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When the cameras first began rolling on Friday the 13th in September 1979, neither director Sean S. Cunningham nor writer Victor Miller could have dreamed that forty years later filmmakers would still be developing sequels to their low budget horror picture. Produced for $550,000 and purchased as a negative pick-up by Paramount, the movie became an unexpected success when it was released the following May, drawing in large crowds despite the highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back dominating the box office. Earning $5.8m on its opening weekend, Friday the 13th would ultimately gross almost $40m by the end of its theatrical run in the United States and within twelve months a sequel had already been released.
With the original movie telling of a vengeful mother brutally murdering a group of counsellors at a secluded summer camp for the accidental drowning of her son over twenty years earlier, the writing of Friday the 13th Part 2 would prove to be somewhat problematic but with the third instalment – released at the height of the early ’80s 3D revival – the supposedly-dead son Jason Voorhees had become the centrepiece of the franchise. By the end of the decade the studio had released a total of eight movies and a small screen spinoff but the public’s disinterest in slasher films finally convinced Paramount to sell their interest in the series.
‘I remember the decision as being something of that moment, that we would simply not do another Friday the 13th next year, or maybe even the year after that,’ former Paramount president Frank Mancuso, Sr. told author Peter M. Bracke. ‘Then I left Paramount in 1991 and eventually they sold off the rights to somebody else. At the time it had probably become stale, in our minds. When you’ve stretched it as long as we did, I don’t know if there was anything else different you could do with it. Although we did use the title for the television series, that never crossed over to the movies…How many more can you make?’
New Line Cinema, the company who had become a major Hollywood enterprise through their own A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, attempted to resurrect Jason with two critically-mauled offerings, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday and the sci-fi themed Jason X, before finally offering fans the sequel they had been waiting for since the late-1980s, the Elm Street crossover Freddy vs. Jason. Yet despite earning its budget back on the opening weekend New Line were hesitant about producing a sequel and it wasn’t until Platinum Dunes, the production company owned by Hollywood filmmaker Michael Bay and producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, came onboard that a new Friday the 13th picture entered production.
With their reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre having become the surprise success of 2003, Platinum Dunes decided to return to the roots of Jason Voorhees with a new version of his origin story. While Cunningham’s Friday the 13th had focused on the actions of Pamela Voorhees the new version – directed by Marcus Nispel, the man responsible for injecting new life into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – would follow Jason as he protects his domain from a group of tourists who are partying in the woods nearby. Kane Hodder, who had taken on the role of Jason in 1988’s The New Blood and would portray the role for the following three sequels, had been replaced by New Line for Freddy vs. Jason by fellow stuntman Ken Kirzinger, but for the reboot another actor was offered the role.
Each performer cast as Jason Voorhees over the course of the series had brought something unique to the role, whether it was Hodder’s willingness to be set on fire or Part III‘s Richard Brooker’s background as a trapeze artist. Derek Mears, the actor chosen for Nispel’s re-telling of the story, was a stuntman whose first foray into the industry had been as part of the Universal Studios’ Wild Wild Wild West Stunt Show. But it would be through the recommendation of special effects artists Greg Nicotero and Scott Stoddard, both of whom he had worked with on 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that Mears would come to the attention of Platinum Dunes.
‘In my head my take on Jason is that he is a mixture of John Rambo from First Blood, a bit of Tarzan and a little bit of the Abdominal Snowman from the Looney Toons cartoons,’ explained Derek Mears prior to the film’s release. ‘Tarzan, because he’s the alpha male of the woods. He’s never come across anything that’s higher than himself on the food chain. He’s like John Rambo because he’s smart a hunter. He’s been rejected by society and he wants to be left alone. The kids in the film trespass on his territory and he is pushed into a corner. This is what forces him to attack them with an animalistic brutality. I played it as if when he attacks the kids he is having a Vietnam-like flashback to when his mother was killed. It is as if these kids were the ones who originally murdered his mother.’
The reboot would take key elements from the first three Friday the 13th movies; the death of Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s vengeance against anyone who dared to return to the summer camp and his discovery of the infamous hockey mask that would ultimately transform him into a symbol of pop culture. When Friday the 13th was released on Valentine’s Day 2009 it was a considerable success, falling short to that of Freddy vs. Jason but far outgrossing the movies that had come beforehand. Since the release of A New Beginning in 1985, the Friday the 13th franchise had seen a steady decline in box office takings that would continue until Freddy vs. Jason eighteen years later. But while the critical reaction to the movie had been above average and the picture had proved a financial success, ten years on and the long-rumoured sequel or reboot has yet to enter production.
Within months of the 2009 picture’s debut a script for Part 2 was already in development from writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, the two responsible for both the recently-released hit and Freddy vs. Jason. During initial discussions the screenplay had included sequences of their antagonist butchering his victims in the snow and once again the studio considered utilising 3D which, much as in the 1980s, had made a revival on the big screen. The producers had also intended on the movie being released the following summer and would have finally seen the death of Jason Voorhees. This had, however, already been attempted twice with both The Final Chapter and The Final Friday, yet continued interest in the series had forced the horror icon to return from the dead time and time again.
