Friday the 13th is a 1980 American slasher film produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, and written by Victor Miller. It stars Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Kevin Bacon, Jeannine Taylor, Mark Nelson, and Robbi Morgan. The film tells the story of a group of teenage camp counselors who are murdered one by one by an unknown killer while attempting to re-open an abandoned summer camp.
Prompted by the success of John Carpenter‘s Halloween (1978), director Cunningham put out an advertisement to sell the film in Variety in early 1979, while Miller was still drafting the screenplay. After casting the film in New York City, filming took place in New Jersey in the summer of 1979, on an estimated budget of $550,000. A bidding war ensued over the finished film, ending with Paramount Pictures acquiring the film for domestic distribution, while Warner Bros. secured European distribution rights.
Released on May 9, 1980, Friday the 13th was a major box office success, grossing over $39.7 million in the United States alone and $20 million international, making it the highest grossing film in the franchise in adjusted dollars. Critical response to the film was divided, with some praising the film’s cinematography, score, and performances, while numerous others derided it for its depiction of graphic violence. Aside from being the first independent film of its kind to secure distribution in the U.S. by a major studio, its box office success led to a long series of sequels, a crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a 2009 series reboot.
In 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake, counselors Barry and Claudette sneak inside a storage barn to have sex, where an unseen assailant murders them. Twenty-one years later, camp counselor Annie Phillips is given a lift halfway to the reopened Camp Crystal Lake by a truck driver named Enos. Before they reach the truck, an elderly man named Crazy Ralph warns Annie that “Camp Blood” is cursed. While driving, Enos tries to persuade Annie to turn back and leave, warning her about the camp’s past. He informs her about a young boy who drowned at Crystal Lake in 1957 and several other suspicious deaths. After being dropped off, Annie hitches another ride from an unseen person. The driver drives past the road to Crystal Lake at full speed. After her urgent requests to turn back are ignored, Annie panics, jumps out of the vehicle, and is pursued into the woods, where the driver slashes her throat.
At the camp, counselors Ned Rubenstein, Jack Burrell, Bill Brown, Marcie Cunningham, Brenda Jones, and Alice Hardy, along with the owner Steve Christy, refurbish the cabins and facilities. As a thunderstorm approaches, Steve leaves the campground to stock supplies. Afterward, Ned sees someone walk into a cabin and follows. While Jack and Marcie have sex in one of the cabin’s bunk beds, they are unaware of Ned’s body above them, with his throat slit. When Marcie leaves to use the bathroom, Jack’s throat is pierced with an arrow from beneath the bed. The killer follows Marcie to the bathroom and slams an axe into her face. Brenda hears a child’s voice calling for help and ventures outside to the archery range, where the lights turn on. Later, Steve returns to the camp and is confronted by the unseen killer, who stabs him.
Worried by their friends’ disappearances, Alice and Bill leave the main cabin to investigate. They find a bloody axe in Brenda’s bed, the phones disconnected, and the cars inoperable. When the power goes out, Bill goes to check on the generator. Alice heads out to look for him and finds his body pinned with arrows to the generator room’s door. She flees back to the main cabin to hide, only to be traumatized further when Brenda’s body is thrown through the window. Soon after, Alice sees a vehicle pull up and rushes outside, thinking it is Steve. Instead, she is greeted by a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Voorhees, who claims to be an old friend of Steve.
Mrs. Voorhees sees Brenda’s body and begins to reminisce that her son Jason was the young boy who drowned in 1957. She blames his death on the counselors who were supposed to be watching him, but instead were having sex and not paying attention to Jason drowning. Revealing herself as the killer, Mrs. Voorhees attempts to kill Alice with her bowie knife, but she knocks her unconscious. Finding Alice at the shore, Mrs. Voorhees tries to kill her again with a machete, but Alice gains the advantage and decapitates her. Exhausted, Alice boards and falls asleep inside a canoe, which floats out on Crystal Lake. The next morning, just as Alice wakes up, Jason’s decomposing body attacks her. She awakens in a hospital where a police officer and medical staff tend to her. When Alice asks about Jason, the officer says there was no sign of any boy. Alice says “Then he’s still there”, as the lake is shown at peace.
- Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees
- Adrienne King as Alice Hardy
- Harry Crosby III as Bill Brown
- Jeannine Taylor as Marcie Cunningham
- Laurie Bartram as Brenda Jones
- Kevin Bacon as Jack Burrell
- Mark Nelson as Ned Rubenstein
- Robbi Morgan as Annie Phillips
- Peter Brouwer as Steve Christy
- Rex Everhart as Enos
- Ronn Carroll as Sgt. Tierney
- Walt Gorney as Crazy Ralph
- Willie Adams as Barry Jackson
- Debra S. Hayes as Claudette Hayes
- Sally Anne Golden as Sandy, the Diner Waitress
- Ari Lehman as Jason Voorhees
Friday the 13th was produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who had previously worked with filmmaker Wes Craven on the film The Last House on the Left. Cunningham, inspired by John Carpenter‘s Halloween, wanted Friday the 13th to be shocking, visually stunning and “[make] you jump out of your seat.” Wanting to distance himself from The Last House on the Left, Cunningham wanted Friday the 13th to be more of a “roller-coaster ride.”
The original screenplay was tentatively titled A Long Night at Camp Blood. While working on a redraft of the screenplay, Cunningham proposed the title Friday the 13th, after which Miller began redeveloping. Cunningham rushed out to place an advertisement in Variety using the Friday the 13th title. Worried that someone else owned the rights to the title and wanting to avoid potential lawsuits, Cunningham thought it would be best to find out immediately. He commissioned a New York advertising agency to develop his concept of the Friday the 13th logo, which consisted of big block letters bursting through a pane of glass. In the end, Cunningham believed there were “no problems” with the title, but distributor George Mansour stated, “There was a movie before ours called Friday the 13th: The Orphan. It was moderately successful. But someone still threatened to sue. Either Phil Scuderi paid them off, but it was finally resolved.”
The screenplay was completed in mid-1979 by Victor Miller, who later went on to write for several television soap operas, including Guiding Light, One Life to Live and All My Children; at the time, Miller was living in Stratford, Connecticut, near Cunningham, and the two had begun collaborating on potential film projects. Miller delighted in inventing a serial killer who turned out to be somebody’s mother, a murderer whose only motivation was her love for her child. “I took motherhood and turned it on its head and I think that was great fun. Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I’d always wanted—a mother who would have killed for her kids.” Miller was unhappy about the filmmakers’ decision to make Jason Voorhees the killer in the sequels. “Jason was dead from the very beginning. He was a victim, not a villain.”
The idea of Jason appearing at the end of the film was initially not used in the original script; in Miller’s final draft, the film ended with Alice merely floating on the lake. Jason’s appearance was actually suggested by makeup designer Tom Savini. Savini stated that “The whole reason for the cliffhanger at the end was I had just seen Carrie, so we thought that we need a ‘chair jumper’ like that, and I said, ‘let’s bring in Jason'”.
A New York-based firm, headed by Julie Hughes and Barry Moss, was hired to find eight young actors to play the camp’s staff members. Cunningham admits that he was not looking for “great actors,” but anyone that was likable, and appeared to be a responsible camp counselor. The way Cunningham saw it, the actors would need to look good, read the dialogue somewhat well, and work cheap. Moss and Hughes were happy to find four actors, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Bartram, Peter Brouwer, and Adrienne King, who had previously appeared on soap operas. The role of Alice Hardy was set up as an open casting call, a publicity stunt used to attract more attention to the film. King earned an audition primarily because she was the friend of someone working in Moss and Hughes’s office, and Cunningham felt she embodied the qualities of Alice. After she auditioned, Moss recalls Cunningham commenting that they saved the best actress for last. As Cunningham explains, he was looking for people that could behave naturally, and King was able to show that to him in the audition.
I didn’t even really think of this movie as a horror film. “To me, this was a small independent film about carefree teenagers who are having a rip-roaring time at a summer camp where they happen to be working as counselors. Then they just happen to get killed.
—Jeannine Taylor on how she viewed Friday the 13th
With King cast in the role of lead heroine Alice, Laurie Bartram was hired to play Brenda. Kevin Bacon, Mark Nelson and Jeannine Taylor, who had known each other prior to the film, were cast as Jack, Ned, and Marcie respectively. It is Bacon and Nelson’s contention that, because the three already knew each other, they already had the specific chemistry the casting director was looking for in the roles of Jack, Ned, and Marcie. Taylor has stated that Hughes and Moss were highly regarded while she was an actress, so when they offered her an audition she felt that, whatever the part, it would “be a good opportunity.”
Friday the 13th was Nelson’s first feature film, and when he went in for his first audition the only thing he was given to read were some comedic scenes. Nelson received a call back for a second audition, which required him to wear a bathing suit, which Nelson acknowledges made him start to wonder if something was off about this film. He did not fully realize what was going on until he got the part and was given the full script to read. Nelson explains, “It certainly was not a straight dramatic role, and it was only after they offered me the part that they gave me the full script to read and I realized how much blood was in it.” Nelson believes that Ned used humor to hide his insecurities, especially around Brenda, whom the actor believes Ned was attracted to. Nelson recalls an early draft of the script stating that Ned suffered from polio, and his legs were deformed while his upper body was muscular. Ned is believed to have given birth to the “practical joker victim” of horror films. According to author David Grove, there was no equivalent character in John Carpenter‘s Halloween, or Bob Clark‘s Black Christmas before that. He served as a model for the slasher films that would follow Friday the 13th.
I went in to audition for [Moss and Hughes] for something else. They said, “you know, Robbi, you’re not really right for this, but there’s a movie called Friday the 13th and they need an adorable camp counselor.
—Robbi Morgan on how she obtained the role of Annie
The part of Bill was given to Harry Crosby, son of Bing Crosby. Robbi Morgan, who plays Annie, was not auditioning for the film when she was offered the role; while in her office, Hughes looked at Morgan and proclaimed “you’re a camp counselor.” The next day Morgan was on the set. Morgan only appeared on-set for a day to shoot all her scenes. Rex Everhart, who portrays Enos, did not film the truck scenes with Morgan, so she had to either act with an imaginary Enos, or exchange dialogue with Taso Stavrakis—Savini’s assistant—who would sit in the truck with her. It was Peter Brouwer’s girlfriend that helped him land a role on Friday the 13th. After recently being written off the show Love of Life, Brouwer moved back to Connecticut to look for work. Learning that his girlfriend was working as an assistant director for Friday the 13th, Brouwer asked about any openings. Initially told casting was looking for big stars to fill the role of Steve Christy, it was not until Sean Cunningham dropped by to deliver a message to Brouwer’s girlfriend, and saw him working in a garden, that Brouwer was hired.
Estelle Parsons was initially asked to portray the film’s killer, Mrs. Voorhees, but eventually declined. Her agent cited that the film was too violent, and did not know what kind of actress would play such a part. Hughes and Moss sent a copy of the script to Betsy Palmer, in hopes that she would accept the part. Palmer could not understand why someone would want her for a part in a horror film, as she had previously starred in films such as Mister Roberts, The Angry Man, and The Tin Star. Palmer only agreed to play the role because she needed to buy a new car, even when she believed the film to “be a piece of shit.” Stavrakis subbed for Betsy Palmer as well, which involved Morgan’s character being chased through the woods by Mrs. Voorhees, although the audience only sees a pair of legs running after Morgan. Palmer had just arrived in town when those scenes were about to be filmed, and was not in the physical shape necessary to chase Morgan around the woods. Morgan’s training as an acrobat assisted her in these scenes, as her character was required to leap out of a moving jeep when she discovers that Mrs. Voorhees does not intend to take her to the camp. Betsy Palmer explains how she developed the character of Mrs. Voorhees:
Being an actress who uses the Stanislavsky method, I always try to find details about my character. With Pamela … I began with a class ring that I remember reading in the script that she’d worn. Starting with that, I traced Pamela back to my own high school days in the early 1940s. So it’s 1944, a very conservative time, and Pamela has a steady boyfriend.
