Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual assault.
As Halloween creeps in, there’s no better time to revisit the classic horror films of the past, and nothing captures the 80’s slasher craze like the Friday the 13th franchise. While Friday the 13th is sometimes seen as a generic set of films due to their sheer popularity, it’s actually quite the odd series. With roots as a simple John Carpenter-inspired slasher, the mysterious masked murderer Jason Voorhees firmly gripped audiences. Their eagerness to watch the latest Jason movie propelled him into some strange places as the studio hustled to milk what was becoming one of the largest American media franchises. This frenzy notably led Jason to New York City, space and a one-on-one bout against Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger.
But despite how popular these films were and how relevant Jason is to the current Halloween culture, very few university-aged people have sat down and watched a Friday the 13th film. I, for one, hadn’t. So, on a mission to connect more with the spirit of Halloween, I set out to watch all eleven original Friday the 13th films in eleven days. Slowly, I felt myself getting swept into the same Jason frenzy that 30 years ago inspired him to don a spacesuit.
Friday the 13th
The most shocking thing about Friday the 13th is that Jason doesn’t appear until the very end of the film. Legends of a boy who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake circulate amongst the doomed camp counselors, and when that boy leaps out of the water in the film’s final minutes, in an attempt to drown the last survivor of the massacre, it’s quite an exciting and oddly visually stunning scene. The killer behind this massacre is instead Jason’s deranged mother, who is seeking revenge against horny camp counselors who were too busy having sex to save her son from drowning.
What works about this premise is that it gives the killer a reason to specifically target teens who are having sex, a theme which runs throughout all the later movies with no explanation other than ‘it was a trope’ at that point. The twist of using Jason’s mother as the killer works twice as well in retrospect as Jason has become synonymous with Friday the 13th and viewers will no doubt expect him to be the killer.
Besides its solid subversion of expectations and killer motivation, the first film succeeds in many areas. It’s low budget, but make up artist Tom Savini manages to stretch the dollar resulting in some creative kills. One which stands out is the iconic bed kill, in which the killer stabs Kevin Bacon’s throat from under a bed and you see the blade pierce his prosthetic throat from close up. Also, the interactions between the counselors are entertaining and dynamic. As is the case for most of these movies, they are hyper-horny, but this film utilizes this well with interesting scenes – like when they play a game of strip monopoly.
Friday the 13th Part 2
Friday the 13th Part 2 feels more like a remake of the original than a sequel. Taking place a few years after Part 1, Jason is now fully grown and full of rage, replacing his mom as the killer. It’s more polished than the first and Jason is a far more creative murderer than his mother. The iconic bed kill is back, but this time around two counselors get impaled in one blow. This could’ve been a highlight if censors hadn’t cut most of it out, resulting in a scene that feels neutered as the action happens off-camera. What ends up being a surprising highlight is the final girl, who unlike the girl from the first film, doesn’t merely try to run from the killer and instead tries to outsmart him.
Part 2 refines some aspects of the original and solidifies the formula for movies to come but it doesn’t stand out in the grand scheme of things. Structurally, it’s identical to the first, making it feel redundant and, while the shots of the murders are improved, they’re nothing special. It’s hard to recommend this film especially right after watching the first.
Friday the 13th Part III
At the height of the 3D boom of the 80s emerged Friday the 13th Part III, the first Paramount film to be filmed in 3D since 1954. It received overall negative reviews upon release, which is something a lot these films have in common but is particularly true of Part III sitting at a measly seven per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. I disagree and posit that Friday the 13th Part III is a great jumping-off point for newcomers to the series.
Benefiting from the formula established in the previous two films, Part 3 is free to experiment and consequently has more personality. The first half no longer consists of fake-out scare after fake-out scare, with our gang of horny teens getting into trouble with a rival gang at a gas station.
The teens are also more interesting. While the humour between them is less subtle, they are easier to distinguish from one another since they are written more like stereotypes than archetypes. My personal favourite is Shelly, a nerdy and chubby boy who is constantly trying to get girls to like him by scaring them, something which they make very clear, many times, that they do not like. But Shelly persists, culminating in him trying to scare a girl with a hockey mask which ends up becoming the iconic mask Jason wears for the coming films.
