M. Keith Booker
Halloween might be the greatest of all slasher films in terms of its cinematic art, but for that very reason it stands somewhat apart from the rest of the subgenre. One might argue that the Friday the 13th franchise is much more representative of the slasher subgenre as a whole, though it is also the case that this franchise, which produced three films in rapid succession between 1980 and 1982, took all three of those films to emerge in the full form that is now such a prominent part of American cultural history. Each of these three films can be watched and enjoyed alone, apart from the others, though there is also value in watching the three of them in succession. Indeed, the three films together serve as a sort of 4 ½ hour origin story of the figure who holds the franchise together, hulking, hockey-masked slasher Jason Voorhees—without ever really explaining his origin.
The first two Friday the 13th films are particularly of a piece, though the first was directed by Sean S. Cunningham and the second by Steve Miner (who also directed the third). The first two films tell what is essentially a continuous story involving camp counselors who gather near Crystal Lake, only to be assaulted by a savage killer. In the first, a group of such counselors is trying to whip the remote Camp Crystal Lake back into shape in 1980, after it had been abandoned years earlier, following the drowning death of a boy there in 1957 and the unsolved murder of two counselors in 1958. But these new counselors immediately begin being murdered as well, one by one—especially if they happen to have just had sex, like the character played by a young Kevin Bacon, who dies in a particularly gruesome fashion by having an arrow with a bladed tip thrust upwards through his throat from beneath a bed on which he is basking in a post-coital glow. Perhaps his death is particularly striking because Bacon would go on to become a prominent movie star, but it is also the case that the Friday the 13th films in general deviate from the often-described tendency of most slasher films to concentrate mostly on the killings of women. The films all feature Final Girls who are threatened in a particularly extended fashion before surviving, but Jason seems bent on killing anyone of either gender who comes near Crystal Lake, especially if they are sexually active.
Through most of the first Friday the 13th film, we don’t see the actual killer, until near the end, when it turns out that the culprit is a deranged Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), the mother of the boy who drowned back in 1957. Mrs. Voorhees, we learn, is seeking revenge for his drowning, because (at least in her mind) it occurred because the camp’s counselors were all having sex instead of watching out for him as they should have been. In one scene, Mrs. Voorhees also hints (but does not explain) that Jason might have been a special needs child who required particularly close supervision.
In addition to everything else, Mrs. Voorhees seems to have a sort of multiple personality disorder in which she sometimes channels her dead son, thus repeating in reverse the Norman Bates/Ma Bates motif. In fact, though obviously inspired directly by Halloween, Friday the 13th seems to go out of its way to trace its lineage back to Psycho. Shrieking violin music similar to that which so famously plays in the Psycho shower scene is even heard whenever Mrs. Voorhees goes on the attack. However, the approach of her attacks is also signaled by what would become one of the most successful and recognizable sound effects in horror film history, the signature rhythmic/whispery “ki ki ki ma ma ma” that would ultimately also be applied to her son and variations of which would sound throughout the franchise. Eventually, it comes down to wholesome Final Girl Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), who lops off Mrs. Voorhees’s head with a machete (subsequently a favorite weapon of Jason), which presumably ends the threat. After killing Mrs. Voorhees, Alice collapses, exhausted, into a canoe and floats out into Crystal Lake. There—in a scene that was inspired by the dream sequence at the end of Carrie (1976)—Friday the 13th adds one last shocker as Jason himself finally appears, lunging upward (rotting and maskless) out of the lake to pull Alice into the water. Or does he? The film leaves open the possibility that this scene, too, is a dream (on the part of Alice, who is, in any case, ultimately rescued), but it does nicely set up the first sequel.
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) is very similar to Part 1, but with a bigger budget and with Jason himself as the killer. Still no hockey mask yet (now he has a flour sack over his head, though we get a glimpse of his malformed, one-eyed face), so Jason here is still evolving into the slasher icon he would eventually become. As a result, this one is really less interesting than the first, because it lacks the mother twist and most of the Psycho references, though there is still an occasional violin shriek. The group of victims is still a group of counselors, though these counselors are supposedly attending a training camp for counselors near Crystal Lake—thus allowing children once again to be absent and making the film a bit more acceptable to the MPAA, though cuts still had to be made to secure an R rating. All of the attendees at the camp are already experienced counselors, though, so it isn’t really clear why they need training training. Meanwhile, nearby Camp Crystal Lake itself (dubbed “Camp Blood” by the locals) is strictly off-limits because of what happened there earlier.
