For most of the big horror franchises, the original tends to be the favorite among its fans - I've seen enough rankings to know that with rare exceptions, your favorite Michael Myers movie is Halloween (1978), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is the ultimate Freddy experience, and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre offered the best 90 minutes' worth of Leatherface and his family killing and eating people. But when it comes to Friday the 13th, the rule doesn't really apply, especially to anyone who wasn't there from the beginning - the series became synonymous with Jason Voorhees and he isn't really in it, so it has a feeling of "less than", in retrospect. Plus, Sean Cunningham is clearly a better producer than director; more than one person has noted that the first sequel (directed by Steve Miner) was essentially a remake with better direction, and even some of the series' detractors admit that things improved, albeit slightly, after the growing pains of the original.
Instead, it tends to be one of those follow-ups that claims the top spot on many fans' rankings, and more often than not, their choice is 1984's Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter. After the franchise took its first break (1983 and 1987 are the only years in the '80s *without* a new Friday), director Joe Zito (coming off the offbeat "Class of 81" slasher The Prowler) and screenwriter Barney Cohen perfected the formula that had been tinkered with in the previous three entries, and to this day it remains the gold standard for the series. Whenever someone says that they've never seen a single Jason movie (uncultured swine!) and are thinking about finally doing so, if I get the feeling that they won't really be into it I tell them to just start with Final Chapter - because if they don't like this one I can't really see how any of the others would win them over.
And I'm glad that I've seen so many fan rankings that seem to agree, because I'd hate to think it was nostalgia clouding my judgment. You see, Final Chapter isn't just my favorite, it was also my introduction to the world of Crystal Lake, kicking off what has now been a 30+ year minor obsession with the franchise. I was a mere lad of 8 when my mother rented it for me, sometime in the spring or summer of 1988 (best guess since the store didn't have New Blood yet, though I was dimly aware of its existence), and I liked it enough for her to rent the others shortly thereafter. Why she'd rent part 4 of an R rated series I was not familiar with, I do not know, but she did the same thing for Halloween the following year so clearly she was on to something and I am forever grateful to her for it (the food/clothing/shelter was also quite nice. Thanks, Mom!).
Luckily, the filmmakers of Final (hah!) Chapter had us newcomers covered. While the previous films opened with lengthy flashbacks (Part 2 at least presented the first film's footage in flashes as Alice's nightmare about her ordeal; 3D just straight up repeats Part 2's entire ten minute climax for no discernible reason), this one did it a little differently, by using the scene in Part 2 where Paul tells the story about Jason and intercutting it with kill scenes and other bits of exposition from it and the two other films. It's a little awkward, because it looks like Paul is telling them about things that happened a long time ago, when in reality most of the accompanying footage is of things that hadn't happened yet (you see someone listening to the story after the footage of their own death), but it's far more effective than a lengthy re-run, especially if you're marathoning the series. Ultimately it serves its purpose: bringing you up to speed so you can follow the plot of this slasher film, which picks up directly where 3D left off to show how Jason's "corpse" was brought to the morgue. Seemingly dead on a slab, a pair of horny hospital employees apparently gives him the motivation to keep on living, so he gets back up, kills them, and makes his way back home to yet another spot on Crystal Lake.
Our protagonists this time are a group of six college-age kids (plus a pair of twins they pick up along the way) who are renting a house next door to the Jarvis family, a trio that lives near Crystal Lake and somehow knows nothing about the massacres that have occurred around it. The dad is MIA, but Mrs. Jarvis is mother to a typical Friday Final Girl and a younger son played by Corey Feldman (plus Gordon the dog), giving the series a dynamic that had been absent from the others - since when do these people have parents? Also, even though the timing is a bit awkward*, a guy named Rob shows up, determined to hunt the killer down to get revenge for his sister. With everyone established, Jason starts doing his thing, racking up his highest body count yet with some new implements (a corkscrew, surgical saw, garden rake) as well as the timeless classics like knives and spears. Stuntman Ted White, blessed with the now-trademark hockey mask for the entire runtime, delivers a gold standard for portrayals of Mr. Voorhees, in the character's last outing as a scary human killer until the 2009 remake.
