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.
It’s a strange thing to try and keep a franchise alive for a few decades. Do you do the same thing you’ve always done and risk your story going stale, or do you attempt to progressively move things in new and bold directions to keep things fresh at the risk of alienating your core fans who got you this far?
Such was the dilemma of the creative powers-that-be behind the Friday the 13th franchise. Beginning with the original film in 1980, Jason Voorhees was pumped down the throats of moviegoers, getting eight films thrown in the theaters over nine years. In these films, the slasher did largely the same thing: Slash! Granted, he wasn’t the focus of the first film; his sweet, insane mother was. But with steadily declining box-office returns, the filmmakers faced the aforementioned dilemma: Keep doing what they’ve been doing or switch things up?
They chose the latter, and the next trio of movies took our boy Jason to Hell, outer space and to face off with Freddy Krueger. The gambit seemed to work: Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X posted higher box-office earnings than the previous few films, and the supernatural crossover with the star of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise generated almost 10 times the return of the previous films.
The question then became: What next?
Two successful remakes of horror films in the immediate aftermath of the release of Jason X provided the roadmap: 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and 2005’s The Amityville Horror seemed to indicate that audiences were into fresh takes on classic tales. Both of those films were produced by one Michael Bay and his team, and they showed interest in trying to breathe fresh life into Jason Voorhees through a remake of sorts.
In actuality, the 2009 Friday the 13th film began as an origin story for Jason before morphing into an updated retelling of some of the best elements of the first four films in the franchise. The writers — Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, who also penned Freddy vs. Jason — decided they didn’t have to make this story a period piece and could further augment their tale by leaving it set in modern times.
So, for all this work to bring a “new” version of the classic tale to the silver screen, the question then became: What would this movie do that was new, different and daring so that the story resonated with new audiences? The answer is … not much, sadly, and this is where things fall apart for this film.
The plot doesn’t really build and expand on any of the existing lore, it just kind of rehashes it and serves it lukewarm. The movie opens in the 1980s with Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother, killing counselors at Camp Crystal Lake as retribution for young Jason drowning on their watch. Surprise, though! Jason’s not really dead because reasons. The last counselor standing manages to dispatch Pamela through a beheading witnessed by the young and impressionable soon-to-be serial killer.
Fast-forward to present day, and a group of teens comes to the remains of Camp Crystal Lake. Wouldn’t you know it, Jason’s still hanging out and dispatches the group fairly easily — all except for Whitney, who reminds Jason of his mother, so she stays alive … for now. Six weeks later, Whitney’s brother, Clay, comes looking for her, and after he runs into another group of teens in the area, Jason gets a whole new group to maim and murder. Will anyone survive? Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you Jason does. He always does. Otherwise, how would the franchise have any hope to keep on keepin’ on?
It’s not that 2009’s Friday the 13th is a bad film — far from it, in fact. From a technical standpoint, this is likely the highlight of the entire 12-film series: The pacing is excellent, the effects are above-average and the kills are fairly unique, including one particularly gruesome death-by-sleeping-bag that makes me squirm every time I see it. Fans of the franchise should definitely find lots to enjoy here.
In the same vein, though, viewers who are not hardcore Jason lovers will likely be asking themselves some variation of the question: “What’s the point?” Indeed, this movie does very little to progress the overall narrative of the franchise or add anything new to its lore. It just sort of … exists.
Is this the reason that the Friday the 13th series hasn’t had a new film entry in the 12 years since this movie was released? It’s likely a contributing factor. Not nearly as much, mind you, as the property rights being tangled up among two different production studios — Paramount and New Line / Warner Brothers. Both have seemingly and simultaneously played “chicken” on avoiding financial commitment … but also not wanting to pull out and look dumb in case the other actually made a successful film.
Also, a lawsuit was settled in September that clarified ownership of domestic rights to the original film’s script; all well and good, until you remember that the first Friday the 13th movie didn’t feature an adult version of the serial-killer Jason at all. So, speaking in my best official legal-ese … who the hell knows where things go from here.
One thing is certain: It’s a storied franchise, and it certainly deserves better than to rot in lawsuit limbo for a decade-plus, which, ironically, was more than enough time for the original creative teams to pump out eight of the series’ films back in the day. I guess in this regard about Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th movies, and to sum up my thoughts on the 2009 film, you can say this: They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.