This is the story of a boy and his mother, and how the mother came to murder a bunch of camp counselors before the boy came back from the bottom of a lake to take over for Mom while wearing a burlap sack over his head, later deciding that a hockey mask was the better look for him. It’s also the story of two guys with a crazy idea, and how they turned an ad into a film series that spans decades.
Of course, we’re talking about the Friday the 13th movie franchise.
The genesis of Friday came from producer-director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller. Cunningham had prior experience in horror, having produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left in 1972. Miller had a varied writing background, which included advertising, television, prose, and film; he wrote two sports comedies in the late ’70s that Cunningham directed. Inspired by the indie success of Halloween in 1978, the two began working from a story that was originally called A Long Night at Camp Blood. However, Cunningham saw the cache of tying the story to a similarly sinister date, and that’s when the unfinished screenplay became Friday the 13th.
Cunningham went one step further. Wishing to stake a claim to the name, he commissioned an ad and placed it in International Variety. The ad, with the stylized title breaking through glass, ran in the spring of 1979, even before Miller finished the screenplay. By fall, the movie was filming; the predominantly young cast included Kevin Bacon, while the pivotal role of Mrs. Voorhees went to Hollywood veteran Betsy Palmer (remember, Jason’s mom is the killer in the first film, with Jason not appearing until the final jump-scare in the lake). As a result of the buzz around the ad and the desire to get in on what could be the next Halloween, several studios contended for the right to release the picture. Paramount bought the rights for $1.5 million, which would turn out to be quite the bargain.
Friday the 13th opened on May 9, 1980, and it was reviled by critics. Audiences, on the other hand, voted with their wallets. The film turned into a huge hit for Paramount — it was the third highest moneymaker for them that year, trailing only Airplane! and Urban Cowboy. It struck financial gold in international release, pulling in another $20 million. The film’s $59 million total haul would have been worth roughly $178 million in 2017 dollars.
The studio knew they needed a sequel. Though Cunningham was more interested in the anthology route, producer Phil Scuderi thought they should continue the story and have Jason be the new killer. Associate producer Steve Miner agreed, and he ended up directing the sequel; it saw a grown-up Jason, wearing a burlap sack over his head, kill the original film’s final girl and go a new murder spree. Miner also directed Friday the 13th Part III (aka Friday the 13th 3D), which owns the twin distinctions of being in 3D and being the film wherein Jason begins wearing his signature hockey mask.
Between 1980 and 2003, ten Friday films and one crossover (Freddy vs. Jason) were produced. A syndicated TV series, cleverly titled Friday the 13th – The Series, launched from Paramount in 1987; though it was overseen by frequent series producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., it had no other connection to the Jason films aside from the name. The action focused on characters trying to retrieve a series of cursed objects; the show did well in its first year and ran three seasons. In theaters, Jason continued on his merry murderous way, but the eighth film, subtitled Jason Takes Manhattan, showed seriously diminishing box office returns.
Cunningham got involved again in the late ’80s, helping New Line acquire the rights from Paramount after the eighth film. When Platinum Dunes took over the franchise in the late 2000s, Paramount and New Line remained partners (due to owning particular pieces of the franchise) and Cunningham continued as a producer; that group oversaw the 2009 reboot, Friday the 13th. Since then, the promise of new films has been bogged down in various stages in a legal morass, with ownership and copyright issues abounding. New players, like the production company of NBA superstar LeBron James, have also gotten involved. It seems that everyone wants there to be another film, but no one is quite sure who owns what to what degree, from the screenplay (whose copyright reclamation by Miller has been contested) to various pieces of the lore, each of which may belong to the studio under which each particular film was made. While screenplays have been written and filming plans have been made and scrapped, nothing is certain at this moment.
What is certain is that Jason Voorhees will inevitably return. That is, after all, his thing. From a simple idea to a claim-staking ad, Jason emerged as one of the horror icons of the 1980s. Whereas the 1930s saw Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man step up as horror heroes, the ’70s and ’80s inducted Leatherface, Michael, Freddy, and Jason into the pantheon. The hockey mask went from simple sporting protection to an outright symbol of the horror genre.
So we won’t count Jason out. Even if we don’t know which studio or creative team will make the next Friday, we know they’ll make a killing.
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Nobody likes to watch scary movies alone. A charming onscreen host to break up the tension of Son of Dracula or (god forbid) The Wasp Woman with spooky shtick was a successful television formula for decades.
Vampira was one such horror hostess, and probably the first, in 1954. In KABC-TV’s The Vampira Show, the femme fatale with a 17-inch waist creeps toward the camera through a foggy cemetery and lets out a shriek. “Screaming relaxes me so,” she says. Every horror host had a signature introduction and tone, from Doctor Lucifer and Sammy Terry to Sinister Seymour and Elvira. When did these ghoulish emcees die off?
The start of the midnight movie phenomenon is documented in the Post’s 1958 article, “TV’s Midnight Madness.” When Associated Artists Productions and Columbia Picture’s Screen Gems starting selling packages of old monster movies to local television stations in 1957, it seemed the dated, cheesy films would need an extra element to appeal to audiences. Philadelphia’s John Zacherle played a tall undertaker-like character named Roland in WCAU’s Shock Theater. His gimmicky sketches and interaction with viewers alongside films like Cry of the Werewolf and Murder on a Honeymoon were a big hit. In fact, “an American Research Bureau survey showed it even outranking such network favorites as Ed Sullivan and Studio One,” and “in some cities, the weirdie films earned ratings for their stations 10 or 12 times what they had been.” A new style of television was born.
Various manners of horror hosts spawned across the U.S.: snarky, outlandish, creepy, and shocking. Fan letters were a staple in Zacherle’s show. When he asked fans to send in three hairs from their head to make a pillow for his undead — and offscreen — wife, 23,000 letters came into the station.
In Los Angeles and New York City, Fright Night was a long-running program with hosts Larry Vincent and, later, Moona Lisa. Elvira’s Movie Macabre replaced the show in 1981 and pushed the envelope of horror hosts with its sexually suggestive goth bombshell. Elvira’s risqué quips and criticism of the show’s B-horror features earned her a top spot in cult fandom.
Today, horror hosts are as much a part of nostalgia as the monster movies they often introduced. With the transformation of television to cable providers and streaming services, local talent decked out in capes and fangs doesn’t make the airwaves anymore. That isn’t to say that horror has gone away; the genre is as popular as ever. Last month the newest film adaptation of Stephen King’s It opened to the most successful weekend in horror movie history. On television, episodic horror series are ever-popular. American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and Stranger Things have masses of viewers. Even The X-Files is getting a second chance.
In “TV’s Midnight Madness,” author Roul Tunley claims that Western society’s fascination with fright traces back to Greek theater and was prevalent in Shakespeare and Goethe: “Down through the ages, both audiences and playwrights have realized that one of the simplest ways of exorcising personal ghosts is by having them hauled out in public in a spine-tingling play.” Tunley concluded that “the current preoccupation with shock entertainment and movie horror may represent an escape from the real horror all around us.” The same psychological phenomenon may explain popularity of gorier, more horrifying tropes today. The only difference is the lack of a jocular persona to guide us through the nightmare.