What's the true horror of classic terror film, Friday the 13th?

Is the original Friday The 13th really supernatural territory? The case against will argue, rightly, that it is not the invincible Jason Voorhees who is stalking and killing the teenaged camp counsellors of Crystal Lake in this initial outing – rather it’s his vengeful middle-aged mother. Moreover, when Mrs Voorhees (played by the late Betsy Palmer) is decapitated by the last surviving cast member, Alice (Adrienne King), during the film’s splatter-packed showdown it’s evident that that is, indeed, that. The psychopath is no more and Friday The 13th’s slice and dice mayhem comes to an abrupt conclusion.

However, the case for would surely point out that Sean Cunningham’s trendsetting terror title is every bit as supernatural as John Carpenter’s Halloween, the 1978 masterpiece from which Friday The 13th borrows most of its thematic ideas. For a start, Mrs Voorhees is strongly hinted to be possessed by the spirit of her “dead” son, Jason. Not only does she speak in his voice, and talk to him, but flashbacks indicate that she is driven to insanity by the recurring image of him drowning in Camp Crystal Lake. Is it all in her head? Maybe – but then the ending of Friday The 13th clearly, and indisputably, maintains that Jason lives. He is in the lake.

Indeed, the final image of Cunningham’s movie is air bubbles emerging from the watery depths… “The thing is – we just wanted a good scare at the end,” admits Cunningham when we catch up with him. “I never actually thought that this was going to set up Jason as a recurring character or anything.” Yet it most certainly did. The Friday The 13th sequels would indicate that, as per the conclusion of the first film, Jason was a curse on Camp Crystal Lake. The mutant child who was thought to have drowned while the counsellors made love and ignored his pleas for help, was – after the decapitation of his mother – manifested into a hulking machete-wielding weirdo who cuts his way through anyone crazy enough to trespass on his land.

“I was sitting around with some friends one night, trying to work out how to make a hit children’s film,” laughs Cunningham, who had earlier produced 1972’s The Last House On The Left for Wes Craven. “We came up with this title – Friday The 13th – and I thought, ‘Well I could sell that but it won’t work as a kids’ movie’ [laughs]. But the title stuck with me. Eventually I decided to create this advertisement for Variety – this great big thing with bold white letters that said ‘Friday The 13th – the most terrifying movie ever made’. I figured that if we ran this, and somebody already controlled the title, then they were going to call me and stop me [laughs]. But no one ever challenged the use of the title – instead, I got a ton of telexes from around the world because people really wanted to see a horror movie called Friday The 13th. It was one of these things that happened really quickly. We didn’t even have a script to shoot! People were asking us what it was about so they could invest and we had to bluff everything until the screenplay was done [laughs].”

Cunningham’s remarkably unassuming decision paid off with one of the top 20 grossing films of its year (in the summer of 1980, Friday The 13th ran second only to The Empire Strikes Back for a few weeks). Shot for just over $500,000 in a (still functioning) Boy Scout site in New Jersey called Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, the film also gave future superstar Kevin Bacon his first significant screen role. Furthermore, in addition to a suitably sinister soundtrack (“ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma-ma”), Cunningham’s decision to hire an up-and-coming special effects guru by the name of Tom Savini saw Friday The 13th initiate a new movement in gruesome horror violence.

“I think part of the fun with Friday The 13th was that this was before we had CGI,” admits Cunningham. “So you were kind of seeing a magic show. You had Betsy Palmer standing there, and someone swinging a machete at her, and all of a sudden you saw her head come off, and blood spurting everywhere [laughs]. Now this was 1980 and I promise you, you had never seen that before and it is sort of like a magician sawing his assistant in half. You know he did not really saw her in half but it sure looked like he did, so how did he do that? There is a kind of fun in that sort of magic trick, right? And that’s where we were in the history of special effects – and why Friday The 13th became such an important horror film. I love the scene that Tom Savini planned where Kevin Bacon is on his bed and all of a sudden this arrow comes out of his neck – ‘Holy shit – what happened there?’ you know? Now, you understand that the arrow didn’t actually come out through his neck, but ‘How did they do that?’ I miss those days of practical magic.”

