In an alternate universe, Tommy Jarvis took up the mantle of Jason Voorhees and donned the hockey mask (with blue triangles) for his own series of slashers, and an eventual Tommy vs. Jason cash-in broke box office records for the franchise. Instead, the immediate course correction following Friday the 13th Part V sealed its fate as a polarizing one-off oddity. Where did things go wrong for the red-headed stepchild of the series? Why is it despised by so many, and why is its immediate successor, Jason Lives, a fan favorite? I’d like to do my part to right the wrongs of the past and help F13 Part 5 take its rightful place as the crown jewel of the franchise and, while I’m at it, kick Part 6 down to the bottom of the heap where it belongs. Why do I think A New Beginning is the best Friday the 13th and Jason Lives is the worst? Here are five reasons:
1. Part 5 Ramps Up the Sleaze While 6 Dispenses With It Entirely
Part 5 director Danny Steinmann was fresh off of one of the great American exploitation films of the 80s, Savage Streets, when he was hired to do a Friday the 13th sequel. Savage Streets takes a kitchen sink approach to its lurid subject matter, incorporating elements from all types of trash cinema subgenres, such as rape revenge, juvenile delinquency, Porky’s-style sex comedy, even women-in-prison (with a classic locker room brawl). With its dogged mean-spiritedness and bleak, violent outlook on troubled youth, it’s a perfect companion piece to another scuzzy classic of its era, Class of 1984.
Steinmann was pulled from the depths of this ugly, sleazy milieu by the producers of Friday the 13th, and it was no accident that he got the job. The F13 franchise was notorious for getting savaged by critics pretty much across the board. Old squares like Gene Siskel took the films to task for essentially serving as simpleminded excuses to display sex and violence, and he pointed to them as amoral signposts of a deteriorating society. At the same time, F13 movies were produced quickly and cheaply by major studio standards, and they often outperformed more prestigious and expensive projects at the box office. It’s my belief that someone involved said, “Fuck the critics, we’re just gonna lean in to the mindless violence and nudity as hard as we can, that’s what’s gotten us this far so let’s completely own it.” Hence the decision to hire a guy from the world of pornography and exploitation. A specialist of sleaze, if you will. And he delivered.
Part 5 certainly has the most nudity of any film in the franchise, and, in true softcore fashion, the camera lingers on the goods. One chick with big ol’ cans was hired directly from the pages of Playboy, and much use is made of her assets. Part 6, on the other hand, was the first (and remains the only) film in the franchise that contains no nudity whatsoever. There’s a fully clothed sex scene that’s played for laughs, but it’s otherwise fairly chaste. On top of that, it contains the series’ only references to God, and at one point a child prays to make Jason go away. And speaking of, Jason Lives is the only one where the children actually show up to Crystal Lake before the counselors start getting slaughtered. They lend the film a veneer of innocence more at home in a Spielberg production than an R-rated slasher. Of course there’s a tacit understanding that Jason won’t actually harm any of them, and they escape the movie totally unscathed. There’s something pious about the whole enterprise that clashes with the spirit of 80s slashers.
2. Part 5 Actually Has Interesting and Entertaining Characters
Tommy Jarvis had a potentially great character arc. In The Final Chapter he’s a nerdy kid tinkering around with makeup effects and masks who survives a harrowing ordeal and loses it on Jason at the end. In A New Beginning he moves into a halfway house for troubled teens after having been institutionalized for a number of years. He’s a withdrawn, taciturn enigma who has hallucinations that Jason is still stalking him. For the purposes of the murder mystery plot of Part 5, he’s a perfect red herring: never talking, always acting suspicious, going nuts and hitting someone with a John Cena Attitude Adjustment through a table at the slightest provocation. But he also serves a greater purpose for the franchise as a whole: A way forward. The actual copycat killer finally pushes Tommy completely over the edge of sanity, and in the closing moments he’s shown putting on the hockey mask and preparing to kill Pam, the final girl. His fractured, maladjusted mindstate could have helped make for some interesting sequels, but it was not to be. Tommy is also the central character of Jason Lives, but he’s become just another normal, boring hero. His only quirk is that he’s driven to putting his past behind him by digging up Jason, but it’s honestly just a weak excuse to set the plot in motion.
