Aside from being the first movie of its kind to secure distribution in the US by a major studio (Paramount Pictures), the film's box office success led to a long series of sequels, a crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a 2009 series reboot.
In the summer of 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake, two counselors named Barry and Claudette sneak away from a campfire and into a storage barn. They prepare to have sex before an unseen assailant enters and murders them.
Decades later, on Friday, June 13th, newly hired counselor Annie Phillips asks for directions to the reopened Camp Crystal Lake. A friendly truck driver named Enos agrees to drive Annie halfway, but an elderly man, Crazy Ralph, warns her against going, believing that the camp has a "death curse". During the drive, Enos tells Annie about a young boy that drowned at Crystal Lake in 1957 and about the two murders the following year. After Enos drops her off, Annie hitches another ride from an unseen assailant, who chases her into the woods and slashes her throat.
At the camp, counselors Ned, Jack, Bill, Marcie, Brenda, and Alice, along with the owner Steve Christy, refurbish the cabins and facilities. As a thunderstorm approaches, Steve leaves the campground to stock supplies. Soon after, the killer arrives at the camp and kills Ned off-screen. As Jack and Marcie have sex in one of the cabin's bunk beds, they are unaware of Ned's body directly above them, his throat slit. Soon after, Jack is killed when his throat is pierced by an arrow from beneath the bed, and the killer murders Marcie by slamming an axe into her face. Brenda hears a child's voice calling for help and ventures outside her cabin to the archery range, only for the range lights to turn on as she is attacked off-screen. Eventually, Steve returns to the camp and is killed.
Alice and Bill are worried by their friends' disappearances, and they leave the main cabin to investigate, only to discover a bloody axe in Brenda's bed, the phones disconnected and the cars inoperable. When the power goes out, Bill goes to check on the generator and is killed off-screen. Alice then heads out to look for him. Upon finding Bill's body impaled with arrows to the generator room's door, she flees back to the main cabin to hide only to be traumatized further when Brenda's body is thrown through the window.
Alice sees a vehicle pull up; thinking it is Steve, she rushes outside. Instead, she is greeted by a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Voorhees, who says she is an old friend of Steve's. As Alice brings her inside, Voorhees reveals that her son Jason was the boy who drowned in 1957; she blames his death on the counselors who were supposed to be watching him but instead were having sex, not paying attention to Jason's drowning. Revealing herself as the killer, Voorhees turns violent and rushes toward Alice with a bowie knife. A chase ensues, in which Voorhees attempts to kill Alice. Alice finds Annie's body inside Pamela's car and Steve's body hanging from the roof. Following a confrontation in which Pamela is knocked out, Alice escapes to the shore. Just as she begins to relax, Voorhees finds her and attempts to kill her again. During the final struggle, Alice decapitates her with a machete. Afterward, a traumatized Alice boards and falls asleep inside a canoe, which floats out on Crystal Lake.
Just as Alice awakens and sees police arriving, Jason's decomposing body suddenly emerges and drags her underwater. She then awakens in a hospital, where a police officer and medical staff tend to her. When she asks about Jason, the officer says that there was no sign of any boy; Alice says, "He's still there", as the lake is shown at peace.
Friday the 13th was produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who had previously worked with filmmaker Wes Craven on the film The Last House on the Left. Cunningham, inspired by John Carpenter's Halloween, wanted Friday the 13th to be shocking, visually stunning and "[make] you jump out of your seat". Wanting to distance himself from The Last House on the Left, Cunningham wanted Friday the 13th to be more of a "roller-coaster ride".
Friday the 13th began its life as nothing more than a title. Initially, A Long Night at Camp Blood was the working title during the writing process, but Cunningham believed in his "Friday the 13th" moniker, and quickly rushed out to place an advertisement in Variety. Worried that someone else owned the rights to the title and wanting to avoid potential lawsuits, Cunningham thought it would be best to find out immediately. He commissioned a New York advertising agency to develop his concept of the Friday the 13th logo, which consisted of big block letters bursting through a pane of glass. In the end, Cunningham believed there were "no problems" with the title, but distributor George Mansour stated, "There was a movie before ours called Friday the 13th: The Orphan. It was moderately successful. But someone still threatened to sue. Either Phil Scuderi paid them off, but it was finally resolved."
