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.

For the record, I had never seen a Friday the 13th movie before watching Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Slasher movies and jump scares really aren’t my thing. I understand the basic construct and I know all the tropes, but I’m not in the habit of looking to be startled as entertainment. I’m also usually pretty insistent on being a completist about these things; I’m making my kids watch the MCU movies in strict release order, even the brutal back-to-back of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. But there was just no way I was going to suffer through eight more of these just to have some context let alone the three more that follow it.

So I came to this one a blank slate, ready to give the whole thing a fair shake as a standalone while openly acknowledging I’m likely not the best person to frame it as part of the whole interminable series. I’m familiar with the basic premise. I grew up in a town called Crystal Lake. (No serial killers so far, but the eponymous lake is nauseatingly full of duck poop and will give you swimmer’s itch if you’re foolish enough to put your skin in it.) So it was hard to avoid at least a passing knowledge of the franchise.

There’s some promise here at the start or at least the hint of something clever happening. The film opens with a gleeful self-parody: A young woman arrives at Camp Crystal Lake, alone and in darkness. She turns on a light that promptly blows out, then inexplicably hops in the shower (with the obligatory gratuitous nudity, of course). She exits the shower and runs off naked through the woods when Jason bursts in to hack her to pieces. If you turned the movie off here, you’d assume it was just a very badly done version of the exact same dumb horror movie formula Scream rendered obsolete in the mid-’90s.

Jason Goes to Hell isn’t that kind of bad movie, though, and those low expectations are literally shot to pieces seconds later when the towel-clad young lady leads Jason into a clearing, where a team of FBI agents throws on the floodlights and shoots him approximately 47,000 times before eventually blowing him apart with a grenade. As the agents congratulate each other and Jason’s various flaming body parts tumble to the ground in glorious slow motion, the camera cuts to a first-person view from the trees nearby. There we find bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams, possibly better known for his recent work as Cowboy on Yellowstone) watching all this go down, chewing a toothpick and looking skeptical.

Honestly, this opening scene is pretty great as a setup. Sure, the effects are super low-budget and nobody’s winning an Oscar here. But in these opening moments, there’s a winking self-awareness about how silly it all is. The cliches have all been murdered along with the monster, and we’re in for something new and different now. Of course, there’s more to come. Duke speaks for us all when he sneers “I don’t think so” at the corpse in the clearing. We all know Jason is coming back to get his revenge, dismembered or not. It’s totally ridiculous, but the movie is in on the joke and we’re all going to have some fun with it! This could work!

Wishful thinking.

The next 80 minutes or so fall so short of that opening sequence’s promise that it’s depressing. In the next scene, Jason’s body (or what’s left of it) is laid out in the morgue, where a bored coroner is plodding through an autopsy. Jason’s heart is there, still occasionally beating and doing its level best to look menacing; at this point, it’s the only part of our titular monster still in the game. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a badly made rubber heart puppet, which is probably why the filmmakers decided to move things in a new direction. Instead of Jason rising from the dead to get back to killing people, his EVIL HEART HYPNOTIZES THE CORONER, who then eats the heart and becomes possessed with the murderous spirit of one Jason Voorhees.

You read that right. This is a formulaic franchise slasher flick with an iconic signature villain that doesn’t appear onscreen for the vast majority of the movie. The possessed coroner wanders out of the morgue, and we learn from an onscreen tabloid TV show that he’s murdered the guards along the way. Its host, a sleazy Geraldo-esque pseudo-journalist named Robert Campbell (Steven Culp), is apparently offering a large cash prize to Duke for concrete proof both that Jason has returned from the dead and that Duke has killed him. Duke counters by insisting that Jason will rise from the dead forever but that he (and only he) knows how to kill him for good. That is pretty much the last part of the plot that makes any damn sense.

Naturally, the Jason-Coroner heads back to Camp Crystal Lake, where we coincidentally meet the ostensible hero of this outing, one Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay). Steven picks up three hitchhiking teenagers (all of whom look to be in the mid- to late-20s) on their way to camp out at the lake. They chatter about Jason and the scary stories about the camp, and Steven declines the third wheel’s invitation to stay with them. The teens go for a swim and then turn in for the night, with one of the young ladies asking for some time in the tent alone with her boyfriend first. Jason-Coroner kills the solo teen while she’s peeing in the bushes and then slaughters the other two mid-orgasm after some more gratuitous nudity. This is all utterly predictable, of course, but it’s also odd to have such a cliched and unimaginative scene play out after the deliberate mockery of the opening sequence. It genuinely feels like someone shoehorned this in from another movie.

Surprisingly, the plot gets even less coherent from here. Duke shows up at the diner in town to explain to Diana (Erin Gray) that he knows she’s Jason’s half-sister and that he needs her help to end Jason’s reign of terror. Instead, he ends up getting arrested and thrown in jail. It seems that Steven is actually the father of Diana’s infant granddaughter by her daughter, Jessica (Kari Keegan), and that Jessica is now dating Robert Campbell from the aforementioned TV show. Small world!

