As a game-show celebrity in the 1960s, actress Betsy Palmer, now 82, was famous for using her head.
Today, she's better known for losing her head.
Playing the homicidal mother of the soon-to-be-infamous Jason Voorhees, Palmer was decapitated during the shock climax of "Friday the 13th," the 1980 body-count "classic" that spawned nine sequels and a sure-to-be-a-hit remake that opens in theaters Friday.
Although the "Friday the 13th" franchise is remembered primarily as a showcase for the creative mayhem of burly, silent, kill-crazy Jason, the most iconic maniac in post-"Psycho" horror history didn't begin his murder spree until "Friday the 13th Part 2" in 1981. (And he didn't acquire his signature hockey mask until "Part III" in 1982.)
The first "Friday the 13th" was structured as a mystery, like a dumbed-down sex-and-gore revamp of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," if the characters in Christie's novel had played strip Monopoly. The killer of horny teen camp counselors in that film actually was the demented Mrs. Voorhees (Palmer), seeking to avenge the death of her young son, Jason, who drowned in Crystal Lake years earlier when two counselors were too busy eyeing each other to keep their eyes on their young charges.
Mrs. Voorhees ultimately is beheaded by the slow-motion swing of last-counselor-standing Adrienne King's machete. The screaming hasn't stopped: Palmer is a fan favorite who's shed her distaste for horror and come to embrace her "Friday the 13th" celebrity at conventions and film festivals.
She also participates in the behind-the-scenes bonuses found on the newly released Paramount Home Entertainment DVD and Blu-ray "Deluxe Edition" of "Friday the 13th."
Trumpeted as "Uncut," the disc restores about 10 seconds of gruesome footage sliced from the original release of the film to appease the motion picture Rating Administration and earn an R classification. (For example, happy viewers now get to see a knife blade penetrate newcomer Kevin Bacon's neck from not one but two angles.)
Paramount Home Entertainment this month also released "Deluxe Edition" discs of "Friday the 13th Part 2" and "Friday the 13th Part III: 3-D"; the latter includes two pairs of cardboard 3-D glasses. Unfortunately, neither of these releases restores the censored gore footage that Fangoria readers have been demanding for more than two decades.
Such fanboy controversies don't worry Palmer, who hasn't watched any of the sequels. ("To tell you truth, I've only seen mine four times, at most," she says.)
A stage, screen and television veteran whose credits include "Mister Roberts" and such prestige early-TV productions as "The General Electric Theater" and "The Philco Television Playhouse," as well as regular gigs on "I've Got a Secret" and "Password," Palmer brought a touch of class and credibility to a low-budget thriller inspired by the grosses of the similarly economical "Halloween" (1978).
An Indiana native who first seriously pursued drama in Chicago, Palmer admits she only took the role of Mrs. Vorhees because the 10-days-of-work at $1,000-a-day offered by producer-director Sean S. Cunningham would enable her to buy a new car, to replace her old Mercedes, which had conked out the same week her agent offered to send her a script for a new horror film.
"I thought about the car, so I said, 'Send me the script,' and he did, and I read it -- and I said, 'What a piece of (crap)!'" said Palmer, in a recent telephone interview from her home near Central Park. "'Nobody will ever see this movie. It'll come, it'll go, and I'll have my little car, and that's all she wrote.'
"So I said, 'Yes, I'll do it,' and I did -- and look what happened."
Not everybody approved. Offended by the slasher genre's equation of the sex act with murder, influential film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel launched an anti-slasher campaign. Siskel was particularly offended that an actress of Palmer's skill would appear in a movie like "Friday the 13th," but the publicity only increased her popularity.
Said Palmer: "I hoped nobody would see it. Now, I love the idea that I get fan mail from all over the world. They love Mrs. Voorhees."
-- John Beifuss: 529-2394