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An Appreciation of the Cult of "Friday the 13th"
I love horror movies. In particular, I love slasher movies. But not in the sense that I like to be scared each time I watch one. I mean in the geek sense where I remember the little details about slasher films: the monster’s back story, the non-ironic appreciation of cheap scares, the sub-par acting, and the campiness of it all that makes many films achieve cult-like status. One of my favorite horror films franchises is “Friday the 13th,” which spans 12 films (most recently the 2009 reboot) across three decades. Even if you haven’t seen a single one, chances are you know who Jason Voorhees is, but if the name is unfamiliar, you absolutely know “the hockey mask.” Looking back, it’s interesting to see the staying power of a now-iconic horror villain who's essentially hacking away a new crop of teenagers each time and yet audiences still go see the films. As a long-time fan, I can say that of the 10 sequels and the reboot, no two films in the series are alike. Each one has its own distinctive quality to them (I use “quality” loosely… I’m not comparing these films to the works of Alfred Hitchcock). The following is a brief guide of the history behind the franchise of the Paramount Pictures era (1980 – 1989) of the first eight films. I’ll discuss why I enjoy each one (some more than others) and how the series has achieved cult-like status.
Note: The following features spoiler alerts and video clips and pictures that may be NSFW.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Directed by: Sean S. Cunningham
Written by: Victor Miller
Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram
Jason Voorhees: Ari Lehman (young Jason)
Box Office: $39,700,00
The one that started it all. However, the concept of this film began with just the title. Writer and director Sean S. Cunningham came up with the name as he believed it would make a terrific horror film title. He previously worked with horror director Wes Craven on the 1972 film “Last House on the Left” and by the late 70s become inspired to write his own slasher film based on the success of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 1978. Cunningham wanted his film to be shocking and visually stunning but unlike “Last House on the Left,” wanted his film to be a “roller-coaster ride” for the audience. Cunningham was so on board with the “Friday the 13th” title that he announced the film and a mock teaser poster in showbiz trade magazines before the script was even finished. Produced for the low budget of about half of a million dollars and written by Victor Miller, “Friday the 13th” set a new benchmark in slasher films after the success of “Halloween” and became a huge hit with audiences making it one of the most profitable films at the time.
The series of events in the first film sets both the story and the tone for much of the franchise. The opening of the film begins in 1958, as two camp counselors at Crystal Lake with raging hormones break away from the staff one night to find some privacy. They are stalked and stabbed to death by the unseen killer while we, the audience, experience the murder from the killer’s point of view. Cut to summer of 1979. Camp Crystal Lake had been closed for 21 years after the killings but is now being re-opened by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer). It’s Friday, June 13, a few days before the campers arrive but the day counselors report for duty and begin prepping the campgrounds. Annie (Robbi Morgan), one of the new counselors, is hitchhiking to camp but receives a cold reception while stopping off at a local diner. Upon news of Camp Crystal Lake’s re-opening, the locals are skeptical and believe a curse is placed on that lake. Ralph, the town loon, further expresses the impending doom the counselors will face. Undeterred, Annie remains optimistic about the summer and continues on her way. Unfortunately for her, the unseen killer makes sure she doesn’t even make it to the camp. Meanwhile, the rest of the counselors arrive at the camp, including Jack, played by Kevin Bacon in one of his earliest roles and one of the most memorable deaths in the film. Alice (Adrienne King) is the heroine of the first film, or “the last girl” as in the lone survivor in horror movies.
Over the course of the day and rainy night, counselors are stalked and killed off one by one. When the killer approaches some of them, they are not initially frightened until it is too late. As Alice frantically discovers the bodies around the camp, she screams in panic until she meets a middle-aged woman outside a cabin. She identifies herself as Mrs. Voorhees) who used to work at the camp. As Alice tries to warn her of the murders, Mrs. Voorhees begins talking about her son Jason who drowned in the lake because of neglectful counselors the summer before the murders began in 1958. Mrs. Voorhees goes into a murderous rage and Alice realizes she’s the killer and tries to run away. After a lengthy chase, the two face off by the shore of the lake. Alice picks up a machete and decapitates Mrs. Voorhees. In a state of shock and exhaustion, Alice climbs into a canoe and falls asleep while floating on the lake. In the early morning, Alice awakens to see police on the shore. Finally relieved that the horrific night was over, the decayed corpse of Jason Voorhees flies out of the water behind her and pulls Alice underwater. In one of the most shocking and frightening moments of the film, Alice awakens in a hospital realizing that Jason was a nightmare.
