It’s hard to determine whether the Friday the 13th movies are more a true series than they are a cheeky advertising line—“The body count continues”—slapped on the first sequel to a stand-alone splattery mystery. The first film proved the apparently irresistible appeal of a completely frill-free parade of creative, bloody deaths. If nothing else, the series was refreshingly honest—it never claimed to be anything other than meat-on-the-hoof teens being sliced and diced in various ways. And it certainly made the rationalizations up as it went along. (The 1980 film was a lame whodunit, and the mystery of killer’s identity was the real reason for all those POV killings, no matter what outraged moralists liked to claim about putting the viewer in the position of the killer.) But it was also devoid of its soon-to-be-famous killing machine, Jason Voorhees, who only served as a plot device with a fantasy cameo at the end of the film. The second movie found Jason front and center—and wearing a flour sack on his head. It was only in the third movie that he became the now-iconic murderer with “a smile, a song, and a hockey mask.”
The fourth film—encouragingly subtitled The Final Chapter—found Jason suffering the ultimate indignity of being killed—I mean really killed—by Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, who grew up into John Shepherd in the next entry. This one was subtitled A New Beginning. Who would have imagined it? And it detailed the murderous antics of, yes, a Jason copycat. Well, that was a dead end—even with the implication that Tommy would take over—so this sixth entry went with a much more workable concept that had real legs. Tommy would return (now played by Thom Matthews, if anyone cared) and have him wander off from the Home for the Bewildered—in the company of Ron Palillo (yes, the infamous Arnold Horschack from Welcome Back, Kotter)—to prove to himself that Jason is indeed dead. How? Dig him up, of course. Wouldn’t anyone? Unfortunately, the iron stake Tommy plunges into Jason attracts a lightning strike (two, in fact) and the old boy is up and ready to don his hockey mask—a supernatural agency at last!
What follows is more or less the standard Friday the 13th picture, but with the gore mostly of the aftermath variety (lots of bloody splattering on things, but very little in the way of graphic slicing) and, more importantly, a strong sense of humor. If the opening’s over-the-top quality doesn’t tip off the viewer, the opening title—which mimics the opening of 007 firing at the camera in a James Bond movie, only with Jason and a machete—ought to give it away. Soon we get the film’s most famous moment—the cemetery caretaker (Whitney Rydbeck) taking a swipe at the series’ audience, remarking, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment,” as concerns Jason having been disinterred. The film keeps it up—“I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly”—and clearly takes place in a horror-movie-savvy world, but it’s careful to provide the goods and a reasonably coherent plot along the way.
Is it a great horror picture? Oh, no, though within the confines of an artistically dubious series, it’s like a work of minor genius. Yet it feels authentic enough—right down to its Harry Manfredini score that mostly consists of variations on “Dies Irae”—that it’s never an outright spoof. The Alice Cooper songs are a decided bonus, even if you have to sit through the ending credits to get the anthemic “He’s Back (the Man Behind the Mask),” in which Cooper even makes those “ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha” sounds (which always sounded to me a little bit like what Groucho deduced was the sound of a cockroach with asthma in Animal Crackers). It’s kind of impossible to consider yourself really horror-movie savvy without seeing one of this series—and this is easily the best of them all. And, yes, I’ve seen all ten of them. I’m not especially proud of that, but there it is.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI on Thursday, May 3, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.