After seeing the original Halloween (1978) during my sixth grade school year, I became obsessed with slasher movies. If it was about some knife-wielding psycho chopping up teenagers, I had to give it a try. I didn’t even care that these movies were all trashy rip-offs of Halloween and that most of them never tried anything original or thought-provoking; I’d watch them anyway. And I’m not talking about all those Dawson’s Creek-based slasher movies that were pumped out during the 1990s – the so-called “respectable” ones that rode on the coattails of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) and that all starred well-to-do prime time TV supermodels from the Fox or WB networks (e.g., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, etc.). No, I’m talking about the original slashers, those gruesome early 1980s flicks that usually starred a bunch of nobodies, that were filmed out in someone’s back yard, and that never pulled any punches. I’m talking about those slashers that had Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert screaming their heads off about misogyny and the decline of Western civilization. I’m talking about flicks like The Burning (1981), The Funhouse (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Hell Night (1981), Madman (1982), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Prom Night (1980), The Prowler (1981), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and The Slumber Party Massacre (1982).
Many people find these movies deplorable, and I can admittedly understand why. They’re voyeuristic, and they capitalize on that weird reptilian part of the human brain where sex and death collide. In these movies, it’s not unusual to see pretty college girls removing their clothes and prancing around in their underwear or faking orgasms just before they get bumped off. And it’s not unusual for the killers in these movies to be men, either. This understandably leads many people to think these films are misogynist and anti-feminist, with powerful male aggressors degrading women and treating them like meat (literally). However, just because a film includes a male character who treats women horribly doesn’t necessarily make that film misogynist. After all, there’s usually one girl in these movies who’s smart, resilient and resourceful enough to beat the rampaging psycho (even when her muscular jock boyfriend or the gun-toting town sheriff can’t). Film historians refer to this trope as “the Final Girl”, and some folks think it actually makes some slasher films rather feminist. Furthermore, horror movies are supposed to have villains whose actions are deplorable; we’re not meant to approve of whatever the monster (human or otherwise) is doing.
The poster for Friday the 13th from 1980
That being said, I no longer enjoy most of these films. (I still break out Silent Night, Deadly Night each year for the Winter holidays, but I’m just being ironic.) I simply grew out of them. Most of them are incredibly stupid and bring absolutely nothing new to the table; they really are Z-grade Halloween clones. However, I thought it might be pertinent to talk about one of the very few slasher flicks that I still watch quite regularly these days. I’m speaking, of course, of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), which is the single most successful Halloween rip-off ever made. (The title alone should clue you in to what Cunningham was gunning for in this little commercial enterprise.) This is the one that opened the floodgates of the early 1980s slasher wave, inciting greedy film companies to pump out their own Halloween clones every weekend.
Our story begins at Camp Crystal Lake (which is actually Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in New Jersey) in 1958, when two teenage camp counselors are about to screw each other’s brains out in a cabin. A mysterious stranger sneaks in, and we get to see through the prowler’s eyes as he – or she – literally rips these kids a new one. Then we fast-forward to Friday, June 13, 1980, when another group of teenage camp counselors are preparing to re-open Camp Crystal Lake for business. One of these young tenderloins is a really young Kevin Bacon (back when he was still an unknown), and another is Harry Crosby (Bing Crosby’s fifth son). Meanwhile, Crystal Lake’s resident harbinger of doom – a total quack named “Crazy Ralph” – runs around, preaching the good word about how the counselors are all “dooooooooomed!” Needless to say, the teenagers don’t listen and they promptly start swimming in the lake, smoking dope and playing Strip Monopoly. Of course, Crazy Ralph turns out to be right (was there ever any doubt?); the prowler from the beginning of the movie is still hanging around the premises, and he – or she – decides to lay into this fresh batch of porkchops with a hunting knife, a machete, a fire ax, and some arrows.
Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1976) or Halloween, Friday the 13th doesn’t even bother to try and make its teenage characters interesting or funny. They’re just a bunch of annoying blank-faced airheads who are all dumb as rocks. (Not even Kevin Bacon brings anything interesting to the table, and I reckon this wasn’t his fault.) It actually has the effect of making you want to see the little buggers get squashed, and you end up rooting for the psychopath! But what Friday lacks in characterization, it more than makes up for with gore. The special make-up effects were provided by Tom Savini, which means this is an old-fashioned splatter movie – the kind that’s designed to make fully-fledged brain surgeons blow their cookies. There’s two explicit throat-slittings, an axe to the face, a stomach gouging, an eye gouging, and even a decapitation scene. In fact, Friday is something like a stomach-churning carnival ride; theatrical audiences probably enjoyed it the same way some folks enjoy roller coasters. But while the gore in this movie was real cutting-edge at the time (no pun intended), it’s actually pretty tame by today’s standards. (1999’s Saving Private Ryan is far worse in this department than anything Friday the 13th has to offer.)
