As a fan of slasher movies, I know they don’t have the best rep. Shallow plots, lame characters, laughable acting (literally in some cases, intentionally or not) — that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s not to like in a slasher movie, depending on your morals, anyway. But the genre has its fans for many reasons, whether the monster designs, the mythology and characters, or how convincingly the effects work can portray horrifying deaths. Or, let’s be real, just boobs and gore do it for some.
Anyway, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) was the first to codify this horror-subgenre, but Friday the 13th with its iconic villain Jason Voorhees is the archetype that more often comes to mind. Each film in the series, while by no means great works of art, have their charms and their downsides as pieces of horror fiction. What follows is the list of what are
IN MY VAGUELY HUMBLE OPINION
the films of the Friday the 13th franchise, from best to worst.
If you were expecting the first movie in the series to be here, well, you were wrong. “Aged like a fine wine” would be kind of haughty and pretentious to say, but well, I already did. The Final Chapter is Friday the 13th at its best, and in its purest form, before it would resort to gimmickry in order to keep the series on life-support.
This film is where the series would get its first major recurring character that wasn’t Jason himself: Tommy Jarvis. Played by a pre-Goonies Corey Feldman, he would be the first, and despite the title’s protestations, not the last to take down Jason for good. Hell, he did it twice, actually. Part 4 is also the first of an internal trilogy of sorts for the series, with parts 5 and 6 that I like to refer to as the Tommy Jarvis Saga. Tom Savini is back for some of the most impressive gore effects the series has to offer, lovingly crafted and staged for the film’s inexplicably likeable cast of characters.
Part 4’s hapless group of cannon fodder is drafted to be not much different from any of the other previous casts. However, their portrayals, while somewhat amateurish on occasion, are earnest, and thus I found them entertaining. Of note is a pre-Back to the Future Crispin Glover, with one of the most spastic dances ever put on film being a particular highlight. All said, if someone wanted to watch a dictionary definition-quality slasher film or the best example of a Friday the 13th movie, you could do worse, as you’ll soon see.
Casual knowledge of the Friday the 13th franchise will tell you that The Final Chapter was not, in fact, final. Part V: A New Beginning had its bold new direction end up stillborn when audiences walked out of it knowing that the “real” Jason would no longer be involved. Backlash made it to Paramount, and Jason’s return was basically guaranteed. A more unimaginative director would have just continued with the template made by the previous entries. Instead, Tom McLoughlin noticed that the series had grown stale, based on its “new” direction that continued the same old systematic slaughter with an undesired killer behind the mask.
Left with a choice of where to take the series, he decided to go back to its roots, while also aspiring for a more tongue-in-cheek tone amidst the horror. Knowing his audience better than some, the movie was deliberately crafted to gently mock the conventions of the genre while still indulging in the base thrills others had come to expect. Well, except for the nudity, this is the start of where the MPAA would start doing some chopping of its own.
Tommy Jarvis is back for his final appearance in the series, and it’s the clear winner when compared to the character’s portrayal in Part V, both in likability and ability. The rest of the crew are a group of camp counselors who’ve come to help with re-opening Camp Crystal La– er, Forest Green, as it’s known in this entry. A small group compared to the body counts of other entries, all but Tommy’s maybe-love interest are picked off one by one as is expected. What makes this one worth watching is that the movie lets us know that the series is officially kind of a joke, and gleefully lets us in on it.
A divisive, and even controversial entry in the series, Freddy Vs. Jason made good on the promise unintentionally made in Jason Goes to Hell to have two of the horror genre’s biggest hitters go toe-to-toe. More than 10 years and a fistful of scripts would have to be done before a suitable direction for the idea could be accepted. Your mileage may vary as to how suitable that direction was, but overall, when it came to balancing two mythologies with disparate tones and villains, the movie gets the job done adequately, if not excellently.
