Every Friday this month I will take a peek into some realm of the Friday the 13th franchise. At the end of the month, we will have an encapsulating piece on the franchise and its role in both horror and overall cinematic history. First, we will look at the screenplay of the original Friday the 13th.
Friday the 13th 1980
Directed by: Sean S. Cunningham
Written by: Victor Miller & Sean S. Cunningham
The late 1970’s and early 1980’s saw an almost instant peak in the slasher film and the subsequent sequels they spawned. Halloween (1978) is notably marked as the beginning, but I would argue that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is much more responsible for the two decades of films with notable antagonists like Pinhead, Leatherface, Michael, Jason, Chuck, Freddy, and the likes. The major success that Halloween came to be, grossing $70 million at the box office off a budget under $400,000 dollars was perhaps the film Hollywood needed to recognize this new market. Studios saw the slasher as a way to make very cheap movies with huge returns. And so the search for a rival to Michael Myers was on.
Thus we come to Friday the 13th. Granted the franchise is notable for its hockey masks, machetes, and ch-ch-ch-ch-ch ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’s. The franchise has spanned a dozen films—fans are clearly waiting for the next installment, for obvious reason—over nearly forty years, but the original is quite different from nearly every other entry into the franchise.
The original Friday the 13th stands out from other slasher films for a number of reasons. First, the role that gender plays in the film. Horror has become famous for taking the gender of their characters seriously, giving those characters purpose. Look at the opening of Night of the Living Dead, or the survivor in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Gender matters in horror, and contrary to some beliefs, horror is not a simply outlet to show violence on women pointlessly, especially not Friday the 13th, because the antagonist is, in fact, a woman. It is a woman with a clear motive and goal, and her victims are not all women either.
Friday the 13th stands out among the other original slashers because there is a clear and somewhat understandable motive for the killer. Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is exacting revenge on the teenagers of the camp, because they were in connection to the death of her son. We even see how this traumatic event affected her in a reverse-Psycho moment when she speaks for Jason. I applaud Miller for his bold take and the different message he is exploring with the screenplay of this film.
What is boldly different with Friday the 13th from other horror franchises is the inclusivity and closure the film comes with. There is a final jump scare, but unlike in many of the other big franchises, the killer does get up and walk away, the killer doesn’t kill again. The antagonist loses, and the virgin girl lives. I was very pleasantly surprised by the concrete and firm message the film wrestles with in its climax. Miller and Cunningham crafted a sharp and tight story that manages to really surprise the viewer in a way that horror just doesn’t often do. I think the themes that Friday the 13th explores are examples of what horror can and should do. What appears to be a base and simple slasher film with cheap kills actually manages to be a smart and deep film with an actual voice and point.
Friday the 13th is a surprisingly bold, inventive, and smart horror screenplay that came out of a time when mindless slashers and gore fests were endless. Yes, it’s violence on teens and the sexual deviants of society are prevalent, but I would argue that Friday the 13th rests on the ‘better’ side of the 80’s horror films.