When you think about the tone of 80s horror films it’s hard not to think of the film that influenced many of them – Friday the 13th. The original Friday the 13th film was released in 1980 and influenced more than a decade’s worth of horror films that came after it. In the late 70s the idea of the slasher film with graphic violence was just becoming popular. Late 70s films like Halloween and The Last House on the Left had broken new ground for horror films. Many of the most successful horror films prior to the 80s used suspense and the implication of violence to scare audiences rather than showing actual violence. Also, previous films used violence as part of a larger story. 80s horror films would go on to use violence as the main story, thanks in large part to films like Friday the 13th.
Friday the 13th was made on a shoestring budget, just over a half of a million dollars and when it was released it was panned by critics. Audiences weren’t quite sure of it either. But it would go on to be one of the most iconic horror films of all time. The story is merely a vehicle for the violence that is the main draw of the film. The story is that in the late 1950s two counselors were murdered at a summer camp and the camp was shut down. The son of the original owners decides to reopen the camp and he hires a bunch of teenage counselors to staff it. The teenagers go to the camp before the campers are expected so that they can clean up the camp and fix it up before the campers arrive.
The teenagers, left alone in the woods with almost no supervision, use the time to party and have sex. They are a little creeped out by the semi-abandoned camp but put their fear aside since there is a group of them and they feel safe in the group. They are all warned at various points that their lives are at risk and that the person who murdered the couple in the 1950s was never caught but they shrug off the warnings. One by one the teens are killed in horrific ways, usually by having their throats slashed. One girl manages to fight off the murder, who is revealed to be a woman and a mother. Her child Jason Voorhees drowned at the camp while the two counselors were off having sex and not watching him. Broken by grief and the desire for revenge Jason’s mother killed the couple and has returned to the camp to kill the counselors in memory of her son. The girl manages to fight off Jason’s mother and kill her. In the hospital recovering from her wounds the girl dreams that she is sleeping in a canoe that is beached on the lake at the camp and she is pulled out of the boat and pulled under the water by someone. That someone is Jason Voorhees. One his mother is killed Jason, unstoppable because he is already dead, decides to kill everyone who comes to Camp Crystal Lake.
Friday the 13th was the first of the 80s slasher films to base the entire story on the main characters, usually teenagers, having sex and then getting murdered. Films that followed like the popular Nightmare on Elm Street series copied that style of storytelling with great success. The moral of these films was of course that teenagers should behave themselves if they wanted to live. The 50s era morality of the films was at odds with the violence depicted in the films, and audiences couldn’t get enough. Even today Friday the 13th remains one of the most popular horror franchises of all time.
Because of the popularity of the film as the 80s went on there were more than a dozen sequels and prequels created under the Friday the 13th franchise. There was even a crossover movie that pitted Jason Voorhees against Freddy Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Eventually the campy quality of the movie and the gratuitous sex and violence elevated the film to legendary status among the 80s slasher films. It was really Friday the 13th and Halloween that created the slasher genre and gave horror movies a new direction in the 80s.
In 2009 the movie was given a modern reboot. Instead of just retelling the original story the reboot combined the stories of the first four Friday the 13th films and told them all under the auspices of one film. In the reboot Jason was a much more sophisticated killer than he was in the original film. Jason in the original movie was a grunting killing machine that was undead and not really capable of rational thought. His only drive was to kill. In the reboot Jason had more character development and the writers created a character that fans could actually feel some empathy for. That empathy usually disappeared as the body count rose but it did turn Jason into a multi-dimensional character instead of just a one note killing machine.
The hockey mask that Jason wears to disguise his face has also become iconic. Still the mask is one of the most popular worn on Halloween. The mask didn’t make an appearance until the fourth Friday the 13th film but after that Jason was never seen without it and unmasking him was used as a plot device more than once. It made up a large part of the story because the mask was so closely tied to the character. Even today many horror fans can’t look at a horror mask without thinking of Friday the 13th. The blank expression that the mask creates on Jason’s face is designed to inspire more fear in his victims. Normally people try to read a killer’s face for signs of empathy or any sign that they can say or do something to escape. By masking Jason’s face the writers reinforce the fact that people are doomed and that once Jason appears they are as good as dead.