Summer, Death, and Depth: The Ghost of Friday the 13th

f13th-headerFriday the 13th has a spot among the horror icons, and rightfully so. Pamela and Jason cast a long shadow, and many films are accused of being Friday the 13th ripoffs.

Do they all deserve it?

Friday was Friday the 13th, the only one in 2016. When Friday the 13th rolls around the internet tends to get a little spookier than average, which I’m more than fine with. Seemingly every blog that even lightly touches on the macabre world of horror ran one of a handful of articles either ranking the kills in the Friday the 13th film series, or listing off what they’d like to see in inevitable future installments now that Paramount has successfully wrested the rights back from the arms of the evil monsters that inflicted the world with the 2009 “reboot”, or deriding every slasher that’s come out since for being a ripoff of Friday the 13th. I’m not here to do any of that.
Nor am I here to bash the remake. Many others have done that before me, and there’s probably very little virgin ground left to cover when it comes to why that movie doesn’t exactly work. I’m here to talk about movies that aren’t even Friday the 13th, though they tend to get unfairly lumped together as though they wanted nothing more than cash in on our beloved Friday the 13th.

The slasher film has existed in one form or another for quite a lot longer than pop culture would have you believe. In more casual media, the finger tends to get pointed at John Carpenter’s Halloween as the progenitor, but the reasons that’s not the case could very well compose a completely different article. While there’s little denying that Halloween redefined horror in many ways, or that it opened the floodgates for slasher films worldwide, Halloween is simply not the first. The vast majority of horror fans know that, any you probably do too. Well, if it wasn’t Halloween, what was it?

OG Scream Queen
Jewel Carmen, the heroine of Roland West’s 1926 slasher-grandaddy “The Bat”

A lot of critics and film historians lay the gory Slasher Progenitor title at the feet of a handful of silent adaptations of for-the-time gristly Grand Guignol plays that caused moral outrage. The fact that you cannot seek these films out and watch them without pouring buckets of money into the equation lead me to a different conclusion. My money says that the true slasher grandfather is Roland West’s The Bat (1926), a silent adaptation of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase. To sum it up shortly, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, various character archetypes go to a strange location and are punished for their sins by a costumed killer. There are scares, there are laughs, there are pretty women screaming, and there’s a killer whose identity is a mystery. The killer in The Bat, surprisingly, wears a bat mask. Below, you can watch The Bat in its entirety, should you be so inclined.

This is to say the slasher has existed long before Jason, Freddy, or even Michael were carving their way through teenagers wearing interesting costumes. Each moved the genre in their own specific direction, but it’s a mistake to imply they invented it. The elephant in the room when it comes to slasher films is that they’re at the core all pretty damn similar. What makes a slasher movie unique is the twist it puts on the elements we know and love. Michael is the progenitor and the blank slate. Freddy gets you in your dreams. Jason can’t be stopped. The devil’s in the details.

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This isn’t meant to diminish slasher films, Friday the 13th, or the slew of slashers that followed, but there are a lot of elements common to the slasher genre that existed before Friday the 13th, and many that have been added to the genre by Friday the 13th over the course of 12 movies and 36 years. Though we haven’t seen Jason on the big screen since 2009, much to many horror fans dismay, and even though Friday the 13th and Jason didn’t invent killing kids with a knife, Pamela and Jason Voorhees have left a very large mark on not only the slasher subgenre, but horror films and pop culture at large.

We all know the story. Some kids head out to the lake to have a good time. Maybe they’re headed to party in the woods, maybe they’re opening a new summer camp or simply attending one. Maybe they’re just looking for a quiet place to play generic rock music that doesn’t have weighty licensing fees and smoke dope and fornicate. Maybe it’s some combination of those things. Then, tragedy strikes! A nightmarish murderer out to settle and old score starts systematically taking down nubile teens (frequently those nubile teens are in fact 30). One by one they’re picked off in increasingly inventive ways. We’ll probably even see things from the killer’s perspective at least a couple of times, to even further obscure what exactly is happening. But in the end, one girl, or that girl and her boyfriend, will put the killer down. But for how long?

Today is his birthday.
Pamela Voorhees, the first Friday the 13th killer.