They have sex—which is very bad of course—and Pamela soon gets pregnant with Jason. The father takes off and when Pamela tells her parents, they disown her because having … babies out of wedlock isn’t something that good girls do. I think she took Jason and raised him the best she could, but he turned out to be a very strange boy. [She took] lots of odd jobs and one of those jobs was as a cook at a summer camp. Then Jason drowns and her whole world collapses. What were the counselors doing instead of watching Jason? They were having sex, which is the way that she got into trouble. From that point on, Pamela became very psychotic and puritanical in her attitudes as she was determined to kill all of the immoral camp counselors.
Cunningham wanted to make the Mrs. Voorhees character “terrifying”, and to that end he believed it was important that Palmer not act “over the top.” There was also the fear that Palmer’s past credits, as more of a wholesome character, would make it difficult to believe she could be scary. Palmer was paid $1000 per day for her ten days on set. Ari Lehman, who had previously auditioned for Cunningham’s Manny’s Orphans, failing to get the part, was determined to land the role of Jason Voorhees. According to Lehman, he went in very intense and afterward Cunningham told him he was perfect for the part. In addition to the main cast, Walt Gorney came on as “Crazy Ralph”, the town’s soothsayer. The character of Crazy Ralph was meant to establish two functions: foreshadow the events to come, and insinuate that he could actually be the murderer. Cunningham has stated that he was apprehensive about including the character, and is not sure if he accomplished his goal of creating a new suspect.
The film was shot in and around the townships of Hardwick, Blairstown and Hope, New Jersey in September 1979. The camp scenes were shot on a working Boy Scout camp, Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco which is located in Hardwick, New Jersey. The camp is still standing and still operates as a summer camp. The cinematography in the film employs recurrent point-of-view shots from the perspective of the villain.
Savini was hired to design the film’s special effects based upon his work in George A. Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Savini’s design contributions included crafting the effects of Marcie’s axe wound to the face, the arrow penetrating Jack’s throat, and Mrs. Voorhees’s decapitation by the machete.
During the filming of the fight sequences between King and Palmer’s characters, Palmer suggested rehearsing the scene based on her training in theater:
“I said to Adrienne that night ‘Why don’t we rehearse this scene, I have to slap you,’ because on-stage when you slap somebody, you slap them.” While rehearsing, Palmer slapped King in the face, and she began crying: “She collapsed to the floor, crying, ‘Sean! [Cunningham] She hit me.’ I said, well, of course I hit her, we were rehearsing the scene. He said, ‘No, no, no Betsy, we don’t hit people in movies. We miss them.”
When Harry Manfredini began working on the musical score, the decision was made to only play music when the killer was actually present so as to not “manipulate the audience”. Manfredini pointed out the lack of music for certain scenes: “There’s a scene where one of the girls … is setting up the archery area … One of the guys shoots an arrow into the target and just misses her. It’s a huge scare, but if you notice, there’s no music. That was a choice.” Manfredini also noted that when something was going to happen, the music would cut off so that the audience would relax a bit, and the scare would be that much more effective.
Because the killer, Mrs. Voorhees, appears onscreen only during the final scenes of the film, Manfredini had the job of creating a score that would represent the killer in her absence. Manfredini borrows from the 1975 film Jaws, where the shark is likewise not seen for the majority of the film but the motif created by John Williams cued the audience to the shark’s invisible menace. Sean S. Cunningham sought a chorus, but the budget would not allow it. While listening to a Krzysztof Penderecki piece of music, which contained a chorus with “striking pronunciations”, Manfredini was inspired to recreate a similar sound. He came up with the sound “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” from the final reel when Mrs. Voorhees arrives and is reciting “Kill her, mommy!” The “ki” comes from “kill”, and the “ma” from “mommy”. To achieve the unique sound he wanted for the film, Manfredini spoke the two words “harshly, distinctly and rhythmically into a microphone” and ran them into an echo reverberation machine. Manfredini finished the original score after a couple of weeks, and then recorded the score in a friend’s basement. Victor Miller and assistant editor Jay Keuper have commented on how memorable the music is, with Keuper describing it as “iconographic”. Manfredini says, “Everybody thinks it’s cha, cha, cha. I’m like, ‘Cha, cha, cha? What are you talking about?'”