I normally try very hard to avoid discussing any spoilers in my film reviews, but I have to spoil a few things here so I can discuss what really interests me about Friday the 13th. Now, some slasher movies go for a Scooby Doo-style “whodunit” type of plot, where the identity of the killer isn’t discovered until the climax of the film. In these cases, the killer usually turns out to be someone who’s introduced to us fairly early on (e.g., the town sheriff, one of the female lead’s would-be suitors, etc.). Friday the 13th, however, uses this particular motif but executes it somewhat strangely; the killer’s identity isn’t revealed until the end, but she turns out to be a character we’ve never even heard of up until that point. Every time I watch it, I always feel like this transition is somewhat awkward – though I suppose it also makes the killer seem like a sentient quantum wave function that never collapses into a solid state of reality until it’s actually observed by someone. In any case, it’s right after this point in the movie that things start to get really interesting.
It turns out that the person who’s been shisk-kabobing teenagers in the woods is a deceptively nice old lady named Pamela Voorhees, who used to be the cook at Camp Crystal Lake back in the 1950s. Back then, Pamela had a son named Jason, and one day he went swimming in the lake…and drowned. To make matters worse, the camp counselors who were supposed to be watching Jason at the time were off having sex instead. Discovering this caused nice old Pamela to snap and go on a murderous rampage. She runs around in the dark, talking to herself in Jason’s voice and trying to avenge him by ensuring that no one ever opens the campground again. For those of you who are surprised to discover that Jason himself is not the killer, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that he picks up where Dear Old Mom leaves off in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). But let me tell you something; that long-lost hockey-masked brother of the Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior (1981) has absolutely nothing on his mother. Pamela Voorhees may very well be one of the creepiest horror film antagonists I’ve ever seen. She’s played by veteran actress Betsy Palmer, who succeeds at making her character a real force to be reckoned with.
We aren’t given very many details about Pamela’s life or how she came to be crazy, but repeated viewings of the film have led me to work out these details by myself. For one thing, we see Pamela’s hands throughout the film long before we discover who she is. You can clearly see at various points that she wears a big football ring on one hand. (Interestingly, she does not wear a wedding ring.) For another, the flashbacks of young Jason drowning in the lake clearly show that Pamela’s son is disfigured and possibly a special needs child (which is further suggested by her tone when she mentions that “He wasn’t a very good swimmer”). Finally, sex – and especially teenage pre-marital sex – is the driving force behind her psychopathology. The thought of any kids having sex anywhere near where her son died is what motivates her to destroy everyone she sees.
Betsy Palmer as “Pamela Voorhees”
My theory is that Pamela had a boyfriend in high school who played football. This guy probably gave Pamela his football ring as a “sign of their love.” I’m willing to bet this guy was Jason’s father. I also think there’s a good possibility that when Pamela told him she was pregnant, he rejected her. She probably thought he would want to marry her and help her raise their child, but he probably laughed at her, told her “It’s your problem” and took some other girl for a midnight ride in the back of his car. This most likely forced Pamela to turn to her parents for help, and I reckon they rejected her, too. (Mind you, this would have been in the 1940s.) Poor Pamela had to leave home and go somewhere else to have her baby. After Jason’s birth, it became clear that he was disfigured; yet he became the center of Pamela’s world. Here was a person who would never reject her and who would always love her. Somehow, they ended up at Crystal Lake and Pamela got a job as the cook at the summer camp. She and Jason were probably feared (and laughed at) by the other people in town, but neither of them probably cared very much; at least they had each other.
When Jason drowned, Pamela completely lost her shit. The one good thing the Gods had given her was taken away, and he was taken away by a couple of foolish children who were committing the very same mistake she had made with her high school “sweetheart.” These kids weren’t thinking about the potential future consequences of their actions (e.g., how the girl could get pregnant, the boy could reject her and their child could suffer and/or die for their mistakes). They weren’t even thinking about the immediate consequences (i.e., that somebody else’s kid could drown while they were fooling around). That’s when Pamela decided to start killing teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. I think that when she kills her male victims, she’s symbolically killing her ex-boyfriend; when she kills her female victims, she’s killing herself. And at some point in her mad descent, I think she became convinced that Jason’s ghost still haunts Crystal Lake. She seems to believe that her murderous deeds keep him alive somehow, like offerings made at an ancestor shrine.
