Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office. Why don’t we rip it off?
Prior to the 20th century, Friday the 13th was a day just like any other, a calendar date which comes around no more than 3 times a year. Then everyone everywhere started calling upon ancient superstitions about Friday being an unlucky day and thirteen being an unlucky number to realize that maybe it was best to just stay inside when those two forces combined on Friday the 13th. Thanks to Pamela Voorhees’ 1980 Camp Crystal Lake killing spree, though, we no longer have to worry about the day being unlucky; now it’s just an excuse to talk about a goofy horror film franchise from our relatively recent past.
The story of how Friday the 13th came about, to begin with, is somewhat legendary. Independent film producer/director Sean S. Cunningham started his career making soft-core adult films prior to scoring a hit with Wes Craven’s directorial debut The Last House on the Left (1972).
By the close of the decade, Cunningham’s efforts to transition into making G-rated family fare more in line with his own sensibilities mostly resulted in ultra-low-budget Bad News Bears (1976) rip-offs, like Here Come the Tigers (1979) and Manny’s Orphans (1978), which replaced baseball with soccer, and made the kids genuine halfway house orphans instead of just lovable misfits. While trying to sell Manny’s Oprhans to distributors, Cunningham was told, “The title’s no good. Manny is too ethnic, and Orphans sounds too sad.” For whatever reason, one of the alternate titles Cunningham hit on was “Friday the 13th,” which he instantly realized sounded cool but made no sense for Manny’s Orphans. However, the whole ordeal had taught him the importance of having a good title.
Then John Carpenter’s Halloween, which clearly had a fantastic title, came along on Halloween night 1978 and became one of the most financially successful independent films of all time, to that point. Although Cunningham had previously been behind Last House on the Left, he didn’t actually like horror movies. However, he was a rip-off artist, after all, and it was hard to look at Halloween’s $39 million domestic gross (that would be like $117 million at current ticket prices) and not want in on that. As Manny’s Oprhans/Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller told Crystal Lake Memories, “One day in early 1979, Cunningham called me up and said, ‘Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office. Why don’t we rip it off?'”
That seems appropriate because Halloween also began its life when a producer looked around and found something to knock off. The independent film producer, in this particular case, was Irwin Yablans, who wanted to score big in the horror genre ala The Exorcist (1973). His idea was fairly straight-forward: do a movie called The Babysitter Murders, and have it be about an escaped homicidal maniac who murders babysitters.
As noted horror expert Kim Expert has noted before, that same basic concept had been explored in I Saw What You Did (1965) and Fright (1971) as well as the short The Sitter (1977) which later became When a Stranger Calls (1979). It was also the basis of every episode of the ’70s British TV series Thriller, although there the victim wasn’t always a babysitter, but there was always a homicidal maniac and a poor girl.
Unlike Cunningham, Yablans didn’t have any ambitions of writing or directing. He had the basic concept; he could just hire someone to worry about turning it into an actual story let alone a script. Noticing the positive reaction to John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) at a film festival, Yablans pitched him his concept, offering him the chance to write and direct. At that point, Carpenter’s Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13 hadn’t gone completely unnoticed but had definitely been seen by few ticket-buying film-goers. So, he was in no real position to turn Yablans down, going to work on writing The Babysitter Murders with help from his then-girlfriend Debra Hill. Shortly thereafter, Yablans suggested setting the story on Halloween night because not only was it a natural fit for a horror movie it would make for a better title since Halloween was a perfect release strategy-gimmick for the post-Summer/pre-Christmas dead zone when theaters are starved for marketable product.
Carpenter and Hill were otherwise free to do what they wanted, ultimately delivering a no-think horror movie which, much like its killer, mostly exists to scare you (but not repulse you). Of course, their’s was not the first horror film to use the subjective camera to give us the killer’s heavy-breathing point-of-view. Black Christmas (1974) had just done that four years earlier. However, whereas Black Christmas was ultimately bogged down by the inexplicable, almost supernatural invincibility of its killer Halloween turned that into a strong suit mostly due to the now adorably over-the-top rantings of Donald Pleasence about the pure evil that is Michael Myers, brilliantly equated to the bogeyman, an entity which doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to scare you.
When Carpenter and Hill sat down to write Halloween, though, they weren’t setting out to rip anything off specifically, and if they were in any way inspired by Black Christmas it’s not because that film was a huge hit that everyone had seen at that point. Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller, on the other hand, only ever sat at Cunningham’s kitchen table together to piece together their own horror film because Halloween had made so much money.
So, like Halloween their film would also feature a cast of attractive unknown teenagers, the audience would see many of the events directly from the killer’s point of view, and the musical score would assign a signature theme (“ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma”) for the killer to give away their presence (i.e., when the killer’s really around the signature theme plays). Of course, that last part was lifted from Jaws as well, and the back story for their killer as well as the decision to kill off the presumptive female lead halfway through had nothing to do with Halloween and everything to do with Psycho. Plus, the gory violence they went for was straight out of splatter films of the ’60s, and the crazy ass horror films coming out of Italy at that time.
What they initially came up with was a 19-page screenplay treatment, in which Miller ran through the basic plot points and characters. Crazy Ralph wasn’t around yet nor was the famous, Carrie-rip-off dream sequence ending. The original ending did involve Alice ultimately beheading Pamela Voorhees, but the way it was meant to be presented was quite different:
While [Alice and Pamela, i.e., Jason’s mom] tumble and struggle the scene cuts to the result, as officers arrive at Camp Blood and the audience would anticipate in wonder which had survived the clash. In a greatly alternative concept, our heroine Alice while still victorious over her antagonist is in a much different state as she appears to herself be crazed by the events she survived the previous evening. Alice is discovered stroking the severed head of Mrs. Voorhees and has collected the bodies of each of her camp colleagues and strung them up in a picturesque fashion.
This version of the film was to be called Long Night at Camp Blood, but eventually, Cunningham remembered the “Friday the 13th” idea from Manny’s Oprhans. Convinced that the title Friday the 13th would sell the movie alone, Cunningham took out a full-page ad in Variety over the Fourth of July Weekend of 1979:
It worked. The financiers behind Last House on the Left offered to cover the entire cost of the proposed $500,000 budget. Cunningham initially turned them down as the actual long term part of the deal was going to royally screw him, but nobody else was offering to put up the entire budget like that. He changed his mind the next morning.
None of that happens, though, if not for Halloween, and it’s refreshing just how honest the Friday the 13th people are about their wholesale mimicry. For its part, Halloween wasn’t really the first film to do all of what we now regard as slasher film cliches, but it was the one that hit big enough to start the wave of knock-offs, among which Friday the 13th was but one entry, joined in 1980 by the likes New Year’s Evil, To All a Goodnight, Prom Night, He Knows You’re Alone, and Christmas Evil. Ironically enough, Friday the 13th then became so popular that it too was followed by knock-offs of the teens-in-the-woods motif (e.g., The Burning, Sleepaway Camp). However, it’s Halloween we want to watch every Halloween, and Friday the 13th we want to talk about every Friday the 13th.
Or am I just a sick, sick man? Do you have any thoughts about the Halloween-Friday the 13th comparisons? Let us know in the comments section.