The film was shot in and around the townships of Hardwick, Blairstown and Hope, New Jersey in September 1979. The camp scenes were shot on a working Boy Scout camp, Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco which is located in Hardwick, NJ. The camp is still standing and still works as a summer camp.
The script was written by Victor Miller, who later went on to write for several television soap operas, including Guiding Light, One Life to Live and All My Children. Miller delighted in inventing a serial killer who turned out to be somebody's mother, a murderer whose only motivation was her love for her child. "I took motherhood and turned it on its head and I think that was great fun. Mrs. Voorhees was the mother I'd always wanted—a mother who would have killed for her kids." Miller was unhappy about the filmmakers' decision to make Jason Voorhees the killer in the sequels. "Jason was dead from the very beginning. He was a victim, not a villain." The idea of Jason appearing at the end of the film was initially not used in the original script, and was actually suggested by makeup designer Tom Savini. Savini stated that "The whole reason for the cliffhanger at the end was I had just seen Carrie, so we thought that we need a 'chair jumper' like that, and I said, 'let's bring in Jason'".
A New York-based firm, headed by Julie Hughes and Barry Moss, was hired to find eight young actors to play the camp's staff members. Cunningham admits that he was not looking for "great actors", but anyone that was likable, and appeared to be a responsible camp counselor. The way Cunningham saw it, the actors would need to look good, read the dialogue somewhat well, and work cheap. Moss and Hughes were happy to find four actors, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Bartram, Peter Brouwer, and Adrienne King, who had previously appeared on soap operas. The role of "Alice" was set up as an open casting call, a publicity stunt used to attract more attention to the film. King earned an audition primarily because she was the friend of someone working in Moss and Hughes’s office. After she auditioned, Moss recalls Cunningham commenting that they saved the best actress for last. As Cunningham explains, he was looking for people that could behave naturally, and King was able to show that to him in the audition.
With King cast in the role of lead heroine Alice, Laurie Bartram was hired to play Brenda. Kevin Bacon, Mark Nelson and Jeannine Taylor, who had known each other prior to the film, were cast as Jack, Ned, and Marcie respectively. It is Bacon and Nelson's contention that, because the three already knew each other, they already had the specific chemistry the casting director was looking for in the roles of Jack, Ned, and Marcie. Taylor has stated that Hughes and Moss were highly regarded while she was an actress, so when they offered her an audition she felt that, whatever the part, it would "be a good opportunity".
Friday the 13th was Nelson's first feature film, and when he went in for his first audition the only thing he was given to read were some comedic scenes. Nelson received a call back for a second audition, which required him to wear a bathing suit, which Nelson acknowledges made him start to wonder if something was off about this film. He did not fully realize what was going on until he got the part and was given the full script to read. Nelson explains, "It certainly was not a straight dramatic role, and it was only after they offered me the part that they gave me the full script to read and I realized how much blood was in it." Nelson believes that Ned used humor to hide his insecurities, especially around Brenda, whom the actor believes Ned was attracted to. Nelson recalls an early draft of the script stating that Ned suffered from polio, and his legs were deformed while his upper body was muscular. Ned is believed to have given birth to the "practical joker victim" of horror films. According to author David Grove, there was no equivalent character in John Carpenter's Halloween, or Bob Clark's Black Christmas before that. He served as a model for the slasher films that would follow Friday the 13th.