Admittedly, much of this is conjecture; yet it all fits with what we see and hear about Pamela Voorhees in the film. I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. There are actually quite a few feminists who feel the same way about Mrs. Voorhees, and she has been identified with what Julia Kristeva and Barbara Creed call “the Monstrous-Feminine”. This is the idea of the feminine as a powerful castrating force that threatens patriarchal society. We see it in such mythological and folkloric figures as Lilith, Medusa and Baba Yaga. In fact, the story of Mrs. Voorhees parallels that of Grendel’s mother (in the epic of Beowulf) almost perfectly. She’s a single mother who gives birth to a “monstrous” child, and when her son is killed, she herself becomes monstrous and lashes out at the patriarchy. She tries to avenge her son’s death, she’s killed beside a lake, and she’s even decapitated. (This is even more interesting in light of the history of Friday the 13th – the actual date itself – with its ties to feminine spirituality.)
Some horror movies are tragedies (in which chaos is visited upon the innocent), while others are what I think of as “judgment” stories (in which chaos is visited upon the wicked). I would argue that Friday the 13th, unlike Halloween, falls into the latter category; this is a movie about stupid and unlikable people getting what they deserve. And while they might have been pedestrian, screenwriter Victor Miller and director Sean S. Cunningham appear to have made Mrs. Voorhees the most interesting and sympathetic character on purpose. She’s the antagonist, yes, but I wouldn’t describe her as a personification of
Apophis (like Michael Myers); she’s more like Seth-Typhon as the slayer and castrator of Osiris. Her actions are brutal, destructive and savage, but they originate from a valid moral dilemma, and they catalyze a physical resurrection at the end of the film (i.e., that of Jason, who continues his mother’s work in the sequels).
Some feminist commentators argue that Alice, the chief protagonist, is actually the true feminist character of the film, and that Mrs. Voorhees is really a “traditional woman” who’s enslaved by the patriarchy (since she’s “weighed down” by her motherly responsibility and guilt). This is also drawn from the fact that Pamela murders young women who are “liberated” enough to have sex whenever they want to. I don’t agree with this interpretation; I don’t think the other female characters are really that “liberated” at all. It seems to me that they’re exactly what the established patriarchy wants them to be – nubile sex objects that are willing to take their clothes off whenever their men want them to. Furthermore, it’s not the general act of sex itself, but the specific act of Camp Crystal Lake employees having sex when they’re supposed to be working (ostensibly for the benefit of visiting children) that sets Pamela off. It’s not the teenagers’ sexuality but their irresponsibility that gets them killed. I can understand if some viewers are bothered by the idea that Pamela is both a feminist and the villain, but I don’t think this is meant to make feminism “look bad.” (Nor do I think that being a feminist is meant to make Pamela Voorhees “look good”; her feminism and her villainy are two separate issues, like being white and being Republican.) I think the point here is that Pamela Voorhees is a sympathetic monster that the patriarchy has brought upon itself, and that while her methods may be criminal and deplorable, she isn’t entirely wrong.
The resurrection of Jason sets the tone for the sequels, of which there are now ten (including 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason); there’s also a remake that was produced in 2009. While the memory of Pamela Voorhees remains a constant theme in Friday the 13th Part II (1981), she’s almost completely forgotten in the later films. Each of them recycles the plot of the original: stupid hormone-driven teenagers are bumped off in the woods (except in Part VIII, which takes place on a cruise ship on its way to Manhattan, and Jason X, which takes place in space). I personally enjoy parts II through VI as well as the 2009 remake (which features Jared Padalecki from TV’s Supernatural), but I don’t care very much for the rest of them. Not even the enjoyable ones are what I would call “great movies.” That being said, I have to admit that while Pamela Voorhees is a fascinating and original character, Jason Voorhees is little more than a Michael Myers clone in a hockey mask. (He actually wears a bag over his head in Part II; the hockey mask doesn’t show up until Part III.) The franchise also spawned a TV series by the same name that lasted for three seasons (from 1987 to 1990). However, it has nothing to do with Pamela or Jason Voorhees but is more about witchcraft and the devil.
Ari Lehman as “Jason Voorhees”
I wouldn’t dare claim that the first Friday the 13th movie is a “work of art.” It’s sleazy and unoriginal; but it’s not a complete waste of time, either. It may be a hackneyed Halloween clone, but it’s also a thinly-disguised 20th century re-imagining of Beowulf. It has one of the most interesting monsters of the 1980s, and the actress who plays this role is extremely talented. While it leaves a bit to be desired, Friday the 13th is not quite as bad a film as some people make it out to be, and it actually deserves the devoted fan base it’s developed over the years. Some of you who are reading this may feel that just reading about the film is enough, and that’s all right with me; as I’ve already said, the really interesting stuff with Pamela Voorhees doesn’t really come in until the last twenty minutes or so. But at the same time, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse. Friday the 13th may not be comparable to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or anything like that, but it still beats most other slasher films (the grand majority of which are even more stupid).