I WROTE "Friday the 13th."
I also went to a prestigious New England prep school and majored in English at Yale University. I have a lovely wife and two more or less well-adjusted children.
But I still wrote one of the most frigtening and gory movies ever made. Now I have to deal with the consequences.
My children are proud, my neighbors are aghast, my parents are shocked, my friends are mystified and my agent is euphoric.
My kids are impressed. (They are 11 and 7, and I wouldn't let them see "Friday the 13th.") In fact, everybody under the age of 24 seems to be impressed. This low-budget ($500,000) thriller has reportedly grossed well over $25 million for Paramount and the producers. Most of that money has come from the deep designer-jean pockets of the 17-to-24-year old crowd.
My mother, a grande dame from the French Quarter in New Orleans, was no similarly impressed. After she and my dad spent their working lives putting me through all this high-class education, they are somewhat puzzled by the fact that, instead of imitating Keats, Shelley or T. S. Eliot, I am slogging in the sodden footsteps of George Romero ("Night of the Living Dead") and heading for twin-bills with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
My mother, in her late 60s, and my father, in his 70s, went to see my efforts at a theater on Canal street the week that "Friday" opened.
Fearing cardiac arrest for one or both, I had told them didn't need to see this film. I imagine it took some time and effort on their part to assimilate what they had seen and integrate it into their image of me. My parents had spent my entire youth turning on my night light and checking my closets for the monsters I was sure were there. They may even remember the number of times I called them home from dinner parties because I was afraid the baby sitter couldn't adequately protect me.
Yet they sat through, by actual count, one knife in the gut, two slit throats, one hunting arrow in the neck, one hatchet in the face, one body through a window, one arrow in the eyes, and one decapitation. I imagine that they must have been somewhat agrrieved to see the cinema of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard transformed into Grand Guignol. But when they called me the follwing day, my mother said, "It is a marvelous parody of horror movies."
I was not always a writer of gore and mayhem. I began as a playwright, attempting to delineate the depth of my artistic consciousness. The first play I produced went into rehearsal at 125 pages and came out at 70. The actors had trouble with the depth of my artistic consciousness.
Once burned, I turned to a less communal form of expression -- the novel. I also decided to deep-six my neuroses in favor of story-telling. For years, I wrote detective books, the Novelizations for the "Kojak" TV series, thrillers and sagas for six different publishers.
Perhaps I should have had a premonition that I was doomed to a grisly fate. In 1977, I wrote a novel called "Hide the Children" for Ballantine. fIt was about a busload of schoolkids being kidnapped -- written six months before those nuts did the same thing out in California.
But it wasn't until my friend Sean Cunningham -- a local producer responsible for the cult terror favorite, "Last House on the Left" -- asked me that I had ever attempted horror for the silver screen. He said, "I have $500,000 to make a very scary film that should grab as large an audience as possible."
Never having seen many horror films (I get scared when someone goes "boo"), I went out and saw everything I could. Then Sean and I sat in his kitchen drinking coffee for hours before I came up with the location -- a summer camp -- and the villain.
The modes of destruction took more coffee and a careful recollection of every physical fear I've ever had. I put the killer under the bed because any 9-year-old can tell you that's where killers hide. I put the ax in the face because I'm terrified of having my face messed up, and there's nothing quite as messy as a scout ax. Sean would edit each draft with phrases like, "Keep it relentless."
When the final draft was accepted, I cheered and took my wife out to several long dinners, but I did not go to the set where they were filming my movie. For one thing, the making of a horror film is about as fascinating as watching somebody spray for aphids. Worse yet, the actors look at the author as weid for having invented all the terrible stuff they have to do.
Suprisingly, after "Friday the 13th" was in the can, Paramount Pictures bought it and raised the ante. The put millions into promotion, and released it in 1,160 theaters across the country. A low-budget film which I had written for a low five-figure Writer's Guild scale was suddenly of the verge of becoming a monstrous flop or a hideous success.
Variety's critic hated the film, but couldn't change the fact that it was the top-grossing box-office hit in the country for three solid weeks -- and after five weeks. Variety still lists it as the third highest-grossing film in the national, behind "The Empire Strkes Back" and "Up the Academy."
My neighbors and friends are variously impressed or aghast.
To impressed all seems to ask me two questions:
1) Do you have a percentage?
2) Are you going to move to Hollywood?
I continue to be stunned by the first question. It seems to me a little like asking somebody if he's rich or how much she makes a week "take-home." The question is answered in behavior, so it doesn't even have to be asked. If I trade in my Ford Fiesta for a Mercedes 300SD, you know I got a percentage. If we move from Stratford to Westport, you know I'm raking it in.
Whether or not I move to the West Coast will depend on many many factors, not the least of which is the fact that I have spent a lifetime on the East Coast. The question is moot.
The aghast folks are legion. For the past five or six years. I have been active in my children's schools, their cub scouting, baseball, soccer and all the activities than an aging father is heir to. For one year I had my very own Cub Scout den and every Wednesday we played games, did "artsncrafts" and helped each other grow up. Little did these boys' parents know that every morning I was writing sado-masochistic terror (as well as a terrifically funny and altogether dirty book called "Toga Party" for Fawcett.)
