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Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th

Made on a budget of less than $600,000, with mostly unknown actors, corny dialogue, and a hastily prepared script (completed in under two weeks), the original installment of Friday the 13th in 1980 nevertheless went on to gross over $70 million at box offices around the world and launch a cottage industry of sequels, spoofs, spin-offs, and outright rip-offs. No modern horror film monster, save perhaps for Freddy Krueger, has managed to capture our culture's collective imagination as much as has Jason Voorhees, the speechless, seemingly immortal psychopath with a hatred for promiscuous adolescents. Along with John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th is credited with initiating the notorious "stalker cycle" of horror films—an immensely popular, and heavily criticized, subgenre that would continue to draw huge audiences through the mid-1980s. Whereas Halloween is best known for the cinematic conventions it helped to establish, Friday the 13th has managed to transcend the world of film. The series has come to serve as a point of departure in public debates over the consequences of exposing youths to representations of graphic violence in the name of entertainment.

Sean Cunningham, producer, director, and co-writer of the original Friday the 13th, had gained a measure of infamy in film circles for producing Wes Craven's ultra-violent underground hit, Last House on the Left, in 1972. (Craven, who would go on to direct A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Scream (1996), returned the favor by doing some uncredited editing on the first Friday.) But this infamy turned out to be a benefit, as Paramount, United Artists, and Warner Brothers—all eager to repeat the commercial success of the independently produced Halloween —entered into a bidding war for Cunningham's low-budget vehicle about a psychopath determined to kill off all the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake (otherwise known as "Camp Blood"). Paramount won the war and launched Friday the 13th with a $4 million advertising campaign. The studio's confidence was quickly rewarded, as the film grossed $31 million in its first six weeks alone, surpassing such major productions as Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and James Bridges' Urban Cowboy. On the strength of Tom Savini's make-up and special effects wizardry, the progressively gory murders taking place in Friday the 13th ensured that whatever the movie lacked in narrative sophistication, it would more than make up for in violent spectacle.

Although it was not the very first stalker film, Friday the 13th is widely regarded as the prototype of the subgenre. In sharp contrast to Halloween, fans, critics, and theorists alike have emphasized the movie's essential reliance on formula and convention, denying it any claim to cinematic originality. Andrew Tudor, in his influential history of the horror film, writes that "in practice, Friday the 13th is no more than a crude template for the creation of formula Halloween clones." It is true that the subjective ("point-of-view") camera work, the cat-and-mouse-style killing of vapid, horny teenagers, the prolonged final battle pitting psychopath against virginal, sensible, ultimately victorious "good girl," all come straight out of Halloween.

But it is also important to note the ways in which Friday the 13th breaks with stalker convention and establishes precedents of its own. Contrary to popular belief, the killer in Part One is not Jason, but Mrs. Voorhees, who blames her son's drowning death in 1958 on the camp counselors who neglected their responsibilities. Twenty years later, she seems not to care that the counselors have changed; nor does she seem to care about the gender of her victims. All this creates difficulties for those who would argue that modern horror film monsters represent nothing more than the sadistic wish-fulfillments of misogynistic male viewers. Furthermore, the surface normality of Mrs. Voorhees—she looks and talks just like a conservative, middle-class mom when she's not slitting people's throats—anticipates the all-too-realistic serial killers populating such films as The Stepfather (1987), White of the Eye (1988), and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990).

With the disfigured Jason taking over his mother's murderous attacks in Friday the 13th, Part 2 (1981), and especially after his decision to don a goalie mask in Friday the 13th, Part 3: 3D (1982), the series' transformation was complete. Under the direction of Steve Miner, these films saw the replacement of a human psychopath whose actions are at least somewhat explicable in quasi-Freudian terms with a supernatural agent of evil whose sole intent seems to be the violent eradication of America's adolescents. Jonathan Crane asserts that "Jason, as well-known as any prominent American personality, ranks among the foremost of all popular signs embodying meaning's demise." It is not only the apparent randomness with which Jason chooses his victims that leads Crane to this conclusion. It is the fact that Jason's single-minded devotion to murder, his virtual indestructibility, and, above all, his inevitable return from the dead all serve as prime sources of pleasure for the mostly teenage audiences who, well into the 1990s, came out in droves to see the further adventures of their "hero."

Besides its record number of sequels (eight and counting), Friday the 13th has been the inspiration for parodies such as Saturday the 14th (1981), generic rip-offs such as Campsite Massacre (1983), a Canadian television show (1987-90), a series of young adult novels, a heavy metal song by Terrorvision, and a successful run of porno movies that began with Friday the 13th: A Nude Beginning (1987). In the late 1990s, blockbuster "neo-stalkers" such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) scored points with audiences by explicitly foregrounding a number of Friday's plot devices. All of which supports the view that Friday the 13th, despite being nominated worst picture at the 1981 Razzie Awards, inaugurated the most successful franchise in modern horror cinema.

—Steven Schneider

Further Reading:

Crane, Jonathan Lake. "Jason." Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the Horror Film. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 1994, 132-58.

Dika, Vera. Games of Terror: "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and the Films of the Stalker Cycle. East Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990.

Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1989.

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