There is no explanation in this second film of how Jason might have risen from the lake to become the terrifying figure he now is, but the events of the film are linked directly to those of the first by beginning with a sequence in which Alice Hardy (still played by King) is struggling to recover from the traumas of the first film, many of which are related in flashback footage taken directly from that film. Then, in a rather shocking scene, Alice is attacked in her home (presumably by Jason), who kills her by ramming a knife through her temple, thus avenging himself on the girl who killed his mother.
It is not at all clear how Jason managed to track down Alice, but in any case he is not sated by her death. Through the rest of the film, he continues to seek revenge for the killing of his mother (whose dried-up head he keeps on a sort of creepy shrine), so this second film is not quite as overt about punishing young people for having sex as the first, but that does still tend to get you next in line. Final Girl Ginny Field (Amy Steele) does not appear to be virginal (and is, in fact, sleeping with the head counselor who is running the training camp), so she is a bit unusual in that sense. We get a repeat of the last-second shocker from the first film, as Ginny has seemingly survived and defeated Jason, only to have him pop through a window and grab her, as the screen goes dark. Then we see her awaking in an ambulance, suggesting that she either survived the final attack, or just imagined it given all her trauma.
Friday the 13th Part 2 is not a great work of cinematic art, but it was a substantial commercial success, paving the way for more sequels. By the time of Friday the 13th Part III (1982), however, the series seemed to be rapidly running out of ideas, which is probably one reason why it was released in 3D as a gimmick. It also includes more comic elements, including several characters—including a stoner couple and a chubby prankster named Shelly (Larry Zerner)—who are almost entirely comic (though they all still get killed by Jason). Shelly, though, is historically important, because he is killed while wearing a hockey mask, which Jason then appropriates and makes his own. That would then become Jason’s signature look—though it doesn’t stop Final Girl Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmel) from apparently killing him with an axe to the forehead (and through his hockey mask). He proves hard to kill, though, because he would in fact spring back for many more films to come, mostly because the films continued to make money. At least in the earlier films, Jason and his mother had some sort of motivation (however deranged) for their killings, but now Jason is just a mindless killing machine, murdering without purpose, or even malice. It’s just what he does, yet without any sense of the allegorical dimension that makes Michael Myers the greatest of all slasher figures.
Friday the 13th Part III begins with flashback footage from Part 2, in which Jason is nearly killed by Ginny, which gets audiences up to speed (and meanwhile fills in several minutes without having to come up with anything new). Then the third film picks up exactly where the second left off, as the wounded Jason stumbles to a lakefront store where he goes to get some new clothes. There he kills the proprietors, though this first killing is preceded by still more filler in the form of an extended comic sequence involving the proprietors, an inept husband and a haranguing wife. After that, we are introduced (in another extended sequence of lame comedy) to a group of friends who are headed out for a weekend in the country at the lake house of Chris’s family, even though Chris is suffering lingering trauma caused by an attack she had suffered years earlier at the hands of Jason. Then they spend still more time driving out to the house, though at least the film attempts to build atmosphere by having them drive by the lakefront store just as the police are removing the bodies, having them drive by a dead rabbit on the side of the road, and having them encounter a weird old man, Abel (David Wiley), who turns out to be a harbinger figure who warns them, while brandishing an eyeball, that danger is ahead.
Chris’s trauma, incidentally, causes her to resist the sexual advances of her countrified boyfriend Rick (Paul Kratka) once they all arrive at the house, thus technically making her a celibate Final Girl, though the film implies that she and Rick might have had sex at some earlier time. Of course, it doesn’t help that Rick first enters the film as he grabs Chris and yanks her toward him just after she enters the house. It’s a jump-scare moment, partly because the “ki ki ki ma ma ma” sound effect has just been used (in what some might regard as a cheap trick resorted to out of a lack of genuinely interesting new ideas) to mislead viewers into thinking that Rick is Jason.