The part of Bill was handed over to Harry Crosby, son of Bing Crosby. Robbi Morgan, who plays Annie, was not auditioning for the film when she was offered the role. While in her office, Hughes just looked at Morgan and proclaimed "you're a camp counselor". The next day Morgan was on the set. Morgan only appeared on-set for a day to shoot all her scenes. Rex Everhart, who portrays Enos, did not film the truck scenes with Morgan, so she had to either act with an imaginary Enos, or exchange dialogue with Taso Stavrakis—Savini's assistant—who would sit in the truck with her. It was Peter Brouwer's girlfriend that helped him land a role on Friday the 13th. After recently being written off the show Love of Life, Brouwer moved back to Connecticut to look for work. Learning that his girlfriend was working as an assistant director for Friday the 13th, Brouwer asked about any openings. Initially told casting was looking for big stars to fill the role of Steve Christy, it was not until Sean Cunningham dropped by to deliver a message to Brouwer's girlfriend, and saw him working in a garden, that Brouwer was hired.
Estelle Parsons was initially asked to portray the film's killer, Mrs. Voorhees, but eventually declined. Her agent cited that the film was too violent, and did not know what kind of actress would play such a part. Hughes and Moss sent a copy of the script to Betsy Palmer, in hopes that she would accept the part. Palmer could not understand why someone would want her for a part in a horror film, as she had previously starred in films such as Mister Roberts, The Angry Man, and The Tin Star. Palmer only agreed to play the role because she needed to buy a new car, even when she believed the film to "be a piece of shit." Stavrakis subbed for Betsy Palmer as well, which involved Morgan's character being chased through the woods by Mrs. Voorhees, although the audience only sees a pair of legs running after Morgan. Palmer had just arrived in town when those scenes were about to be filmed, and was not in the physical shape necessary to chase Morgan around the woods. Morgan's training as an acrobat assisted her in these scenes, as her character was required to leap out of a moving jeep when she discovers that Mrs. Voorhees does not intend to take her to the camp. Betsy Palmer explains how she developed the character of Mrs. Voorhees:
"Being an actress who uses the Stanislavsky method, I always try to find details about my character. With Pamela... I began with a class ring that I remember reading in the script that she'd worn. Starting with that, I traced Pamela back to my own high school days in the early 1940s. So it's 1944, a very conservative time, and Pamela has a steady boyfriend. They have sex—which is very bad of course—and Pamela soon gets pregnant with Jason. The father takes off and when Pamela tells her parents, they disown her because having... babies out of wedlock isn't something that good girls do. I think she took Jason and raised him the best she could, but he turned out to be a very strange boy. [She took] lots of odd jobs and one of those jobs was as a cook at a summer camp. Then Jason drowns and her whole world collapses. What were the counselors doing instead of watching Jason? They were having sex, which is the way that she got into trouble. From that point on, Pamela became very psychotic and puritanical in her attitudes as she was determined to kill all of the immoral camp counselors."
Cunningham wanted to make the Mrs. Voorhees character "terrifying", and to that end he believed it was important that Palmer not act "over the top". There was also the fear that Palmer's past credits, as more of a wholesome character, would make it difficult to believe she could be scary. Ari Lehman, who had previously auditioned for Cunningham's Manny's Orphans, failing to get the part, was determined to land the role of Jason Voorhees. According to Lehman, he went in very intense and afterward Cunningham told him he was perfect for the part. In addition to the main cast, Walt Gorney came on as "Crazy Ralph", the town's soothsayer. The character of Crazy Ralph was meant to establish two functions: foreshadow the events to come, and insinuate that he could actually be the murderer. Cunningham has stated that he was apprehensive about including the character, and is not sure if he accomplished his goal of creating a new suspect.
When Harry Manfredini began working on the musical score, the decision was made to only play music when the killer was actually present so as to not "manipulate the audience". Manfredini pointed out the lack of music for certain scenes: "There's a scene where one of the girls... is setting up the archery area... One of the guys shoots an arrow into the target and just misses her. It's a huge scare, but if you notice, there's no music. That was a choice." Manfredini also noted that when something was going to happen, the music would cut off so that the audience would relax a bit, and the scare would be that much more effective.