Another potential way to capitalise on the Friday the 13th brand would have been to bring the character of Jason to the small screen. This would not have been the first time the franchise had made the transition to television, with Friday the 13th: The Series having made its debut in late summer 1987, yet with its original incarnation the studio had attempted to distance themselves from the slasher formula by abandoning the story of Jason and instead focusing on a mysterious antique shop. But in 2014, almost five years after the release of the last film, Cunningham’s production company Crystal Lake Entertainment had entered a deal to develop a new show that would focus on Jason over several hour-long episodes.
Yet by August 2016 the studio had abandoned the concept and would instead focus on producing another big screen instalment. This had in part been as a result of an agreement that New Line’s parent studio Warner Bros. had made with Paramount over the co-production of Christoper Nolan’s science fiction drama Interstellar, which had forced the company to sacrifice their interest in the Friday the 13th series and had thus allowed Paramount to develop a fresh reboot without having to compromise their vision with another studio. But the negative reaction to A Nightmare on Elm Street, another attempt by Platinum Dunes to reinvigorate a horror franchise, had cast doubt over Friday the 13th and so producers struggled to find a concept that could inject something new into the formula.
Further complications would come with the surprise success of The Purge, a low budget horror picture that would spawn a successful franchise for both Platinum Dunes and rising production company Blumhouse Productions. With Friday the 13th having remained dormant for several years developing yet another reboot would hardly seem like a priority while their latest product was receiving both success at the box office and above-average critical reviews. And after briefly considering following in the footsteps of Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity by utilising the found footage concept, the producers of Friday the 13th eventually decided that the series should return to the basics and offer its core audience what they demanded.
‘At the end of the day those movies are so fantastic because Jason Voorhees is such a dynamic presence and people love to see him do what he does well. We hope to put Jason in a situation where he’s able to do that again and it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing the same thing over and over,’ Fuller told Coming Soon in 2015. ‘Listen, there was an outpouring of negative sentiment when it was revealed that Friday the 13th might have been a found footage movie. That was very clear to us that there was not a groundswell of support for that. That had a tremendous amount of impact on us and only substantiated our concern about doing it as a found footage movie. Ultimately, the fact that the movie’s been delayed for a long time might be a good thing, because now the movie’s not going to be found footage.’
With Shannon and Swift having long since moved onto other ventures the task of resurrecting Jason Voorhees would fall to Nick Antosca, a young writer whose prior work had included episodes of Teen Wolf and Hannibal, both of which had been adapted for the small screen from motion picture franchises. Another release date was set, Friday 13 May 2016 and David Bruckner, having first gained recognition for his contribution to the Bloody Disgusting anthology V/H/S, was hired to direct the picture. With a filmmaker at the helm it finally looked promising for the long-anticipated latest entry in the legendary horror series.
‘It was a proper reboot,’ claimed Bruckner. ‘It was a proper ‘end of the summer’ summer camp movie that took place in the late ’80s…I like to say that Dazed and Confused was a huge inspiration to me in how we approached the character relationships, just because that’s a movie that captures a kind of a timeless – even though it takes place in the ’70s – a very timeless, nostalgic experience. And it’s very much…you chart several characters at once, it’s very much an ensemble piece and you really are able to get at this coming of age vibe. I just wanted to see a movie where you’re that invested in everybody and then Jason Voorhees shows up.’ But within a few short months Antosca would be replaced by Prisoners screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and the date was pushed back once again.
Following another attempt with director Breck Eisner, who had already gained minor acclaim for his remake of George A. Romero’s horror classic The Crazies, events took an unexpected turn. In February 2017, almost eight years to the day since the last instalment, Paramount finally announced that they had ceased development on another Friday the 13th picture. With the movie removed from its expected October release, the studio instead turned its attention to distributing mother!, the latest feature from noted filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Yet the movie would receive a considerable amount of animosity from audiences and before long talks had resumed regarding bringing Friday the 13th back to the screen. And while as recent as October 2018 LeBron James had expressed interest in revamping the series Jason would face his greatest threat to date: lawyers.
In June 2017 it was announced that Victor Miller, the man who had been credited as the screenwriter for the original movie almost four decades earlier, had taken his former collaborator Sean S. Cunningham to court over the 1976 Copyright Act that would allow an author to reclaim ownership over their work after a period of no less than thirty-five years had elapsed. Yet Cunningham had claimed that Miller was a writer-for-hire and that it was Cunningham, acting as both the producer and director, who had first conceived both the name Friday the 13th and the outline of the story, which had been inspired by the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s independent horror Halloween. It had been Cunningham who infamously had posted a full-page advert in Variety that announced, ‘From the producer of Last House on the Left comes the most terrifying film ever made.’
