Yes, it is that day again…and time for an afternoon viewing of Friday the 13th, the film that most thoroughly typifies the “Have sex, get killed” equation in American cinema. Thank you for dying, Kevin Bacon.
If you haven’t seen this flick, then you are missing out on numerous cultural touchstones. You probably don’t even know the meaning of the word “Kill kill kill kill…die die die die…ow ow ow ow…” which my friend Jonathan used to say whenever anyone was foolish enough to hand him a butcher knife.
To this day, I find that simple term, like mise-en-scene, joi de vivre, or Schadenfreude, to be highly useful in many conversations; it is almost universally understood.
More accurately, the sound in question (sometimes known among film nerds as the “Jason Sound”) is “Ki ki ki ki, ma ma ma ma,” at least according to composer Harry Manfredini, who said — and I quote — “Everybody thinks it’s cha, cha, cha. I’m like, ‘Cha, cha, cha? What are you talking about?’” (That’s Manfredini’s voice, by the way.)
Incidentally, Betsy Palmer, who plays a rather central role in the film, reportedly called the script a “piece of shit” after reading it. She never would have taken the role if she hadn’t desperately needed a new car.
Well, Mrs. Voorhees. We all do things that surprise us sometimes, don’t we?
Palmer was a very mainstream actress at the time, and a guest on many TV shows including “The Joey Bishop Show,” “Password,” and “The Kraft Television Theater,” and would later be in “Murder She Wrote,” “Knots Landing,” “Columbo,” “Newhart,” and many more. According to the IMDB trivia page, when Friday the 13th came out, many of Palmer’s fans were not pleased. One critic was so pissed off he published her home address and encouraged her outraged fans to write her in protest, but published an incorrect address.
I don’t quite agree with the esteemed Ms. Palmer. For all its bizarre faults (Five minutes of screen time making instant coffee, anyone?), there is no disputing what an impact on cinema this damn thing had. Better yet, it’s an object lesson in what happens when people get all hopped up about the end of civilization sure to be caused by things like movies. In the early-’80s culture wars, we were told that the slasher film genre that Friday the 13th and Halloween represent was sure to turn my generation into an army of babbling psychopaths who kill with machetes at the drop of a hat. Little did they know it would actually take antidepressants, text messaging, Grand Theft Auto and the internet to do what damage hadn’t already been done by Dungeons & Dragons.
I didn’t see Friday the 13th until well into the ’90s. I viewed it from the start as an absurdist enterprise, and the entire franchise as a Beavis and Butthead punchline. It’s not a horror film so much as a comedy skit in the woods. I almost can’t watch it without thinking of its clueless teen machete fodder and crazy old weirdos as drag queens and kings who might at any moment burst into a torrid English drinking song with excruciatingly obscene lyrics (yes, this means you, Kevin Bacon). I don’t so much watch Friday the 13th, I watch the Friday the 13th that’s playing in my brain — the Friday the 13th I didn’t see when I was a kid, filtered through everything I’ve learned since I didn’t see it that makes the zeitgeisty terrors of 1980 seem cartoonish and ridiculous, and the terrors of 2012 seem tiresomely been-there, done-that.
As if that wasn’t enough, add to it the fact that I was already an occasional semi-pro horror writer before I ever saw the flick. My good friend Alex S. Johnson, who is probably the reason I ever started writing horror to begin with, even wrote a Friday the 13th tie-in novel. Nancy Kilpatrick wrote two. Before I saw the thing, Friday the 13th was already furniture in my life. The Jason universe was like the World of Darkness — I might go there, even hang out there, but I didn’t take it that seriously.
So maybe Friday the 13th never really had the chance to scare me — unlike John Carpenter’s Halloween, which I did see when I was young. Several of Carpenter’s other movies are among my very favorite films of all time — but then as now, I find Halloween dull, underdramatized, unimpressive. Halloween had the chance to genuinely scare me, and blew it because in my estimation it’s an overrated film; regardless, for better or worse Halloween simply doesn’t work for me. On the other hand, I was laughing my ass off at Friday the 13th before the curtain ever rose.
Viewed in that context, I love Friday the 13th. But I’m sorry to say that thirty-two years on, after half a dozen viewings and numerous drinking games, the most horrifying things in this film are the hairstyles. “Ow ow ow ow” indeed.