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 small film would lead to nine sequels, a crossover film, and a remake. It also played a significant role in igniting an entire horror subgenre, the slasher film, that would dominate cineplexes for much of the 1980s. In total, the Friday the 13th franchise has produced approximately $380 million in unadjusted box office revenue (Box Office Mojo, nd).
Few horror films have as firmly cemented themselves into mainstream consciousness quite like the Friday the 13th films. Jason Voorhees and his goalie mask are iconic horror symbols recognized by even casual filmgoers. There is no arguing that the film has a significant horror legacy. Yet understanding why it has amassed such a legacy poses interesting questions.
Ask people about Friday the 13th and much of what they will mention doesn’t even factor into the original film. Jason only appears in the film’s closing moments; his mother, Mrs. Voorhees, is the original killer. And the iconic goalie mask – that doesn’t work its way into the Friday the 13th mythology until nearly two-thirds of the way into Part III. Jason as an unstoppable killing machine? Not in his first couple of appearances. To celebrate our first Friday the 13th of 2018, in this edition of The Vault, I offer an examination of Friday the 13th’s lasting legacy in the horror genre.
The Friday the 13th franchise has never received the same outpouring of critical affection as other major slasher films. Upon its initial release, the original Friday the 13th was derided by critics. While that consensus has softened over the years, Friday the 13th has still only managed a 59% ‘Rotten’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To date, it’s the highest rated film in the franchise. Now compare that to how films like Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have been critically received by critics. Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street have ‘Fresh’ ratings over 90%, while Chainsaw sits with an 88% ‘Fresh’ rating.
To some extent, it’s not hard to see why Friday the 13th has never received the critical acclaim of its peers. While Halloween, Elm Street, and Chainsaw are all examples of innovative films that pushed the horror genre forward, Friday the 13th is rather derivative in comparison. Truth be told, it’s a bit of a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ of a film, stitched together from good ideas taken from other films. It takes 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, director Sean S. Cunningham takes his inspiration for the film’s elaborate death scenes from the giallo Italian horror films of the 1970s, particularly Mario Bava’s The Bay of Blood.
Director Sean S. Cunningham Injects Honest Scares
Cunningham sets up several effective scares with Jason’s climatic appearance still able to produce a good jump even after multiple viewings.
In spite of its derivative nature, much like Dr. Frankenstein, Cunningham is able to bring 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 that was absent from most of the splatter films circulating through grindhouse theaters in the 1970s.
What Friday the 13th may lack in the innovative filmmaking that characterizes Halloween it makes up for with briskly paced, suspenseful, and often scary story-telling. Cunningham sets up several effective scares with Jason’s climatic appearance still able to produce a good jump even after multiple viewings. While the film’s multiple red herrings don’t amount to much with the killer’s final reveal, the third act’s extended chase between Adrienne King’s ‘Alice’ and Mrs. Voorhees makes it much easier to forgive that cheat. Overall, Cunningham creates an atmosphere that makes it feel like you are trapped alone in the woods.
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 before 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 effects are utterly convincing. Kevin Bacon’s death scene still and leaves you asking, “How did they do that?”
Another huge factor that sets Friday the 13th apart from so many other horror films 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 like an omnipresent character in the film. And Manfredini’s music is just so good at establishing a mood or feeling that you’ll always associate it with watching Friday the 13th.
Friday the 13th Crystallizes the Slasher Subgenre
Friday the 13th may borrow a lot from other films, but in doing so it accomplishes something significant – it created the slasher film. 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 the foundation of the slasher film. Yet Friday the 13th is the film that brings all of these different ingredients together and makes them work as a whole. When you watch post-modern, self-aware films like Cabin in the Woods, the elements 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.