Saying the Friday the 13th franchise changed horror cinema is an understatement. Before the Jason movies, no other horror series built itself around a single character. But while every Friday the 13th installment made money, the history of the series is a mess. There’s no continuity, the entries vary in tone, and the filmmakers couldn't agree on a set formula to make the movies enjoyable.
As the franchise continued, the films essentially marked the passage of time: another year, another installment. And while directors of later films in the series felt they could tell a unique story within the established outlines, tracing the missteps along the trail of Camp Crystal Lake shows how good ideas end up spoiled without proper oversight.
In true Hollywood producer form, Sean Cunningham thought of Friday the 13th's title and marketing before he formulated the film's concept. In 2015, he told Esquire that the title came to him in a meeting for a ripoff of The Bad News Bears. When he thought of Friday the 13th, he knew the title would sell.
Cunningham didn't immediately reach out to Victor Miller to begin working on a story. Instead, he mocked up a one-sheet for the nonexistent film and started advertising. The producer assumed someone else owned the title, but when he never heard back from a lawyer with a cease-and-desist order, he decided to move forward with the picture.
To come up with a story for the film, the producers reverse-engineered the most popular horror films of the day: Halloween and Carrie. In 2009, screenwriter Victor Miller explained:
Basically, you start with a prior evil that happens before the movie opens. You have a bunch of randy teenagers who are outside the help of formal authority. Adults cannot come to save their asses. And you knock them off one by one. Especially the ones who fornicate. And at the end, the evil genius is found.
Miller also remembers producer Sean Cunningham calling to suggest they "rip off" Halloween, and notes the final jump scare of the film is "as close as I could steal from Carrie without being arrested."
If you're baffled by how Friday the 13th worked after being cobbled together from more inventive films, you're not alone. Cunningham said, "The movie has no emotional impact on me at all. The characters were thin at best."
Friday the 13th was envisioned as a one-and-done, cheap horror movie. When it made $59.8 million on a half a million dollar budget, however, plans changed. Sean Cunningham, producer and director of the initial film, told Esquire that "it's dopey" to think about sequels when you're working on the first film.
Cunningham continued, "The audience doesn't care about a promise of more to come. The audience just wants to have a good time." This from the guy who helped produce multiple sequels to his original movie, along with two reboots and a video game.
While Jason became the iconic face of the Friday the 13th franchise, his mother, Pamela Voorhees, was the original killer, seeking payback on the Crystal Lake counselors she believed killed her son. Bringing Jason back to life and making him the antagonist of the series undoes all of the pathos his mother earned in the original film's ending.
Even producer Sean Cunningham thinks Jason's return didn't make sense. In the retrospective documentary Crystal Lake Memories, Cunningham said:
Having Jason come up out of the lake was a device. It was justifiable, but it wasn't meant to be the beginning of a story... I just didn't get it. Friday the 13th was reality-based. When you added Jason as a machete-wielding character, you're shifting to a mythological base.