Besides Tommy, Part 5 contains some of the most colorful secondary characters of the entire franchise. There’s foul-mouthed white trash Ethel and her dimwitted son Junior; fun-loving and resourceful kid Reggie the Reckless; antisocial new waver Violet; wayward youth Demon; cokehead lovebirds Billy and Lana, the list goes on. Pam may not be the best final girl but she shows some fire and gets in a pretty sweet chainsaw attack.
3. Part 5 is a Grimy, Low Budget Slasher, and Part 6 is Something You Could Show to a Normal Person
To put a finer point on it, Part 6 is a movie you could show to a young MCU obsessive, and they’d totally get it. To me Part 5 is for actual horror weirdos and doesn’t quite fit in with mainstream tastes. Jason Lives has a somewhat higher budget and goes for a more general audience approach, toning down the sleaze, incorporating car chases and crashes, putting children in it, shoehorning in a love story angle between the leads, etc. Normie shit. I’m not even saying that stuff is bad, but I guess my tastes lie more with real exploitation. I’m gonna watch Foxy Brown before I watch Die Hard, you know?
4. Part 6 Takes the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel: Meta Humor
In retrospect, Part 5 was one of the last of a dying breed: a true, earnest slasher of the kind kicked off by Halloween. The golden era of slashers was drawing to a close by the mid-80s, and for better or worse Jason Lives took a headlong plunge into the future. Part of the strategy to distance Part 6 from its predecessors was to play it all as a gag and let the audience know that its creators know that this is some dumb bullshit. So we have the gravedigger looking at the camera and telling the audience that they have a funny idea of entertainment, Jason doing a James Bond impression, and characters talking about what to do in a slasher movie ten years before Scream made it seem like a fresh idea. Ahead of its time maybe, but also lame. Everyone’s supposed to be better than the material, above the shit rather than down in the shit. It’s winking at you saying, “This sucks! Get it?!” So of course it was the best reviewed entry in the series, since the critics knew the filmmakers were looking down on it with them.
5. Part 5 is the Only True Whodunnit of the Franchise
Yeah I know, I know, Part 1 is a whodunnit, but the truth is Pamela Voorhees doesn’t show up in the film at all until a couple minutes before she’s revealed as the killer, nor is she even mentioned before that. It would take some Sherlock Holmes-level deductive reasoning to figure out it must be Jason’s heretofore unmentioned mom catching all those bodies.
With Jason supposedly dead (although he’s always a suspect), Part 5 plays out like a classic murder mystery, serving up several red herrings and actually showing the person who ends up being the killer a few times before the postmortem reveal. Mileage may vary on paramedic Roy Burns being the copycat culprit, but I think he works as both a plausible swerve and a catalyst for Tommy finally losing his mind.
Part 6, on the other hand, erases the whiteboard completely and falls back on the old standby, this time resurrecting Jason (with a fucking lightning bolt) in his final form as a lumbering, indestructible zombie. And you know what? The Jason of Jason Lives is the one everyone thinks of when they think of Jason. If you ask a random person on the street who Jason Voorhees is, they won’t say he’s a disfigured kid who drowned in a lake, a burlap sack wearing farmer who runs, or even a vaguely human stalker in a hockey mask. He’s a slow moving undead killer in a hockey mask with a machete. He’s no longer a character, he’s a symbol. Part 6 solidified him as the pop culture icon he is today. Maybe that’s the most frustrating thing to me about Jason Lives: In the end it gave people what they wanted to see, and by comparison it makes A New Beginning seem like it’s thinking too much, or trying too hard. Fans just want Jason, I guess.