Michael Myers. Leatherface. Freddy Krueger. Pinhead. These are the iconic symbols of the modern horror/slasher films. Their respective film series have endured for decades and have given horror fans movie after movie of excitement and scares. Their films are being remade at an alarming rate, hoping that future generations will discover them and continue the films for ages. Their faces adorn countless t-shirts, costumes, posters, toys, etc. These characters have become pop culture icons and stand tall as the “king killers” of the horror genre.
However, some argue that there is a name missing from this list. A name that, for most fans, is as iconic as the rest. Most horror fans say he is the coolest killer in the bunch and his particular film series is the longest running and most fan-pleasing of the lot.
Yes, I am speaking of that master of disaster and mayhem, slaughterer of over 100 victims, the butcher of Camp Crystal Lake, the one and only, Jason Voorhees. Slasher fans around the world have made Jason one of the biggest names in horror and have forced us into a ten film franchise with an in-name-only television series, one spin-off, Freddy vs. Jason, and one remake. The result is millions of dollars in the most popular horror franchise that has endured for over thirty years.
There is, however, only one problem with all of this. Jason is the most overrated horror character of them all and, as far as his films are concerned, they are awful.
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, who went on to make such non classics as Spring Break and DeepStar Six, the first Friday the 13th film was released in May of 1980. With a budget of less than a million dollars it went on to gross almost 40 million worldwide, making it at the time, one of the most profitable independent films ever made. As we all know, the plot was the silly story of a mother taking her revenge on camp counselors who work at the same camp where her son, Jason, was left to drown while counselors were off having sex. This is why, in all the latter films of the series, it spelled doom when characters would have sex or go off to party. In this film Mrs. Voorhees, played by a slumming Betsy Palmer who had worked with directors such as the great John Ford and Anthony Mann, sneaks around the campgrounds offing our smorgasbord of victims in various, semi-creative, fashion. The blood flows and the bodies pile up as the film builds to its surprise climax where it is revealed that it is, in fact, mother Voorhees who is committing the murders.
Before I delve into all that I find amiss with this series, let me start off by saying there are two positives in the film. The great theme music that has become one of horror’s most recognizable scores was written by Harry Manfredi. It is simple yet potent. Manfredi, a Canadian film composer, has said he wanted the music to have the soft whisper of Jason’s voice inhabiting his mother, telling her to “kill, kill, kill. Mom, Mom, Mom.” The theme is effective and was achieved by the composer simply breathing and hushing in to the microphone and electronically altering it for the final score. It is solid and creative work.
The second positive for the film is Tom Savini’s great make up effects. He was/is the great horror make-up guru of our time. His work in this was very creative and set the bar for the kills in the rest of the series. The aforementioned scene where the arrow comes from under the bed and through the character’s neck is an excellent special effect as is Jason himself, looking like a rotted corpse when he finally shows up in the end of the film.
Now it is time to peel back the extremely thin layer of what is good and get to the depths of what is wrong with the films.
There are three major problems with this first film. It is not scary. Not for one moment. The scenes where the audience is supposed to jump from their seats are telegraphed minutes before they happen, therefore removing any surprise or shock value. There is no atmosphere or style that creates the promised scares. The lighting is non-existent and the blocking of the camera is pedestrian at best. I refer to John Carpenter’s classic film, Halloween. His camera movements were fluid making great use of the steadicam while creating a chilling atmosphere through color schemes, moody music, and masterful camera work. The teens in Carpenter’s film did not exist merely to be slaughtered. They were given personalities and were, for the most part, well drawn. In the first Friday the 13th, and all of the following chapters, the victims are horribly underwritten and performed and exist only to be killed.
The second major problem is the implausibility factor. The killer, who is revealed to be Jason’s mother, a woman well into her 50s, does things that many men in good shape could not accomplish, pushing an arrow from under a bed hard enough to go through the bed, the springs, and a character’s throat being the best example. There are scenes where the young people are being chased and Mrs. Voorhees keeps up with them and still has the strength to kill. Again, for a woman in her 50s, my hat is off! Mind you, in horror we must suspend our disbelief and “roll with” many unbelievable occurrences but, in this film, it just does not work. It would have been more believable had it been Mr. Voorhees perhaps.