Now my cover is blown. I am the man who thought up the hand that comes out from under the bed and sticks the hunting arrow through the throat -- a clear impossibility, but who cares in horror movies? I am no longer the pleasant-faced man with the children and the pretty wife. Mothers now have to think a few times before letting their children come and play ball in our yard. (They can never quite be sure I won't spring from the cellar looking like Tony Perkins on a bad trip.)
I spoke at two local high schools, brought in by popular demand because, though the teachers and not seen "Friday the 13th," every single one of their students had -- except maybe the Seventh Day Adventists and Quakers. In each instance, the kids all sat back against the wall. Now, as a former backwall sitter myself, I thought it was their reluctance to be called upon. But the teacher informed me that the kids were afraid of me!
Who could blame them? Hadn't I written a movie in which over seven (I lose count) beautiful young teen-agers are brutally snuffed out? Moreover, I had written a movie in the classical horror Puritan mode in which the kids' only sin was playful lust.
Thus it was that I had to spend the first 10 minutes of my talk assuring them that I carried no weapons in my briefcase. I informed that that I never spanked my kids, and didn't yell at them very much either. Gradually they moved their chairs a little closer and began to ask me how we put the hatchet in the actress' face without ruining her career.
I have a number of friends who are truly distressed with me, though they cannot figure exactly wherein my culpability ties. I would characterize these nice people as "old-time Humanists" with deeply ingrained Liberal frames of reference. Out of affection for me, they saw the movie. They understood on the way in that this was a horror movie and that actors would be cruel to one another in bizarre ways. But they were shocked and surprised in a way they had not counted on -- and neither had I!
Without spoiling the ending for you -- as New York Times critic Janet Maslin did -- I'll say that our heroine becomes locked in a terminal struggle with the villain. Time and again the heroine cannot bring herself to kill the villain. The audience, whether middle class or not, ends up screeming "Kill her! Kill her! Kill her!" (WE have a female villain, another victory for ERA and another defeat for Phyllis Schafly.) The effect on the liberal-human-type person is incredible. Surrounded by heretofore friendly theatergoers, you are now in the midst of a real true Roman mob scene and the Christians are tearing the lions apart! At the very least "Friday the 13th" lifts the veil of civilization and says, "There but for the grace of a modicum of conscience is as blood-thirsty rabble."
And so I am now a nice, occasionally liberal-type person whose friends are upset because I have reputedly undone the veneer that took years to apply.
Yet another result was the avalanche of hideous reviews. Our movie is what the industry calls "review proof" -- meaning that our audience either doesn't read, or doesn't read the critics.
But I myself am not review-proof. Notwithstanding the fact that I have written a blockbuster and all my dreams have come true, it really does hurt to have to deal with the incredible virtriol that has come my way since we opened on May 9. Hundreds of reviews of "Friday the 13th" have appeared in print, and I have seen only one which was positive. It appeared in the The Fairfield (Conn.) Advocate, and was written by a guy I know.
I really mentioned the Times critic's rage. She gave away the ending in the hopes that then nobody would come see our piece de drek. Worse yet: A nationally known critic printed our star's home address in his column and encouraged his readers to write and tell her what a louse she was for appearing in this film. (With all the loonies loose in our society, can anyone condone that little trick?) In short, "Friday the 13th" seems to have pushed a button in the critical solar plexus producing not just negative reviews, but rage.
I asked a knowledgable friend why we should be singled out so terribly and he said that our fault lies in the fact that our film attempts to do nothing more than appeal to the emotions. Our country, being still caught in the web of Puritanity, finds it necessary to punish anyone who has no higher goal than to entertain or to zap the nerve endings. That sounds just complicated enough to be correct, but it doesn't help me assimilate the feelings. It's very much like being back in grade school when me and the guys were caught doing something offensive to decorum and the teacher made us feel like bad guys.
As far as the critics are concerned, "Friday the 13th" is the cinematic equivalent to belching in art class. What makes them angry, I suppose, is that this is a $25-million belch.
Okay. So how do I feel about what I've done?
In the main, pretty damn good. I am a storyteller and, judging by the box-office figures, I've told a story that a lot people are enjoying. My audiences have elected me to a very exclusive club whose members have written movies that reached the top and stayed there just long enough to keep from being anomalies. It is a strange feeling, one that makes me wonder where I'll be in a year, and what I'll be doing and so forth.
But, thanks to that hit, I can now command six times the amount I got for it on the next script. I have gained what people in the business call "credibility" and I am told that I can bank on that. (My creditors thought it was credible all along.)
And finally, I am happy to be a working writer. There are quite a few of us whose names are hugely unknown. We feed families by our efforts, we preserve shelf space for publishers, we work for a great deal less than the media superstars, we constantly disappoint the critics, we can't get a good table at Elaine's, we love our families, and we pray for a hit.
To do anything else would seem like work.