With the original Friday the 13th (F13) celebrating its fortieth anniversary recently, I decided to revisit the film that launched the franchise, and then wound up rewatching the next seven sequels after that. This was an impromptu marathon, perfectly made for these lockdown times, but one I’m glad I embarked upon, even if I’m feeling slightly woozy after watching so many obnoxious teen characters slaughtered in increasingly ludicrous ways by Jason Voorhees (and his mom in the first, plus a crazed paramedic masquerading as Jason in the fifth – oof). Even though it’s never been my favorite horror franchise, there’s always been something about F13 – in all its poorly acted, wildly over the top glory – that is just undeniable. It has a certain, shall we say, charm.
In terms of popularity and lasting social impact, can we agree that the top five slasher franchises are, in no order, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM), Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street (NOES), Scream, and F13? Where exactly does the seemingly endless parade of “teen veal” (as Joe Bob Briggs once infamously called the victims in these films) killings at and around Camp Crystal Lake rank? For me, it’s probably last among the group, but that’s only because the other four have made some truly important contributions to horror and mainstream culture – the first films in the other four franchises are nearly perfect. The first TCM is one of the best and most important films of all time. In my mind, the best of those franchises are better than the best of the F13 series. Still, there are reasons why F13 remains as popular as those slasher series. Not only will you find plenty of masks for Michael Myers, Freddy Kruegger, Ghostface, and Leatherface in your local Spirit of Halloween store every October, but right beside them will sit an array of hockey masks and other Crystal Lake merch.
One major thing F13 has going for it is that it likely boasts the largest number of final girls of any major slasher franchise. While they may lack the big names of repeat survivors like Laurie (Halloween) or Nancy (Elm Street) or Sidney (Scream), the F13 films still have some of the best of the genre, including Ginny (Part II), Chris (Part III) and Trish (Part IV). One of the favorite topics among fans is to dissect and rank these final survivors. We’ve all done it. Heck, I’ve been doing it again during this rewatch, and if you’re interested, Chris and Trish are my favorites because they each face some truly savage attacks from Jason, yet fight like hell for their lives – and in Trish’s case, her brother Tommy’s life, too. Some of the final girls are far less memorable though, like Rennie in Part VIII. In that film, we were robbed of the chance to see one-scene-wonder J.J. Jarrett survive. She’s the hot, self-aware, heavy metal final girl we deserved. Instead, she was killed off after roughly five minutes of screen time.
That’s one of the knocks against the franchise – not enough memorable characters, or talented actors to portray them, and when they do strike gold, like with Saffron Henderson’s brief but memorable performance as J.J., the filmmakers completely squander their good fortune. I don’t care what the script said. When they cast the charismatic Henderson, and after hair, makeup, and wardrobe worked their magic on J.J.’s metal chick ensemble (complete with kickass pink Flying V guitar), everyone involved should’ve said to hell with the script, we’re giving this girl more scenes and letting her fight til the end. Instead, she appears and then disappears so quickly that I’ve spent the last thirty years wondering if I dreamed her up. Then, each time I revisit the mostly forgettable Part VIII I remember, yup, she’s real. The filmmakers just screwed the pooch.
Then there’s the matter of Jason’s transformation from (mostly) human mass murderer to fully supernatural zombie, capable of increasingly ludicrous feats of absurdity. You can make the case he began life in the series in a supernatural manner, living under Crystal Lake for two decades, but at some point in the series (don’t ask me when, it’s all blending together), we learn he was actually living in the woods all that time. Silly, sure, but not explicitly unrealistic. Once he’s being zapped back to life by lightning or underwater cables’ electrical charges, we’ve landed squarely in crazy town. The first four films are my favorites, and the best of the series. Part of what makes them work so well is their adherence to the earliest and purest slasher movie themes. They create a real sense of dread in those films. Not that there’s anything wrong with them deviating from there. It’s just that the execution of the material in the later films wasn’t as sharp as in the first four.
Still, something about it endures. Like most slashers of its era, F13 was trashed by critics, with Siskel & Ebert being especially harsh, going so far as to basically call original director Sean Cunningham a demented pervert. Of course, all of this disgust and moral outrage only made young kids in the ’80s want to see these films even more. That’s when I got into slashers, during the early ’80s when I was too young to be watching them but was, all thanks to a cool babysitter. I was hooked. And many of the earliest slashers I saw were F13 films. Kids at school argued about whether or not Jason was a zombie, or whether Tommy Jarvis was going to supplant him as the hockey-masked killer. This series and all the other big slashers were part of the daily conversation for many young people back then. Arguing about final girls or who’s deadlier, Jason or Michael, are just ingrained in our DNA from those years.
That’s why F13 continues to appeal to us as adults. Whenever a Friday the 13th shows up on the calendar, we know what films we need to watch that night. It’s become a tradition. Even though I may love plenty of other slashers more, F13 is always sure to provide a fast-paced, entertaining 90 minutes of manufactured mayhem. And for lovers of horror in general and slashers in particular, sometimes that’s all you need. Especially during these extremely disorienting times.
Other times though, you also need to ask the filmmakers what the hell they were thinking killing off J.J. so early. For real.