By Tom Moore
Being one of the first slasher films to break into the mainstream media, the “Friday the 13th” franchise has not only become one of the most iconic film franchises, but provided one of the most iconic slashers in all of pop-culture – Jason Vorhees. Yes, that hockey mask wearing, machete wielding slasher has been providing plenty of blood and entertainment for decade and has always been my personal favorite of the genre – with Freddy always being a close second. From rooting for him as an odd underdog in Freddy vs. Jason to even playing as the iconic slasher in IllFonic’s incredible gaming adaptation of the franchise, Jason has and will always have a special place in my heart. However, with the 1980 original’s 40th anniversary coming this May, it’s actually not fitting at all to talk about him.
At this point, it’s a pretty well-known fact that Jason is not the killer in the original “Friday the 13th” and that it’s actually Pamela Vorhees, played by Betsy Palmer. Once Jason came into play and became the face of the franchise though, Pamela was all but completely forgotten and relegated to basically being a fun fact for the franchise. However, she has a much deeper impact on the genre than she’s typically given credit for. So, with the 40th anniversary finally upon, it’s the perfect time to not only reflect on the classic slasher, but also Pamela’s impact to female killers.
Frankly, what initially surprised me with revisiting “Friday the 13th” was how well it still holds up. Obviously, the film follows in the footsteps of films like John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” with how its structured and the character types. While the first person shots of the killer stalking its victims, this time in the form of soon-to-be camp counselors, and the use of the iconic score and sound effects for the killer definitely feel reminiscent to “Halloween”, watching this again actually gave me more vibes of “Texas Chain Saw”.
“Once Jason came into play and became the face of the franchise though, Pamela was all but completely forgotten and relegated to basically being a fun fact for the franchise. However, she has a much deeper impact on the genre than she’s typically given credit for.”
“Halloween” is generally regarded as the film that influenced every slasher that came after it and while that’s partly true in that the success of “Halloween” helped get “Friday the 13th” made, the way the character types come into play and the way director Sean S. Cunningham captures the New Jersey farmscape remind me of Hooper’s film much more. With a more crazed harbinger in Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), the lonelier and more desolate atmosphere of Camp Crystal Lake, and there being a griminess to the film that evokes more of what Hooper was doing with “Texas Chain Saw”.
Even the character types and tropes of them fall more in line with what “Texas Chain Saw” had with how each of the counselors generally fall in line with one of the archetypes that stemmed from that film. Personally, I’ve always felt that “Texas Chain Saw” always got the short end of the stick in being cited as a major influence of slasher movies, more than “Halloween”, because of how controversial it was when it was released, but I think “Friday the 13th” proves that influence.
It’s also surprising, from a retrospective, to see how different this film is in being a slasher with how it depicts its characters and presents its story. “Friday the 13th” is easily the slowest moving in the franchise with how long it takes to get the body counting going and the blood flowing, but it offers some fun character moments with some not so annoying tropes. Scenes like the group trying to save Ned (Mark Nelson), the class clown of the group, from drowning, trying to fend off a deadly snake in one of their cabins, and even a rousing game of strip monopoly actually give us more time with the characters that’s a lot of fun. Frankly, the characters here, aside from Ned, never really get that annoying and it’s kind of surprising to see these characters, especially the women, not fall completely into their respective genre tropes.
“Women are often needed to be either the easy target or the elusive prevailing victor against an evil force, but Pamela showed that women can also go a little crazy and be the killer that, let’s face it, horror fans always love.”
The female characters here really outshine their male counterparts as they tend to come off a little more capable and have really fun personalities. Aside from the usual final girl, most of the women in this franchise tend to come off just like sexual objects or damsels in distress, but that’s not fully the case here. While Ned is memorable because he’s the clear and sometimes overbearing comic relief and Jack is memorable because, well, he’s played by Kevin Bacon, I actually found myself really enjoying the comical charm of Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Brenda’s (Laurie Bartram) strip version of Monopoly that’s made great through her sense of confidence, and even Annie’s (Robbi Morgan) gleeful excitement to get to the camp much more.
Even Alice (Adrienne King) isn’t your usual pristine saint of a final girl with her not being afraid to get her hands dirty and being a fun player in Brenda’s game of strip Monopoly. Maybe I’m giving the film a little more credit than it deserves knowing what the rest of the franchise, and genre, would become, but there’s definitely something different here that shouldn’t go unnoticed -especially with its killer.
Before “Friday the 13th”, the only real female killers that existed was Carrie, with Stephen King’s book to back her, and Marta in Dario Argento’s “Deep Red”. However, the reveal that Pamela is the killer is actually a big deal and a surprise because of how Cunningham plays on the expectations and perceptions that audiences would have. With only a few glimpses of the killer throughout the film, usually just clothes, feet, or hands, it’s easy to just expect that the killer is a man and even when Pamela finally comes in the last act of the film, you’re still not as quick to peg that its her. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a little easier now to see it coming because of Pamela coming in after most of the characters are dead and I wish the story of Jason drowning was a more prevalent story among the characters, I think the surprise could be a little more effective than it just being a gender you didn’t expect.
However, the impact and presence of Pamela is really what makes “Friday the 13th” such a classic in the genre. The performance from Palmer is perfectly memorable as she makes up for all of the build up that isn’t there in the film for Pamela’s crazed obsession for avenging her son’s death – an obsession that would eventually be mirrored with Jason. Women are often needed to be either the easy target or the elusive prevailing victor against an evil force, but Pamela showed that women can also go a little crazy and be the killer that, let’s face it, horror fans always love.
Not to mention, her death is easily one of the most iconic in the franchise, right alongside Bacon getting killed with an arrow, with her decapitation being made all the better through Tom Savini’s makeup – his first appearance in the franchise. It’s made even more interesting to think that we almost didn’t even get Palmer in the role since she literally thought the script from Victor Miller sucked and only took the role for the money. Little did she know, I’m sure, that Pamela would not only become her career-defining role but pave the way for other female killers to appear in films like Sleepaway Camp, Urban Legend, and the Scream franchise.
“The performance from Palmer is perfectly memorable as she makes up for all of the build up that isn’t there in the film for Pamela’s crazed obsession for avenging her son’s death – an obsession that would eventually be mirrored with Jason”
It’s sad to say that Palmer passed back in 2015, but her legacy undoubtedly lives on as more “Friday the 13th” films continue to be made and Jason continues to do her bidding. “Friday the 13th” is still the slasher classic it was remembered to be and watching it again has made me find new appreciation for both it’s incarnation in the early days of slasher films and for flipping the script on who the killer could be. Even 40 years after the original’s release, fans like myself are still clamoring for what could be next for Jason in his on-going battle against sexually active teens and his path of vengeance for the mother of all killers that started it all .