The 3D is also worth mentioning. There’s something so charming about the heaps of egregious 3D shots throughout this film, especially when viewed in 2D. It’s well utilized during the kills — particularly in one scene where Jason squeezes someone’s head so hard that their eye shoots out at the camera — but even when it’s used superfluously it adds a goofy dimension that wasn’t present in past entries.
A major problem with this film is that it establishes the franchise trope of the final girl having a bizarre and contrived relationship with Jason. In this one, the final girl recounts having a previous run-in with Jason in which he attacked and (it’s heavily implied) sexually assaulted her. This is not only insensitive and incongruent with Jason’s character, it also introduces plot armour, as it lets audiences know that she will be the last surviving girl as she is the only character given any backstory.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
The Final Chapter is the last ‘pure’ Friday the 13th film. From here on out, all films rely on some sort of gimmick or stylistic reinvention, but The Final Chapter is pure, low-budget camp crystal carnage. The reason The Final Chapter works so well is that it understands that these films ultimately consist of two components: a group of teens and how that group of teens is inevitably killed. The Final Chapter balances these two components masterfully, thereby creating a film that is refined, if a bit familiar.
The Final Chapter introduces the closest thing the series has to a central protagonist in the form of Tommy Jarvis who appears in the next two movies but is almost unrecognizable in both. What really sells Tommy Jarvis in this film is the performance by Corey Feldman. Feldman, still early in his career, gives a great performance full of child-like wonder and excitement which is best captured in a scene where he catches a peek of two of the teens having sex. Feldman's reaction is so bizarre, energetic and giddy as he bashes his face against his pillow in confused excitement.
But Feldman is not the only breakout performance of The Final Chapter. A young Crispin Glover also steals the show playing what is perhaps the series’ best character, Jimmy. Jimmy is a socially-awkward boy who struggles to get girls' attention, but Glover adds a very eccentric and lovable dimension to him. He’s also involved in what may be the greatest dance scene ever committed to film. Inevitably, Jimmy is killed, but it’s not all tears as his death may be the best in the franchise. It’s tongue in cheek and makes great use of practical effects and a corkscrew.
The Final Chapter combines likeable characters, creative kills and a serious tone to create the quintessential Friday film, which manages to be fun while still taking itself completely seriously.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning
There’s not much to say about A New Beginning. Generally disliked by fans due to Jason’s complete absence, the most notable part about this film is the humour in that a film titled A New Beginning was released less than a year after The Final Chapter.
Everything this movie does is done better in another Friday film except maybe gratuitous, tasteless nudity (but even that’s more present in the 2009 reboot). Directed by Danny Steinmann, a former porn director, there’s very little character and a lot of topless women.
Pacing is also a huge issue. With twenty minutes left in the movie they are still introducing new characters for the sole purpose of being killed off. This wouldn’t be nearly as big of a problem if the shots of the murders were remarkably well done, but A New Beginning features the least inspired, most mundane deaths of the entire franchise, primarily consisting of the killer picking up his victims, stabbing them in the midsection off-camera and then tossing them to the side.
The whodunnit aspect of trying to figure out who is behind the killings does add a fun element not present in past films (and astute viewers can deduce who the killer is through clues throughout the movie), but that’s not nearly enough to save this mess.
An easy skip, especially considering it’s sandwiched between the two best films in the franchise.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives!
Jason Lives! the title exclaims, excited to move past the misstep of the last film while eagerly (and perhaps a bit sneakily) letting audiences know Jason is back, for real this time. With the formula established in Parts 1-3 and perfected in Part 4, Jason Lives! instead focuses on tone and on Jason himself, resulting in the most complete and polished Friday the 13th film of them all.
