Happy Friday the 13th everybody! As per the demands of our modern superstitions, we follow up 1979’s sci-fi slasher film Alien with 1980’s down-and-dirty slasher classic, Friday the 13th.
In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween codified the mechanics of the slasher genre. Sure, there are earlier proto-examples of the genre, notably the whistling slasher Peeping Tom, but Halloween is the film that collected the techniques in one place and set the standards for slashers to come. From women in trouble to sex=death to the killer POV and even the Jaws/Psycho inspired score, Halloween developed all of these into a formula, inspiring a wave of cheap-o knockoffs that used the same elements but in a far more rudimentary way.
When it came out, many considered Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 feature Friday the 13th to be one of these knockoffs. They’d be right…to a point. Friday the 13th isn’t just a knockoff, it’s a prime example of the genre with enough twists to make it seem original. Made on the cheap and starring a bunch of relatively unknown actors (including Kevin Bacon in his first major role since National Lampoon’s Animal House), Friday the 13th promised, if not an adventure in horror, a slaughterhouse of nubile flesh at a summer camp. It exploited Halloween‘s slasher formula for maximal violence and T&A.
The formula is simple enough: 22 years ago, somebody killed a bunch of campers at an isolated summer camp, which has been closed ever since. Throughout the years, people have tried to revive it, but they all end up dead. Now, in 1980, a new wave of young hopefuls are arriving at the doomed camp to refurbish it and reopen it for kids in the following week…but they didn’t know the killer was still on the loose. Throw in a bunch of girls in bikinis, guys in speedos or cut-offs, a couple of sex scenes, and a bunch of censored bloodshed (courtesy of Tom Savini), and you have the exploitation version of a classic horror.
With almost no budget, Friday the 13th is an exercise in frugality and cut corners. But, Friday had two things many other slashers did not: cheerful victims and a top-notch Harry Manfredini score. The first is key to understanding the 1980s horror movie. Many of the slasher genre’s characters fell into rote stereotypes – the slut, the drug addict, the father figure, etc – but Friday the 13th actually has characters who are happy go lucky and people you could see being friends. The characterizations are paper thin, but they aren’t assholes and only one of them is really obnoxious. Besides, the actors are game to make their roles as appealing as possible before they met their untimely demise.
Manfredini’s Jaws/Psycho inspired score is part of Friday the 13th‘s iconic formula. Jason’s refrain of “psh psh psh hah hah hah” might be one of the three best known music cues (along with Jaws‘ theme). Manfredini’s score can jump from 0 to 100 in the space of 8 bars, frequently drenching scenes of dread with an overpowering menace while leaving any non-killer-related scene completely in silence. The effect is, perhaps, far more chilling than any of Friday the 13th‘s other technical aspects (including its fountais of red red gore).
1980’s Friday the 13th was made for $550,000 and became the 18th highest grossing movie of the year (it made more money than Dressed To Kill, Flash Gordon, and Raging Bull). Banking off this success, it spawned one of the longest film franchises in modern Hollywood. Jason Voorhees, a psycho in a hockey mask, became an icon of the 1980s; an mysterious unkillable killing machine who was perpetually vanquished only to return in the last reel if not the next movie. Jason Voorhees is such a prominent figure of the series, sometimes its easy to forget that the original killer was his mother.
Even back then, just as the slasher was gearing up for a radical domination of the horror genre, everybody considered it a twist to reveal the killer as an older woman (Betsy Palmer) whose son had died years before. Even though Mrs. Voorhees belongs to the familiar “wronged person seeks bloody and maybe misplaced vengeance,” she (slightly) subverted the formula just by being a female because most slashers were usually a strong male out for vengeance. The iconic killer of the series came from Tom Savini’s Carrie-inspired final scene of Jason leaping out of the water and tipping a boat over. His mom is dead, and now its his turn to kill for nearly forever.
By the time of the Platinum Dunes-produced reboot of the series, horror had changed significantly. Namely, the pacing had sped up, the characters became self-referentially stock characters, and torture porn had made a big push onto the scene. Scott Tobias has made compelling links between the torture porn genre and the Iraq War (or, the reveal of our own participation in torture as a tactic of war). In 2009, we were years into the Iraq War, and had already seen many of the war crimes, including 2004’s Abu Ghraib scandal. Similarly, 2005’s Hostel arguably defined a genre of horror based on the gruesome violence inflicted on undeserving bodies.