Because Mrs. Voorhees, the killer in the original Friday the 13th, appears onscreen only during the final scenes of the film, Manfredini had the job of creating a score that would represent the killer in her absence. Manfredini borrows from the 1975 film Jaws, where the shark is likewise not seen for the majority of the film but the motif created by John Williams cued the audience to the shark's invisible menace. Sean S. Cunningham sought a chorus, but the budget would not allow it. While listening to a Krzysztof Penderecki piece of music, which contained a chorus with "striking pronunciations", Manfredini was inspired to recreate a similar sound. He came up with the sound "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" from the final reel when Mrs. Voorhees arrives and is reciting "Kill her, mommy!" The "ki" comes from "kill", and the "ma" from "mommy". To achieve the unique sound he wanted for the film, Manfredini spoke the two words "harshly, distinctly and rhythmically into a microphone" and ran them into an echo reverberation machine. Manfredini finished the original score after a couple of weeks, and then recorded the score in a friend's basement. Victor Miller and assistant editor Jay Keuper have commented on how memorable the music is, with Keuper describing it as "iconographic". Manfredini says, "Everybody thinks it's cha, cha, cha. I'm like, 'Cha, cha, cha? What are you talking about?'"
In 1982, Gramavision Records released a LP record of selected pieces of Harry Manfredini's scores from the first three Friday the 13th films. On 13 January 2012, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 6-CD boxset containing Manfredini's scores from the first six films. It sold out in less than 24 hours.
All tracks written by Harry Manfredini, except where noted.
Paramount bought Friday the 13th's distribution rights for $1.5 million, after seeing a screening of the film. They spent approximately $500,000 in advertisements for the film, and then an additional $500,000 when the film began performing well at the box office. Friday the 13th opened theatrically on 9 May 1980 across the United States, ultimately expanding its release to 1,100 theaters. It took in $5,816,321 in its opening weekend, before finishing domestically with $39,754,601. It was the 18th highest-grossing film that year, facing stiff horror film competition from such high-profile releases as The Shining, Dressed To Kill, The Fog and Prom Night. The worldwide gross was $59,754,601. Friday the 13th was released internationally, which was unusual for an independent film with, at the time, no well-recognized or bankable actors; aside from well-known television and movie actress Betsy Palmer. The film would take in approximately $20 million in international box office receipts. Not factoring in international sales, or the cross-over film with A Nightmare on Elm Street 's Freddy Krueger, the original Friday the 13th is the highest-grossing film of the film series.
To provide context with the box office gross of films in 2014, the cost of making and promoting Friday the 13th—which includes the $550,000 budget and the $1 million in advertisement—is approximately $4.5 million. With regard to the US box office gross, the film would have made $177.72 million in adjusted 2017 dollars. On 13 July 2007, Friday the 13th was screened for the first time on Blairstown's Main Street in the very theater which appears shortly after the opening credits. Overflowing crowds forced the Blairstown Theater Festival, the sponsoring organization, to add an extra screening. The event was covered by local media and New York City's Channel 11, WPIX. A 30th Anniversary Edition was released on March 10, 2010. A 35th-anniversary screening was held in the Griffith Park Zoo as part of the Great Horror Campout on March 13, 2015.
Rotten Tomatoes reports that 59% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 50 reviews. Its most vocal detractor was Gene Siskel, who in his review called Cunningham "one of the most despicable creatures ever to infest the movie business". He also published the address for Charles Bluhdorn, the chairman of the board of Gulf+Western, which owned Paramount, as well as Betsy Palmer's home city and encouraged fellow detractors to write to them and express their contempt for the film. Siskel and Roger Ebert spent an entire episode of their TV show berating the film (and other slasher films of the time) because they felt it would make audiences root for the killer. Leonard Maltin initially awarded the film one star, or 'BOMB', but later changed his mind and awarded the film a star and-a-half "simply because it's slightly better than Part 2" and called it a "gory, cardboard thriller". Variety claimed the film was "low budget in the worst sense—with no apparent talent or intelligence to offset its technical inadequacies—Friday the 13th has nothing to exploit but its title."
