(Minor Spoilers Below)
Continuing my series reviewing the Friday the 13th films, today we take a look at one of the pivotal installments in the saga, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
Following the financial success of Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, it was pretty obvious that there would be another installment in the Friday the 13th franchise. Mindful of the extremely negative reaction to the previous attempt to make a Friday the 13th film without Jason, Paramount hired director Tom McLaughlin to bring Jason back to life. In the process, they also abandoned plans to have the protagonist of the previous two films — Tommy Jarvis — turn into a psychotic murderer.
(Which, if nothing else, ensured that this would be the last Friday the 13th to feature a cameo appearance from Corey Feldman.)
Jason Lives opens a few years after the end of New Beginning. The residents of Crystal Lake have finally wised up and changed the name of their unfortunate little town to Forrest Green. Corporate executives spend the weekend playing paintball in the woods while blissful lovers safely picnic a few feet away. Even the old summer camp has opened back up and, for the first time in a Friday the 13th film, has managed to stay open long enough for actual campers to show up. Gruff Sheriff Garris (David Kagan) keeps an eye on the town while his rebellious daughter Megan (Jennifer Cooke) works as a counselor at the camp.
Yes, everything’s perfect until, once again, Tommy Jarvis comes to town and get everyone killed.
Now played by Thom Matthews, Tommy has apparently changed a lot since the end of New Beginning. No longer is he simply willing to silently suffer from nightmares and hallucinations. Now, Tommy is a man of action and his first action is to go back to where it all began, find Jason’s grave, and dig him up. Why? “Jason belongs in Hell,” Tommy tells us, “and I’m gonna see that he gets there.” Okay, whatever you say, Tommy. You’re just lucky that you look like Thom Matthews.
Anyway, Tommy, dragging his reluctant friend Hawes (Ron Pallilo) with him, tracks down Jason’s grave and digs him up. Apparently not remembering his pre-credits nightmare from New Beginning, Tommy does this on a rainy night when there’s lightning striking all around. Once Tommy digs up the coffin, he starts to stab it with a metal post and, before you can even say, “I knew that was going to happen,” lightning strikes the post, electricity surges through the coffin, and suddenly, Jason (played here by C.J. Graham) comes back to life as an unstoppable zombie. He also proceeds to kill Hawes, which seems a bit unfair since this was all Tommy’s stupid idea to begin with.
(Tommy Jarvis, in this film, is a part of that proud horror film tradition of heroes who do everything wrong and get a lot of people killed but are somehow never held responsible for their stupidity. Again, it’s a good thing that he looks like Thom Matthews.)
Tommy goes to Sheriff Garris and explains what happened. Garris responds by promptly locking Tommy in a cell and refusing to listen as Tommy tries to explain that “Jason’s still out there!” For once, Tommy is correct. Jason is still out there and he’s heading straight for the summer camp…
There’s a scene early on in Jason Lives that pretty much sums up the entire film. Alcoholic cometary caretaker Martin (played by Bob Larkin) mutters to himself, “Why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” before looking directly at the camera and adding, “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment.” In short, this is the comedic, meta Friday the 13th, populated with characters who have seen the previous installments of the series and who fully understand that they’re in a slasher film but who still manage to get killed anyway. This is the movie where Lizbeth (played by the director’s wife, Nancy McLaughlin) says, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that a weirdo with a mask is never friendly” but then tries to reason with him anyway. This type of self-referencing is pretty common in slasher films today but this is the first time that it ever showed up in a Friday the 13th film and it stands in stark contrast to the rather dark films that came before. When I first saw Jason Lives, I thought it was a little bit too jokey (though I loved the line, delivering between two frightened campers: “So, what did you want to be when you grew up?”) but, on my second viewing, I better came to appreciate what McLaughlin was going for. As opposed to other installments, Jason Lives doesn’t even try to be a horror film. Instead, it’s a communal experience that is specifically designed for an audience that wants to play along with the film. Jason Lives is the fun Friday the 13th.
Oddly enough, it’s probably also the most Christian. Along with containing no nudity, it also features Jason deciding not to kill one girl because he hears her praying and, finally at the conclusion, Tommy being brought back to life through a combination of CPR and prayer. (As opposed to the jokey nature of most of the film, the prayer scenes are played relatively seriously.) This is probably as close as the Friday the 13th franchise ever got to being family friendly and it stands in marked contrast to just about every other film in the series.
Jason Lives is a bit of an oddity in the Friday the 13th series and it was also the first installment in the series to gross less than $20,000,000 at the box office. Despite the fact that this film is as much of a comedy as a horror film (and despite the fact that Jason appears here for the first time as a zombie), Jason Lives is also probably the last truly Jason-centered film in the series. Each subsequent film would match Jason with a gimmick in an attempt to revive the franchise’s declining box office prospects and, not surprisingly, those subsequent films would suffer from a marked decrease in quality.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the first of the gimmick films, Friday the 13th part VII: A New Blood.