The cannon fodder is, while bland, likable enough, but we all know the main attraction is right there in the title. Freddy Vs. Jason delivers on it. There are two rounds, one for each of them with the “home field advantage.” The winner is as clear as you want it to be, depending on what you feel constitutes a win. This film isn’t very popular because it doesn’t give a clear answer, but the answer is obvious: The winners were the fans, for getting this movie in any form to begin with.
Ah, space: the sure sign that you’ve run out of ideas if you didn’t start there in the first place. Well, not always. Some take space as an opportunity to go in directions the series couldn’t have taken with the themes or characters, changing the tone along with the setting. Jason X treads ground that Jason has already been on– the realm of parody.
While just as affectionate as Jason Lives, Jason X takes the unique chance offered by being in space (and the future!) to do some creative things with how the cannon fodder are eliminated, as well as amp up the threat that Jason already poses as an unstoppable, undead killing machine. At one point, the film even uses a holographic recreation of the classic Camp Crystal Lake setting to put the last nail in the clichés of a series that had been predictable since its second entry.
All this aside, while biting from James Cameron’s Aliens a little too hard, Jason X manages to be a fine entry in the series, if you don’t mind the series itself being the butt of the jokes once again.
Part VII would be the last gasp of the series being allowed to do anything even remotely extreme with its violence while Paramount owned the rights. The New Blood is notorious for the cuts made by the MPAA to receive an R” rating, making it one of the most toothless entries in the series. How could it even end up as 5th on the list out of 12, you might be wondering? It’s because someone finally manages to kick Jason’s ass, and that someone is Tina Shephard.
Originally conceived as Freddy Vs. Jason before Freddy Vs. Jason plans fell through when neither Paramount or New Line Cinema could come to an agreement about how to do the movie. Still feeling the supernatural battle idea, Part VII found itself pitting Jason against the telekinetic Tina, causing the series to be dubbed Carrie Vs. Jason by some behind the scenes.
With the violence toned down drastically from previous levels, John Carl Buechler makes up for it with a showdown between psychic David and undead Goliath. Combined with some of the best costuming and make-up work for fan-favorite Kane Hodder as Jason himself, the film manages to just barely make up for its majority of lame characters.
The original film is a horror classic, and for good reason. As stated in the intro, this movie codified a lot of the tropes we’d come to expect from slashers for the rest of that decade and beyond. Friday the 13th attempts to be structured like a murder mystery, starting strong with its chilling opening with the casual murder of two camp counselors from the first person perspective.
Along the way, its cast of characters is mowed down by the killer, unseen and unknowable until the reveal. This would not have been so bad if there had been any clues as to the identity of the murderer, but mystery isn’t what audiences were there for anyway if future trends were any indication. Only the immediate sequel and the next entry on this list would try the mystery aspect again before finally abdicating the series to Jason’s antics.
As a mystery, the movie kind of fails, but as a slasher it’s easy to see how the genre solidified with this entry. The film is mostly supported by Betsy Palmer’s performance, and Adrienne King’s likeable Alice character. Oh, and you can watch Kevin Bacon pretend to die along with a bunch of cannon fodder if you have a problem with him, I guess.
“How the **** is this not at the bottom of the list?”
Well, because I feel like there are lesser entries in the series. The biggest problem with Part V isn’t that the star of the franchise is missing. While missed, the killer in this film (IT’S ROY!) is essentially Jason in all but name during the majority of his screen time. No, one of two problems with this film is its mystery, which is as badly done as it was in Part 1, but for the opposite reason. The film’s killer (IT’S ROY!) is so blatantly foreshadowed that it’s not hard to guess who it is.
The other problem is the ending itself. Having killed off Jason in The Final Chapter (LOL), Paramount needed a new killer to take the reigns. A copycat killer isn’t the worst idea in the world, and would have been interesting to see if the real Jason was also wandering around Crystal Lake. Where the franchise goes off the rails is when they decided to make Tommy Jarvis the successor to Jason.
