13 Fridays is a 13-week look at the entirety of Friday the 13th series, starting on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, and running through Halloween 2021. It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week features an essay about one of the Friday the 13th films in chronological order, written by new and regular Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts.
I don’t know much about the Friday the 13th series. I know the main character is Jason Voorhees, who wears a hockey mask while he hacks horny teens with a machete. I know “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” and that the camp where Jason was “born” is called Crystal Lake. I’ve seen the first film and know that Jason’s mother (not Jason himself) being the killer in the first one has been an old chestnut of movie-trivia geeks and the “Well, actually …” crowd alike in the decades since its release. I remember seeing Freddy vs. Jason when I was about 14 or 15 but I couldn’t tell you the outcome of their fight or much else about the movie other than I thought the lead was pretty when I was a teenager. It’s with this baggage and / or lack of baggage that I proceeded to watch Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
The film opens, fittingly, on a dark and stormy night. Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) has just been released from a mental institution and is headed to the grave of Jason Voorhees (played by both C.J. Graham and Dan Bradley) with his friend Allen (Ron Palillo). Haunted by paranoid hallucinations centered around Voorhees for years, Tommy intends to see Jason’s corpse in the hopes of finally putting his nightmares to rest. Things don’t go quite as planned. Trying to “kill” Jason once and for all, Tommy impulsively impales Jason’s lifeless body with a metal fence post. In a tragic twist of irony, a lightning bolt strikes the pole and reanimates Voorhees, not dissimilar from the way Dr. Frankenstein gives birth to his monster in Mary Shelley’s classic tale. Jason makes short work of Allen while Tommy gets away, dons his trusty hockey mask once again, and we’re off to the races.
It’s at this point that Jason Lives reveals its title card and with it its ace in the hole — a cheeky sense of irreverence and metahumor to presumably shake up the series. Parodying the infamous and often skewered gun barrel sequence from the James Bond franchise, the frame narrows to that iconic circular shape while Jason makes his way to the center of the shot. Instead of shooting a gun at the camera like Bond, Voorhees chucks his signature machete at us instead, with blood running down the screen just as it does in the 007 movies. Taking this with the over-the-top opening, it’s clear that even for a slasher movie, Jason Lives isn’t interested in taking itself particularly seriously and is all the better for it.
Jason’s mission is pretty simple: Go back to Camp Crystal Lake (renamed Camp Forest Green since Voorhees attended) and lay waste to the new crop of camp counselors who now work there. He doesn’t even make it to the campgrounds before taking out poor youngsters Darren and Lizbeth as they drive through the woods. “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo in a mask isn’t friendly,” Lizbeth whimpers before Darren unloads a series of seemingly useless bullets into Jason. Darren gets dispatched a bit quicker than Lizbeth, who hilariously tries to bribe the resurrected killer with a pocketful of $20 bills and a shiny AmEx card. It’s made clear that it’s going to be quite difficult, if not impossible, to take Jason out, but it would also be quite dull if no one tried.
Tommy tries to warn the local sheriff of Jason’s monstrous return only to be thrown in a cell for his efforts. The sheriff’s daughter, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), sticks around at the station long enough to hear Tommy’s warning and takes the threat more seriously when Darren and Lizbeth don’t report to camp. It’s not enough to stop a now superhumanly strong Jason from breaking up a game of paintball between five counselors, some of whom literally sport headbands that read “DEAD”, with more murder and mayhem. One of the final victims, whose face is slammed into a tree, leaves a bloody smiley face upon impact.
If only this all could’ve been avoided. In a cutaway to a B-plot where the sheriff goes back to Jason’s gravesite, a gravedigger laments “Why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” before addressing the audience with “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment!” Perhaps we do. But writer-director Tom McLoughlin reminds us why we keep coming back with strongly choreographed slayings shot handsomely courtesy of cinematographer Jon Kranhouse. Consider the brilliant shot of Jason standing triumphantly atop an overturned RV with two fresh victims inside, fire rising up below him and smoke billowing behind him. When Jason finally descends upon the campers, another outstanding shot frames his enormous figure as it enters a cabin against the rustling autumn tree branches.
The 1980s were a time of excess and, as such, a perfect breeding ground for the often excessive slasher genre. The soundtrack doesn’t let you forget it, pumping out multiple hair metal headbangers from artists like Felony and Alice Cooper, including the film’s theme “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask).” Of course, we also get all of the loud ’80s fashion trends and weird niche insults like “Does he think I’m a farthead?” that could only live inside a movie from this decade. Oddly, the only place it doesn’t go overboard is in the nudity department. Sure, there’s sex but I don’t recall any toplessness or bottomlessness or any combination therein. I’m not complaining, just noting.
So, is Jason Lives a good movie? I have no idea. Did I have fun watching it? Absolutely. I’ve seen my fair share of slasher movies but not very many slasher sequels, and it’s to this film’s credit that I felt right at home even though I haven’t seen the first Friday the 13th in at least 15 years. I can’t imagine the movie reinvents the wheel in the context of the franchise, but it seems to provide enough of the familiar while introducing some comedic elements that really liven things up. I can imagine it joining Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Fright Night in my lineup of schlocky spookfests to stream around Halloween each year.