That’s the generalized plot of quite a few movies we’ve all seen, most of the Friday the 13th films included. Other notables that can at least partially carry that descriptor are Sleepaway Camp, Sleepaway Camp 2, The Burning, Stage Fright, Hatchet, Just Before Dawn, Don’t Go In The Woods…Alone, Mad Man, Cheerleader Camp, Bloody Murder… you get the picture. There are a lot of these movies. How fair is it to call them rip-offs?

In some instances, it’s pretty damn fair (looking at you, Bloody Murder), but there are two I really want to talk about that are usually called Ft13 ripoffs that are pretty innocent of that assertion, for a handful of reasons I’ll expand on. Those movies are The Burning and Sleepaway Camp.

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sleepawaycamp-poster

Let’s start with The Burning.

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An interesting VHS release of The Burning.

The Burning is a cult classic, and for damn good reason. Harvey Weinstein (yes, THAT Harvey Weinstein) and his production partner on the film Michael Cohl were apparently sitting around trying to figure out how to break into the movie business. If for no other reason, The Burning deserves to go down in cinematic history as an important film because it marks the very first Miramax production. The idea to do a low budget horror film wasn’t born by viewing Friday the 13th, but was instead brought to the table by the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The Burning started life as a quick and dirty attempt to cash in on those juggernauts, and the original title “The Cropsy Maniac” was registered in April 1980, roughly a month before the release of Friday the 13th. While it’s quite possible that the film was retooled after the release of Ft13 but more likely than not they were both replicating the formula laid forward in Halloween and TCM. 

A facet of The Burning that I find pretty interesting is that the film taps the real world Staten Island urban legend of “The Cropsey Maniac” as a point of inspiration for its slasher character, “Cropsy.” (The difference in spelling is intentional.) The Cropsey myth is your standard child killer urban legend. Scare the kids into shape. Lurking maniac. Gonna getcha. In The Burning, Cropsey is a groundskeeper at a summer camp who isn’t much loved by the children of the camp. They decide to play a trick on him, placing a worm filled skull with candles in it’s eyes at his bedside. Cropsy awakens and is scared shitless, but unfortunately he sets himself on fire, as seen in the beautiful VHS cover up above. Five years later, he’s released from the hospital and decides to seek his revenge, deciding to visit a different summer camp and punish those children, as assuredly every camper is just as cruel and vicious as the children he believes set him on fire.

A very young, and dare I say handsome Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame in 1981's The Burning
A very young, and dare I say handsome Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame in 1981’s The Burning

While clearly there are some corollaries there, camp employee feels wronged by children who were cruel, camp employee returns years later to wreak havoc and find revenge in blood, The Burning is arguably a better crafted film. The characters are much stronger, and first time director Tony Maylam is able to craft individuals that you don’t hate and don’t yearn to see die, and frankly that was and is still novel in the slasher genre. One of the most accurate accusations that weakens Friday the 13th as a franchise is that it didn’t find interesting characters for Pamela or Jason to chase around until the 4th installment. The Burning doesn’t have that problem. It features a pretty interesting cast, notably Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame as Dave, and Fisher Stevens of Fifth Element and Hackers fame. (God, I love Hackers. Another time…) Another reason that The Burning stands tall in the realm of slashers, particularly summer slashers is that it’s kills are absolutely insane. It knows what it is, and it fully embraces it. See below for what is probably the most infamous of sequences in the film, featuring a very young Fisher Stevens.

 

This film is violent, I’d argue it’s much more violent than Friday the 13th, at least the original. One reason for that is that The Burning featured special effects makeup wunderkind Tom Savini as it’s head effects artist. Savini had previously worked on the original Friday the 13th and took the skills and tricks from that film and evolved them here into some effects work that to this day stands as some of the best practical gore effects in slasher history. Another element that plays in the film’s favor is that the film’s director has a much more loving eye for symbolism and seems to know exactly how long to linger on each gory shot. Sean Cummingham of Friday the 13th fame is by no means a slouch, but The Burning is arguably better shot.

Despite sharing a very similar plot, and very similar themes, The Burning stands on it’s own by being a tighter film, with more intense effects work, and a richer cast of more interesting and believable characters. As such, I really wish we’d all stop calling it a Friday the 13th ripoff. It’s a lot more than that, and is definitely worthy of inclusion when talking about killing kids at summer camps. Plus I mean, Jason Alexander is in it.

