesting to see the embryonic first film in a franchise before a formula was struck upon. There are murders and suspense but also quirky characters, a whodunnit element that feels like something out of a Giallo film and a performance that is truly one of the best (and most deranged) in horror history. Add to this a killer (pun not intended) soundtrack and you have a bona fide cult classic.
But also, the first 4 films in the franchise embody a golden time for horror fans as there was a renaissance for the genre that was largely down to the slasher sub-genre. Filmmakers and studios were seeing that horror was profitable and so it was almost as if there was a new slasher movie or horror film released every week. The newly formed Fangoria Magazine embodied this new golden era. The Friday the 13th franchise and Fangoria Magazine almost mirrored each other and captured the magic and innocence of the time and the 80’s in particular. Issue 6 wrote about Friday the 13th around the film’s release in an article that examined how Tom Savini created the effects for the film.
For all of these reasons, this is why Friday the 13th is in the Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame.