Ultraviolent Movies
by Laurent Bouzereau

Friday the 13th

. . .Directly influenced by Halloween's success, Friday the 13th (1981) proved that ultraviolence and gore galore could translate into loads of cash at the box office. The film concerns a psychotic woman (Betsy Palmer) whose son Jason is drowned because a camp instructor was screwing around instead of doing his job. She eliminates a group of teenagers who have come to reopen the camp, but in the end she loses her head - literally - when the sole survivor decapitates her. Friday the 13th became an enormous success and led to Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984), Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985), Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988), Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), plus a TV series and several spoofs.

. . ."I had been working in Connecticut, where I lived for a number of years, and I had made a horror movie with Wes Craven called The Last House on the Left (1973), which became kind of a cult classic," director Sean S. Cunningham recalled. "It's very easy in this business to get pigeonholed in that sort of genre; people see you as someone who can do something disgusting and do it cheap! But I decided to stay away from the horror genre, although I felt that sooner or later I could get back to it if I needed to. In 1977 I made a little kids' movie called Manny's Orphans, which I did with private money. The guy who wrote that script lived down the street from me; his name was Victor Miller. As it turned out, the film got picked up by United Artists; they wanted to make it into a TV series. We made some test screenings; the film was well recieved, but people didn't seem to like the title. So, as you often do, you sit down, trying to figure out titles. Out of frustration, at one point, I wrote down on my list of titles Friday the 13th. I said, if I could call this film Friday the 13th, I could sell that. And I just let it go, but it kept coming back to me."

. . ."Then I started thinking of a television spot where just the title comes from infinity to the center of the screen and as it hits the screen it shatters like a mirror and a voice off would say, 'Friday the 13th, the most terrifying film ever made.' Something like that. I thought it was great. I ended up going to a graphic artist, still in Connecticut, and I had him do a full-page ad in Variety that said: 'From the producer of Last House on the Left comes the most terrifying film ever made. Friday the 13th.' The title was breaking glass. I ran the ad in the July Fourth issue of Variety to see what would happen. Well, the phone started ringing off the hook; everybody wante this movie which didn't exist. So I called Victor Miller. He came over, and we sat around the kitchen table, and I asked him: 'Did you ever write a horror film?' He said no, and I said: 'Let's try to figure it out, because it looks like we're going to have to make this movie somehow.' And we started asking ourselves what would be really scary, and slowly the story came together."

. . .The independently financed film began shooting in September in New Jersey. "When we finished editing the film," Cunningham said, "we showed it to some of our friends, and the picture worked extremely well. We showed it to the distributors, and even those guys who've seen it all, basically, jumped out of their seats, especially at the end of the film. [Jason bursts out of the water, grabs the heroine, who is lying in a boat. She wakes up screaming; it was only a nightmare.] As it turned out, we quickly ended up in a bidding war between Paramount, United Artists, and Warner Brothers. United Artists dropped out, and Paramount took the film for the United States and Canada and Warners for the rest of the world. What happened was that Frank Mancuso [of Paramount] had decided that he would take a chance with an independently produced movie, with no stars and with nothing except the title Friday the 13th, and treated the film as if it were a major movie and released it nationally. That kind of commitment was unheard of. He also picked a date in early May [1980], 'between the raindrops,' as he said. He just guessed right, and the picture was a huge success."

. . .When working on the screenplay, Cunningham didn't necessarily try to find ways to gross out the audience; "I was more like a naughty kid trying to scare his friends, saying, 'Boo,' from behind the bushes. It's not any fun to gross people out. The metaphor that I was using when I was working on the film and afterwards was that of a roller coaster. I was trying to create a roller coaster with hills and valleys. That metaphor works, especially when you watch a film with an audience. Like with a roller coaster, it's a social experience. If you see a horror film in an empty theater, it's just ugly and grim; there's no fun. But if you go with four hundred kids laughing and screaming, it's a different experience. There's also that whole date thing going on; the guy has his arm around the girl, who is hiding her face."