Chris lacks the charisma of someone like Laurie Strode, though she is more attractive in a conventionally feminine way than the typical Final Girl and thus does not conform to Clover’s argument that Final Girls are able to succeed as heroines largely because they are masculinized. Otherwise, this film adds little to the franchise other than Jason’s hockey mask. In fact, it seems almost desperate to try to fill its 1 ½ hours, adding in such distracting flourishes as a local biker gang of which the locals run afoul, only to have all the bikers be killed by Jason, who by this time seems content to kill anyone and everyone he can find.
One thing that helped to set Friday the 13th apart from the other deluge of slasher films that came out at about the same time was the work of makeup and special effects expert Tom Savini, who had already established himself, especially via his work for Dawn of the Dead two years earlier. It was Savini who designed Jason’s gruesome appearance at the end of the first Friday the 13th, as well as Savini who did most of the work to produce graphic displays of the bodily destruction wrought by Jason’s mother, bringing some of the visual flair of Italian giallo films to American film for the first time. Savini did not work on Part 2 or Part III, though he did return for The Final Chapter in 1984. In the meantime, Part 2 in particular continued to show the influence of Italian horror, among other things reproducing almost exactly two of the murder scenes from Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971, aka Bay of Blood)—including the very memorable scene in which Jason drives a spear through the bodies of two lovers while they are still engaged in sexual intercourse, making a gruesome shish kabob.
The first three Friday the 13th films are also distinctive because of the way they mix the slasher subgenre with the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre, producing a successful combination that would subsequently be replicated in a number of future films. Indeed, it was more Friday the 13th than any specific cabin-in-the-woods film that helped to establish some of the conventions of that subgenre. In both of the first two films, for example, the young people going out to Crystal Lake are warned of their impending dooms by local wacko Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), though to no avail. Jason kills Crazy Ralph in Part 2, forcing Abel to step in as the harbinger figure in Part III. Such figures would subsequently become a staple of the cabin-in-the-woods film, ultimately leading to the mockery of this motif in The Cabin in the Woods (2012).
Friday the 13th would drift away from the cabin-in-the-woods format in subsequent entries in the franchise. The Final Chapter, for example, is more of a home-invasion slasher film, while Friday the 13th: A New Beginning turned more toward psychological horror—and doesn’t even feature Jason Voorhees (though it does include his hockey mask). In Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), Jason shifts to a more urban environment, as the title indicates. And in Jason X (2002), Jason goes into outer space. None of the these later variants had the impact of the first three films, and Jason seems fated to remain associated, in the popular mind, with rural settings (and especially with Crystal Lake).
While none of the Friday the 13th films are as formally impressive or as carefully constructed the original Halloween, the first Friday film is at least different in its use of Mrs. Voorhees as the killer. The narrative structure of the killings in the film also seems to have a certain logic, rather than being strictly random. The film begins with a sort of prologue in which happy camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake gather around a campfire back in 1958, happily singing. Then two of them slip away for a bit of hanky panky and are promptly murdered by an unseen assailant. The screen then goes to white (a formal technique used frequently in the franchise to set off scenes from one another), followed by the opening titles. These first murders, then, occur as a sort of prologue to the main narrative, much like the slaying of Judith Myers in Halloween.
This device sets the murderous mood very quickly. Then the main narrative begins by jumping ahead to 1980 (on Friday, the 13th of June), as young Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan) arrives in the town of Crystal Lake, stopping briefly at the rundown gas station that has now become such a staple stopping-by point in the cabin-in-the-woods subgenre. She ignores the discomfort of the locals when she announces that she is headed out to Crystal Lake, which they refer to as “Camp Blood.” Then she ignores Crazy Ralph’s more urgent warning that the camp has a “death curse” and catches a ride out to a crossroads partway to the camp. She gets more warnings during the ride, including the story of the two counselors killed in 1958, then gets off at the crossroads (which, ominously, is located at a graveyard). She will be killed before she reaches the camp.
