Friday the 13th: Examining the Legacy of a Classic

It’s hard to believe that the original Friday the 13th was released nearly 28 years ago. Hitting theatres on May 9th, 1980, Friday the 13th would go on to earn just north of $39 million. Over the last three decades, this little horror movie has produced nine sequels, a crossover movie, and a remake. Undoubtedly, it also played a significant role in igniting an entire horror subgenre that dominated cineplexes in the 1980s. To date, the Friday the 13th franchise has earned approximately $380 million in unadjusted box office revenue (Box Office Mojo, nd). Few horror movies have cemented themselves into mainstream consciousness quite like the Friday the 13th series. Today, Jason Voorhees and his goalie mask are iconic horror symbols. There is no arguing that the film has a significant horror legacy. Yet understanding why it has amassed such a legacy poses interesting questions.

Friday the 13th Was Born Out Of Derivative Origins

Despite its gonzo box office numbers, critics have never lavished the Friday the 13th franchise with the same outpouring of affection as other major slasher movies. Upon its initial release, critics derided the original Friday the 13th. While that consensus has softened over the years, it’s still only managed a 59% ‘Rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To date, it’s the highest rated movie in the franchise. Now compare that to how critics have received movies like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street have ‘Fresh’ ratings over 90%, while Chainsaw sits with an 88% ‘Fresh’ rating.

Truth be told, it’s a bit of a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ of a movie. It’s stitched together from good ideas taken from out of better movies.

To some extent, it’s not hard to see why critics have dismissed Friday the 13th. Halloween, Elm Street, and Chainsaw all innovated and pushed the genre forward. In contrast, Friday the 13th is a derivative movie. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ of a movie stitched together from good ideas taken from out of better movies. First, it borrows the ‘stalk-and-slash’ components from Halloween and Black Christmas along with their holiday calendar-themes. Victor Miller’s screenplay adopts the ‘one-by-one’ and tragic backstory narrative from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Lastly, 70’s giallo Italian horror clearly inspired director Sean S. Cunningham’s elaborate death scenes.

Friday the 13th I

Friday the 13th Benefits From Director Sean S. Cunningham’s Decent Scares

In spite of its derivative nature, much like Dr. Frankenstein, Cunningham brings his ‘monster’ to life. Having served as a producer on Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, Cunningham brings a polish to his B-film gore and mayhem. Though it may have emerged from 70s Grindhouse horror, Cunningham’s moviemaking effort looks quite different from the prior decade’s splatter movies. Even it’s exploitative, Friday the 13th never feels as sleazy as The Driller Killer or Maniac. And this may in part explain its crossover appeal.

Cunningham sets up several effective scares and liberally spreads them out.

On one hand, Friday the 13th lacks the innovative filmmaking characteristic of Halloween. Nonetheless, Cunningham makes up for it with briskly paced, suspenseful, and often scary story-telling. Specifically, Cunningham sets up several effective scares and liberally spreads them out. Though it’s a cheats, Jason’s appearance produces one of the genre’s best jump scares. And yes, the movie’s multiple red herrings prove to be lazy storytelling. Technically, Pamela Voorhees as the killer is another cheat. But the third act’s extended chase between Adrienne King’s ‘Alice’ and Mrs. Voorhees makes it much easier to forgive. Overall, Cunningham creates an atmosphere that makes it feel like you are trapped alone in the woods.

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Don’t Forget the Tom Savini and Harry Manfredini Factors

Much of the success of Friday the 13th can be attributed to Tom Savini’s groundbreaking make-up effects. Mainstream audiences had probably never seen death and and explicit gore rendered with such realism on the big screen. Savini crafts several memorable death scenes that have lost none of their ability to shock. Whether it’s the axe to Marcie’s face or Annie’s throat being sliced open, Savini’s work convinces. Today, Kevin Bacon’s death scene still and leaves you asking, “How did they do that?”

And Manfredini’s music is like another character in the movie.

Another factor that sets Friday the 13th apart from other horror movies is Harry Manfredini’s distinctive music score. Like John Williams’ Jaws theme or Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, Manfredini’s music is instantly recognizable. You don’t need to be a horror fan to know what the “cha cha cha” sound means. The best music scores arguably become almost omnipresent in a movie. And Manfredini’s music is like another character in the movie. It’s so good at establishing a mood or feeling that you’ll always associate it with watching Friday the 13th.

Friday the 13th III

Friday the 13th Crystallizes the Slasher Subgenre

Yes, Friday the 13th borrows from other movies, but in doing so it accomplished something significant – it created the slasher subgenre. Mario Bava’s The Bay of Blood is an obvious precursor to the slasher film. Both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween certainly set some ground-rules Yet Friday the 13th is the movie that brought these ingredients together. . When you watch self-aware movies like Cabin in the Woods, the tropes these films deconstruct were first constructed as a fully functional whole by Friday the 13th. Sadly, we may be witnessing the first decade since Friday the 13th debuted in 1980 without a new feature-length Friday film. But every Friday the 13th, I dust off my blu-ray collection and attempt to get through as many of the franchise films in one sitting as possible. Maybe this will be the year I get through all 12 films.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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