This brings us to the number one problem with the existence of the series entire. Jason Voorhees is dead. He was dead in the beginning of the film, in the middle, and when it ended. Mrs. Voorhees went on her killing spree due to the fact that the camp counselors let him drown. Jason drowned. To drown is to die. The last shot, where Jason pops out of the water and grabs our heroine out of a canoe, was only a dream. It is the way it was written and it is the way it plays. The Screenwriter Victor Miller has said that he never intended to continue the films. The moment, from a suggestion by Tom Savini, paid homage to the ending of Brian De Palma’s Carrie where the hand reaches up from the grave and grabs Amy Irving. That scene was a dream and one last “gotcha!” as was the ending of Friday the 13th. Savini is quoted as saying, “if you watch a Friday the 13th movie past part one, you’re stupid. ‘Cause there is no Jason. There shouldn’t be a Jason. He is a little boy that died in the first movie.” However the film made millions so, as Hollywood does, producers ordered a second film.
Released in May of 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2 is a minuscule improvement over the original, keeping in mind that this is not a hard goal to reach. It is filmed more professionally than the first film. Steve Miner, the director of this film, actually went on to do a decent horror film, House, and a big budget Hollywood production starring Mel Gibson, Forever Young. His entry in the series was one of its biggest financial hits and showcased some decent gore effects. By now the slasher movie craze was in full swing and it adhered to the golden rules of genre. Underwritten, cardboard characters go off into the woods to swim, drink, and have sex. For their sins they were all murdered by Jason who is now roaming Camp Crystal Lake and its neighboring town looking for victims. In this film Jason wears a burlap sack on his head with an eyehole cut out. I find this to be a spookier look than the hockey mask which became his signature look for the rest of the series.
In this film the kills were amped up, topping the kills in the first film, and included a double impaling as a couple was, you guessed it, having sex. This entry also included more unnecessary and gratuitous nudity that would become another staple of the series and the genre entire. Again there is no wit or style to the proceedings. There is just a rehash of the first film, more teens and twenty-somethings being slaughtered in various ways and nothing else. The filmmakers didn’t even try to put a new spin on the material. It is simply the same thing.
Fans were fine with the movie and helped it conjure up over 20 million dollars on a 1 million dollar budget. Jason was, in fact, alive. Damn the original screenplay! There is money to be made! To that, we are given Friday the 13th Part 3 in “super” 3-D. Ugh. This film is truly awful.
Steve Miner was back at the helm and this time he did put a new spin on things, not that it helped. The filmmakers gave us another by the numbers exercise in slasher films in the often misused and, for the time, largely forgotten 3-D. This would give fans a literal in your face experience of blood and gore. There are scenes of blood flying in our faces, an axe coming right at us, and a severed eye being dangled right in front of us.
Yes, 3-D does enhance those scenes but it does nothing for the film, which is nothing different from the first two. It offers the same assembly line of victims meeting their doom at the somewhat creative hands of our killer (hero?) Jason Voorhees. By now fans are beginning to root for the killer as the kills are amped up, ever topping the kills from the previous films. This was the first entry where the MPAA forced the filmmakers to make cuts to the gore sequences to avoid an X rating. While one can understand having fun with gore effects, cases are made for the Romero zombie films, John Carpenter’s gore classic The Thing and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series among others, it does become a bit alarming when the killer no longer scares us but is made to be so “cool” that we no longer care for the victims.
Yes, Freddy Krueger is another horror icon that we all laugh at and have fun with but he is a character created from our nightmares and most of the films in that series put that fact to effective use keeping Freddy, no matter how fun, a frightening entity. Jason Voorhees is given nothing in the way of solid backstory or motive. He is there, he kills, he is gone until next camping season. In Part 3 he shows up and does his job and, coupled with the 3-D gimmick, makes the film another box office smash.
Perhaps if they made another film it would be peppered with fresh ideas and sprinkled with originality as they surely could not continue feeding moviegoers the same Kool-Aid again and again.
Friday the 13th Part 4 was subtitled “The Final Chapter.” The ads carried the tag line, “This is the one you’ve been waiting for!” Finally there was going to be an end to the mayhem. Directed by Joseph Zito, who went on to do 3 Chuck Norris films and one starring Dolph Lundgren, this was a slasher film to be sure with 13 kills and the dubious record of having the most nudity of any film in the series. The budget was lower than the other films, for some reason, and many actors had to perform dangerous stunts themselves including being submerged in icy waters and having to be slammed into walls and through windows of fake glass. The actor who played Jason, Ted White, removed his name from the credits due to his disgust with the director and the film. Most of the actors in the film have spoken badly about their experiences on the set and have disavowed the film with some calling it “a piece of shit.”
