Friday the 13th: A Personal History of the Horror Film Franchise

When I was growing up, the Friday the 13thfilms represented something truly frightening and forbidden. Therefore, at about the age of nine, I set out to watch each and every one of them. Ever since then I have been carrying with me a deep knowledge of at least the first nine films in the franchise.

My Introduction to Friday the 13th, or, The End of a New Beginning

The first few seconds I ever watched of a Friday the 13thfilm were from the opening sequence of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. Somehow, as a child without a true sense of time, I thought it would be good to watch the “New Beginning” so I could jump into the series at a new starting point. I later discovered that Part V is not really a “New Beginning,” but rather, a forgotten entry. It was a failed attempt to restart the franchise without its main villain, Jason Voorhees, who had been hacked to death in the previous installment (aptly—or perhaps not—entitled “The Final Chapter”).

The first full Friday the 13thfilm I watched was Part VI: Jason Lives, for which the filmmakers resurrected the previously destroyed Voorhees, who henceforth became an unstoppable zombie. Sadly, Jason Lives is the last truly entertaining entry in the series. Further sequels were either hollow re-treads or unnecessary diversions into ridiculous territory. So let's put that negativity aside and go back in time to the first entry.

Getting Back to the (Real) Beginning

It's no big secret that the first Friday the 13thfilm was created to capitalize on the huge success of Halloween, which had been released in 1978 (two years before Friday) and had quickly become the highest grossing independent feature up to that time. Friday the 13th, however, was no independent feature. The first film and the next seven sequels were all released by Paramount Pictures.

That first film was actually conceived as a one-off mystery/murder/slasher story. In fact, the character of Jason Voorhees only appears in two sequences. One is a flashback and one is perhaps not even real. I don't want to spoil the ending for the few who haven't seen the first film, but suffice it to say, if you begin with the new remake of any of the sequels, you will find the first film to have a slightly different feel. Not only are nearly all of the murders depicted in a point-of-view shot (forcing the audience to “become” the killer), but the identity of the murderer remains a mystery until the film's last act.

In the sequels, the killer would be no mystery. Friday the 13th Part 2 successfully destroyed any sense of chronology by being released a year after the first but being set five years after its events. This time, a bunch of counselors in training are stalked by a fully grown and deformed Jason Voorhees, who wears not a hockey mask but a burlap sack on his head. In the end, he is supposedly dispatched, but he returns unscathed for the next sequel.

Friday the 13th Part 3 was originally released in 3-D, in the midst of a 1982 3-D craze. Its plot concerns a group of teens staying at a house near Crystal Lake, one of whom has seen Jason before (presumably during the five-year interim between the first and second films' plots). Perhaps reflecting Paramount's lack of interest (at the time) in their own film franchise, the back of the original VHS and Beta home video boxes described the characters as “yet another group of naïve counselors,” despite the film having nothing to do with a summer camp.

The third entry is renowned for being the first in which Jason dons his hockey mask, which he steals from a character who enjoys practical jokes. The mask, of course, would become part of the Jason character from then on.

Now we come to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, in which yet another group of young adults takes up residence near the lake, but this time we are also introduced to an even younger mask-making enthusiast, Tommy Jarvis, played by Corey Feldman. Spoilers aside, someone is eventually forced to do away with Jason for good, and from the beating he takes in the last act, one would not predict his return. But there was more money to be made.

The Rest of the Series

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning attempted to return the series to its mystery roots. Throughout the film, we are not certain who is doing the killing, though the clues are often painfully obvious. Most of the characters are even more unlikeable than those in any of the previous films. The chronology was again displaced, as Feldman's Tommy Jarvis character returns, but he is now at least five years older. However, the film does have an excellent ending which, unfortunately, would never be resolved, as the next entry seems to ignore the existence of its predecessor.

Jason Lives is the first film since the second to take place at a summer camp. It is also the first and, to date, last entry to depict the camp in a state of operation with children camping there. Jason does indeed return in a very Frankenstein-like accidental resurrection, and he sets about returning to the camp to kill more people as yet another version of Tommy Jarvis tries to stop him. This film walks the fine line of not taking itself too seriously while not becoming a horrendous parody of itself. Hence, it garnered the most positive reaction from critics in franchise history.

For critics, and for many fans, Jason Lives was the last truly enjoyable entry in the series. Part VII: The New Blood is in many ways a re-hash of the plots of Part 3 and The Final Chapter, as a group of young adults takes up in a lake house for a weekend party, next door to a supposedly intriguing new character, who happens to have the power of telekinesis. This led many fans to dub this film “Jason Meets Carrie,” a reference to the Stephen King book (and Brian DePalma film). Interestingly, the production company behind this film was called “Friday Four Productions,” which I take as yet another piece of evidence that its plot was re-hashed from the fourth entry.

Perhaps feeling the pressure to change things up, Paramount's next (and last) effort in the series was Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, the teaser trailer for which is considered by many fans to be better than the actual film. This is largely because, due to budgetary concerns, the bulk of the film takes place on a cruise ship that is somehow heading to the Big Apple from the shores of Crystal Lake. Most of the back alley and subway scenes set in New York were actually filmed in Vancouver, and only one day of shooting was done in Times Square. Overall, the film is disappointing and often laughable.

After Manhattan: A Journey to Hell and Space

Unfortunately, the series never improved. Rather, it sat dormant for four years, until New Line Cinema released Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. This film was released with the tagline, “They Saved the Best for Last,” but as you can probably gather, it certainly is not the best. It attempts to create a bizarre and unnecessary new Jason origin story, seemingly in order to reduce the appearances of the hockey masked killer. It also attempts to set up the long-awaited (at the time) Freddy vs. Jason film, which would not see release for another ten years.

In the interim, Sean S. Cunningham, the director of the first film and the producer of The Final Friday, returned to produce yet another sequel, Jason X, which sent the character into space. While nowhere near as nonsensical as its predecessor, X only succeeded in getting further away from what made the series entertaining. The summer camp setting of the first few films was familiar to much of its audience, and therefore the suspense and terror created seemed to have a base in reality. In space, however, no one can hear you scream, and even if they could, they wouldn't care, at least if you were a character in Jason X.

The Big Matchup and a Reboot

Freddy vs. Jason finally became a reality in 2003, and it ended up being more satisfactory as a Nightmare on Elm Street film rather than a serious Friday the 13thentry. By this time, the tropes of both series had been well established and well lampooned, and this film seems like a re-tread on top of a parody, employing the Jason character merely as a dumb monster that could have easily been an evil orangutan.

New Line and Paramount then joined forces to attempt a “reboot” of the franchise, which basically combined plot elements from the second and fourth films to create a surprisingly cohesive storyline. However, plans for further sequels seem to have stalled. Despite this, the first six films, despite their faults, remain worth watching once, then re-watching as background elements during parties or as the subjects of drinking games (not encouraged here, by the way).

Final Thoughts

These films began for me as a kind of forbidden fruit, then a childhood fixation. The ninth film (Jason Goes to Hell) was released just as I was getting into the franchise, and even then, I recall being disappointed. Unfortunately, this disappointment continued with the further sequels, though it was temporarily paused with the surprisingly tolerable remake/reboot. Still, those first eight films, with all of their faults, remain an untouchable aspect of my childhood pop culture fixations, and I presume they represent something similar for many others in my generation.

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