In the past, it was unclear whether Jason was undead or merely a person who refuses to die. Jason Lives! makes it explicit that Jason is a zombie. In its exciting opening scene, Jason’s carcass is struck by lightning and he is reanimated, angrier and, more importantly, stronger than ever. For the first time, he has personality, which may seem odd considering he carries on the tradition of having no lines. The personality instead comes from an excellent physical performance from CJ Graham and energetic, snappy direction from Tom McLoughlin. These two aspects work in tandem to reimagine Jason, setting him apart from generic movie murderers. Jason no longer runs, he only walks, but somehow he is still always right behind you. In fact, he doesn’t struggle at all. He’s hulking and unstoppable. For the first time, Jason has well-defined physical mannerisms, and it feels like you could pick him out from a line-up just from his silhouette.
Tonally, Jason Lives! is refreshing. Much in the vein of the corkscrew kill from The Final Chapter, there’s a lot of humour in the kills. Whether it be Jason decapitating three people with one swoop of his machete or pushing a girl's face through the wall of an RV’s toilet, there isn’t a single kill that isn’t memorable for its own reason.
However, the downside to this new tone is that it diminishes the fear factor greatly as many potentially scary moments are undercut by humour and the film clearly does not take itself very seriously. That being said, modern audiences won’t find any of these films scary, so it doesn’t feel fair to hold that against this film.
If you plan on only watching one Friday the 13th film, Jason Lives is the obvious pick.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood
Unable to recapture the feeling of the originals or the style of Jason Lives!, The New Blood sits as an awkward middle child, trapped between the franchise’s beloved past and its ridiculous future.
The shots of the murders are nothing special compared to past entries. Censors had a big hand in this, but even the uncensored versions are unimpressive, considering a large portion of them had been done before. For example, one of the girls is killed when Jason throws her through a window onto the lawn. This is recreated almost shot for shot from The Final Chapter, but ironically it’s missing the shot which makes that scene memorable, a beautifully composed wide of Jason standing right outside the window, thrusting his unsuspecting victim to her death.
The New Blood does have memorable characters, like therapist Dr. Crews, a man who is set on experimenting on the final girl’s psychic powers under the guise of helping her sort through her childhood trauma. He’s the closest thing to a villain these films have had up until this point (other than Jason of course) and serves as a nice palette cleanser from the teenagers. It’s disappointing then, that he is unceremoniously killed via a cut in the midsection in a very similar vein to the lacklustre kills of A New Beginning. Other than him a few others stand out, and The New Blood is possibly the only Jason film where I knew exactly who everyone was at all times. But that’s hardly praise, and it certainly isn’t enough to save this film from being one of the series’ weaker entries.
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
Jason Takes Manhattan marks somewhat of a turning point for the franchise. In a desperate attempt to relive the box office glory days of The Last Chapter, Paramount decided a change of scenery was in order to keep the series fresh. Granted, Jason in Manhattan is a genius premise in theory, budget constraints and strange choices resulted in a lacklustre film making it the final Friday the 13th released under Paramount.
What sticks out the most about Jason Takes Manhattan is how little of it takes place in Manhattan. For the first two-thirds of the film, Jason is stalking and killing teens on a cruise headed for New York. With a few creative kills sprinkled in, it became very clear, very fast that this film's primary goal was to waste up the runtime with non-Manhattan-related hijinks, in all likelihood due to a low budget. For a film dedicated to wasting time, it’s baffling how much time it takes up, being the longest film in the franchise by fifteen minutes.
When the cruise finally arrives in ‘Manhattan’ there are barely any survivors left. The rest of the film consists of Jason chasing the remaining characters through alleyways that could be in any city in the world. In fact, it was shot in Vancouver.
Also, Jason can teleport now, for some reason.
Despite these frustrating choices, it’s challenging to hate Jason Takes Manhattan. It might be the Stockholm Syndrome setting in of being stuck with Jason for eight films now, or a testament to the staying power of these movies' simple yet effective formula, but watching Jason do what he’s always done with a slightly different backdrop was amusing and in an odd way comforting.
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday
As Jason plunges to the depths of hell, so does the quality of the series, with by far the most confused (and confusing) film so far.
