Dangerous Curves Ahead: The Road to FRIDAY THE 13th

Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13th has proven so endlessly influential on the horror genre that it's sometimes difficult to remember that the modest body count thriller did not invent the stalk-and-slash sub-genre. In fact, it's far better to posit that FRIDAY is the culmination of a long history of psycho-film pregnancy. Once born and released into the world, of course, Mrs. Voorhees and her son Jason's saga  forever became the standard by which other films in the classification would be judged. But to understand that accomplishment it is necessary to retrace the cinema stepping stones that led up to those first commercial screenings on May 9th, 1980.

PART I: 1912 – 1930

Although commercial film making has its origins, with the Edison Company, in America, Europe beat the states to horror with French filmmaker George Méliès' LE MANOIR DU DIABLE in 1896. The success of the two minute short film led directly to early cinema's fascination with dark subject matter, both supernatural (as in MANOIR) and psychological. Although some might argue for the American short CONSCIENCE, the first film to fully explore violent psychopathology was Maurice Tourneur's LE SYSTÈME DU DOCTEUR GOUDRON ET DU PROFESSEUR PLUME. Now a familiar trope of horror films, this was the first to showcase an asylum where, following an unseen coup, the inmates had taken over the institution.

America countered with 1914's THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE, a stagy retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's The Telltale Heart. Directed by D. W. Griffith a year before his cinematic game-changer THE CLANSMAN (now known as BIRTH OF A NATION), this is, at 80 minutes, the first feature length psychological thriller. Whatever impact Griffith's film had on horror was all but forgotten five years later when the Robert Wiene's monumental DAS CABINET DES DR. CALIGARI was released. The German film presented an experience every bit as visually arresting as the story was complex and engaging. The swirling, unpredictable ambiguity of the story changed the manner in which these types of stories would be told from here on out. Before CABINET, the viewer always assumed the viewpoint of one of the sane on-screen characters, a rational observer such as a doctor or policeman. Here, however, the story is told from multiple viewpoints, including from the poisonous, delusional mind of the title character. This technique would prove the essential building block from which Hitchcock constructed his take on Robert Bloch's novel PSYCHO.

CALIGARI's star, Conrad Veidt, continued the theme in his own director debut in WAHNSINN (also 1919). This dark, brooding film's central image of a large trunk that serves as a very claustrophobic prison would later be recycled (or, more politely, paid homage to) in THE COLLECTOR (2009) and it's sequel THE COLLECTION (2012).

Three versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made their way to the screen in 1920. The most relevant, of course, is the one featuring the brilliant, virtuoso performance by John Barrymore. A career-defining role, it is difficult to imagine a take on the character that doesn't at least indirectly reference Barrymore's turn. Although wildly inaccurate medically, this film has become the cinema's turnkey example of how to present split personality disorders. Anothony Perkins's Norman Bates and Anthony Hopkin's Hannibal Lector both owe Barrymore a tremendous debt. Not to mention Betsy Palmer.

1923's WHILE PARIS SLEEPS may be more potboiler than proto-slasher, but the central character played by Lon Chaney, an insane curator of a wax museum, set the template for the Vincent Price vehicle HOUSE OF WAX (1953) and it's even more stalk-n-slash relevant remake (2005).

Universal's classic translation of Gaston Leroux's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) may not immediately seem like a predecessor to the modern giallo, but in actuality, it is exactly that. A lone, obsessed figure commits a string of ghastly murders to secure the affections of a woman. Even more than it's tragic 1943 color remake, this film set the bar for a killer's displaced emotions, equating murder with unrequited love, an idea echoed in Mrs. Voorhees' revenge on behalf of her son.

LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), in which madman Lon Chaney hides his crimes as the work of a vampire, probably influences the madman performances of films in its wake, but since the film is lost, overstating the movie's impact is an obvious danger. It can, at least, be safely said that it remains, possibly because of its status as “lost”, a pop culture phenomenon.

Conrad Veidt returned to the role of a maniac in 1929's THE LAST PERFORMANCE. Possibly his best performance, Veidt brings a vivid schizophrenic frenzy to his part, no doubt paving the way for Robert England's most famous role. Similarly, Universal also offered THE LAST WARNING the same year, though the film's uneven tone at times seems to play off the mental instability of its villain for laughs, perhaps inviting England's later, campier takes on Freddy Krueger.


READ PART II: The 1930's