As far as frightful childhood figures went, to me the Boogeyman had nothing on Jason Voorhees. Partly due to the demonic hockey masks that seemed to forever loom in my local theater’s advertisement billboards and to my older cousin’s gleefully exaggerated description of their levels of gore—but mostly, I now realize, to the fact that my parents would not allow me to watch them—the Friday the 13th movies came to exude a distinctive whiff of forbidden fruit, of mind-rattling shocks. The idea of an extreme horror movie (or, rather, the outlaw sensations it embodied) was irresistible to my restless, nine-year-old self, so in 1986 I sneaked into an afternoon screening of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, my first scary movie, and waited for the game-changing frissons. And waited. And waited. The nudge-nudge James Bond spoof that kicks off the opening credits (a shuffling Jason hurls a machete at the lens and drenches the screen crimson) turned out to be all too fitting: I was like an Ian Fleming aficionado who had came for Casino Royale and instead gotten, well, Casino Royale.
Before the jokey tone takes over, however, there’s a promising sequence that’s fecund with horror-movie lore related to the franchise’s earlier entries as well as to genre’s own classical past. Two dudes drive down to the cemetery where Jason has been buried and, as storm clouds ominously gather in the night sky, dig up the coffin to make sure the notoriously tenacious fiend is really dead. Confronted with Jason’s Club-Med-for-maggots visage, one of the clods grabs a pole from the rusty gate and thrusts it into the corpse’s chest, which right on cue summons forth a bolt of resuscitative lightning. Duly awakened, Jason grabs his trusty façade and heads over to Camp Crystal Lake for the new slaughter. There’s a lot going on here: The shadow of the old Universal monsters is felt in the mixture of Dracula’s vampire-thwarting stakes and Frankenstein’s creature-reviving lightning rods, an exorcism-cum-resurrection that’s attuned both to the studio’s desire to keep a lucrative series going and to the fact that one of the two guys is Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews), who in the two previous Friday the 13th chapters was shown to share a fascinatingly strange bond with the killer. That the other guy is played by Horshack himself (Ron Palillo), squirming and mugging away, is the first but sadly not last example of a directorial smarminess that insists on crumbling any and all potentially evocative elements.
For the record, the director of Jason Lives is Tom McLoughlin, who had three years prior done the atmospheric, often effective sorority-damsels-in-distress chiller One Dark Night and who would later on direct episodes of the Friday the 13th TV series, but whose 1987 comedy Date with an Angel easily remains his most horrifying work. Here, McLoughlin seems to be anticipating the degraded-Pirandello strategies of the Scream movies, where killers and victims are not people driven by fears and anxieties but corpses-in-waiting in a slasher movie who know they are corpses-in-waiting in a slasher movie. So you get characters oh-so-cleverly commenting on their surroundings before invariably becoming gory makeup effects, like the couple of unlucky camp counselors (with Tony Goldwyn filling the film’s obligatory Before They Were Famous slot) who come upon Jason in the woods and remark that they’ve “seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” Some scenes later, the soused, cranky cemetery groundskeeper contemplates the mess left in the pre-credits sequence and does a double-take straight into the camera: “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” Even when it stumbles upon an intriguing concept, such as when corporate weekend-warriors shoot paintballs at each other while wearing head banners that read “dead,” the results are not so much spiked with dark humor as they are dented by a singularly unpleasant feeling of above-it-all snarkiness.
Jason Voorhees deserves better. Though never approaching the lacerating grindhouse portraiture of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the elegant viciousness of John Carpenter’s Halloween or the Jungian surrealism of Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, Sean S. Cunningham’s original Friday the 13th had a stylistic plainness and thematic circularity that actually enhanced its nihilism. Its world is a teenage wasteland of hollow and ephemeral pleasures where essentially desolate characters wait for a Reaper who turns out to be first a loony matriarch and then a traumatized boy built like a charred lumberjack. The shot in Jason Lives of a slumbering little girl holding a copy of No Exit is offered as nothing more than a gag, but the truth is that the franchise’s most astringent moments aren’t that far from Sartre’s view of torturous limbo. It’s a messy and chilling vision which, with the honorable exception of Alex Jackson’s in-depth and sober analysis at Film Freak Central (to which my own article owes a great debt), has been largely overlooked by genre specialists. (Even Robin Wood, who in his indispensable Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan paid particular attention to the radical potential in the works of George A. Romero and Larry Cohen, dismissed the movies as uncomplicated outgrowths of an increasingly reactionary epoch.)
Even to my preteen eyes, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI played as pretty weak tea. It looks too clean and brightly lit, the sex is chaste, the music is dismal (Alice Cooper’s “The Man Behind the Mask,” anyone?), and, with the exception of an extremely mean-spirited bit in which the killer uses one unfortunate girl to literalize a threat made earlier by the sheriff (“I will repaint this office with your brains!”), the gore feels watered down, like red-colored silly string at a bad party. And yet, many Jason fans cite the movie as one of the best (if not the best) in the series, appreciating the same humor that seems to be directly mocking its intended audience. (When the film ends with a close-up of the eponymous killing machine’s open eye, you half-expect it to wink knowingly.) Jason would be killed and brought back to life again and again, but rarely with such self-directed derision—even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein showed more respect for the mythology of its monsters.
Fernando F. Croce is the creator of the website Cinepassion.