While Jason is the face of the franchise, he is not the killer in the original film. In a twist, the villain in this slasher film was a middle-aged woman, hell bent on revenge. But the real shock was the final scene, one of the most memorable scares in horror film history. The appearance of the young deformed Jason was not in the original script but suggested by legendary makeup artist Tom Savini. Inspired by the ending of “Carrie,” Savini wanted to include a “chair jumper” of a scare to thrill the audiences. Savini was so proud of the end scene that during the first few weekends of the film’s theatrical run, he would go into theaters during the last five minutes of the film to watch the audiences’ reaction. Betsy Palmer, who at that point in her career been known for her prolific television and stage work, only took the role in desperation of a paycheck and upon reading the script called it a “piece of shit.” While she remains critical of the film, she has since acknowledged the fan appreciation she’s received over the years.
Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Directed by: Steve Miner
Written by: Ron Kurz, Phil Scuderi
Starring: Amy Steel, John Furey, Adrienne King
Jason Voorhees: Steve Daskawisz, Warrington Gillette (Jason unmasked)
Budget: $1.05 million
Box Office: $22.7 million
Victor Miller, writer of the first film, did not envision his story to continue on but due to the success of the film Paramount Pictures acquired the worldwide distribution rights and imagined the possibilities of further sequels. Executive Frank Mancuso, Sr. stated “We wanted it to be an event, where teenagers would flock to the theaters on that Friday night to see the latest episode.” For the first sequel, Cunningham chose to opt out as director so Steve Minor (who worked on the first film) took over and would direct again for Part III. Soon after the events of the first film, we find Alice back at home, still spooked by the murders. As she still believes Jason exists and could jump out of nowhere, she screams as she discovers the severed, rotting head of Mrs. Voorhees in her refrigerator just as the adult Jason kills her from behind.
Five years later, a new group of teenagers open the camp. The new head counselor Paul (John Furey), recounts the legend of Jason Voorhees and the murders that occurred at the lake over a campfire to his fellow counselors. After one of his friends leaps out of the woods to scare the rest, Paul assures everyone that Jason is long dead. However, we soon learn that Jason is not only still alive, but he actually witnessed the murder of his mother at the hands of Alice. He survived the drowning when he was a child and has since lived as a hermit in the woods around Crystal Lake. His sole purpose is to kill off all intruders. He conceals his deformed face with a burlap sack and continues killing off all the new teenagers. Crazy Ralph from the first film makes an appearance, still warning of outsiders of the curse.
Unfortunately, Ralph meets his demise from Jason by being garroted by barbed wire. In one of the most shocking kills in the series, a young wheelchair-bound counselor named Mark is struck in the face with a machete while his wheelchair rolls backwards down a long flight of stairs. Ginny Field (Amy Steel), one of the last survivors in this film, uncovers Jason’s shack deep in the woods and finds his shrine to his mother with the severed and mummified head of Mrs. Voorhees surrounded by candles. As Jason makes his way into his shack, Ginny puts on Mrs. Voorhees’s sweater and tricks Jason into thinking his mother is alive. In a moment of confusion, Jason is attacked by Ginny before seeing his mother’s head back in the shrine. Paul arrives and wrestles Jason to the ground and Ginny drives a machete into Jason’ s shoulder and the two escape. Believing he’s dead, they return to their cabin and shocked to see Jason leap through the window with his deformed face revealed as he grabs Paul. Ginny awakens in an ambulance with no recollection of how she escaped while the ending implies Jason is still on the loose.
