When the actor or actress who played the protagonist passes away, it’s easy for fans to celebrate their life and work. Likewise, the performer in the role of the lovable sidekick or the famous character actor who seemed to appear in everything. We tend to forget that a story is only is good as its villain and as such, we don’t often see praise heaped on the name of person who play the bad guy (or girl).
Betsy Palmer was a working actress known to my parents’ generation for roles on TV and film in the ’50s and ’60s of the girl-next-door variety and for her work on game shows in the ’70s, but it was one single role in a low-budget horror film in 1980 that she is best known to fans of the genre in my generation. Casual fans will remember her character even if they don’t remember Betsy’s name and honestly, isn’t that perhaps one of the best compliments and a testament to the quality of the performance? I think so, at least on one respectable level. The role I’m referring to is of Mrs. Pamela Voorhees in the original Friday The 13th.
Friday The 13th is one of the first teen slasher films. Roger Ebert called them “dead teenager” movies. There had been other such movies before, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween, but Friday The 13th, for better or worse, never aspired to be more than it was: a Halloween clone exploiting the horror convention established in the likes of those earlier dead teenager films. It stood at the precipice of the era of the ’80s slasher flick. Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre received a certain degree of praise, recognition of the artful approach to the gruesome subject matter. Friday The 13th was lambasted by the critics and despite being a box office success, reviews were scathing. It soon launched a franchise and signalled to other studios to mine the depths of the slasher horror genre. And mine they did. The ’80s were a golden age for this sub-genre of horror. Friday The 13th had 7 sequels in the ’80s, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street saved New Line Cinema (who these days put out more “respectable” titles like The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit), Halloween pumped out a number of sequels and hundreds of clones, copies and variations sprung up, sometimes dozens a year. Some were clever, most were at least fun and a bit over the top, but all of them can arguably thank Friday The 13th for helping truly open that door.
And they can thank Betsy Palmer for setting a standard by which all slasher villians would be judged, even her character’s own son, the infamous hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees. Halloween had that faceless, voiceless Michael Myers, while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had the gibbering Leatherface flanked by a family of nuts (whom I’m sure few of you truly remember in any real detail, unles you’re a horror film buff) and Black Christmas, well…I wont say any more because I know a lot of you haven’t seen it and I don’t want to ruin anything. Mrs. Voorhees as the villain in Friday The 13th gave us a real, emotionally and psychologically believable antagonist in a slasher film we could connect with. We cheered for Adrienne King’s character Alice, but Mrs Voorhees was in many ways more terrifying than Michael Myers or Leatherface because she was human. Her madness was just under the surface and so commanding on screen was Betsy Palmer in the role that we could not look away as she explained herself.
Gene Siskel, the other half of the famed Siskel & Ebert critic duo, famously took such and exception to the film that he choose to spoil plot points (including the ending) in his print review for the Chicago Tribune and was offended that Palmer was a part of this film, so much so that he encouraged his readers to not only complain about the film to Paramount Picture’s parent company, but to write directly to Palmer herself, even going so far as to print where she lived. I generally respect the late Gene Siskel as a film critic, but that act in that review crossed a line and he lost all the moral high ground in his case against Friday The 13th. Judge for yourself, I’ve linked his original review above.
Betsy Palmer herself didn’t think much of the film and assumed few people would see it. She reportedly only to the role for the 10 days work it offered and the pay cheque that would buy her a new car. She returned for a cameo in the sequel, Friday The 13th – Part 2, and went on about her career. The franchise grew into a horror juggernaut and a Jason and his hockey mask became pop culture icons. Mrs Voorhees being in Part 1 became one of the tests of how much of a horror fan you were. Everyone knows Jason, but did you know about Pamela? Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson made that bit of trivia famous in Scream, but it was point of pride for horror fans long before that.
Then came the conventions. Horror movies, science fictions and everything in between, all celebrated different weekends around North America and the rest of the world. The featured guests were the stars of these movies, cheerfully meeting the fans. Among the actors was Betsy Palmer, happy to meet the fans who appreciated her work. Friday The 13th wasn’t Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it had a large, loyal fanbase and Betsy would tell them the stories of her time on set. She was a fan favourite, respected for her performance and loved for her warmth to those who came out to meet her, Her co-star Adrienne King, the ingénue in Friday the 13th, would also attend and the two were good friends 35 years after filming and a generation apart in age. Read Ms King’s thoughts on Betsy on her Facebook page here.
I never got to meet Betsy Palmer and though I’m aware of her other work, I haven’t seen much of it. I’m a horror fan, as well as being a fan of many other genres, and grew up in the ’80s during those golden years of slasher/dead teenager horror flicks. The only role I truly connect Betsy Palmer with is Mrs Voorhees. I think Friday The 13h is a better movie than it gets credit for, between a few really good performances, a beautiful location that reminds me of summer camps I’ve known in my youth, some simple and elegant sequences and a superb, truly memorable score by Harry Manfredini. It may not be high art, but it deserves some respect. Betsy’s turn in the movie is no small part of that, an excellent performance among a really good overall cast (including Adrienne King, Harry Crosby [son of Bing], Kevin Bacon [yes, *that* Kevin Bacon] and the late Laurie Bartram and Walt Gorney).
The movie is and will remain a favourite of mine. Betsy Palmer’s performance helps in a big way to make it so as the antagonist, the villain (the bad “girl,” if you will) and I watch the outpouring of social media comments on her passing, I know the genre’s fanbase has lost a favourite, just as the world has lost a really wonderful person, a beautiful soul who will be remembered for playing a troubled mother.
Rest in peace, Betsy Palmer, and thank you.
The most fitting piece of music I can think of to share in tribute is the End Theme to Friday The 13th, the hauntingly beautiful, gentle piece that closed the film.