There is no horror franchise that tops the Friday the 13th films. It reigns supreme in the slasher world, for sure, but even in the wider universe of horror sequels - a wide universe indeed - it is the tops. And the reason for that is simple, and the key to the series’ success is something you can apply to your everyday life: consistency.
If we were to put individual films against each other, no Friday the 13th movie would stand a chance. How could they when we’d be comparing them to films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street? But the greatness of these foundational films is also the weakness of their franchises: when a series begins on such a high note it is all but impossible for the future films to match it. How can you recapture the specific genius of Halloween? The answer is that you can’t, which is why John Carpenter tried to change the direction of the series with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. He saw the high water mark he had set and knew that he could not ever again reach it with The Shape. But the producers didn’t recognize that, and so they just kept churning out a bunch of terrible sequels.
But the first Friday the 13th isn’t a work of genius. It doesn’t have the revolutionary grunginess Tobe Hooper brought to Leatherface and family. The original Friday the 13th is a very solid movie, a very good entry in the burgeoning slasher genre, a sort of American take on the giallo concept. Unlike the other classic slasher series, the first Friday doesn’t even set up the iconography of the series. While the other series came out of the gate in a blaze of brilliance, Friday the 13th ambled onto the track like Jason Voorhees, moving at a reasonable pace and happy to let the other runners exhaust themselves.
The closest competitor in terms of consistency must be the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but even that series blows it in a fundamental way that Friday never did: it ruined its main character. Over the course of the series the Freddy Krueger character was slowly milked of menace, and the terrifying monster was replaced with a wise-cracking game show host. Freddy was reduced from a creature of nightmares with a horrifically scarred visage to a kid-friendly goofball. Jason Voorhees, once established as the main character in the Friday franchise, stayed the same stoic spirit of slaying - if anything he got quieter and creepier as the series went on and he became a zombie. With 9 Jason-oriented films in the franchise (Freddy vs Jason is left on the sidelines here) there is not a single one where Jason Voorhees acts the fool, or where he is egregiously silly or dumb. He can be surrounded by silliness on occasion, but Jason himself is always the relentless force of death slashing his way through that silliness, never its source.
The series is consistent, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of highs and lows. But to its credit, the lows of the Friday films are often high-concept failures as opposed to tedious retreads of what happened before. Yes, The New Blood sucks but you have to kind of admit that Jason Voorhees fighting Carrie is a neat idea. The same goes for Jason Takes Manhattan: dismal execution of what is, frankly, the best idea in slasher history (or at least second to going to space, which Leprechaun pioneered but Jason X perfected).
Many believe that Friday the 13th Part V: The New Beginning is a bad entry, but they’re very wrong. It’s actually an excellent, if awkwardly paced, film and it’s because it fits in the series’ high-concept tradition. The idea of someone committing copycat murders is great, and it’s only enriched by being a direct sequel to The Final Chapter, and having Jason-slayer Tommy Jarvis convinced that he has been taken over by the spirit of Voorhees. The Friday films have always had an interesting continuity (I love how The Final Chapter picks up in the aftermath of Part III, with the cops and paramedics descending on the carnage at the lake house), and that continuity - until it just goes to shit in the later films - is part of the series’ inestimable charm. You’re watching a weird, long saga unfurl. The only franchise to do continuity better is the Saw franchise, and that’s just an unwatchable shitshow of nu-metal movies.
At the center of that continuity is Jason Voorhees, the serial killer we have gotten to know best. He’s not even in the first film, and when he shows up Friday the 13th Part II he’s got a fucking bag on his head and a shrine to his dead mom in the woods. He’s kind of a backwoods halfwit in that film, albeit one who is able to get himself to the big city and kill the last survivor of the first film. Jason doesn’t really become the Jason we know until Part III, when he’s less of a sweaty goofball and more of an unstopping machine, a shark with a machete. And, by the end of that film, a hockey mask. With that last piece of iconography in place the producers proceeded to kill him off in The Final Chapter, using a kind of odd method - young Corey Feldman shaves his head so that he looks like baby Jason, which confuses - and saddens! - adult Jason, giving Corey the opening to just dice the guy’s head with a machete.