Later on, retrospective reviews were much more positive regarding the film, with praise mainly towards its score, make-up effects, and Betsy Palmer's role, while it drew criticism for its script and lack of character development. Dave Kehr said that "For all its shoddiness, the film manages, just barely, to achieve its ignoble goals -- it delivers what it promises". James Kendrick gave the film a 3 out of 4, calling it "a campfire boogeyman story designed to do little more than build tension and deliver a few well-timed shocks, which it does with precision and even a bit of artistry". Kevin Carr said that "what makes the movie work is that the slasher genre hadn't been set in stone yet, and some choices that director Sean S. Cunningham makes in the film that work against type". The film was nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills.
The film was nominated twice at the 1st Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture and Worst Supporting Actress for Betsy Palmer, winning neither.
On 3 February 2009, Paramount Home Entertainment released Friday the 13th on an unrated uncut home video version for the first time in the United States (all previous VHS Laserdisc and DVD releases were the rated theatrical version). It is available on both DVD and Blu-ray Disc. The uncut version of the film contains approximately 10 seconds of previously unreleased footage. In 2011, the uncut version of Friday the 13th was released in a 4-disc DVD collection with the first three sequels. The Australia DVD/Blu-ray release was July 1, 2009, and features commentary by Sean S. Cunningham, among several other bonuses.
As of 2009, Friday the 13th has spawned nine sequels, including a crossover film with A Nightmare on Elm Street villain Freddy Krueger. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) introduced Jason Voorhees, the son of Mrs. Voorhees, as the primary antagonist, which would continue for the remaining sequels (with exception of the fifth movie) and related works. Most of the sequels were filmed on larger budgets than the original. In comparison, Friday the 13th had a budget of $550,000, while the first sequel was given a budget of $1.25 million. At the time of its release, Freddy vs. Jason had the largest budget, at $25 million. All of the sequels repeated the premise of the original, so the filmmakers made tweaks to provide freshness. Changes involved an addition to the title—as opposed to a number attached to the end—like "The Final Chapter" and "Jason Takes Manhattan", or filming the movie in 3-D, as Miner did for Friday the 13th Part III (1982). One major addition that would affect the entire film series was the addition of Jason's hockey mask in the third film; this mask would become one of the most recognizable images in popular culture.
A reboot to Friday the 13th came to theaters in February 2009, with Freddy vs. Jason writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift hired to script the new film. The film focused on Jason Voorhees, along with his trademark hockey mask. The film was produced by Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller through Bay's production company Platinum Dunes, for New Line Cinema. In November 2007, Marcus Nispel, director of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was hired to direct. The film had its United States release on 13 February 2009.
In 1987, seven years after the release of the motion picture, Simon Hawke produced a novelization of Friday the 13th. One of the few additions to the book was Mrs. Voorhees begging the Christy family to take her back after the loss of her son; they agreed. Another addition in the novel is more understanding in Mrs. Voorhees' actions. Hawke felt the character had attempted to move on when Jason died, but her psychosis got the best of her. When Steve Christy reopened the camp, Mrs. Voorhees saw it as a chance that what happened to her son could happen again. Her murders were against the counselors, because she saw them all as responsible for Jason's death.
A number of scenes from the film were recreated in Friday the 13th: Pamela's Tale, a two-issue comic book prequel released by WildStorm in 2007. In 2016, the book On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th was released detailing the planning and filming of the movie.Grove, David (February 2005). Making Friday the 13th: The Legend of Camp Blood. United Kingdom: FAB Press. ISBN 1-903254-31-0.
Bracke, Peter (October 11, 2006). Crystal Lake Memories. United Kingdom: Titan Books. ISBN 1-84576-343-2.
Rockoff, Adam (2002). Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company. ISBN 0-7864-1227-5.
Hawke, Simon (1987). Friday the 13th. New York: Signet. ISBN 0-451-15089-9.