The film’s ending tries to imply that Jason’s spirit or something has possessed Tommy, assuming he didn’t finally go completely insane after his time in the mental institution he was sent to after Part IV. The idea of someone else as the franchise lead is not something you can get away with unless it’s established immediately after the last unique entry, if this and the Halloween franchise are anything to go by.
Other than that? Pretty standard fare for the series, having a couple of the more memorable death sequences and characters. Violet’s mid-1980s punk-goth-whatever-the-hell-it-is-she’s-doing and oddly endearing surliness make her missed when it’s her turn on the chopping block. Also, totally-not-Rhea Perlman and Randy Quaid play a hick mother and son that are delightfully over the top, and Miguel A. Nunez Jr. as Demon also entertains. The other cannon fodder are played by what I call “Dollar Store Celebrities,” people who almost-kinda look like someone more famous, which adds to the film’s charm.
Well, this is where things start to really go downhill. The 3D movie craze reared its ugly head once again in the early 1980s, and since Friday the 13th was one of the more profitable franchises at the time, it was given the stereoscopic treatment as well. How well it was utilized is another story, unfortunately. Every single 3D effect involves something flying at the screen, which is entertaining when done well, but the effect barely registers most of the time. It’s especially egregious when kids playing baseball looks more three dimensional than any of the kills.
The cast is either generic or completely unlikable, with the exception of Shelly, who kicked off the tradition of prankster douchebags getting snuffed. The only things that makes Shelly endearing is that he’s played somewhat sympathetically by Larry Zerner and he provided Jason’s iconic hockey mask. Other than that, the first 20 minutes are so rote and by-the-numbers that you could add a laugh track to the scenes and they’d be little better than a formulaic sitcom. In fact, someone did. This movie is best used as an example of how the aesthetics of the previous decade bleed into the next one for the first few years.
With the killer from the last film dead, a replacement was needed, and that replacement was Jason. Jason being alive in spite of having been established as drowning in the first film is a fan-wank issue to this day, but his general m.o started here, though not his appearance. Part 2’s trailer even revels in how derivative it is from the first one, going so far as to continue the count of victims from the trailer for the first film in its trailer. The only real reason to watch it is to see Jason’s debut.
Jason Take Manhattan is a travesty, and not merely because the movie is bad, but because it had a chance to be good. The subtitle, which implies that Jason would be taking his reign of terror to the Big Apple, is stalled until the last act of the film, and even then it’s an incoherent mess. Most of the action takes place on the cruise ship Lazarus (GET IT?!) as a bunch of derivative teens take a class trip from the inexplicably no-longer landlocked Crystal Lake to New York. Heroine Rennie and the rest of the cannon fodder are the blandest yet, but act as a time-capsule for the late 1980s if you’re inclined to that kind of thing.
Ah, yes, Jason Goes to Hell, the movie that gets less crap than Part V because “at least Jason is in it.” Well, so what? Even that movie had a guy who was basically Jason doing Jason-y things. This? This has some “Hellbaby” parasite jumping from body to body in a horror story that feels like a rewritten Nightmare on Elm Street script. It’s all there too, the need for a blood relative’s body, the “Voorhees House”, which hasn’t been seen before or since, and so on. Besides some general weirdness, like the scene where a guy possessed by Jason shaves another guy’s mustache off (yes, really), there’s not much reason to watch this besides bile fascination and the opening where Jason is caught by the FBI.
Every stereotype of horror film reboots is present in this new version of Friday the 13th. Platinum Dunes, the production company behind the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, headed this effort, and early buzz made it sound like they were going to hit the mark. In retrospect, they almost warned us– they planned to take the best parts of the first four movies and merge them into a single film. What they actually did was indulge in recycling the worst aspects of slasher films in general while trying to make Jason semi-sympathetic through his obsession with one of his victims. There is no creativity to be had here worth watching, no care for the material, just a soulless, cynical cash-grab. At least the previous 11 tried to be films.
Editor’s Note: also check out the previous installments in this year’s Halloween coverage at PJ Lifestyle: