ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 25 – THE MANY LIVES OF JASON VOORHEES
NOTE: The following is a companion piece to the previously-published article “A Love Letter to Pamela Voorhees,” which you can read right here.
Did Jason Voorhees drown as a child and then resurrect as an adult-sized zombie? And if so, does that mean his appearance at the end of FRIDAY THE 13TH was only a dream? Or was the “boat jump” actually something that really happened, and signaled Jason resurrecting at the age of his drowning – at which point he continued aging? Or was he only believed to have died, and in reality lived a hermit-like existence on the shore until his physical death at the end of THE FINAL CHAPTER? But if that’s the case, why didn’t he simply go home? And if he was already dead, why is that he only took on the generic “rotting zombie” qualities following his reanimation-by-lightning in JASON LIVES? Or did he have a bizarre healing factor that made him impervious to death as shown in JASON X, which allowed him to reanimate and become “human” prior to his journey aboard the Grendel — meaning he didn’t just come back from the dead, but literally came back to life (after maybe/sorta dying as a kid, then dying as an adult, and then resurrecting as a zombie)? But then how did he drown in the first place? And for that matter, was he a bald, deformed child as suggested in the first film — or a normal-looking kid with a full head of hair as shown in JASON TAKES MANHATTAN? Or did hair only grow on half his head (PART 2)? And if that’s the case, was Mrs. Voorhees shaving her son’s head because it was better than her already odd-looking son sporting a comb-over at age ten…? And how did he go from long hair at the end of PART 2 to completely bald at the beginning of PART 3 – but back to bald in the latter film’s flashbacks to events occurring prior to PART 2? Was rapid hair growth part of the “super soldier” serum that David Cronenberg wanted to derive from him in JASON X…?
If none of this makes any sense, it’s because it’s not supposed to. The FRIDAY THE 13TH mythology was famously made up as the series went along, without any real concern for whether or not each new entry married with the one that preceded it. Rather than creating a frustrating situation of continuity (as with HALLOWEEN), this piecemeal construction actually enhances the experience of Jason’s exploits, as the viewer is forced to make sense of an ongoing, fairly linear story in which the threads are ongoing, albeit with sudden, dramatic color changes.
So let’s try to break down what we’re told in each film, shall we?
- FRIDAY THE 13TH. A young, deformed (and possibly developmentally-disabled) Jason Voorhees drowned in Crystal Lake, and is later avenged by his schizophrenic mother, Pamela. Survivor Girl Alice beheads Mama Voorhees, takes a midnight canoe trip, and is attacked by rotting, pre-teen Jason. But that last part was just a dream! Or…was it?
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. Jason – now grown to adult size – kills Alice in her home two months after the events of the previous film. We are told that he did not drown, but survived, and lives on the shores of Crystal Lake like some sort of deranged, long-haired hermit. So the end of FRIDAY THE 13TH was just a dream, after all.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3. Moments after taking a machete to the clavicle, Jason is back on his feet, seemingly none the worse for wear despite being an otherwise normal human being. However, he’s abruptly put on a few pounds, and has an entirely hairless head, as in PART 1. Did he shave during the minutes separating PARTs 2 and 3? Apparently not, as we’re shown, in flashback, his maybe/sorta sexual attack on Survivor Girl Chris, which apparently took place two years prior. She pays him back with an axe to the head, takes a noonday canoe trip, and is attacked by rotting, re-headed Pamela Voorhees. But that last part was just a dream! Or…was it?.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4. What axe to the head? Jason’s back at it, and still proudly representing Baldies worldwide. Once unmasked, he looks nothing like he did in any of the previous three entries, which isn’t helped by the smooth slide his face takes down the business end of a machete. At least he’s really, totally, no shit, dead this time.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 5. Jason was apparently cremated at the time of (final) death.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6. Jason was apparently not cremated at the time of (final) death. His corpse is reanimated thanks to a bolt of lightning. Now he’s undead, which removes the conceptual problem of surviving axes to the head. It turns out that the only way to subdue him is to drown him again in water, which effectively closes the circle on his life and death…except he didn’t drown. Right? Maybe?
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 7. Still a zombie. Still fine with water.
- FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 8. Did you know that when Jason was a kid, he had a full head of hair? Did you also know that he wasn’t deformed? Except maybe he was. And by the way, to clarify: he definitely drowned in Crystal Lake, and he was definitely a child-sized ghost as little as ten years before this film, as the boating scene with Young Rennie indicates…which, in terms of series timeline, would have taken place when he was a full-grown adult.
- JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY. Jason Voorhees is a body-hopper, all thanks to a demonic worm-creature with a tendency toward vaginal entry. The reason he’s constantly resurrected from the dead is because he can be reborn through members of his bloodline, hockey mask and all – any other person he inhabits looks identical to their previous self. Does this mean that he’s been possessing family members all throughout the series? If so, how many were there? Didn’t anyone notice that they kept going missing?
- JASON X. Somehow, Jason’s a mortal man again, and that alopecia has been reduced to just a few incidents of spotty hair growth. He’s also in possession of an advanced healing factor that allows him to survive just about any attempt to execute him. Oh, and then he becomes a cyborg.
- FREDDY VS. JASON. Zombie again, but this time with a fear of water, except for all those times he’s in the water.
So what have we learned? Hopefully nothing, because that takes away the fun.
The issues of continuity that first appeared in the second film and then run rampant in the third episode becomes even more bewildering as the sequels pile up, and as Jason’s overall look and motivation cause one to have the same brain-melt that occurs when trying to do long division in your head. However, it’s absolutely worth noting that PART 3 is the first and only film in the series that depicts Jason as being both developmental disabled (when unmasked, he appears to have Downs Syndrome rather than a nebulous disorder), and it’s also the one time that it’s suggested he might enjoy slipping his female victims more than just a knife. By the time we come to the climax, which manages to merge a genuinely terrifying image (Jason at the window of his victims’ house, grinning stupidly at The Final Girl just outside) and the inane (the nonsensical faux-jump scare involving Mrs. Voorhees aping her son’s leap from the water in the first film, albeit in a pond that’s supposed to stand in for Crystal Lake), it’s clear that the series has said goodbye to its grungy roots and become the cinematic equivalent of a Haunted House at an Oktoberfest, filled with drunken idiots running around screaming at stupid jump scares between puking in the corners.
Jason’s appearance isn’t the only issue of continuity, nor is his maybe-dead//maybe-not backstory. The timeline is a mess, and the wider implications of Jason’s rampaging remain unaddressed until JASON GOES TO HELL. But continuity is a word that needn’t simply apply to the narrative; the productions themselves are also incredibly inconsistent.
I waxed lyrical over the deeper meaning to be (potentially) discovered in FRIDAY THE 13TH and its immediate sequel; I neglected to discuss the roughshod filmmaking, as it enhances those films rather than brings them down. That homespun aspect changed with PART 3. In discussing FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, I referenced the unfortunate resurgence of 3-D in the early 1980s. While it seems a format tailor-made for a subgenre of Horror built around the idea of stabbing, impaling and otherwise launching bodies toward the audience, it was never successfully utilized in this fashion; to wit, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 is more concerned with allowing viewers to revel in the sight of a yo-yo descending toward camera, or characters juggling because Fuck You, It’s 3-D. For a series of quickly-made and cheaply-shot exploitation cash-ins, the third installment was exhaustively taxing for director Steve Miner, who had to worry about novel concepts like lighting and focus. These latter points are particularly important to anyone only saw PART 3 on television or home video, as the 3-D process, stripped of the theatrical effect, results in a film that is excessively over-lit, and soft in terms of overall clarity, due to the merging of two separate images for a two-dimensional render. As such, it’s an ugly-looking film filled with people awkwardly shoving things in your face for absolutely no reason. In other words, it’s a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie.