Part II now establishes Jason as the primary killer for the rest of the series. While he was the motivation in the first film and the antagonist killed off, Jason’s motivation is now to continue his mother’s work. When we finally see Jason, he is a large, brooding figure with immense strength and cannot be stopped despite severe bodily damage inflicted on him. Deformed and dim-witted, Jason lives a life of solitude and targets primarily teenagers. While never explained in the films, it’s been speculated that teenagers are Jason’s primary target because of his immense distaste for sexual expression (which was the reason counselors were neglectful while Jason was drowning in the lake). In his first on-screen appearance as an adult in the first sequel, Jason hides his face with a burlap sack, a reference to the 1976 horror film “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.”
Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
Directed by: Steve Miner
Written by: Martin Kitrosser
Starring: Dana Kimmell, Paul Kratka, Tracie Savage, Larry Zerner
Jason Voorhees: Richard Brooker
Budget: $2.5 million
Box Office: $36.6 million
This is the film that introduces audiences to Jason’s trademark hockey goalie mask. This is also the only film in the series to be released in 3D, as it was a trend at the time for making horror films (and unfortunately made its comeback in the last few years). Over the course of the film you see various incidences of objects (long sticks, a yo-yo, a pitchfork) poking into the camera shot. I’ve only seen this film on video and TV airings so obviously these effects do not work in 2D. Picking up the day after the previous film, a new crop of teenagers spending the weekend at Higgins Haven, a lakefront property not far from the camp. Shelly (Larry Zerner), the geeky overweight shy one of the bunch expresses himself through practical jokes and scares, including wearing a hockey mask. When he meets his end, Jason takes the mask and ceremoniously dons it, unknown at the time how it would reflect the image of the film series’ legacy.
Chris (Dana Kimmell), who is haunted by an attack from a mysterious disfigured man from two years earlier, returns to the area with her friends. By the end, she is the lone survivor of the murders. She is able to strike Jason in the head with an axe, believing he is dead for good. Similar to the end of the first film, Chris falls asleep in a canoe floating on the lake. The next morning, she wakes up and sees Jason in a second story window of the house and realizes he's the disfigured man who attacked her years ago. He runs towards her while she tries to escape, only to be grabbed by the decomposing body of Mrs. Voorhees jumping out of the water behind her and pulls her beneath, in another attempt to spook the audience one last time.
Part III proved to be another box office hit for Paramount, proving that they could re-use the same formula of producing a modestly low budget that could turn a profit. Jason’s “death” remained ambiguous and opened the door for another film. However, creatively some saw the series wearing thin and thought to retire Jason Voorhees.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Written by: Frank Mancuso Jr.
Starring: Kimberly Beck, Erich Anderson, Corey Feldman, Peter Barton
Jason Voorhees: Ted White (asked not to be credited)
Budget: $2.6 million
Box Office: $33 million
What would be the first attempt of ending the series, “The Final Chapter” introduces the audience to Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman), a young boy who proves to be a match against Jason. The fourth film was made to kill off Jason for good. Tom Savini, who didn’t work on Parts II and III, returned for the sole purpose of killing off the character he created. Since the events of Part III, police and medics begin cleaning up the mess at Higgin Haven. Jason’s lifeless body is transported to the hospital morgue but awakens and kills a doctor and a nurse, escaping and returning to the lake. Meanwhile, a group of friend rent a house on the lake. Next door lives the Jarvis family. Twelve year old Tommy is an aspiring make up artist who creates his own monster masks (an obvious nod to Savini). Crispin Glover, who would go on to play an awkward nerdy teen in “Back to the Future,” happens to play an awkward nerdy teen that happens to get a cork screw shoved through his hand and meat cleaver to his face.
