Friday the 13th at 40: How To Steal and Sell a Movie

Proto-indie filmmaker Roger Corman once said, “Motion pictures are the art form of the 20th century, and one of the reasons is the fact that films are a slightly corrupted artform. They fit this century – they combine art and business!” Not the most romantic sentiment from the Pit and the Pendulum director, but the proof is in the box office returns: Corman’s low-budget pictures consistently made a healthy profit for nearly four decades. His secret, among other more frugal things, was knowing what the people want and giving it to them: bikinis, explosions, spooks, and counterculture. In his 1980 slasher Friday the 13th, Sean S. Cunningham adopted the strategy; he threw every profitable aspect of previous horror hits into a blender and hit puree. The result is one of the most lucrative and duplicated slasher films of all time. As the movie’s 40th anniversary peeks around the corner with machete in hand, it’s time to pay our respects to its brazen financial motivations and kitchen-sink approach that would make the likes of Herschel Gordon Lewis proud. 

In his book Nightmare USA, film historian Stephen Thrower calls Friday  “the lynch-pin deal between mainstream cinema and the exploitation independents.” Jaws primed the pump by relocating B-movie sensation into the realm of big studio fare: a severed leg here, a nubile skinny dipping victim there. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976) upped the ante, but it wasn’t until Sean S. Cunningham made a gory cash grab in 1980 that the slasher formula was solidified. Less movie-making than deal-making, Friday the 13th fires for maximum effect and profitability. In the Crystal Lake Memories documentary, screenwriter Victor Miller recalls the genesis of his involvement: a phone call with Sean Cunningham that began, “Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office. Why don’t we rip it off?” Cunningham doesn’t lay claim to much artistic capital, which is probably one of the reasons why the franchise hasn’t gotten much of a critical gaze beyond the formula it established and the tsunami of a subgenre it (along with Halloween) helped to inspire. 

“The simple truth is that I need a hit film,” he told Fangoria in 1980. “So few people survive at all in this business, making any kind of film; it’s all very nice to talk about ‘cinema,’ but the truth of the matter is that Friday the 13th seems to me a strong commercial property, and I think now is the right time for it.” With nothing but the title, the director took out a hype ad of epic proportions in the July 1979 issue of Variety: “From the people who brought you The Last House on the Left comes the most terrifying film ever made: FRIDAY THE 13TH.” With nothing more than a full-page promise and a title, Cunningham managed to secure financing from Georgetown Productions (an arm of Hallmark Releasing Corp, that of Last House on the Left fame). Armed with a production budget of $125,000, Cunningham and Miller locked down an ideal shooting location in a New Jersey Boy Scout camp and cranked out a script. As author David Konow tells it in Reel Terror, Georgetown upped their bid to $550,000 after reading Victor Miller’s script.

The summary, for the uninitiated: a group of counselors arrive at Camp Crystal Lake to reopen the former summer camp, despite local warnings of a curse after a child tragically died there years before. The implied “curse” was that of the dead boy’s ghost, one Jason Voorhees, taking his revenge on the counselors that let him die. The curse, however, turns out to be very real, in the form of an unknown assailant knocking the teenagers off one by one. 

The story and beats are colossally derivative. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho provided the inspiration to surprise the audience within the first 20 minutes, while a more recent stalk-and-slash gave the film’s opening  its structure. In a scene that lifts directly from Halloween, the audience is privileged to the killer’s POV as he (or she) strikes down an amorous pair of young lovers. In Fangoria, Cunningham admits that the choice was more wallet-driven than creative: “Originally, we had planned to shoot that scene in quite a different way. It was written to occur by the lake on the campgrounds, there was to be a chase throughout a boathouse and by the water, and a few other things. The first night we had planned to shoot it, it snowed. The second time, our generator failed. So, we had to choose a location that had its own current source—which turned out to be the interior of a barn. Working on a limited budget, there wasn’t much choice other than doing it that way. I’m hoping that people can take it as a sort of tip of the hat to Mr. Carpenter.”

By the time the sequels were off and running, the Halloween homogenization intensified: in Part III, the now-grown Jason wore a mask, donned utilitarian clothing, and picked off horny kids and unsuspecting folks in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like a Shatner-faced boogeyman we all know. The one Friday the 13th element that didn’t (yet) solidify in the fright formula as we know it is that of the killer’s identity. It’s not until Part 2 that the male killer makes his appearance, and by that time slashers My Bloody Valentine, Halloween II, Prom Night, Terror Train, and Maniac took the gender trope and ran with it.

The carbon copies keep coming. In a closer that producer Steve Miner calls “grand theft cinema,” Friday the 13th ends with defeated survivor Alice (Adrienne King) drifting along Crystal Lake in a canoe, seemingly safe—until young Jason shoots out of the water and pulls her down. The scene is a blatant mimic of the final dream sequence of Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976). Harry Manfredini’s score does the heavy lifting to create a sense of safety for the viewer, a Pied Piper on the piano leading the audience to one final scare. It’s a pitch-perfect coda to a story that hits all the right notes for peak titillation. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.