Though it is not evident at the time, it is significant that Annie is the first victim in the main narrative, in that she was to serve as the camp’s cook, a job once held by Mrs. Voorhees. Meanwhile, some other counselors are shown arriving in a pickup truck, accompanied by banjo music that provides a further reminder of the potential dangers of the rural setting, especially recalling Deliverance (1972). The next few minutes are spent introducing us to some of the other counselors at the camp, before we cut back to the actual killing of Annie. These counselors include the tomboyish Alice, as well as Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who is now running the camp, which he has been renovating toward reopening it for the first time since 1958 (after a couple of earlier attempts failed, due—we will eventually realize—to sabotage by Mrs. Voorhees). He also keeps hitting on Alice, which has clearly made her unhappy. We see only partial glimpses of the killer, who is clearly made to appear to be male in these shots, a technique that will mislead viewers through most of the film. Meanwhile, someone seems to have the counselors under surveillance, as indicated by subjective shots of them from the woods.
Crazy Ralph arrives at the camp to deliver more warnings, which of course go unheeded. The first victim at the camp itself is killed only a few minutes later, though his killing is not shown. This victim is jokester Ned Rubinstein (Mark Nelson), who had earlier faked his death by drowning, providing another bit of foreshadowing (and also making him a likely victim, we will realize in retrospect, given that Mrs. Voorhees has no patience with jokes about boys drowning in the lake). Jack Burrell (Bacon) and Marcie Cunningham (Jeannine Taylor) go into a cabin to have sex, just as an ominous storm is blowing in. They make love on a bunk, while the camera reveals Ned’s body in an upper bunk just above them. Sex and death are irrevocably linked in this film. Afterward, Marcie goes to pee in the camp bathroom and Jack relaxes on his back on the bunk, smoking a joint. Ned’s blood drips onto Jack’s face from the upper bunk, just before Jack is himself killed.
As the film approaches its halfway mark, Marcie washes up in the bathroom as she impersonates Katharine Hepburn from the 1956 film The Rainmaker. Rain, of course, continues to pour outside. She is then killed with an axe to the face just outside a shower, as Psycho-like music sounds. Brenda Jones (Laurie Bartram) then goes out to the bathroom to brush her teeth. Tense music plays, leading us to expect the worst, but she neither dies nor discovers Marcie’s body, as the film teases us a bit. Meanwhile, Steve has gone into town for supplies, but his jeep breaks down in the storm on the way back. He catches a ride back to the camp with a local cop, Sgt. Tierney (Ronn Carroll), giving us hope that the remaining counselors will be rescued when Steve and Tierney arrive.
Unfortunately, Tierney is called away to the scene of an accident, so he drops Steve off at the gate to the camp, then drives away. Steve is quickly killed by an unseen assailant (who apparently doesn’t look very threatening, from Steve’s demeanor). Meanwhile, Halloween-like point-of-view shots and the “ki ki ki ma ma ma” sound effect have announced that the killer is stalking Brenda, who is lured out of her cabin by what appears to be a child calling for help and then murdered (off-camera) on the archery range. Alice later encounters her body when it is thrown through the window of the camp’s main cabin, and has by this time also encountered the body of Bill Brown (Harry Crosby III), pinned to the door of the generator room by arrows through his throat and eye. Mrs. Voorhees is suspiciously strong and good with weapons.
Alice is thus already in a traumatized state when she encounters Mrs. Voorhees and hears her surprising story, which causes us to revise our understanding of everything we have seen thus far. It’s a gimmicky turn (though not quite as gimmicky as the sudden turn that occurs when Jason springs from the lake to drag Alice from the boat). In any case, all of the other counselors are killed, roughly in the order that one might expect Mrs. Voorhees to have some sort of grudge against them, the last two victims (Brenda and Bill) have done the least to damn themselves in Mrs. Voorhees’ twisted mind. And Alice, of course, has done the least of all, but she escapes—at least until the beginning of Part 2.
Here, then, are Mrs. Voorhees’ victims in Friday the 13th, in the order in which they are killed:
- Annie, the new camp cook, who would thus be replacing Mrs. Voorhees.
