It’s not every day that you get to meet a legend – the mother of all serial killers. A movie maniac that dwarfs even the likes of Mrs. Bates and who over the years (with her marauding son) has been responsible for over 200 of the most spectacularly grisly deaths with the power to add scores more to the body count.
My last couple of trips to Gotham City have been eventful in one way or another with an especially memorable stay being the time when the lights went out. Staying at a swank Hotel that boasted design and beauty as its star attractions and ending up reading by candlelight with no air-conditioning was just a little bit miffing especially after the painfully long 60 blocks plus trek back from Kim’s Video store. Kim’s incidentally is always a first stop for any self respecting collector of Horror, Cult and Sleaze and this trip in the summer of 2007 like all others also began with a pilgrimage to St. Marks Place and the ever moth eaten and grungy Kim’s who along with their Video and Music delights also often boast the rudest security in the city (a staggering accomplishment). Luckily this time there was no load shedding.
The trip over the Atlantic was ostensibly to promote my own desi Splatter flick Zibahkhana but what had really got my own excitement up to seismic levels was a horror convention we were slated to attend as part of the promotion. To be part of Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors in itself was enough to send me to my grave with a smile but to share a spot on their program with Pamela Voorhees was the stuff of sheer goose bumped nirvana.
As we approached this convention centre across the river in New Jersey waves of dread and excitement struck in equal measures at the sight of the swarms of black robed horror geeks who had already started to mass; some of them clearly taking their obsession for their favourite horror films one step beyond. Among the star guests at this convention and an act the Zibahkhana team was scheduled to follow was notorious German hack Uwe Boll, a man whose clutch of Video Game inspired films rank prominently on IMDB’s list of worst films ever made (House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne and its sequels just some of them). John Russo who had written George Romero’s 1968 masterpiece Night of the Living Dead was also present along with stars on the make or then those cashing in on past glories and notoriety. For me the star attraction was a sweet and sprightly 80 year old lady from Chicago who had quite by accident acquired her own lofty position in the annals of Horror Movie History.
After summoning up the guts (no pun intended) to approach Mrs. Voorhees, protection in the form of a peace offering was presented lest she impale me with an arrow through the throat like she’s did to poor Kevin Bacon on his movie debut on a warm, still summer night at Camp Crystal Lake. Or perhaps she would have bludgeoned me in the head for bad Blanche impersonations like Marcie, one of the unfortunate campers at doomed Crystal Lake. Pamela Voorhees after all is the woman who single-handedly opened up a spillway of cinema splatter that still continues nearly 30 years and over 10 sequels on.
The night a long suffering cousin was dragged to the opening of the first slasher sensation since John Carpenter’s masterpiece Halloween is one forever etched in memory. This new flick was a cheap Indie pickup for which Paramount Studios had been severely criticized and even picketed. The film had Ronnie Reagan’s Rabid Right and Maggie Thatchers’s Mary Whitehouse brigade breathing fire and movie critics Siskel and Ebert started foaming at the mouth and suffering violent epileptic seizures. In an unprecedented step they devoted an entire show attacking slasher films and calling for their outright banishment. Yet this most critically reviled film went on to become a horror legend that absolutely refuses to die 30 years on. The date of that June night back in 1980 and the film were both Friday the 13th.
She sat there chatting animatedly with one of many admirers. In front of her was a large table with stacklets of photographs that she would sign for her adoring fans. The horror convention circuit provides some extra pocket money and a little respect and adulation for fading or faded horror stars though it’s a two way street as these conventions couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for their ability to pull together genre mega-weights such as Betsy Palmer, the sweet old lady sitting in front of me and other genre royalty such as Felicia Rose, Ellen Sandweiss, Kane Hodder and Gunnar Hansen. Nobodies to most but true blue blood for horror movie devotees. These characters owe as much to these conventions as the conventions owe them.
This crazed, lifelong horror buff had brought along a dark brown pashmina shawl from Pakistan to present Mrs. Voorhees and finally when enough courage was mustered to attempt an approach while employing fluent gibberish to explain what a joy it was to meet her in person having spent a lifetime idolizing her. She grabbed the shawl with profuse thanks and proceeded to drape it around her shoulders radiating charm and warmth as well as a quite dazzling smile (“Why, I’m just an old friend of the Christies!” THAT smile). She was dressed in shades of beige and brown and her excitement at having this shawl gifted to her from a Friday the 13th fanatic from Pakistan (some say the Home of Fanaticism on earth) sent her into spasms of good cheer! She demanded a selection from her photographs to sign but insisted that at least one should show her, not as the maniacal Mrs. Voorhees but from her prime in 1955 when she starred with Hollywood giants Jack Lemmon, Henry Fonda and James Cagney in the comedy classic Mr. Roberts. Clearly Mrs. Voorhees was once a head turning beauty before turning in to a head-axing beast.
Betsy Palmer’s claim to movie immortality came quite by chance. Struggling but savvy filmmakers Steve Miner and Sean Cunningham, inspired by the amazing success of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it felt they too could exploit the same youth oriented horror market and they quickly devised a straight to the gut slasher flick borrowing liberally from Mario Bava’s earlier Euroslasher The Bay of Blood.
Miner, Cunningham and cohorts also managed to pull in the services of a Vietnam vet who was now using the horrors he had witnessed in war to create cinematic gore to dazzling effect. Tom Savini has since gone on to earn the highest reputation and the fattest pay check in Hollywood when it comes to gore and make up effects. Of the cast, Kevin Bacon got his break and Bing Crosby’s son Harry is also among the victims.
The creators of Friday the 13th needed a middle aged woman for a key part and Betsy Palmer who happened to live not too far from the intended location seemed to be a decent choice. They had already been snubbed by Estelle Parsons (Bonnie & Clyde) and were getting a little flustered. Palmer had been a model turned starlet in the 50’s and despite Mr. Roberts and a few successes her career had tapered off by the late 70s and she was now living in semi retirement in Connecticut though once in a while would pick up some TV work.
When her agent got in touch with her for a cheap little horror movie featuring a woman with an axe to grind she was stunned but pragmatism had its way. “I’d just come back home to Connecticut from doing a play and my Mercedes had broken down. I needed to buy a car and so I was kind of desperate for any kind of work, but a horror film? Anyway my agent sent the script over to me and I read it and I just thought it was a total piece of shit, but I accepted anyway because I needed to buy a new car.” Moreover Betsy Palmer was convinced that nobody would ever watch a film as terrible as this one, so she signed on – the rest is cinema history.
The ten minutes or so that were spent in the company of this delightful woman will forever be cherished as some of the finest memories of all by a starry eyed horror buff. She was warm, generous, utterly charming and very humorous, especially about her claim to fame as the Mother of Jason! Even at 80, she was sprightly, perceptive and quick witted and oh that smile. “Kill her Mommy, Kill her!” someone shouted out loud in that distinctive mock baby voice during a pause in her hour long talk and the entire convention went up in splits including her. It was a moment to savour.
Any true fan of horror cinema has to have already watched both Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th II at least a dozen times (Part II admittedly is more than a little dodgy but prerequisite viewing none the less). Also the new shameless remake that has luckily been delayed deserves to be roundly vilified and shunned just like the recent Halloween desecration by Rob Zombie.
Betsy Palmer has earned cinema immortality for about ten minutes of screen time in total. Not too many can match her achievement. Most struggle for entire careers yet still fail.