In its exciting and somewhat humorous opening moments, Jason is tracked down and blown to bits by a team of elite government operatives. However, his heart remains beating and from there Jason goes from body to body, possessing various people to carry out his master plan of taking control of the body of someone in the Voorhees bloodline which will somehow restore him to his former strength.
Jason is barely in this film, which is reason enough to make it not worthwhile. Add boring characters, a monstrously complicated plot and a shoehorned new Jason mythology involving a magical dagger — which is the only weapon that can truly kill Jason — and you get the most bloated and out of place Friday the 13th film of the entire series. Quite the achievement considering the next one takes place in space.
Jason in Space! An idea so ridiculous and bold that it alone warrants watching this film, regardless of its flaws. It’s hard not to get swept away in the spectacle of it all when a nanite-infused super Jason (dubbed Uber Jason in the credits) fights a leather-clad female android named KM-14 who throughout the fight does backflips like they’re going out of fashion.
Jason X knows it’s ridiculous and as a result, plays to those strengths. It’s a solid, straightforward Jason flick with memorable, over-the-top set pieces and characters that are distinct from one another. The central problem is how the film constantly reminds the audience that it’s aware of how ridiculous it is. The constant Marvelesque quipping gets old fast and laughing at a nonsensical movie is never as fun when the movie is laughing along with you.
Regardless, Jason X is an important film in the series. While the last ‘pure’, gimmickless Friday the 13th film was way back in The Final Chapter, Jason X is the final Friday the 13th film in the main (and I use this word very loosely) continuity of films. The next film in the series, Freddy v Jason, feels more like a bonus film than a continuation. After that, the only other Friday the 13th film is the lackluster 2009 reboot. While Jason X is flawed and at times messy, it’s an extravagant and oddly fitting send-off to a series I’ve grown to love. Perhaps not worth going out of your way to watch, but if you’re this far into the series, skipping it would be a huge mistake.
Freddy v Jason
In an attempt to re-enter the public consciousness of Springwood, and ultimately regain his powers, Freddy Krueger tricks Jason into committing a series of gruesome murders in the quiet suburban town to remind them of Freddy’s reign of terror. It’s needless to say that Freddy v Jason makes very little sense, but to get bogged down in plot logistics is to severely miss the point.
Freddy v Jason is a case study in what happens when a franchise that doesn’t understand its own mythos melds with another franchise with its own complicated and inconsistent rules. The result is a mess so beautiful it puts even the most famous Pollock paintings to shame. Rules are established and then broken moments later, characters think and act like cartoonish idiots, and the final fight between Freddy and Jason is the cinematic equivalent of a rock star smashing their guitar at the end of a concert.
At the heart of what makes Freddy v Jason so special is how seriously everything is treated. The days of constant self-aware quipping of Jason X are gone. The deconstruct and reconstruct philosophy of Jason Lives! is a thing of the past. Freddy v Jason is imbued with a refreshing sincerity that has been mostly missing since the first four Friday films.
Freddy v Jason is an extremely odd film but if audiences can look past how little sense it makes, they’ll find one of the most insane and entertaining films of the entire franchise. The titular bout is reason enough to watch it.
For people looking to watch only one or two Friday the 13th films, there are some obvious choices. The original Friday the 13th is a classic and it’s interesting to see the humble, and at times surprising, origins of the franchise. The Last Chapter is the clear choice for those wanting a classic Jason slasher refined to perhaps the greatest degree these kinds of films can be refined. Jason Lives! is the perfect blend of fun kills, goofy characters and stylish direction. It’s probably the best of these films to watch with a group of friends. And of course, Freddy v Jason is the answer to the question “Just how ridiculous and over the top can these films get?”
However, there’s a reason Jason is this prolific and has visited both New York and space. Behind all the flaws these films might possess, there is still a formula that is timeless and entertaining. I guarantee that those who set off to watch all of these films like I did will quickly fall in love and resent the fact that there hasn’t been a new Friday the 13th film in over a decade.