Impressions: Friday the 13th and Modern Audiences

So briefly, before we get into the meat of this Impressions, Happy Mother’s Day (if a little late). I have talked about Friday the 13th in the past, giving it the top spot on my franchise ranking, although there is a compelling case for saying Part II is better. But I digress; I wanted to take a moment to talk about Friday the 13th’s place in the slasher subgenre overall and how being part of the modern audience impacts my response to it.

The slasher subgenre didn’t have a clean start but went through a lot of shifts before it really became what we were used to in the “golden years” of the late 70s and 80s. Movies like The Bad Seed and Psycho, featuring a human killer with violent tendencies, were definitely influential in the starting of the slasher genre. It wasn’t monsters or creatures or the human killer set on revenge that we were more used to. Also, in the case of Psycho and Peeping Tom, the connection between sexuality and horror started to become even more established. We also have to consider many exploitation films, violence, and sex for the sake of it and more stylized types of violence that we later saw a lot of in slasher. Exploitation films don’t cut away from their cruel deaths, and neither do most slashers.

In fact, a lot of the earliest “slasher” movies are really exploitation films that seemed to move just a bit away from being grindhouse and closer to more mainstream audiences. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considered one of the founders of the slasher genre while still largely been seen as an exploitation film. It and movies like Black Christmas are hard to define as to what they fall more into and mostly have been shifted to being called slashers because of how important they were in establishing things for later movies, more easily seen as being part of the subgenre.

It was during the golden age that a lot of the tropes and personality of slasher films really came to the forefront. Halloween gave us a more specific blueprint for the virginal tomboyish final girl. Laurie wasn’t the first, but her more defined characteristics became common threads for the final girls that followed. Another big push was the idea of teens being “punished” for their behavior via being hunted and systematically killed off by a main killer. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre flirted with this idea, but it was really more “wrong place” rather than any specific behavior by the teens causing them to be targeted.

Conversely, movies like Halloween, and of course, Friday the 13th, started to make it more of a response to the teens’ behavior and the direct action that the killers take. This didn’t happen overnight, and a few movies really played with it. However, we did see more of a pattern, and the “rules” we got used to, and then informed about with Randy in Scream, were being laid out at this point. It became less just about the way the killing happened and more about a pattern of behavior both in the victims and their killer.

Friday the 13th really went with this. And for modern audiences, when we watch it, we can see what we are used to from these movies being laid out. But then the movie sends the audience’s head spinning a bit. It’s not the hinted at killer, Jason, but rather his mother, someone entirely unexpected and unique in the slasher world. This twist is a major standout for horror fans and is largely one reason I still argue it’s the best in the franchise. It is so unexpected and different from what we are used to.

All of this starts to beg a certain question though, if we weren’t a modern audience with certain expectations, would Friday the 13th really be a standout? I think the answer is a combination of yes and no.

No, in that there isn’t a lot happening in Friday the 13th to really set it apart. Alice is not a very compelling final girl; I see more fans go to Ginny from Part II when discussing the final girls than I ever see Alice brought up. She is a bit flat and not very well fleshed out, instead, we get just enough to establish that she fits what we are expecting from the role. In fact, I think you could argue that early kill Annie might have made a better final girl and certainly seemed to have more personality, and one that would have lent herself to the role quite well.

It really is the moment of realizing that it’s Jason’s mother that brings anything that grabs you to the story, though. Until then, we seem to just be moving along from one kill to the next, something that becomes common in slasher flicks, but at this point, you still expect a bit more. The reveal of her as the killer and performance by Betsy Palmer is what seals it. But at the time, would this have been a massive surprise? How well versed were audiences with these tropes that it would have floored them?

For modern audiences, it’s something that stands out, but we have the benefit of knowing exactly why it shouldn’t have been expected. And so the question becomes what does that “reveal” mean if it wasn’t as big of a surprise? I think you can still claim it’s a great climax, and once again, Betsy Palmer is a rather scary killer, but I don’t know that it had the same punch that it does now.

The yes part comes in because Friday the 13th is still foundational, even if our response to it as modern audiences are a little different. A lot of what modern audiences expect is largely due to Friday the 13th. As I said early in the slasher subgenre, the notion of a group of young people/teens getting together, participating in what could be considered “normal” behavior but ultimately being punished for it wasn’t where the subgenre started.

Again Halloween started to take us in that direction with Laurie’s friends, but Friday the 13th is sort of a landmark in the idea of isolate these teens and really emphasizing the “bad behavior” before the kills. Movies that came after Friday the 13th have a certain feel to them that is closer to it than, say, TCM. Without Friday the 13th, for better or worse, the 80s idea of the slasher flick might not have developed the way that it did.

So I think that Friday the 13th remains an important piece in the slasher subgenre, but not really for the reasons modern audiences think it should. Yes, for us, the idea of the mother as the killer is pretty out there, but taking away the shock of that reveal, which I think it wouldn’t have had as much of one, and you have a fairly average slasher flick, albeit with a great climax. However, the average slasher flick only exists as we know it thanks to Friday the 13th and it as a franchise overall. Hell, we wouldn’t know to be so surprised by the killer not being Jason if the rest of the series hadn’t so well established him and thus helped create the notion of the slasher giant.

It’s a bit weird and hard to look at this movie because we aren’t living in a vacuum. The experience of slasher flicks was directly changed by this movie, and at the same time, our response to this movie is shaped by all that came after this movie. It becomes a bit of a loop.

Either way, I have a lot of love for this movie and our killer mother in it. If you haven’t seen Friday the 13th in a while, give it another rewatch, and try to think about how you may have responded if you had gone in without knowing the “rules” this movie helped create. If you’ve never seen it and are a genre fan, well… what the hell are you doing?

Happy Mother’s Day again to Mrs. Voorhees and all our favorite horror moms.

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