Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. 40 years after Camp Crystal Lake appeared on the silver screen, we look back at Friday the 13th and how the perennial slasher series mutated across the years. Read the rest of our Friday coverage here.
The slasher genre is a strange beast. What starts out with the full intent of shock and awe and strange morality plays covered in viscera will seemingly invariably become cozy, feel good nostalgia movies a decade or so down the line. This has never been more true than for the granddaddy of all long-running slasher franchises, the monolithic Friday the 13th.
Written by Victor Miller and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, the 1980 original took lessons from the likes of Halloween and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (the latter of which it would pay homage to in the immediate sequel). With the perversion of childhood innocence and teen hedonism, it blended these into one of the most iconic properties in the history of horror.
Almost everyone knows the story: in the late ‘50s, a young boy named Jason Voorhees drowns at Camp Crystal Lake due to the inattention of the camp counselors who were apparently too busy hooking up to look after him. Whether this was factually the case we will never know. As such, the camp was shut down, reopening years later much to the dismay of the local residents. This sets off a chain reaction resulting in the brutal deaths of all but one of the new counselors.
And these deaths are good. The special effects hold up shockingly well, every squib and prosthetic clearly made with great attention and care in an era before we had our eyes splattered with CGI blood once or twice a month. At the same time, they don’t rely on the overt shock and gore of its later competitors such as A Nightmare on Elm Street. The kills are predatory, clean, and so fast and brutal that the viewers, and much less the counselors, scarcely have time to process the threat at hand.
But a horror film does not stand on kills and props alone.
While the sequels to the original are of admittedly nebulous quality, the original Friday the 13th is a powerhouse of the slasher genre. This is in no small part thanks to the filmmakers’ use of effective genre techniques with their own spin, and the incredible performance of Betsy Palmer as disturbed mother Pamela Voorhees.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown used a burlap sack to hide its killer’s face, but Friday the 13th took the subterfuge to the next level by hiding the killer entirely until the climax. By shooting all the murder scenes either focused entirely on the counselors and their inability to see or by filming from the killer’s first person perspective, it makes for an excellent use Alfred Hitchcock’s technique he employed in Psycho.
This method has over time served dual purposes. In the ‘80s, it fit the usual bill of suspense and mystery required in a horror movie. Now, 40 years later, the tactic is what allows the uninitiated and unaware to experience the first film with a completely blank slate, surprise reveal intact. If you go into the franchise only knowing Jason and his hockey mask, you may assume that he is the killer of the original as well, because why wouldn’t he be?
Pamela is seemingly just as strong as Jason, able to murder her way through Crystal Lake almost without issue and hold her own in a fight with a girl 20 years her junior. Better yet, she’s definitely as unhinged. It’s a perfect modern-era bait and switch for a new viewer. Both in the past and now, there is shock as it is to see a woman as the killer, much less a middle-aged mother figure, and in a strictly modern day capacity, people are so quick to associate the franchise with Jason that a first-time viewer would never expect the killer to be anyone else.
If you go into the franchise only knowing Jason and his hockey mask, you may assume that he is the killer of the original as well, because why wouldn’t he be?
However, there is another figure in the film that has morphed over time from a bloody, memorable kill at the time of release, to an ass-in-seat factor that has drawn in no doubt hundreds of new viewers in subsequent years regardless of their affinity or lack thereof for the horror genre.
Yes, I am talking about the now-legendary Kevin Bacon.
You can find reams of discourse both in print and online referring to the original Friday as “that movie where Bacon gets stabbed with a spear,” and that’s how the film was pitched to me as a budding young horror fan. The irony of it being that what is legend now, was just a scrawny young actor then.
Years down the line, Bacon became one of the touchpoints that kept the film alive and discussed over time, as his career grew past slasher films and into the Seven Degrees from Everyone catalogue that it is now. Similarly, Johnny Depp was on the receiving end of one of the most over-the-top deaths in A Nightmare on Elm Street, a role that is also referenced time and again as a reason for watching the film for newbies.
Somehow, the choice to cast and kill Bacon only added to the long term folklore and longevity of this film in a way that the creators could not possibly have imagined; much like how the counselors never thought one little boy drowning could have caused the madness that ensued down the line. This in itself brings to light another aspect of Friday the 13th that sets it apart from its descendants: it has been able to be fluid, changing in significance and viewpoint enough that you can view it from almost any angle, whether it’s the film as it once was, or as the film as it now stands with new eyes.
That said, the original film holds its own not only with nostalgia, cult status death scenes, and a well accomplished ending. The original Friday and the antagonist within it are special because they have something the rest of the series lacks: Palmer’s performance.
While networks and countdowns the years and world over argue for the surprise Jason jump scare at the finale of Friday the 13th as one of the scariest moments in film, I would have to humbly disagree. That moment, in that film, belongs solely to Pamela Voorhees’ reveal speech.
The slow descent from seemingly sweet woman, seemingly concerned about the reopening of the camp as a place with too much trouble in its past into the cause of that night’s slaughter, a killer speaking to herself in a horrifying approximation of her son’s voice, is an incredible and deeply unsettling performance to behold. “Kill her mommy! Kill her!” is still an iconic line. Her facial performance and delivery are still spine-chilling 40 years later, particularly the small, unhinged smile when she tilts her head and informs the surviving counselor that that day is her sweet son Jason’s birthday.
With a lesser actress, the entire premise could have fallen apart. Pamela Voorhees could have ended up being a joke, another trope of a hysterical crazy woman. But Palmer sells every word with complete conviction and sincerity, delivering one of the most iconic horror monologues of all time.
All of these elements in the pot combined to create a film just as impactful 40 years later as it was then, and no doubt will be in the future. It spawned a franchise of nine sequels, one crossover movie, a remake, comic books, video games, and countless songs and parodies. It is practically the platonic idea of a slasher movie. If you ask anyone in the world what a horror movie is, the odds of them mentioning Friday the 13th is immensely high.
This legacy, this monolithic lifespan of the franchise however, would never have been possible without the original Friday the 13th, a film which transcended the fictional campfire story at its core, and became a legendary work of folklore in its own right.
Ch ch ch ch… ah ah ah ah…