. . .Tom Savini, also from Pittsburgh, was hired to do the special-effects makeup on the film. At the time, none of that "stuff" was very advanced, and the filmmakers had to be extremely well prepared before shooting started. With script likes such as "She goes into the bathroom, and then she dies," Savini had to have an enormous amount of imagination to create interesting ways of killing the victims in the film, and his work on Friday the 13th is one of the reasons for its success. As a result, Friday the 13th and its sequels are extremely violent, but none of it affected Cunningham. "It's always so silly. It's only disturbing in context. It's like Halloween; everyone is giggling. The only disturbing moment on the set was when we killed the snake for real. Everything else was make-believe except for the snake, which was chopped with a machete. It's an important moment in the film, it's a tone setting, but it was very upsetting to everyone, including myself, that we actually killed that snake. The reality of it was disturbing. The movie has no emotional impact on me at all. It's all plumbing. The characters were at best thin. In fact, much later on, when I made a movie called DeepStar Six (1989) with a big ensemble cast . . . after three or four weeks came the time when there's an explosion and some of the characters die, and I was just depressed because there was more substance to them."

. . .Suprisingly, Cunningham only had minor problems with the MPAA. "The violence happens very quickly... It comes in and goes," the director explained. "On the other hand, because of the film's impact, there were a lot of imitators who kept pressing the envelope when they submitted their films to the MPAA; they would say: 'But in Friday the 13th, this and that...' and as a result when I went back to get a rating on my subsequent films, it was much tougher for me. I don't know if it's because of what happened after Friday the 13th with other horror films, but they take a very careful look at my films."

. . .Friday the 13th was a huge box-office success, and its impact on audiences was enormous. Jason, who mainly appears as a character in the sequels, became, like Freddy Krueger, the psychopath from the Nightmare on Elm Street series, a landmark name. "What makes Freddy and Jason so attractive is that they're so strong," Cunningham explained. "They have such an agenda, and nothing will stop them. 'I'm coming through! You're putting up a wall? I'm still coming through. You got a gun? I'm still gonna get you!' So the kids say: 'Yeah! That's the guy! I want him on my side!' Their single-mindedness is what the kids really respond to. Evidently, the kids don't want to be mass murderers; they just want to get what they want!" Cunningham was involved with the first two Friday the 13th sequels mainly because his wife edited them; he had no interest in making the same film over and over again, although eventually Cunningham bought the rights back and directed Jason Goes to Hell for New Line. He eventually wants to make a Jason and Freddy Krueger movie, something along the lines of King Kong versus Godzilla.

. . .Sean Cunningham doesn't feel the slasher movies are dangerous to audiences. "People do horrible things to each other all over the world all the time whether they see movies or not. The notion that people are pure until they're exposed to something really bad and that children are really innocent and that if you keep them away from violence, for instance, they'll never do anything bad is to deny the essence of human nature. We are a mixture of good and bad. I think that horror movies, if they're done right, function the same way fairy tales do. At least that's what we tried to do with Friday the 13th. In fairy tales you try to acclimate a child to the real world, and you do that by putting faces on the things he's really afraid of and by dealing with the dears in the context of a story. By bringing it out of the recesses of the subconscious, you get to look at it, and it all seems a little less scary. The operative fear in horror films is the fear of untimely death. Every high school class has a kid who is in a motorcycle accident. That's devastating, because kids live in a state of invulnerability. Therefore, the randomness of the killings and the violence in Friday the 13th, [set] against perfectly happy and nice kids who look like they stepped out of a Coke commercial, is scary. That's why kids are interested in horror films, not older people. Fear of untimely death is no longer an issue for me; timely death is! When you stop being afraid of all of your initial fears, these movies become boring."

. . .Are there any limits to screen violence? There is what Sean Cunningham calls "a self-imposed" limit that directors of horror films establish, because "at the end of the day people are just grossed out, as opposed to being entertained. What's really important in a film is the story. You can enhance your story by the judicious use of violence, like they did in Interview with the Vampire, but by itself violence is pointless. It's not a big trick to chop somebody's head off on-screen; it's a big trick to make the audience care about it." (p. 214-218)