Anyway, Jason-Coroner captures a deputy from the local police force and transfers his soul to that body by letting the heart-demon (which is now the size and shape of a large snake) crawl out of his mouth and into the deputy’s. This isn’t particularly scary, per se, but it is disgustingly gory. Jason-Deputy goes to Diana’s house and attempts to possess her too, but Steven bursts in and interrupts him by stabbing him with a fireplace poker. Naturally, Jason-Deputy falls out the window and Diana dies in Steven’s arms, leaving him as the primary suspect when the rest of the police finally show up.

This nonsense goes on for a while. Steven gets a full plot explanation from Duke while they’re sharing neighboring cells in a weird scene where Duke keeps breaking his fingers for … reasons? … as payment for the information he’s giving. See, if Jason can possess a blood relative, he will become invincible. Or more invincible, I guess? That’s bad, but Duke also explains to him that those same blood relatives — such as Jessica or baby Stephanie —could also permanently kill Jason by stabbing him with a magic dagger that Duke just so happens to have, etc., etc., etc.

Steven escapes from jail and goes to the Voorhees house, where another in this amazing string of coincidences leads to him overhearing Campbell on the phone revealing, to no one’s surprise, that he’s just using Jessica to get close to the story and that he’s dug up her mother and hidden the body in the house so that he can “discover” it on camera. If you’re thinking, “Hey, this movie has two villains. That could be kind of interesting,” don’t bother. Seconds later, Jason-Deputy bursts in and does the Lady and the Tramp routine with Robert to become Jason-TV Host. Murder and mayhem ensue, with Jason-TV Host killing off most of the supporting cast and leading to a predictable showdown with Steven and Jessica back at the Voorhees house.

Nothing about this is vaguely scary although the film keeps ratcheting up the gore and shock value as much as possible. At one point in the final battle, Steven hacks the head off one of Jason’s possessed vehicles and the demon heart, now the size and general shape of an infant, wriggles out and crawls back into the womb of Diana’s conveniently nearby corpse. This disgusting bit of violation is rewarded with Jason being reborn in his familiar giant hockey-masked form so that we can have a normal Jason-versus-heroes fight to end this thing. After some comically bad stage fighting, and a predictable save at the last possible second by Jessica with her magic knife, the ground opens and demonic hands reach out to literally pull Jason into hell. There’s a fan-service shot right before the credits roll, Jason’s hockey mask lying abandoned in the dirt where he disappeared. Freddy Krueger’s iconic and impractical blade-glove bursts out of the soil and pulls the mask into the ground. Yawn.

This whole movie lasts 90 minutes but feels like six hours. Whatever ambitions first-time director Adam Marcus had about breaking from the mold didn’t make it past the first 10 minutes, and from there it’s an incoherent mess. Why does Duke know the secrets and have the dagger? No explanation. How does Campbell go about stealing Diana’s body from the morgue? No idea. Why does Jason keep hopping bodies? They seem to be interchangeable to him, and he’s unable to use them as any kind of disguise because as soon as he takes over, they can neither speak nor walk normally. At times it feels like maybe Marcus had a more robust story to tell. At other times, it seems like he’s just lost. The acting is bad, the writing is worse and the face of the franchise is sidelined for 90% of the running time.

Still, you have to wonder if this could have been something different. I’m sure there’s a story to it, probably one where someone swooped in and ruined whatever good things might have been going on here with requests for more gore or more nudity or less exposition. That’s how these things usually go. Whatever the case, I’m tantalized by the idea that someone wanted more out of this than they actually put on film. Having Jason out of commission for most of the film is a brave choice, if not particularly well-executed or successful. What if instead of turning every possessed body into the same lurching, grunting, oafish monster, Jason had been able to mostly hide? What if they’d gone for the full-on ghost-story vibe, where anyone could turn out to be Jason in disguise at any moment? That sounds much scarier to me. Or what if they’d let the evil TV producer angle really rip and we find out (much like the first movie) that the “new” Jason murders were Robert all along, trying to boost his show into relevancy? I can see that working, too.

It’s not just that there seem to be better films to be made and hung on this same basic framework. That’s kind of always true, and it’s easy to second guess and suggest improvements when someone’s already done most of the creative work for you. It’s more that those first few minutes really made it seem like the filmmaker understood what’s wrong with this kind of movie and might be interested in doing something different. I had a lot of expectations of this movie going in, none of them good, but I genuinely didn’t expect to have that glimmer of hope. That’s the thing that made all the difference between just another bad movie and a bad movie that was actually disappointing. The fact that this one rose to the level of disappointment is a weird kind of praise to hand out, but it’s all I’ve got to give.