40 years ago today the world took its first trip to Camp Crystal Lake AKA “Camp Blood” with the release of Friday the 13th, a film that would go on to define the Slasher sub-genre and inspire countless homages. That’s fitting because the film itself is a love letter to an earlier movie that also featured the surprise early death of a character, shrieking musical cues, over the top sex and violence (for the era it was released in), and a twist ending involving a homicidal mother-son relationship. I’m talking of course about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. Part of the reason Friday the 13th was so successful and resonant is it took a rock and roll approach to Hitchcock’s masterpiece by turning all the lurid elements up to 11 in an effort to shock and thrill a whole new generation of horror fans.
In the short documentary Fresh Cuts: New Tales From Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller reveals that the only real parameter that director Sean S. Cunningham gave him for the script was that Halloween was making a lot of money so they should rip it off, and they did borrow a lot of conventions from director John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher classic; a title that revolves around a date, horny teens being systematically slaughtered, and an opening flashback to a sexually charged murder. That opening kill though is the first hint of the influence Psycho had on the film as well. Because it’s the first time Harry Manfredini’s now-classic score kicks into high gear, and when it does it’s very reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s shrieking musical cues from Psycho.
“…instead of having a homicidal son conversing with his dead mother, we have a murderous mom being cheered on by the persona of her deceased child.”
Manfredini’s score is probably most remembered for it’s “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sound he created. That sound and some of the other musical stings he devised give the film’s quieter moments an eerie mood where you feel like you’re being watched by an invisible killer. When the killer strikes though the music starts to scream at you in the same way Hermann’s Pscyho score did. You identify with the terror one of the killer’s victims because you feel like you’re being chased and threatened by the music. There’s a sense of both menace and motion to Herman and Manfredini’s musical scores.
Another way in which Friday the 13th pays homage to Psycho is the sudden murder of a character the audience were lulled to believe would be much more important. In Hitchock’s classic that of course comes 48 minutes into the run of the film when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is stabbed to death in the now infamous shower scene. In the opening present-day sequence of Friday the 13th we’re introduced to Annie (Robbi Morgan) a young, charismatic teen that Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) hired to cook at his reopened Camp Crystal Lake. It’s through her that we’re given some of the backstory. So, we think Annie will have a larger part to play, but at the 22-minute mark she becomes the first present-day kill of the film. Annie’s death, like Marion Crane’s, gives a sense that all bets are off. In fact, the larger cast of Friday the 13th makes the twist even more effective because there’s a real sense of diminishing hope with each kill.
Of course, the biggest nod to Psycho is Betsy Palmer’s homicidal matriarch, Pamela Voorhees. Only in Friday the 13th, the twist is inverted from Psycho because instead of having a homicidal son conversing with his dead mother we have a murderous mom being cheered on by the persona of her deceased child. The other big difference is Anthony Perkins had a large chunk of Psycho to bring Norman Bates to life. Betsy Palmer has about 20 minutes of screen time in Friday the 13th and she uses them so effectively. When she first arrives she’s a comforting presence to both Alice (Adrienne King) and the audience. She quickly becomes disturbing though as she recounts the death of her son and the negligence of the camp counselors. Then her anger becomes murderous glee as she communes with the persona of her dead child that still resides in her psyche. It’s clear that Palmer had a lot of fun playing a murderous mom and that translates to the viewing experience.
The homicidal rage of the “mothers” of Friday the 13th and Psycho are both tied to sex, which makes sense since there’s a fair amount of sex in both films relative to their eras. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was made during the era of the Hayes Code; an ultra restrictive set of self-censorship regulations that Hollywood films were forced to operate under until the late ’60s. Hitch knew how to game the system though and the film featured several racy and lurid scenes like an unmarried couple kissing lustfully (a double Hayes code violation in one scene!). Janet Leigh was also in her underwear several times, and of course she was naked in the shower scene. Friday the 13th was made 20 years later in the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution and films like Halloween. So in order to properly shock and titillate a new generation in the same way Psycho did the filmmakers had to give their audience more sex.
They also had to turn the violence way up. The murder scenes in Psycho are sudden and intense, but almost no gore is actually seen. Friday the 13th was made at a time when gore and explicit violence were becoming more and more commonplace. So when it came to the film’s kills the cast and crew, lead by makeup effects artist Tom Savini, swung for the fences in a way that probably would have made Hitchcock proud. The film features so many brutal and shocking kills like Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) getting an axe to the head and Bill’s (Harry Crosby) bloody body pinned to a door by several arrows. Plus, Jack’s (Kevin Bacon) death by arrow and Mrs. Voorhees’ graphic decapitation are some of the most iconic kills of the Slasher sub-genre.
Alfred Hitchcock was a storyteller who was always on the lookout for new ways to thrill and scare his audience. He died 10 days before the premiere of Friday the 13th so, he never got to see the film. I imagine if he had seen it he would have been delighted by and perhaps a little jealous of the way the cast and crew took some of the conventions of one of his most beloved film, gave them a rock ‘n roll remix, and blended them together with contemporary horror to create something new that genuinely shocked and surprised a large audience. So, in honor of the film’s 40th anniversary why not give Friday the 13th a watch and see if you can spot some of the elements and homages Hitchcock might have appreciated.
“Annie’s death, like Marion Crane’s, gives a sense that all bets are off. In fact, the larger cast of Friday the 13th makes the twist even more effective because there’s a real sense of diminishing hope with each kill.”
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