I love ‘Friday the 13th‘. I could discuss my adoration for the film ad nauseum but I’ll narrow my focus to one of the most iconic elements; Betsy Palmer’s performance as Pamela Voorhees. It’s no secret that Palmer was a respected actor with a storied career in Hollywood before ‘Friday the 13th’ came along. She wasn’t fond of the concept or the script, but ultimately she took the role for the paycheck. Despite this, she was able to make her psychopathic matriarch simultaneously terrifying and understandable. From the moment she appears onscreen, Palmer dominates every second of celluloid. The chase between her and Adrienne King seems to go on forever, but it never gets old because watching Palmer’s mania is transfixing.
One of the charges I hear levied against Cunningham’s film most frequently is that the film’s internal mystery doesn’t work. Betsy Palmer isn’t introduced until late in the film and we are supposed to be agonizing over her identity for most of the film.
“This conundrum isn’t fair!”
“We were never introduced to her in the beginning so how could we guess she is a blood thirsty killer in the third act?”
Since the foundation of this argument is that Friday the 13th is a mystery, let’s examine the difference between a twist and a surprise. The resolution of Friday the 13th is a surprise. We are never meant to predict the ending. The fact that we are not given enough information to identify the killer’s identity isn’t a mistake, it’s by design. It was never meant to be a twist. This element of the slasher film came after ‘Friday the 13th’ in films like ‘Happy Birthday To Me‘ and ‘The Dorm That Dripped Blood‘ where the filmmakers gave the audience clues and red herrings about who might be the murderer. In those films we are introduced to a cast of characters who are shifty deviants, any one of whom could be capable of murder. In the latter half of the film one of them flips a switch and suddenly they are a murderer. This is a twist. The information provided in the first act informs and enhances the revelation unveiled in the conclusion of the film.
In Cunningham’s film, the killer is obscured but we are never meant to guess their identity. We are simply passengers on a roller coaster of horror and bloodshed. None of the cast could realistically be the killer except for Steve Christy and this makes no sense within the world of the film either. It is only in hindsight that this critique of ‘Friday the 13th’ has arisen. Placed in the temporal context in which the film came out, this argument doesn’t stand up to examination. It is obvious the film was inspired by the Italian Giallo film, many examples of which are clearly mysteries. However ‘Friday the 13th’ is more inspired by the ghoulish aspects of that archetype than the cerebral.
There is only one entry in the entire ‘Friday‘ franchise that could be perceived as a mystery and this too isn’t really accurate because we aren’t meant to guess the killer’s identity in that film either. No, Friday the 13th is not a mystery, it’s a popcorn flick. We are meant to turn off our brain and indulge in our baser instincts. Perhaps this is what disturbed critics so much when it was first released. Betsy Palmer made it look easy but perhaps critics were more uncomfortable indulging in their darker nature.