I could not have said it better. The plot is nothing new but does include children in peril which has no place in slasher films. Tom Savini returned for this film and the effects are high end, particularly Jason’s “death” as his face slides down a machete. Savini said he only returned to the series so he could kill off the character of Jason. This was truly the end.
With a box office take of over 30 million dollars producers ordered up more Jason. By now he was seeping into pop culture and more films could not be denied. Friday the 13th 5: A New Beginning was our next festival of unoriginality. This one tried to do something new and have a character become inhabited by Jason and commit murders. It is completely ridiculous and just plain bad. At least they tried something new plot-wise but fans were not pleased and, without a real Jason, it became the lowest grossing entry yet.
It was followed by Part 6: Jason Lives!, Part 7: The New Blood, Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan, Part 9: Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (yeah right!), and the final example of the filmmaker’s lack of ideas, Jason X the one where our boy is on a space ship killing off the crew. Even with the new outer space setting, that film is just Jason sneaking around the ship killing astronauts while they have sex and behave in ways unbecoming of NASA recruits. Some of the films made money, some didn’t, but nothing held a candle to the first four films which made huge profits on small budgets. Fans were still going but, perhaps, were getting tired of the same old thing being stretched out over a decade.
The Friday the 13th films have endured for over thirty years yet I have not met a true fan of real horror films who likes them. None of the films, from parts one to ten, were good. Fans of gore that cared nothing for style and originality made them hits at the box office and producers kept grinding out more. Along the line, Jason became a pop culture phenomenon and is mentioned as part of the big three along with Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger.
There are major differences between these characters, and many of the other movie killers including Leatherface and Pinhead, and they stand as evidence as to why Jason is the most overrated of all slasher maniacs. What makes killers such as Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger so frightening and enduring is the fact that they are what nightmares are made of. Michael Myers stands as a ghostly figure in the darkness of the streets and houses of a small town, waiting patiently to begin his slaughter. He is, as we are told, pure evil. Michael is the boogeyman.
Freddy Krueger lives inside our nightmares and feeds on our fear. Our safest haven, our own beds as we sleep, is now made dangerous as Freddy lurks in our dreams.
Leatherface was a cannibalistic, cross-dressing, psycho with the mind of a child and a member of a family of crazies peppered with outstandingly written and performed characters. He was a true original.
Pinhead is a force that deals in our eternal suffering through painful violence on our way to Hell.
Jason is … a kid who drowned and came back not because of some great plot twist or original idea, but because the filmmakers saw money. They killed his mother in the first film and wanted to continue the success so Jason was “resurrected” for the rest of the series. There is no creepiness about him. Jason Voorhees is not scary. Think of the shots of Michael Myers standing in the shadows of the darkness. Think of the first shot of Leatherface as he slides open the door and hammers a victim to death like a calf in a slaughterhouse. Now think of the shots of Jason, bulky and bloated and wearing a hockey mask, standing in the woods or outside a window. There is nothing frightening about his presence at all. He does not scare us because the filmmakers haven’t given us anything to work with. Jason is there to feed our desire to see victims being killed on screen. We do not care about the victims in these films because they are not given personalities to care about. It became vogue to cheer for Jason to kill these talking pieces of cardboard.
In these films there is no mood set, no heroes to root for, and no credible stories to speak of.
As it stands, Jason films are slowing to a stop. Freddy vs. Jason was a box office hit in 2003 but there were, mercifully, no sequels and the remake of the original film made some money but not enough to warrant any more Jason movies. It looks as if the hockey mask will be hung up for now and, one can only hope, for good. As we look back on the series it does not endure in the same way as the Halloween or Freddy films do.
The Friday the 13th films are watched by generations of young people searching for their horror fix that rent it from Netflix or watch marathons on T.V. during the Halloween season but are they truly entertained? Do they go to bed at night and pull the covers up to their faces because they are terrified of Jason creeping in their room to kill them? Doubtful, as Jason does not frighten. He entertains. He entertains in the most simplistic and unoriginal way. With no surprises and void of original ideas Jason makes his fans smile but never cower in fear. He is not scary and never was. Let us remember the words of Tom Savini, “There is no Jason. There shouldn’t be a Jason.” Perchance to dream…