Contrary to the slick editing and atmospheres of Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (in which you think you saw more penetration and bloodletting than you actually did), Friday the 13th’s body count is front and center, with many kills shown on screen. In order to further level up, Cunningham recruited makeup effects artist Tom Savini, fresh off the success of George A. Romero’s visceral zombie joint Dawn of the Dead (1978). Savini’s background as a combat photographer served him well on the set, enabling him to create kill sequences that he likens to pornographic money shots. Slashed throats, beheadings, and impalements pepper the threadbare narrative, the blades following an algorithm established in Italian giallo cinema in the decade prior (indeed, Friday the 13th Part II contains an infamous shish-kabob killing that apes a murder scene in Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood). The carnage prompted some critics to call for an ‘X’ rating rather than the ‘R’ it earned from the MPAA. They presented the gratuitous slayings as a flaw: in his review of Terror Train, Roger Ebert called slashers of the 80s “a series of sensations, strung together on plot. Any plot will do. Just don’t forget the knife, the girl, and the blood.” There’s no shade in the observation that Friday the 13th hits all of these marks, which is precisely why it worked like gangbusters in its time. 

The studio tag-team came along at the perfect moment and proved Cunningham right when he said that it was the “right time” for such a film. According to Richard Nowell’s Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle, Friday’s financiers set up a screening for MPAA members, and a studio-wide bidding war ensued between Paramount, UA, and Warner Bros. Warner did secure international distribution rights, but Paramount emerged the victor. Paramount, in picking up and promoting the film, effectively manufactured a horror blockbuster. Cunningham’s feature wasn’t the only Halloween cash-in; the entire cross-media marketing strategy was calculated to suggest content similarities to the 1978 smash hit, from the comic book-style poster (both films’ posters feature an unknown killer brandishing a knife against a pitch-black background) to the double-dog-dare-you trailer quipping, “You may only see (Friday the 13th) once, but once will be enough.” 

A multi-million dollar campaign popped off to the tune of $4.5 million, nearly double the average marketing budget for North American releases of the time. It hit theaters nationwide on May 9, 1980, with all of the legitimacy of a studio feature. Halloween was a predecessor that made millions, but even Carpenter’s classic was held at an arm’s length by Hollywood, like many indie horrors of the era. Paramount, conversely, had the capital to push their new acquisition with the muscle they normally give to blockbusters like King Kong (1976). The dice landed in the backers’ favor: Friday the 13th brought in over $39 million in the States. It was the second-highest grossing horror film of the year, behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The counselor-killing tale was such a strong commercial property that it pinged on the radars of more vanilla types in the film world; critics eviscerated it across the board. Just two issues after Cunningham beamed that it was the “right time” for a film like his, Fangoria head Bob Martin ran an Editor’s Note launching a resentful counter-attack against film critic Gene Siskel, who was so incensed by Friday the 13th’s existence that he intentionally spoiled its ending in his review, and encouraged readers to flood Paramount’s corporate headquarters with hate mail. Pissing off critics but selling theater tickets with feverish fury, the film made undeniable waves at just the right moment. Paramount’s gamble on Friday, and its ensuing success, ushered in a new era of modern horror in which the genre was the star for studios and distributors.

The ensuing imitators flooded in and sliced teens up throughout the decade, sometimes with nothing more than an event-based title or a woodsy setting: Madman. Graduation Day. Final Exam. April Fool’s Day. Bloody Birthday. Within the franchise, Friday the 13th followed its own template and stuck with the good stuff: youths on parade, and then there were none. It would take three more films before the powers that be truly honed the backwoods slasher formula to a sharp edge in Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, in which Frank Zito presents moviegoers with the iconic Jason that we adore today. The nuclear fallout from the original spawned lucrative media mutations that crawled their way into pocketbooks worldwide, from comic books to action figures to a video game. It’s fun to dissect art masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby and decipher thematic clues in the props of The Shining, but there’s something to be said for commercial giants like Friday the 13th that left a monstrous footprint in genre cinema simply by doubling down on the hustle and delivering on its promise. It’s not a classic because it “transcends horror” or some other pithy arthouse snobbery. Cunningham wanted to make some money with some decent scares—and he succeeded. The picture serves as a cheeky commentary on the seismic changes that can rumble from the film industry, the epicenter directly under whichever crafty (some might say mercenary) creators can see which way the wind is blowing and put a product out quickly.

Cunningham followed in the glorious opportunist footsteps of Roger Corman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Al Adamson: make it cheap, make it fast, and make it thrilling. It’s perched at an odd place in horror film fandom: the story was too much of a success to be an underground cult classic, too groundbreaking in its time to fade into obscurity and enjoy a renewed appreciation from the media restoration house du jour, and too technically competent to be “so bad it’s good.” In a realm that sits on the fringes of cinema and valorizes shocking originality, Friday the 13th is KISS’ Dynasty, it’s KRS-One’s “Step Into A World” remix with Puff Daddy; it’s the sell-out joint that taps the cultural keg of the era at the perfect time to yield victory on the charts. Through homage and huckster carnival-barking, Cunningham, Miner, Miller, and the studio that gambled on them effectively raised the mainstream genre bar with the sort of violence, titillation, and rude energy that one could previously only find in independent drive-in fare of the 1970s. Doff your cap (or hockey mask) to a 40-year-old game-changer that combines art and business to make one of the great enduring scare-fests. Don’t forget to stay away from the camp—it’s got a death curse.

“Friday the 13th” is now streaming on Prime Video. Paramount is releasing a 40th anniversary Blu-ray Steelbook on June 16.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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