Over the course of the night as the killings take place, Tommy and his sister Trish befriend Rob, a hitchhiker with mysterious reasons to visit the area. When their mother goes missing and ask Rob for help, he reveals that his sister was killed in the events of Part II and is seeking revenge. Tommy comes across newspaper articles Rob has kept about Jason and the killings. Once Jason confronts the Jarvises, Tommy shaves his head to make himself look like Jason in an effort to distract him. Trish then drives a machete into Jason’s head, which is driven further as he falls onto the ground. With his fingers still twitching, Tommy begins to hack Jason’s body repeatedly, assuring the audience of Jason’s death for good. In the final scene, Tommy visits Trish in the hospital. Still traumatized by his experience, Tommy gives a psychotic look into the camera as it freezes on his expression. The film, regarded as one of the best (if not the best) of all of the sequels, proved once again it was a hit with audiences, grossing almost $33 million at the box office with only a production budget less than $2 million. While Savini believed in his heart Jason was dead for good, Paramount Pictures wanted to continue the formula, which resulted in the disastrous and most hated entries in the franchise…
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Directed by: Danny Steinmann
Written by: Frank Mancuso Jr.
Starring: John Shepherd, Melanie Kinnamen, Richard Young
Jason Voorhees: Tom Morga (as imposter Jason)
Budget: $2.2 million
Box Office: $22 million
With the assumption of Jason gone for good, the fifth film continues following the character of Tommy Jarvis. In the opening sequence, Corey Feldman returns as Tommy and visits the grave of Jason Voorhees. He spots two grave robbers digging up Jason’s body. Jason comes back to life and instantly kills the two men and begins to approach Tommy, who is shocked to see Jason is back. Turns out this was just a dream sequence. Originally, the plan was to have Feldman return to star in the fifth film and that his character would become the killer. At the time of production, Feldman was filming “The Goonies” and was too busy to star in the next Friday film (good career choice) so his role was reduced to a cameo appearance The film opens up to a now teenaged Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) on his way to a halfway house for troubled youth. Four years have passed since the last film and Tommy is still haunted by the killing of Jason. He remains traumatized and says very little with limited emotion over the course of the film. One of the teens named Joey, an unpopular gluttonous boy who annoys everyone else, strikes the last nerve in tough guy Vic who’s chopping wood. Vic decides to vent his frustrations by striking, and killing, Joey in the back. The rest of the teens remain shocked and Tommy is further traumatized with witnessing more violence.
Once again, teens are killed off around Tommy. A hockey mask-wearing figure is behind all of the murders but audiences are left wondering if Jason is indeed back from the dead. The answer is no. The killer is in fact Roy, a paramedic who arrived on the scene when Joey was killed. By the end of the film, we learn that Roy was Joey’s father and was saddened to see his son killed. This drove him to dress up as Jason and sought revenge against everyone at the halfway house. While Tommy and a few other survivors recoup at the hospital after the attacks, Tommy’s mental health is severely damaged after witnessing more killings. In the final scene, Tommy adorns a hockey mask and symbolically assumes the role as Jason. Despite its worst critical reception, “A New Beginning” still produced a financial profit. Paramount learned that if they were to release another entry in the franchise, they would have to resurrect Jason from the grave.
Friday the 13th: Jason Lives (1986)
Directed by: Tom McLoughlin
Written by: Tom McLoughlin
Starring: Thom Matthews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen
Jason Voorhees: C. J. Graham
Budget: $3 million
Box Office: $19 million
As the title implies, Jason Voorhees is back to scare audiences. While the series has done enough to suspend scientific possibilities, Jason is brought back to life after his corpse is struck by lightening. Unfortunately, it’s the unintended consequences of his previous foe Tommy Jarvis’s actions. Now played by Thom Matthews, Tommy breaks out of a mental institution with the help of his friend Hawes (Ron Palillo) to dig up Jason’s corpse, cremate it, and thus finally put his demons to rest. As they uncover Jason’s body, in a fit of anger Tommy stabs Jason with a steel fence post. As a thunderstorm approaches, the steel post acts as a lightening rod and reanimates Jason’s body. Jason kills Hawes and chases after Tommy. Tommy returns back to Crystal Lake, renamed Forest Green to avoid the negative publicity from the killings. Tommy seeks help from the town’s sheriff and claims Jason is alive. Aware of Tommy’s history of institutionalization, Sheriff Mike Garris (David Kagen) assumes Tommy is still mentally ill and locks him up in a holding cell.