In 1982, Gramavision Records released a LP record of selected pieces of Harry Manfredini’s scores from the first three Friday the 13th films. On 13 January 2012, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 6-CD boxset containing Manfredini’s scores from the first six films. It sold out in less than 24 hours.
A bidding war over distribution rights to the film ensued in 1980 between Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and United Artists. Paramount executive Frank Mancuso, Sr. recalled: “The minute we saw Friday the 13th, we knew we had a hit.” Paramount ultimately purchased domestic distribution rights for Friday the 13th for $1.5 million. Based on the success of recently-released horror films (such as Halloween) and the low budget of the film, the studio deemed it a “low-risk” release in terms of profitability. It was the first independent slasher film to be acquired by a major motion picture studio. Paramount spent approximately $500,000 in advertisements for the film, and then an additional $500,000 when the film began performing well at the box office.
A full one-sheet poster, featuring a group of teenagers imposed beneath the silhouette of a knife-wielding figure, was designed by artist Alex Ebel to promote the film’s U.S. release. Scholar Richard Nowell has observed that the poster and marketing campaign presented Friday the 13th as a “light-hearted” and “youth-oriented” horror film in an attempt to draw interest from America’s prime theater-going demographic of young adults and teenagers. Warner Bros. secured distribution rights to the film in international markets.
Friday the 13th opened theatrically on May 9, 1980 across the United States, ultimately expanding its release to 1,127 theaters. It earned $5,816,321 in its opening weekend, before finishing domestically with $39,754,601, with a total of 14,778,700 admissions. It was the 18th highest-grossing film that year, facing competition from other high-profile horror releases such as The Shining, Dressed To Kill, The Fog, and Prom Night. The worldwide gross for the film was $59,754,601. Of the seventeen films distributed by Paramount in 1980, only two: Urban Cowboy and Airplane!, returned more profits than Friday the 13th.
Friday the 13th was released internationally, which was unusual for an independent film with, at the time, no well-recognized or bankable actors; aside from well-known television and movie actress Betsy Palmer. The film would take in approximately $20 million in international box office receipts. Not factoring in international sales, or the cross-over film with A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger, the original Friday the 13th is the highest-grossing film of the film series.
To provide context with the box office gross of films in 2014, the cost of making and promoting Friday the 13th—which includes the $550,000 budget and the $1 million in advertisement—is approximately $4.5 million. With regard to the US box office gross, the film would have made $177.72 million in adjusted 2017 dollars. On July 13, 2007, Friday the 13th was screened for the first time on Blairstown’s Main Street in the very theater which appears shortly after the opening credits. Overflowing crowds forced the Blairstown Theater Festival, the sponsoring organization, to add an extra screening. A 30th Anniversary Edition was released on March 10, 2010. A 35th-anniversary screening was held in the Griffith Park Zoo as part of the Great Horror Campout on March 13, 2015.
Contemporary scholars in film criticism, such as Tony Williams, have credited Friday the 13th for initiating the subgenre of the “stalker” or slasher film. Cultural critic Graham Thompson also considers the film as a template, along with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), that “instigated a rush” of films of its type, in which young people away from supervision are systematically stalked and murdered by a masked villain. While critical reception of the film has been varied in the years since its release, it has attained a significant cult following.
In 2017, Complex ranked the film no. 9 in a list of the best slasher films of all time.
Film scholar Matt Hills wrote of the film’s legacy: “Friday the 13th has not just been critically positioned as intellectually lacking, it has been othered and devalued in line with the conventional aesthetic norms of the academy and official film culture, said to lack originality and artfulness, to possess no nominated or recognized auteur, and to be grossly sensationalist in its focus on Tom Savini’s gory special effects.”
The film was nominated in 2001 for AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Thrills.
In April 2018, Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco, where the film was shot, held “Crystal Lake Tours,” an event dedicated to the making of the film which brought attendees to nine of the filming locations on the property. The event was attended to actress King, who recounted the making of the film to fans.