- Ned, who had joked about drowning in the same lake where Jason drowned.
- Jack, who had just had sex with Marcie.
- Marcie, who had just had sex with Jack. The two were thus enacting a behavior that Mrs. Voorhees associates particularly directly with the death of her son.
- Steve, whose main sin is attempting to reopen the camp that Mrs. Voorhees associates with her son’s death.
- Brenda, whose main sin is simply being a counselor at the camp, though she had been playing strip monopoly earlier.
- Bill, who is in the same situation as Brenda.
Some thought, then, does seem to have gone into the construction of Friday the 13th, despite its poor critical reputation. Kim Newman, for example, describes it as “a jackdaw of a film,” because it steals from so many predecessors, including Halloween, Jaws, Carrie, and “most problematically, the superficially similar Texas Chain Saw school of splatter” (203). Even more harshly, Newman concludes that “Sean S. Cunningham, and most of his followers, aren’t talented enough to direct a hosepipe. They can’t scare with good filmmaking, so they batter the viewer with a stream of explicit, blood-drenched slayings” (203). Even Adam Rockoff, a fan of slasher films who regards Friday the 13th as the “perfect” film to cash in on the thirst for slasher films that Halloween had created in American audiences, sees the film as a rather modest effort, though he does have significant praise for Cunningham:
It was raw, amateurish and, for the time, extremely gory, but it was also playful, and had a slickness about it which raised it above the level of other similar low-budget productions. What’s more, it was made by a young but tremendously talented and underrated director who harbored no illusions as to what he was making. (78)
However one sees Friday the 13th as a work of cinematic art, it clearly struck a chord with the American moviegoing public at the time it was released. And there can be no argument that Jason Voorhees, a person with essentially no personality whatsoever (and who perhaps isn’t even a “person” in the usual sense) went on to become one of the better-known movie characters of the late twentieth century. It is thus also a sign of the critical distaste for Friday the 13th that, when the American Film Institute released its list of the 50 greatest movie villains of all time, Jason was nowhere to be found. For that matter, the superficially similar (but fundamentally different) Michael Myers was also missing from the list. In fact, of the three great icons of slasher horror from the 1980s, only Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was listed, and he only at a modest No. 40. No doubt Freddy was favored over Michael and Jason because of his greater personality, a topic that will be central to my discussion of that film in the next section of this volume.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Updated Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Redfern, Nick. “Exploratory Data Analysis and the Editing Structure of Friday the Thirteenth (1980).” Post Script 34.2-3 (Winter-Summer 2015): 71–83.
Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.
 For an interesting discussion of the role of sound in horror films, see Leeder’s chapter “Shocking and Spooky Sounds” in Horror Film: A Critical Introduction.
 For more on Carrie, see my extended discussion of that film in the volume of The Horror Film Project on Psychological Horror.
 See Rockoff for a discussion of some of the ways Friday the 13th, though “the archetypal slasher,” actually deviates from the conventions of the subgenre (80–82).
 The date can be identified from a radio broadcast heard near the beginning of the film. Given that the film was released in the U.S. on May 9, 1980, the action technically takes place in the future, relative to the release of the film. The film was, more sensibly, released on Friday, June 13, 1980, in Britain.
 The town scenes were actually shot in Blairstown, New Jersey. The camp scenes were shot at an actual Boy Scout camp, Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, located near Hardwick, New Jersey.
 A sign, clearly visible in the film, identifies this site as “Moravian Cemetery, Hope, NJ,” which is, in fact, a real cemetery used for the shooting of this scene.
 See also Redfern, whose quantitative analysis of shot-length data in the film leads him to conclude that it is more thoughtfully than has generally been recognized. In particular, he finds “this film to be characterized by multiple regimes of editing associated with different types of horror but which nonetheless operate in unison, that there is a close relationship between the large scale narrative structure and editing structure while localized relations of film style are associated with specific narrative events” (82).
 Horror is well represented in this strangely eccentric list, however. Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates (both slashers of sorts) hold the top two spots, for example, just edging out Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West. Curiously enough, Regan MacNeil of The Exorcist, surely more a victim than a villain, is listed at No. 9.