Halloween and Black Christmas may have birthed the slasher genre in its present form, but Friday the 13th proved its no fluke.
In the 1970s, horror movies were either trying to copy the devil elements or focusing on haunted houses and strange occurrences. Then in 1974, a little Canadian movie, Black Christmas, opened and was a success. John Carpenter, inspired by it, made what became Halloween when hired to direct a movie about a psychopath who stalks babysitters.
At the time of his release, Halloween was the most successful independent movie and imitators were already typing away scripts, polishing film lens and seeking investors. Sean S. Cunningham, a struggling filmmaker, had cut his teeth in the adult entertainment business before helping Wes Craven with a low-budget movie that was eventually titled Last House on the Left in 1972.
Despite that movie’s good reviews and good box office, Cunningham struggled to duplicate the success. He made a movie Here Comes The Tigers in 1978. It was a Bad News Bears style sports comedy and Cunningham admitted he thought that was going to make a lot of movie. But it didn’t. That movie has followed into obscurity.
So in 1979, Cunningham made a bold move by advertising in Variety what his next movie would be. He said this was an attempt to see if there was any legal rights to the title Friday the 13th even though he had no idea what the movie would be.
Victor Miller had been working on a script called A Long Night at Camp Blood before changing the title to Friday the 13th at Cunningham’s suggestion. But the script almost didn’t get made at all.
Cunningham said in the documentary Going to Pieces, he had been having disagreements with a major financier, who was so close to pulling out, they had already booked a flight and business meeting elsewhere. Cunningham said he had a restless night with no sleep and called the person first thing the next morning agreeing to their terms.
Produced on a modest $550,000 budget in the summer of 1979 at a New Jersey summer camp, the cast consisted of a lot of New York City area actors. Kevin Bacon, who plays Jack, had previously appeared in National Lampoon’s Animal House as his first role, but even admitting he either had to skip the premiere or the after premiere party because he was still working a day job at a restaurant.
Betsy Palmer, a veteran character actress in movies and a Broadway stage actor, admitted she thought the script was “shit.” She only did it because the $10,000 salary fee was enough for her to buy a new car after her previous car broke down. She later came out in the years prior to her death in 2015 and acknowledged the fandom and its effect on movies.
The use of a middle-aged woman who looks like Maude or June Cleaver is a wonderful twist on our preconceptions that only men can be killers in movies. Both Mrs. Voorhees and Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), the owner of Camp Crystal Lake, both drive the same model Jeep, which hints that he may be behind things, even though this isn’t focused on as much.
There’s also something scarier and deranged about a woman who thinks she’s punishing young people who engage in sex, alcohol and substance abuse. This would later be referenced in Scream. Even though the final girl, Alice (Adrienne King) drinks beer, smokes cannabis and plays strip Monopoly, other slashers would hold stricter to these rules.
Despite being released to scathing reviews, Friday the 13th ended up grossing more than 100 times its budget with final totals at near $60 million. The success led Paramount Pictures, who won the distribution rights in a bidding war with Warner Bros. and United Artists, to quickly produce a sequel.
With Mrs. Voorhees killed by Alice at the end of the first one, this meant a new killer had to emerge. Even though it’s hardly explained to make sense, but Jason Voorhees, the boy who supposedly drown in the 1950s, was now an adult seeking revenge.
King only appears at the beginning in a Psycho-esque twist making us believe she is going to be the main character again but she is quickly killed in the first 10 minutes. This was due in part to King being the victim of an aggressive stalker that she retreated from the public eye for many years. The original concept for the sequels was to do what was later down with Halloween III: Season of the Witch and have different story concepts, not just focus on a slasher. However, this was later proven by that movie to be unsuccessful. But Jason Voorhees’ appearance in a dream sequence at the end of the first one was supposed to be a joke.
Regardless, the events take place at Crystal Lake five years later, and the movie, despite bad reviews also was a hit. Paramount reportedly tried to end the franchise several times in the 1980s but the sequels kept making a lot of money before the results of the eighth movie disappointed fans. Rights were sold to New Line Cinema and Cunningham produced Jason Goes to Hell with the intention to have Jason and Freddy Krueger in a future movie.
However, only the rights to Jason Voorhees were sold, meaning New Line couldn’t use “Friday the 13th” in the title. This led to Jason X and Freddy vs. Jason, which upset fans by not casting Kane Hodder as the hockey-masked killer. Hodder had appeared in four movies as Jason and his performance is considered the best of the franchise.
In an attempt to revive/reboot the series, Paramount and Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company released a 12th Friday the 13th movie that was a success despite bad reviews yet again.
However, a possibility of ever seeing a 13th movie is now held up in litigation over who owns the rights to the original script. Miller has publicly admitted to never liking the concept of Jason Voorhees becoming the killer and has said he hasn’t seen the sequels. The Copyright Law of 1976 is coming up as to who actually owns the rights, Miller or Cunningham.
Cunningham has said he does since he got Miller to write the script. But in 2018, a judge ruled that Miller’s script wasn’t a job for hire. Recently, Corey Feldman, who was in both the fourth and fifth Fridays has said this matter has been resolved.
Regardless, none of the sequels will be able to reclaim what the first had. Despite the initial criticism, it’s a very well made thriller. Cunningham does build on the suspense. The make-up work by the legendary Tom Savini is very good and convincing.
Unlike Halloween, this movie made good use of blood and gore, even though Bacon’s death scene almost went haywire. The musical score by Harry Manfredini is probably as memorable as Halloween‘s theme. Opinions have changed over 40 years and it still remains one of the greatest horror movies of the era.
Which movie of the franchise is your favorite? Please comment below.