Of course, no one is ever going to award Friday The 13th any prizes for its plot. A night at a summer camp, preparing for the arrival of the children, becomes a desperate attempt to survive when Mrs Voorhees picks off the counsellors one by one. But where Friday The 13th excels is in making its young leads likeable. They might have sex, smoke the odd joint and play pranks on one another, but as with Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, you generally want this ragtag group of teenagers to make it to the end in one piece.

“When I read the script, I thought to myself, ‘I think this is going to be a really creepy movie,’” admits Adrienne King, who played the film’s sole surviving heroine. “It was a dream come true for me to land the lead role. I thought the character of Alice was great and I wanted her to live – and that includes making it through part two – even though they decided to kill me in the sequel [laughs]. But it was a family atmosphere making that first film with Sean, Tom and Kevin. We were just a tiny little independent feature being made in cold weather out in the back of beyond.”

For King, Friday The 13th’s biggest challenge proved to be surviving the shock ending in which her character is pulled to the muddy floor of Crystal Lake by a suddenly not-dead-at-all Jason Voorhees… “We nearly ran out of money and when I was doing that scene in the lake at the end we did not even have enough cash for a wetsuit,” sighs the actress. “It was absolutely freezing [laughs]. We were on an absolute minimum budget and everyone was surprised that Sean even managed to finish the movie. I have never been so cold in my life!”

King was not the only one who realised that this backwoods bout of bloody mayhem was shaping up to be something that would take the multiplex by storm. After completing his carnage-ridden romp, Cunningham took the unlikely decision to knock on the doors of the major American studios. With the independently distributed Halloween fresh in everyone’s minds, the big leagues were eager to find the next big horror hit. In other words: the director’s timing was impeccable…

“Sean let me come along to the screenings that he was doing for the studios,” recalls King. “I remember that was how my mum saw it for the first time. It was at the Paramount lot and when the ending, with Jason, came out of nowhere she jumped right out of her seat [laughs]. I turned around and saw Sean shaking hands with someone. It turned out it was Frank Mancuso, one of the top guys at Paramount Pictures, and the rest – as they say – is history…”

After Friday The 13th proved to be a phenomenon, Cunningham was handed the keys to the Hollywood castle. However, perhaps in tune with his rebellious independent beginnings, the director opted out of taking the reins of the sequels. Instead, selling away his property rights to Camp Crystal Lake, Cunningham wanted nothing to do with Paramount’s plans to make Friday The 13th into a fright franchise.

“It was sort of like this little cash cow that kept coming around every year or two but which they were kind of embarrassed by,” he admits. “But, no, I don’t regret not doing the sequels. There are financial reasons why I should have made them but I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do the same film all over again.’ I did Friday The 13th and that’s fine, but I didn’t want to keep doing it, and I wasn’t driven to do it.”

Nevertheless, the shadow of Jason would not leave Cunningham’s life. In the early 1990s his hit property was brought back into his possession and, just like Baron Frankenstein trying to murder his own monstrous creation, he attempted to kill it once for all. However, since Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993’s ninth instalment), Cunningham has been tempted back to produce Jason X (2002), Freddy Vs Jason (2003) and the inevitable remake (in 2009). Despite his earlier attempt to walk away, the director-turned-producer just can’t seem to give up the Voorhees ghost…

“All we were trying to do with that first film was make a small movie that might find a small audience,” laughs the director in retrospect. “If you had told me Friday The 13th would somehow lead to merchandising, hockey masks and a television show I would never have believed you. It just goes to show, though, that 13 isn’t always an unlucky number!”

Click here for more excellent SFX articles. Or maybe you want to take advantage of some great offers on magazine subscriptions? You can find them here.

Images REX