By the time Friday the 13th was remade in 2009, Platinum Dunes had already produced Marcus Nispel’s glossy remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original of that film was a reaction to the Vietnam War and the horrific footage shown on televisions across America. It was also a grim proto-slasher with rough/raw looking footage of a group of teenagers held captive and murdered by a family of sadistic cannibals. Some have said that the 1974 film could be considered both proto-torture porn and proto-slasher film: it shared torture porn’s sadistically gleeful monsters and the teenagers-in-peril and final-girl formulae of the slasher film. Tobe Hooper’s raw direction and cinematography invited audiences into the film as a form of home movie.
Nispel’s TCM remake updated Hooper’s style to the modern MTV era. It had slick special effects (there’s a shot of a camera going through a boy’s head), and gorgeous cinematography that made every frame capable of being used as a poster campaign. There was beauty in this torture, showing the audience the same horror but packaged in a cleaner, crisper and more modern package. Drenched in shades of dirt brown, TCM develops a new life from how we were started to get our own highly-polished war imagery. In the 1990s, America watched gorgeous green footage bombs falling straight into chimneys aired on all the major news channels. The two images, that of a falling bomb at night and a teenager hung on a hook, have been polished enough for consumption in private company, yet they both still possess a gruesomeness underneath all that sheen.
2009’s Friday the 13th, also directed by Marcus Nispel, follows in the same footsteps as Texas Chainsaw. In turn, the 2009 Friday the 13th is a very different animal from its 1980 namesake. Before the opening credits have even stopped rolling, Nispel already walked the audience through the entire third act of Friday the 13th. Like the original, Mrs. Voorhees kills innocent camp counselors as vengeance for damaging or killing her son before she is decapitated (while her son watches; this is only in the Killer Cut).
Now that we have that out of the way, Nispel gives a second “cold open” with a group of annoying naive teenagers looking for fast riches by stealing Jason’s corp of honeypot marijuana. One couple has sex and dies, another might be murdered and a fifth is murdered on top of it all. One of the women is even killed after she has already spent time running around the typical slasher haunted-house display of corpses.
No, actually that’s where the title card is placed. We’re 23 minutes in, and we’ve already seen two separate whole movies before we get to the title card. Marcus Nispel doesn’t have time for your shenanigans, and, to be fair, this is the pace of many modern horror movies. The new Friday the 13th belongs to the new crop of post-Scream post-Iraq War horror movies with a hint of self-referential winking, but it is grounded in the gorgeous imagery of sadistic horror.
Cast #2, the marijuana hunters, seem to be purposefully ingratiating to the audience. They’re slasher fodder, ready to be killed for the audience’s horror and enjoyment. Cast #3 isn’t much better. Led by a rich asshole, a group of sycophants are on vacation at the asshole’s summer cottage. There’s one kind of jerk, separate from the group, hunting for his sister who was part of Cast #2. Sex, drugs and murder ensue.
Unlike the original Friday the 13th, most of these characters are ingratiatingly awful across the board. These characters belong to the post-Scream stereotypical slasher fodder of underdeveloped characters the audience expects to die, if only to get them off the screen. That’s not to say that the 2009 Friday the 13th is humorless; there are moments of dry weed-infused hilarity that lighten the tone. But, these characters seem to be designed to up the body count. Friday the 13th almost encourages us to celebrate their death as a form of cosmic retribution.
The biggest change to the franchise is with Jason himself. That missing sister? She’s being kept alive in Jason’s cave-prison (Abu Ghraib, anybody?). Periodically, Jason will come by to terrorize the girl, but she’s a hostage. This is the first time in the series that Jason has ever taken hostages nevertheless kept them in a torture prison. Friday the 13th went from a non-political genre exercise into a sign of the wartime.
There are other minor changes – the score is more subtle bleep boop than the driven bombast of Manfredini’s original, Jason’s theme is all but gone, the women are silicon-enhanced teenagers rather than the 1970s realist chic, and the Killer Cut is the longest cut of any Friday the 13th movie. Whether these work for you or not may depend on your horror tastes (Letterboxd seems wildly divided, years later).
These two wildly different takes on the same material inadvertently shows us the difference in our society. Even though the 1980 Friday the 13th doesn’t seem to be political, it is very much a sign of America struggling to return to normalcy. It doesn’t take much to stretch the idea of a grieving mother with a lost son to the lost children of the Vietnam War. Similarly to it doesn’t take much to stretch the idea of Jason as kidnapper to the torture used in Abu Ghraib. They say films are snapshots into our world, and I think they can be right on.