And he does so with Tom Savini FX! After sitting out the other sequels, Tom returned to provide the makeup and blood for the film's kills as well as Jason himself, as he is once again unmasked during the climax, prior to his glorious death (for real! He was a zombie after this!) with his own machete. The MPAA had their way with a few of these moments, of course, but Zito wisely opted to play up the suspense for a few of the kill scenes, rather than always going for a "money shot" to let Savini cut loose on, so the audience wouldn't get numb to the splatter by the time the movie ended. You can't really use the word "classy" for a slasher movie (especially one that's practically a textbook example for the sub-genre), but certain scenes, like Terri's silhouetted death by impalement, play out in a creepier and far less exploitative manner than they could have - later entries would have stayed on her instead of panning to her shadow, and then the MPAA would mangle the scene anyway, satisfying no one. Now we get a pretty effective death scene and then Zito had some leeway to let a little more blood fly in the next on-screen kill (Jimmy's corkscrew/cleaver combo, as it turns out).
Another thing elevating this one above the others is the group of kids, far and away the most personable lot we ever got in the series. It's kind of crazy that there are actual twins in this movie who I have an easier time telling apart than some of the goons in New Blood, an entry that was clearly modeling itself after this one (as it again featured partying teens renting a house next door to where the Final Girl lived with her soon-to-be-dead mom). Jimmy (Crispin Glover) fretting about his stalled love life with Teddy (Lawrence Monoson), Sara (Barbara Howard) trying to overcome her shyness to make a move on Doug (Peter Barton), and - most significantly - Paul (Alan Hayes) dismissing the advances of Tina (Camilla More) to stay loyal to his girlfriend Sam (Judie Aronson) shows not only that the filmmakers weren't just racing to get to the next kill, but also that they wanted to give a little more weight to the sexually charged moments (as a bonus, the most typically horny guy, Ted, doesn't hook up with anyone). They're just more relatable and human than slasher victims are often presented; not so much that we're devastated when they die, but you certainly won't get that "I root for Jason" feeling you'd get from the majority of the films that followed. Plus, young Tommy Jarvis made it an ideal entry point for a youngster like myself; I was a long way off from being able to relate to the older teens' relationship woes, but a video game-loving kid with glasses? That was me! And he got to kill the bad guy!
Of course at the time I didn't realize it'd be all downhill from there, as I inadvertently started with the best of the lot. I often wonder how I'd feel had I seen the series in order; would the film's highs register as much if I had already been down that same road three times before? I'd certainly like to think so, especially since the order didn't seem to affect my opinions on the others - Part 2 was I think the last of the first eight entries that I saw, and it quickly became a favorite**, and Jason Goes To Hell being the first one I got to see in theaters (at age 13) certainly didn't improve its quality in my eyes then or now. Don't get me wrong: I have an affinity for the entire series - I've even hosted TWO screenings of the one I like the least - but Final Chapter just nails everything, delivering exactly what I want when I sit down for one of these movies, with zero reservations.
So that's why I am incredibly excited to be hosting a 35mm screening of Final Chapter in Los Angeles this weekend, to celebrate its 35th anniversary (which was technically in April, yes) and give Friday fans the big screen fun the series' owners seem to be hellbent on denying us from having any more. Joe Zito and cast members Judie Aronson, Camilla More, and Carey More will be on hand for a Q&A, and the band Ice Nine Kills will be performing an acoustic version of their tribute song "Thank God It's Friday" as pre-show entertainment, so if you're planning on going - get there early (tix HERE)! I normally don't write a Crypt on anything I'm hosting, but since I've been pushing this one more than usual on my social media channels I figured I'd use my weekly slot to explain why I'm so excited (and get some of that love off my chest so I'm not rambling as much during my intro when people just want to watch the movie). We may know them by heart from DVD viewings, but seeing even the lesser of these movies with a crowd makes them a lot of fun - I can't wait to help people have that shared experience with the best of them.
* Rob is avenging Sandra, the girl who got speared with her boyfriend in Part 2. His demeanor (and the yellowed newspaper clippings he carries) suggests he's been at this for years, but in the series' timeline, her body was found only four days ago - I suspect that when the writers decided to pick up directly from 3D, they forgot that 3D was doing the same thing with Part 2. Luckily, as the series goes on this would be the least of its timeline issues.
** 4, 6/2, 5, 1, 3, remake, 8, X, Vs, JGTH, 7. Most can move up/down a spot depending on my mood, however.