‘Sean called me up and told me about the great business that this film Halloween was doing. He asked me if I thought we could create the same kind of machine. Immediately, I went to see Halloween, several times and I carefully studied the genre and the technique they used in that film,’ Miller told author David Grove. ‘I came up with the summer camp idea and it seemed perfect except for the fact that there were lots of kids at summer camp. Where’s the terror in that? That’s when I thought that it was a summer camp that was just about to open. I also knew that we had to begin with some kind of curse on the camp, some kind of ancient evil that haunted the place. Something from the past that haunts the present which is, obviously, the drowning of Jason.’
Friday the 13th had been devised as a business venture by Cunningham, whose two prior attempts to capitalise on the success of the family sports comedy The Bad News Bears had failed to generate much interest. Having formed a business partnership with Georgetown Productions, a company had that evolved from an earlier brand called Hallmark who had financed Cunningham’s first genre picture The Last House on the Left, the director was desperate for a hit and so set about exploiting the elements of Halloween that he felt had been responsible for its success and slowly the seeds for Friday the 13th were sown. But just how the story was developed and the conditions that the screenplay were written under would become the focal point of the legal case thirty-eight years later.
The ownership of Friday the 13th has caused much deliberation over the decades since its release and is now under even more scrutiny following the legal issues that have arisen. While both Cunningham and Miller had conceived the basic concept together the writer had created the character of Jason Voorhees but only that of a drowned boy, the catalyst for the murders that would dominate the original movie. Yet it was Cunningham who had conjured up the film’s infamous title, while the shock ending – which saw Jason rising from the depths of the lake – was created by a third party, uncredited writer Ron Kurz. It was he who allegedly suggested the final jump scare, which the filmmakers hoped would emulate that of Carrie and it would be this crucial scene that would introduce audiences to Jason.
Kurz could claim further ownership of the character as he was subsequently hired to write Friday the 13th Part 2, in which the focus of the story would shift from the vengeful mother to the murderous rampage of her supposedly-deceased son. Another important participant on the first movie who would later claim to have been the one responsible for Jason’s brief appearance during the climactic scene was special effects artist Tom Savini. ‘My true inspiration was the idea that the audience wouldn’t know what was real or not and that’s why I think it worked so well,’ he later stated. Despite each party having previously staked their claim in the legacy of Jason the legal battle would be played out solely between its director and official screenwriter.
Yet Miller has maintained that he was not merely a writer-for-hire during the time that had worked on the screenplay, having collaborated with Cunningham in a similar capacity on both Manny’s Orphans and Here Come the Tigers. ‘As for his version of the working relationship, Miller says he wrote a fifteen-page treatment (called The Long Night at Camp Blood) and screenplay on spec at his home without daily supervision,’ explained an article published by the Hollywood Reporter. ‘Miller contends he worked as a freelancer over the course of two months and that it was up to him when and for how long he worked. The writer says he was paid $5,569 upon delivery of a first draft and $3,713 upon delivery of a final draft screenplay. He says that revisions with the exception of a new ending were minor.’
By September 2018 Miller would score his first victory, with the court granting a summary in his favour. Miller, who was a member of the Writers Guild of America, had been in the legal dispute for over a year when the verdict was given, which could result in the writer obtaining the rights to the story domestically while the producers would control them overseas. This would be a similar situation to how Paramount and Warner Bros. controlled the picture when it was first released in 1980, with Paramount releasing the film in the United States and Warner Bros. handling the international distribution. Larry Zerner, a veteran of the series who would later embark on a new career as an entertainment lawyer, explained to Arrow in the Head that the legal proceedings could continue for another couple of years if an agreement cannot be reached between the two parties.
This has thrown the future of the franchise into turmoil as not only has this legal dispute threatened the release of a highly-anticipated computer game but the thirteenth Friday the 13th picture has remained trapped in development hell as a result. Over the last decade a host of writers and directors have attempted to bring Jason back from the dead in new and exciting ways, yet each time the project has stalled before cameras have even begun to roll. While Platinum Dunes have remained determined to return to the series once again Blumhouse Productions have expressed interest in following their successful reboot of Halloween with another horror revival. Even as the Friday the 13th brand remains the victim of a legality, fans have continued to keep the spirit of Jason alive with a succession of low budget, self-distributed features that have attempted to recapture the spirit of the official instalments.
Most recently Tom McLoughlin, the director responsible for fan favourite Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, told Love-It-Loud, ‘I have been asked for so many years if I’d ever do another Jason movie. I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, when I come up with something that hasn’t been done, yet stays true to the mythology and basically follows where I left off.’ A little over a year ago I finally figured out how to do it. A new Friday the 13th that I, as a fan and filmmaker, would love to see. So I wrote the script. And am still excited. But due to the ongoing lawsuit between Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller the studios involved don’t want to even read it since nothing can move forward until the suit is settled.’ And so for the time being it would seem that Jason is to remain dormant, waiting for his time to rise again, just as he has done many times before from the depths of Crystal Lake. And with Halloween proving that even in an era of Netflix streaming there is still an audience for an old fashioned stalk-and-slash horror movie perhaps once the director and writer of Friday the 13th can come to some kind of agreement Jason Voorhees will be back for a new chapter.