Friday the 13th has become ceremoniously linked to the birth of 1980s horror. From amateur viewers to horror connoisseurs the character of Jason Voorhees rings familiar, primarily due to the Friday the 13th franchise spawning twelve films and the fact that altogether the series has grossed approximately $755 million, but what truly endorses the slasher’s core reputation is it’s kickstarting of sleazy, rampant, and violent horror’s that progressed into one of the most dominating subsections of the genre.
The birth of the slasher is tricky to nail, as truthfully John Carpenter brought the essentialities to the forefront in 1978 with the knife-wielding maniacal Michael Myers in Halloween. Whilst Halloween was crowned by critics, Friday the 13th was torn apart in reviews. Despite the lack of applause Sean S. Cunningham’s conduction of a summer of nightmares has grown into an absolute sensation.
The financial success of previous horror films pinged a lightbulb in a young Cunningham, who had previously worked with Wes Craven on The Last House On the Left (1972). It seems harsh to call the beloved Friday the 13th a cash grab, but at the roots, that is what it was. In 1979 Cunningham with no legal trademarking over the title placed an advert in Variety for the film (pictured above). At this point, the production team was not established, nor were any locations, actors, or equipment.
This really was a wild chance, luckily enough it paid off with independent financers flooding in to score on this soon-to-be hit. From this point on, the history of Friday the 13th was written, with the film thriving in its banal dialogue, cringe acting, gratuitous nudity, cliched characters, and jump scare ending. The corniness could be easily perceived as crude schlock, but its self-aware texture and bendy edges make the film loveable and a true iconic cult classic.
The overarching stylisation is what has kept Friday the 13th on its pedestal, primarily thanks to special effects artist and makeup designer Tom Savini. Savini was already celebrated thanks to his work in Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978), and in Friday the 13th his talent was only further exhibited, with his depiction of some of horror’s most notorious kills being down to his staggering creations. Through his work, Jason was born. Originally in Victor Miller’s script Jason’s mother Pamela would be the sole antagonist. Her fatal decapitation was the end of the chaos, with Alice’s (Adrienne King) appearance in the boat ending the film. The ending we all know and love was nowhere to be found. That was until Savini noted that Carrie’s (Brian De Palma, 1976) jumpscare ending left a mark on the viewer.
Jason’s deformed entrance belonged to Savini, and rightly so, as Voorhees disfigured front gave a lingering spark to the film. The fear factor across the film won’t necessarily leave you with nightmares, but Alice’s dream of a mutilated Jason leaping out of the water and grabbing her by the throat to drag her down into the dark grubby waters goes straight for the jugular and ensures an impact is made.
Concerning Friday the 13th’s most intrinsically complex element is the breakage of the masculine stalker convention, as Jason’s mother Pamela (Betsy Palmer) is Camp Crystal Lake’s grounds-killer. Her motivation revolves around vengeance, as she gets her comeuppance against the neglectful camp counsellors who let Jason drown due to their own selfish desires. Since Jason’s death Pamela has ensured that the grounds of Crystal Lake were abandoned, and whoever dared to set foot on the soil met a tragic death, as revealed in the first act by the locals.
As much as Jason circles the entire franchise, Pamela is the creator of this destruction, her damning degree of psychosis is the catalyst across the entire film. As unconventional as the villain is, what we know and love about the Friday the 13th franchise is the character of Jason, that’s not to say that the deeper conceptual levels of maternal devotion are not appreciated, in fact, Part II and Part III take aim at the seedy underbelly of his madness, but in Part I there is a slight lack of flashy barbarity that Jason brings to the table unlike anyone else.
The 2009 remake targets the story portrayed in the 1980 original, but it also elicits Jason as the primary destructor. The first four films in the franchise conjure an intense mythos, and rather than banning any of this build-up in the remake, director Marcus Nispel dives into the deep end and packs these four films into one giant reimagining.
Nispel’s creates a lean, vibrant, ambitious, and dramatic take on Cunningham and Miller’s slasher. The remake is not entirely monotonous, yet the gory facade is just that, a veil. Do not expect tense thrills as this horror is not necessarily a landmark in genre cinema, instead, its consensus still remains rather negative. Certain criticised factors are understandable, but then again there are some brief and hidden moments of distinction wavering across the 1hr 46min runtime.
The first aspect that battles against the criticism is the stellar opening scene that shows Jason (Derek Mears) at his most ruthless. The film opens with a brief backstory of Jason watching his mother’s beheading, feeding his killer drive. Flash forward to thirty years later we see a group of friends as they venture into Camp Crystal Lake to search for marijuana crops. As night falls, tents are set up and their debaucheries begin, but Jason arrives on the scene and the peace is truly disturbed as the camp becomes a bloodbath once again.
Multiple deaths occur within the first twenty minutes, setting the path for the rest of the film. The opener takes great and memorable moments from previous films and amps them up to create a gritty, twisted first act. The iconic sleeping bag kill in Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood (1988) is recreated, but instead of the fatal blow being a whack against the tree, we see his victim hanging from a tree in a sleeping bag burning alive over a roaring campfire. The human-toasted marshmallow is not the only feisty punch thrown in the opening, as we are also treated to hacked-up bodies, nasty bear traps to the ankles, and a clean machete blow straight to the forehead.
Although these deaths are pretty gruesome and entertaining for fellow horror nerds, the film does reach its peak here. The enthusiasm for exhilarating bursts drops and there isn’t any remaining mitigating factors, besides the overall ‘look’ of the film, but style over substance isn’t enough to cut it.
It seems that the general opinion concerning the mixed bunch of personalities tends to lean towards the cynical side. No one is particularly likeable and minus three people, they are all extremely irritating, verging on the side of unbearable. In homage to the original, the gender roles are switched as there is no final girl, instead, we follow Clay Miller (Jared Padalecki) as he attempts to hunt down his missing sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), who was one of the campers in the opening scene. Across his journey, he stumbles across Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), her boyfriend Trent (Travis Van Winkle), and their friends Chelsea (Willa Ford), Bree (Julianna Guill), Chewie (Aaron Yoo), Nolan (Ryan Hansen), and Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta).
Trent and his posse travel to his rich parent’s cabin bordering Crystal Lake and soon chaos breaks loose. The plot remains very bland and overdone. We could have been spared some boredom by creating some real inner tension, and by making the characters more than just docile bodies waiting to be flayed.
Their dialogue is beyond laughable, as the majority of their lines wouldn’t be out of place in a slapstick comedy. The “stupendous” female characters are portrayed as nothing but eye-candy, and the men (besides Clay) follow them along like drooling puppies. It’s funny at first, but the humour soon wears off when the film acts like a horror version of American Pie.
The original is not a perfect film, but it is beloved. For what definitive reason I’m not entirely sure, but the creepy atmosphere, combined with good old practical effects still holds up to this day, which is only furthered by the nostalgic factor. And although the remake attempts to claw away from the typical ‘cat and mouse’ game that Jason plays by throwing in a hostage story, it ultimately falls flat.
Cunningham’s Friday the 13th is perfect for a sentimental fun watch when you’re in the mood for an energetic slasher. Nispel’s re-envision is great as a popcorn movie, but that’s it, its reputation hasn’t soared nor has it gained too much of a following. So in this battle of original vs remakes, 1980 smashes it out of the park!
Love to read more about the iconic horror villain? Check out our article on Jason Voorhees here.