Episode 10: Friday the 13th

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In This Episode:

It’s almost Halloween so the perfect time to look at our first horror franchise. Michael Myers seemed a little too on the nose but once Allen discovered Chris had never seen any of the Friday the 13th movies it was too good a chance to miss. The first three entries in series form the origin of one of the most beloved psycho killers in slasher cinema, Jason Voorhees. It is impossible to think of another example of a movie franchise that took several tries to find its key component, with Jason’s classic hockey mask not arriving until midway through the third installment. Jason is synonymous with the Friday the 13th films, a true pop culture icon, it’s odd to think that the killer in the original film was a middle aged woman in a woolen sweater.  Even with the first Friday’s big reveal being given away in Wes Craven’s smash hit Scream (1996), the best of the nineties second wave slashers, it remains a gruesomely effective exploitation thriller.

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The Movies:

Sean Sexton Cunningham began his film making career with two softcore “white coater” films in the early seventies, before producing the notorious The Last House on the Left (1972) with Wes Craven. The brutal revenge film would be Craven’s directorial debut and become a sizeable hit at the box office. However Cunningham’s next few projects, a (se)X-rated whodunnit and two kids sports movies, failed to set the box office alight.

Returning to the horror genre for his next idea and heavily inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and its box office success, Sean S. Cunningham began working on A Long Night At Camp Blood, with frequent collaborator Victor Miller on scripting duties. Intending to make “a real scary movie” with some light moments “like a roller-coaster ride” instead of the relentless horrors of Last House. The director would have Miller watch Halloween and take notes, which would form the backbone of their movie. During the writing process Cunningham hit on the title Friday the 13th. He was so taken with his title an advertisement was placed in Variety, almost immediately. Cunningham’s rational was, to avoid any potential lawsuits they would run the ad and find out quickly if anyone else already owned the rights to the title. Believing there were no problems the project pressed on.

There were, in fact, two previous films with the moniker. The above 1933 British film following the passengers on an ill-fated bus journey and Friday the 13th: The Orphan (1979), an American film about a disturbed young boy driven to commit murder.

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The first Friday the 13th is a ruthlessly effective retelling of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The set of rules Miller derived from watching Michael Myers debut slashing helped keep things tight.

I. Prior Evil Must Exist

II. The Kids Have To Be In A Remote Location

III. Lack Of Authority Figures Around

IV. Don’t Drink, Have Sex Or Be Immoral

V. Kill Everyone Off One By One

The movie is deeply indebted to other films, Halloween as previously mentioned, the killer’s POV shots lifted from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, plot elements (although gender switched) from Psycho, which also had an influence on Harry Manfredini’s score and a shocker ending taken wholesale from Brian DePalma’s Carrie, to name but a few. With effects maestro Tom Savini brought in to create inventive and elaborate methods of execution for the doomed teenagers  “Camp Blood” would live up to it’s name.

The film was screened for Paramount executives which would result in the studio paying $1.5 million for the distribution rights to the movie. The clout of a major studio would see Friday eventually put into over 1000 US cinema screens, almost unheard of for an independently produced horror movie. The movie was a huge hit, made for $550,000, it would take in ten times its budget at the box office.

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With the formula proving profitable a franchise was born. Initial plans to use the Friday the 13th title in an anthology series, with each subsequent film based on a different aspect of the superstition associated with the date, were passed over in favor of resurrecting Jason Voorhees to avenge his mother (after she had previously been decapitated while avenging him). The second film would open with Alice, the first film’s final girl, being toyed with then brutally killed in her own home, by another unseen killer, before returning to Crystal Lake and introducing us to a new group of camp counselors unaware of their fate.

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Jason in Part II with sackcloth mask, reminiscent of “The Phantom Killer” in The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976 & 2014)

With the series hitching its wagon to Jason it would never look back. Reusing its own well established template, a group of teens go to the lakeside and get killed one by one (although sometimes in pairs) by a masked homicidal maniac, time and time again. Paramount would loose its taste for the movies and try to kill the series off with part four “The Final Friday” but like the iconic hockey masked psycho the franchise would never stay dead long.

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Paraskavedekatriaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th):

Popular American film critic Gene Siskel was particularly savage in his response to Friday the 13th, and its sequels, calling Cunningham “one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business”. Siskel’s first attack came in his print review of the film, for the Chicago Tribune, within the opening paragraphs he gives away the plot and reveals the killer in a bid to stop people going to see the movie. He goes on to invite his readers to complain, in writing, to Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent company, by printing their corporate address. More shockingly he gives details of the home of Betsy Palmer (Pamela Voorhees) so that enraged fans could let the actress know how they felt, turns out they felt like sending death threats. It was a pretty despicable act, considering that Palmer only took the role to help buy a new car.

Then shortly after the release of the first Friday film Sneak Previews, the show Siskel hosted with fellow critic Roger Ebert which would later become At The Movies, broadcast a special episode entitled Women in Danger!

Part 2 can be found here.

While they do make several reasonable points in the main, female representation in horror films can be very problematic, the show reeks of poorly researched moralistic soap-boxing. Genre cinema tends to be where taboos are challenged long before mainstream cinema will confront them, Blaxploitation for example. Horror films are no exception, how often in mainstream cinema does a  woman get to save the day?

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Of course this show aired several years before the publication of Carol J. Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover would outline the theory of “the Final Girl” a trope, particularly in slasher films, where the last woman left alive  will confront and overcome the killer. Clover suggested that in these films, the viewer began by sharing the perspective of the killer, but experienced a shift in identification to the final girl partway through the film.

The numbers, however tell another story than Siskel’s women=death in horror tirade. Friday the 13th has ten murders, five men, four women committed by Mrs. Voorhees, who became the final victim at the hands of Alice to even the scores to five all. And once Jason shows up from Part II onwards, his kill ratio skews male, as illustrated in this excellent infographic.

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Both Siskel and Ebert would continue to give the Friday the 13th films terrible reviews, if they even deigned to cover them, until 2009 and the release of Marcus Nispel’s remake where Roger gave the film 2 out of 4 stars saying it’s “about the best ‘Friday the 13th’ movie you could hope for.” Proving almost conclusively that he just didn’t get them.

In the UK the moral panic over horror films and the home video market took shape in Video Recordings Act and the publication of the notorious Video Nasty list, a useful handbook for movie nerds to have a list ready made for them, in the press with calls to ban this filth. The new laws, passed in 1984, would see the UK become one of the most heavily censored countries in the world, with every video released needing to be passed for certification.

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All clips in the episode are used under Fair Use for the purposes of criticism and are not intended to diminish the original works or limit the ability of the copyright owners to market or sell their product.

How did we do? Did we miss something, get something wrong or is there a franchise you’d like us to cover? Let us know. Comment below or email diminishingpod@gmail.com

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