Jason makes his way back to Crystal Lake, resuming his killing spree of innocent victims. The sheriff’s daughter Megan, an old friend of Tommy's and now a camp counselor, becomes Tommy’s love interest and believes he is telling the truth.
Upon escaping from the police, Tommy believes the only way to stop Jason is to keep him incapacitated by chaining him to a heavy object at the bottom of Crystal Lake. In the climactic fight on the surface of the lake, Tommy successfully chains Jason to a small by heavy boulder, leaving Jason trapped underwater. Directed by Tom McLoughlin, the film welcomed old fans back to the series after the Jason-less “A New Beginning.” By incorporating some elements of the old Universal Monster movies like the 1931 version of “Frankenstein,” McLoughlin wanted to make Jason a lumbering giant brought to life by electricity. The film also uses some meta-humor that pokes fun of the slasher franchise. Critics and fans praised the sixth film and once again, the sequel proved to be a box office success.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Directed by: John Carl Buechler
Written by: Frank Mancuso Jr.
Starring: Lar Park Lincoln, Kevin Blair, Susan Blu
Jason Voorhees: Kane Hodder
Budget: $2.8 million
Box Office: $19 million
Now that the series appears to be back on track, Tommy Jarvis is no longer the protagonist and Jason has a new foe to face. Dubbed by fans as “Jason vs. Carrie,” the seventh film features a young woman with telekinetic powers. Not long after the events of “Jason Lives,” 10-year-old Tina Shepard lives in a house over the lake. She hears her alcoholic father abusing her mother. As her mom walks out of the house with her father behind her, the traumatic experience unleashes the young girl’s undeveloped telekinetic powers. Tina wishes for her father to die and causes the pier her father is standing on over the lake to collapse and he soon drowns. Ten years later Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) is overwhelmed with guilt for killing her father. Her doctor (Terry Kiser) tries to treat Tina while aware of her abilities. However, he believes her powers are manifested under stress and tries t exploit them by subjecting her to tests by bringing her back to her childhood home. Faced again with the site of where her father drowned, Tina tries using her ability to resurrect her father from the bottom of the lake. Unfortunately, she accidently brings back to life Jason who was still trapped under the lake thanks to Tommy Jarvis. Her powers unchain Jason and he floats back to the surface to begin his killing spree. She tells her mother and doctor about seeing Jason rise back up but they deem her delusional. Questioning her own sanity, Tina begins having visions of Jason killing those around her. Meanwhile, teens nearby convene at a house in celebration of a friend’s birthday, giving Jason plenty of bodies to mutilate.
At the time of production, Paramount was hoping to do a crossover film with Freddy Kruger of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, which was produced by New Line Cinema. Unfortunately, since the two characters were owned by rival studios, an agreement couldn’t be made to co-produce a film featuring the both of them. The “Freddy vs. Jason” film wouldn’t be released until 2003. In addition, this is the first appearance by stuntman Kane Hodder as Jason, who would go on to reprise the role in the next three films. Of all of the Friday the 13th films, Hodder is the only one to portray Jason more than once and has since become a fan favorite in both the franchise and the horror genre in general (he’s acted and done stunt work in over 100 films). When Hodder was passed over to reprise the role in “Freddy vs. Jason” (replaced by Canadian stuntman Ken Kirzinger), fans were in an uproar. This film also stands out in which the main protagonist happens to possess an advantage over Jason, bringing a fresh take for a heroine in a horror film.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
Directed by: Rob Hedden
Written by: Rob Hedden
Starring: Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves, Peter Mark Richman
Jason Voorhees: Kane Hodder
Budget: $5 million
Box Office: $14 million
The film that marked the end of the Paramount Pictures era and the end of the 1980s, the decade that best exemplified the slasher genre. A decent conclusion to the first eight films, the title of the film a bit of a tease. At least two thirds of the film takes place on a cruise ship on the open waters. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that Jason reaches the mean streets of Manhattan where he actually fits in among the city’s freaks. Beginning from the events of the seventh film, Jason is still trapped underwater. When a young couple’s boat drops anchor, it hits an electrical cable and short circuits Jason’s body, thus resurrecting him once again. Jason jumps aboard the ship and kills the two lovebirds. The two happened to be graduating seniors who were expected to be aboard the S.S. Lazarus, containing the senior class of Lakeview High bound for New York City for their graduation. Chaperoned by biology teacher Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman) and Colleen Van Deusen (Barbara Bingham), the ship is filled with many potential victims, including Charles’s niece Rennie (Jensen Daggett). Over the course of the trip, Rennie begins having visions of a young Jason Voorhees drowning. In a flashback, her Uncle Charles would take her out on a boat on Crystal Lake and would scare her with tales of young Jason Voorhees who drowned but still haunts the lake. One by one, students are killed. Eventually, the admiral of the boat is killed, whose son Sean (Scott Reeves) happens to be one of the students on board. As Jason weeds out the unlucky students, the two chaperones and five students abandon the ship on a lifeboat.
With no idea where they are in the Atlantic Ocean, they eventually come across the Statue of Liberty and dock at the southern tip of Manhattan. Unfortunately, Jason has been following them closely the whole way and comes ashore soon after they do. While the survivors try to make it through the mean streets of a pre-Giuliani NYC targeted by muggers and rapists, Jason is in hot pursuit. While the concept of a Jason Voorhees outside the secluded woods of Crystal Lake into the heart of Manhattan seems enticing, the masked monster happens to fit right into the harsh environment. It isn’t until his relentless pursuit of these students and teachers that makes him a murderous menace in the city. Eventually, Scott and Rennie make it down to the city’s sewer, where a routine dumping of toxic waste proves to be Jason’s ultimate demise. Still haunted by the image of a young Jason as he drowned, Rennie sees the body of a young boy with a hockey mask floating in the waste nearby. Rennie and Scott make their way to the streets near Times Square as daybreak is on the horizon.
Upon release, the film proved to be the least profitable films of the franchise at the time. Among fans, much of the criticism was levied in the fact that not only a majority of the film not takes place in New York City, but also much of the last third of the movie was filmed in Canada due to budgetary restraints. Because of the lowered financial expectations of the franchise, Paramount Pictures would later sell the rights to New Line Cinema, who would later reboot the series with the 1993 film “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.”
The Future of the Franchise
By the early 1990s, Jason Voorhees proved himself to be an icon of 1980s cinema. In 1992, the first annual MTV Movie Awards awarded Jason Voorhees with the Lifetime Achievement Award (one of three fictional characters to be bestowed upon with the "honor"). However, upon the rights being sold to New Line Cinema, the “Friday the 13th” franchise distanced itself from the tone of the original eight films and declined in quality. In the 1990s while New Line was still hoping to develop a Freddy Kruger crossover, they tied fans over with “Jason Goes to Hell,” where Jason’s spirit inhabits the bodies of other people throughout a majority of the film. I was not a critical nor commercial success. In 2001, the horror franchise blended with science fiction in “Jason X,” in Kane Hodder’s final role as Jason. Bringing a franchise character into outer space is usually a telltale sign that a series has jumped the shark. The resulting film is a cheap imitation of a made-for-cable sci-fi film with cheap CGI effects. In 2003, New Line finally united Jason Vorhees with Freddy Kruger (Robert England). Unfortunately, while on paper the film seems like a match made in heaven hell, it seems like it would have been much more organic if the film was released at the height of the two franchises’ popularity in the late 1980s.
By the late 2000s, reboots of horror franchises were trending, sparked by Rob Zombie’s remake of “Halloween.” In 2009, a reboot of “Friday the 13th” was released, which set to blend the first three original films of the series. Instead of remaking the 1980 original film, the reboot features the death of Mrs. Voorhees and the subsequent rise of her son Jason as a mass murderer. While the intention of the reboot was to introduce a new, young audience to the series, it failed to impress die hard fans. Despite the criticism, the film was a box office success and further reiterated Jason Voorhees as a popular villain amongst filmgoers and a lasting figure in the horror genre.