It’s a strange scene, one that is unique in the franchise (although Jason Takes Manhattan and Freddy vs Jason both tried to do something similar. Each fails spectacularly), and it’s kind of the moment when Jason is humanized. Some would argue that his shrine to his mom’s severed head in II is the humanizing moment, but I never identified with that. There’s something about the confusion in his malformed eyes as Tommy Jarvis comes down those steps that is almost heartbreaking - Jason gets defeated by himself, in a strange way.
Of course he comes back as a superzombie in Jason Lives, the best film in the franchise, but even though his humanity is gone Jason’s central coolness is escalated off the charts. He’s just the fucking best now, a literally unkillable thing. Where previous films had to stretch our disbelief to bring back the defeated slasher, Jason Lives established a scenario where his end would be basically impossible to bring about; the film closes with an undead Jason simply chained to a boulder at the bottom of Crystal Lake. Unfortunately none of the following sequels did anything good with zombie Jason, which is a pity.
Along the way the Friday the 13th films specialized in great kills. It helps that the first and fourth movies had the wicked genius of Tom Savini behind the FX. The artist didn’t just make the blood squirt from teens, he came up with the ways in which they would be murdered. The Friday films, as high-concept as they got, tended to prefer down-to-earth murder methods. Great usage of machetes (the kid split in half while upside down!), spears (two kids nailed together while fucking!), fists (Arnold Horschack’s heart ripped out!), yoga (the folded in half sheriff!) and sleeping bags set the series apart from other franchises that sought more elaborate methods of offing teens. Jason kept it simple, stupid.
That simplicity applies to Jason himself. While the continuity of the series is great, it isn’t mired in tedious backstory. By the time we discovered the Thorn Cult in the Halloween series it was clear that Michael Myers was done for. Jason Voorhees kills just to kill. That’s all he does. There’s no bigger meaning or force behind it all - he just walks around and kills people. In most of the films he’s happy to keep his killing in the immediate area surrounding his home, but he’s more than happy to rampage on cruise ships, Canadian back alleys pretending to be New York City and even spacecraft. Jason kills. That’s all he does - no further explanation needed.
Most of the slasher franchises have been rebooted at this point, and their success rate has been mostly the same: poor. I’ll go to bat for the Texas Chain Saw reboot from Platinum Dunes, but pretty much every other modern reboot has been awful. Once again, Friday the 13th’s consistency stands out - the Platinum Dunes reboot is a good entry in the series, one that is at worst perfectly suitable. Sure, I have a soft spot for the bizarre body-hopping antics of Jason Goes to Hell, but I also appreciated the 2009 reboot’s back to basics approach - here’s a guy who lives in the woods who just kills everybody he sees. I’ve never understood the fan backlash against the movie - it’s literally a Friday the 13th movie in its most classical form!
Tonight I’ll be watching the first eight Friday movies on 35mm at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles. This is my final argument: I can’t imagine another series where this would be a good idea. I can’t imagine any other horror franchise where sitting through eight films in a row would be anything less than an exercise in irritation (maybe Child’s Play - we can argue about that one). Hell, I can’t imagine another horror franchise where I would be upset that they’re stopping before showing them all! I want to watch Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X and the reboot as well (at the very least that marathon wouldn’t end on the note of Jason Takes Manhattan). Other series may have higher highs (although I’ll put Jason Lives up there as a great film, albeit not in the way that Halloween is), but they also have lower lows, and they have wider gaps between the two.
Pamela Voorhees. Jason. Roy the ambulance driver. Over the course of 11 films (remember, we just don’t count Freddy vs Jason) these killers have shown us that keeping your head down, sticking to your initial principles and maintaining a solid, B/B+ average is the key to success in not just serial killing but also, perhaps, life itself.