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Betsy Palmer: The Ultimate Horror Badass

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Wednesday, Feb 4, 2009

She only appears in the last 15 minutes of the film. Her presence is, at first, rather disorienting, since we’ve seen so few adults during the course of the carnage. As she tries to comfort a distraught and very upset Alice, her almost blasé response to the concept of a killer on the loose makes her instantly suspect. Still, we’re willing to go with this well-meaning matriarch, at least, up to a point. And then Betsy Palmer, TV star from decades past, opens up her predatory pearly whites and starts telling the story of a boy…a boy named Jason, and soon we see the light. As the mother of the drowned lad, Mrs. Voorhees means business, and in her line of work (carving up teenagers), business is booming.


As Friday the 13th prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary (a new unrated DVD has just been released), and with renewed interest in the franchise sparking via a brand new up to date remake, it’s important to look back on the villain who really started it all. No, not that fame whoring lummox named Jason. He took over the splatter mantle when Mommy bought the farm near the end of the original film. No, the real badass of the entire F13 series is the unhinged lady who started it all. As Camp Crystal Lake’s cook back in the ‘50s, Mrs. Voorhees knew her handicapped son needed constant minding. When counselors decided to have sex instead, his death helped her maternal instincts go ballistic.


The entire premise of the first Friday the 13th film is the notion of hedonistic teens paying for their self-indulgent ways. When Steve Christy vows to reopen the failing family business (the camp has had more than its fair share of bad luck in the years proceeding Mrs. Voorhees first spree), he hires a bunch of pot smoking, bed hopping, beer swilling young people to help handle the proposed influx of kids. They are to spend two weeks getting the place in shape before they see the first paying customer. Ironically enough, new cook Annie is picked up hitchhiking, and in a very dramatic and suspenseful scene, has her throat cut while running through the woods.


Thus begins the body count, what all entries in the Friday the 13th franchise are noted for. During the course of this first installment, we get arrows through the throat, axes to the face, knives to the gut, and in perhaps the movie’s most memorable kill, a full blown machete to the head decapitation. It is Mrs. Voorhees who suffers said final humiliation, loosing her noggin after a knockdown drag out lakeside rumble with Alice. The two square-off in typical talking baddie/last girl fashion but what makes the entire scuffle work is the sight of Palmer, well into her 50s by this time, smacking the bejesus out of her costar…and smiling that old school Tinsel Town grin all the while.


Starting around the same time as TV came into its own, Patricia Betsy Hrunek made a name for herself in such popular broadcast fare as the Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. She also had small but important roles in films like Mr. Roberts and The Last Angry Man. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, she found work on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret. However, her most famous turn may have been as a reporter/personality for then fledgling morning show Today. Along with commercials, talk show appearances, and occasional returns to the stage, Palmer eked out a decent if indefinite career. She was a face you recognized, but you weren’t quite sure about the where and when.


Rumor has it that, desperate for a new car (and the cash to buy same), Ms. Palmer took the role in Friday the 13th, even though she considered the script a “piece of shit”. Receiving $1000 a day for a total of 10 days work, she collected her check and tried to forget her foray into fright. But her performance was so memorable, and the impact of the slasher standard so immediate, that it wasn’t long before Mrs. Voorhees became a true blue arterial spray icon. Thanks to the hulking mutant with a mashed up face and a bullish bad attitude, the woman who gave birth to a thousand slice and dice nightmares instantly begat an entire motherly mythos.


And with good reason. Palmer is electric in the original Friday the 13th, an old ham really bringing home the bacon with her unsane showboating as the marauding madam. With eyes suggestively sparkling with glints of gratuitous hate, and choppers that would make a Great White envious, she doesn’t just chew up the scenery - she takes huge, heaping helpings of backdrop and grinds them up like little children’s hearts. Her Mrs. Voorhees is unstoppable, unconquerable, and unfathomable. Sure, seeing your son die would drive any mother over the edge. But to grab a hatchet and start swinging requires a madness that not even Charlie Manson could manage in a lifetime of incoherent inner monologues.


But Mrs. Voorhees has it all figured out. Her son died at the hands of randy adolescents who couldn’t keep their Eisenhower era hands off each other, so she is going to make sure that generations of the same suffer a similar fatalistic fate. But does this really make her the ultimate horror movie badass? Does her unrepentant desire to kill off anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake really make her the definitive illustration of wrath unraveled and visceral? The answer, oddly enough, is Hell mofo-ing YES!!! While other killers get to hide behind masks (hockey, Halloween, or otherwise), or go about their gory commerce in Darth Vader like gasps, Palmer puts on a primer for going full blown psycho and never ever stops. She’s committed while needing to be. She’s scary without losing total touch with her aims. And until Alice removes her cranium from her collar, she’s damn successfully at the fine art of splatter.


Like any legitimate legend, Mrs. Voorhees doesn’t overstay her welcome. She battles mightily, takes her machete medicine, and dies like any badass should - directly in the line of sight of her oversized ogre of an undead child. As pure evil, as the Wicked Witch of the West meshed with a spinster aunt whose long since lost her marbles, as the unquestioned inspiration for every slasher film fiend to come afterwards, Betsy Palmer’s work in the original Friday the 13th is greatness personified. While she may not like the terror tag (though she’s recently relented and started attending conventions) and thinks the entire experience was a ‘waste of time and talent’, there’s no denying the impact of her performance. Almost three decades later we’re still talking about PAMELA Voorhees, the devoted parent who took her unquestionable grief a few slaughter-filled steps too far. It’s because of Betsy Palmer that we still cringe…and care.

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