Now, onto Sleepaway Camp

Beautiful japanese VHS release of Sleepaway Camp.
The beautiful Japanese VHS release of Sleepaway Camp.

Sleepaway Camp has a camp, surprisingly. In addition to the camp, it’s got a mysterious killer. So, it’s a Friday the 13th ripoff, right? No. It isn’t. Sleepaway Camp doesn’t deserve to be labeled a Friday the 13th rip at all. I’ll repeat that. There is damn near no reason to call Sleepaway Camp a Friday the 13th ripoff.  If you don’t believe me, keep reading. Keep reading regardless, though, please, I spend way too much time looking at Google Analytics.

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The protagonists, and the majority of the victims in Sleepaway Camp are children.

One of the first differentiating factors is that the killer in Sleepaway Camp‘s victims include children. There’s a good chance you’re saying to yourself, but they’re kids in Friday the 13th! No judgement if that’s the case, but you’re mistaken. Those are counselors. Pamela’s vendetta was against counselors. Young adults is the youngest I’d be willing to peg the victims in Friday the 13th as. It may not sound like much of a point of contention, but it is. I’m going to say this in the least creepy way I can, the fact that the victims are children makes for a lot more drama, and frankly a lot more terror. If seeing kids die isn’t a little harder for you to go through than watching adults die, we’re different people. I didn’t see this movie until I was older than the protagonists, but I’ve got to imagine seeing this as a kid would be a particularly terrifying experience.

 

A second major difference between this film and Friday the 13th, is the kills. Camp Arawak is open, and the killer in this film has a vested interest in keeping it that way. So, lest the camp close, and the killing end, no one can be aware that there is a serial killer in their midst. The film’s brilliant way of handling this is by the staging of each kill as some sort of bizarre accident. There aren’t machetes and masks here, there’s boiling pots of water, bees, overturned canoes, you get the picture. In the video above, you can see one of the best kills in the film lovingly restored by ScreamFactory. The fact that the killing has narrative value and pays off, as well all incorporating all the worst fears kids have about going to camp mean all of the deaths are that much scarier, and that much more interesting. The worst thing a slasher can do is be boring, and Sleepaway Camp certainly avoids that fate.

smoochin
Sexuality plays a pretty large role in Sleepaway Camp. Note there isn’t anyone with a knife poised to kill them for smoochin’.

The third, and strongest reason why Sleepaway Camp is such an interesting film is its pretty intense psycho-sexual themes and those themes role in the narrative of the film. Without spoiling the film at all (the last thing I’d want to do is rob you of one of the most unique endings in horror history) sexuality and gender are a very large part of this film. It touches on puberty, sexual peer pressure, gender roles, the perverse sexualization of children (which, slight spoiler, is quickly punished), body shaming, and homosexuality. Friday the 13th notoriously deals with sex as well, but it deals with it in a much more conservative abstinence only manner whereas the characters in this film are not explicitly punished for their sexuality. They’re punished for being assholes. The handling of young adult sexuality in Sleepaway Camp is more ambiguous, and has more fog surrounding it, and I’m not even touching on the ending here.

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My face during the last ten minutes of Sleepaway Camp.

The fact of the matter is that there is a pretty solid amount of meat on the slasher bones framing Sleepaway Camp. The interesting and inventive kills, the more involved themes, and the all-star shocker of an ending should help Sleepaway Camp avoid the label of Friday the 13th ripoff, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to. That’s honestly one of the most unfair ways we as a horror community could treat what in all actuality is one of the most interesting 80’s slasher underdogs.

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The Burning and Sleepaway Camp share a handful of themes with Friday the 13th, and they very explicitly share a lot in the way of setting, but if you’ve taken anything away from this piece, I hope it’s that the minutiae of a slasher film is what makes it memorable. We’ve all seen a million pretty twenty year olds gets stabbed a million and two different times, but it’s the little things that can go a long way. Be it a deft hand steering the film, rich themes, or a unique method of killing. I hope that this has given you a little bit to chew on, and maybe encouraged you to revisit these movies or maybe even give them a chance for the first time by ignoring the onerous label of “Friday the 13th ripoff”.

Humanstein

Nathan is a freelance writer, film critic, junk food enthusiast and founder of Humanstein.com | Humanstein is a digital magazine with the broad focus on “Crap Nathan Likes”. In more specific terms, that means horror movies, pop culture, nostalgia, and a lot of junk food.