In the pantheon of horror movie antagonists there is – in my estimation, a holy (or should that be unholy?) trinity. There’s Freddy Kruger, Michael Myers and last but by no means least, Jason Voorhees; the machete wielding, hockey mask wearing, indestructible killing machine who brought the Friday the 13th series to prominence. It wasn’t always this way though, hearing Friday the 13th and immediately thinking of Jason Voorhees. No, the seed of this evil was planted back in 1980 with the first installment of the Friday the 13th series and a SERIOUSLY overprotective mother.
Friday the 13th was the brainchild of writer Victor Miller with the able assistance of director/producer Sean S. Cunningham, Inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween and Cunningham’s time working with horror maestro Wes Craven on his film The Last House on the Left. Publicly, Cunningham wished to distance himself from his work on that film and pave his own way in the horror genre, however, the influence of Wes Craven is undoubtedly present in Friday the 13th.
Originally titled A Long Night at Camp Blood, Friday the 13th was predominantly the creative offspring of writer Victor Miller. Miller wanted to try something daring with his vision of a Slasher movie, something unexpected and original. This vision was achieved by keeping the identity of the killer ambiguous for the majority of the film’s runtime with the final reveal to be that of a mother driven to homicidal madness by the loss of her son. It was never Miller’s intention to be overly conventional with Friday the 13th, nor was it his wish for Jason Voorhees to become the front and center focus as his idea became a franchise.
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In some respects you can see Miller’s point in his disapproval of how the series progressed from that point on. There is a real sense of originality in Friday the 13th for a film in a genre where it is all to easy to lapse into cliché. There was an emotional resonance in the original Friday the 13th, with respect to the limits someone can be drawn to by the frankly unfathomable loss of a child. The film channels an all-consuming, maddening rage in its antagonist at a perceived wrong Mrs Voorhees wishes to punish again and again and again. It certainly is a sense of depth that is seldom explored in the genre, particularly at that time and a depth the series never really managed to replicate in it numerous, gruesomely fun, if not rather shallow- follow ups.
If he liked it or not, Miller inadvertently gave birth to a legendary cinematic monster in Jason Voorhees. Miller never intended for Jason Voorhees to be front and center in any real capacity in Friday the 13th. Spurred on by effects wizard Tom Savini who suggested that Jason actually made an appearance at the end of the film in a now iconic jump-shock false ending, bringing to mind a similar tactic utilized in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. In subsequent sequels, Miller’s sympathetic victim becomes a remorseless avenging monster and a horror icon was born.
For a film that set benchmarks for iconic 80’s slasher movies, it also ticked another all important box for any horror film worth it’s salt – it’s score. Composed by Harry Manfredini, the infamous ‘Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma’ of the opening score is now as instantly recognizable as Friday the 13th as Jason Voorhees is himself. There is a genius implementation of music in Friday the 13th, it is all but absent until the killer is present. Not immediately noticeable and subtlety employed, taking influence from John Williams score for Jaws. The now infamous refrain signals the presence of the killer in the same way William’s score did for the great white in Jaws, slowly building tension to unbearable levels until the inevitable strike occurs.
Needless to say, Friday the 13th was a remarkable commercial, if not critical, success. The film was made for an incredibly modest $550,000 and went on to amass a staggering $59.8 million in worldwide gross, signaling the birth of a franchise. The film went on to spawn 9 sequels, a spin-off, a 2007 remake and recently, an online multiplayer video game. Few horror films in this day and age can hold a candle to the longevity and influence on pop-culture the Friday the 13th franchise has had and even fewer could dream of replicating its level of success.
Friday the 13th is by no means a perfect film. Begrudgingly I have to admit, as I think a lot of people could, It was kinda hoaky. The film didn’t have the best script and there was minimal character development, as can often be a bugbear affecting the slasher genre. There were a lot of things it most certainly got right though. The practical effects work was certainly impressive for the time, hell, some of it still looks pretty damn impressive to this day. It had a worthy mystery element in relation to who the identity of the killer was that played out for the duration of the film with a genuine surprise of a reveal in Pamela Voorhees magnificently portrayed by Betsy Palmer. The film’s score is about as iconic a horror score as you can get, instantly recognizable and worthy of standing alongside Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street in that respect.
And, despite the opinion of its writer, Friday the 13th was an idea that had legs. It had an audience that fervently awaited the next installment. Its antagonist may have changed from the original film, but Jason Voorhees is a character that continued to evolve as the series progressed. He becoming more monstrous and nightmarish with every iteration that followed. But all of these facets came from the original in some way, shape or form. From the mind of Victor Miller a seed was planted from which something truly remarkable in the genre could grow, flourish and enamor itself to a generation of hardcore horror fans and beyond.