The biggest compliment one can give FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4: THE FINAL CHAPTER is that it looks like a real movie. Straight out the gate, it’s clear that Paramount threw an extra ten or fifteen dollars at this one. Picking up immediately where the third film ended, we go from two or three extras, dressed as policeman and staring down at Jason’s corpse, to HELICOPTERS. SEARCHLIGHTS. A CROWD SCENE. As if this isn’t enough, genuine actors start popping up. Crispin Glover. Lawrence Monoson. Peter Barton. Corey Feldman. Corey Feldman?! Yup, there’s a kid in this one (which is usually Kryptonite in these things), but God damn it, it works. All of it. Somehow, in spite of itself, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4 forces you to stop rolling your eyes a little and consider what these movies might be with a little imagination, and some polish.
Make no mistake, it’s still a cheap rush-job more concerned with hitting a calendar date than scoring with critics. As Colonel Tom Parker once famously told Denis Sanders during the making of one of Elvis’s latter-day films, Now don’t you go winning no Oscar with this pitcha, because we don’t have no tuxedos to wear to the celebration. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. and Director Joseph Zito know exactly what kind of dog food they’re making, but they dress it up a little so it looks like actual meat. The teens all have personality, and the psychology of Jason that was introduced during the second film is gently shoehorned into the final reel. We even have a nemesis for our masked killer, in the form of the pissed-off sibling of one of Jason’s previous victims, who’s now hunting the elusive stalker in the woods surrounding Crystal Lake…since yesterday. Never mind the fact that this, along with the two previous films, are supposed to have taken place over a weekend; the only thing more baffling than the jarring change in fashion over the course of three days is the realization that Jason technically buys it on Sunday the 15th. But what a death scene it is, as makeup maestro Tom Savini returns to kill off his very own creation in what can best be described as a Machete Slide. He’s not dead, though — even a one-eyed homicidal lunatic can see that. Did anyone really think this was actually the FINAL CHAPTER? Nah. But considering the substantial step-up in quality (and the sheer drop in the following installment), we would be right to consider this the end of the franchise, at least insofar as we knew it.
And here’s the transition point: when the horror genre shrugged off the grungy, grindhouse aesthetic and became the glossy, super-saturated 1980s crap people without taste inexplicably like. This is when Slasher flicks became less violent, and somehow safe to watch; the prurient appeal was drowned in loud fashion and shitty synth rock like maple syrup filled with dead cockroaches. The transition from FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER to A NEW BEGINNING is an excessively bumpy one due to the aforementioned infusion of cinematic Pop Rocks and Kool-Aid, coupled with a high but relatively bloodless body count. The only thing that feels in any way edgy about A NEW BEGINNING is the choice of director (Danny Steinmann), best known for 1) having previously directed porn, and 2) never directing another film after this one.
Fans like to bag on this entry as being the one with “Fake Jason,” but let’s give credit where credit’s due — if you’re going to essentially attempt a soft reboot of FRIDAY THE 13TH, it makes sense to return to the Whodunit aspect of the first film. Introducing fresh iconography would have helped the proceedings significantly, as the only thing “new” about A NEW BEGINNING is absolutely nothing at all. Well, that’s not entirely fair: there is a hitherto unexplored fixation on bowel movements in this particular entry, namely the Who The Fuck Pitched This Scene in which two greasers get into an argument after one of them decides he needs to take a dump in the woods (?), as well as the stirring and romantic singing duet between Michael Jackson clone “Demon” and his girlfriend (as the former loudly evacuates his colon of enchiladas) in Who The Fuck Pitched This Scene Part 2. At least no one can accuse the filmmakers of not giving a crap.
According to the popular consensus, JASON LIVES is the DREAM WARRIORS of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise: one of the best, if not the best. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two (released only a year apart), in that both introduce a quasi-gothic component while simultaneously playing the overall concept for laughs. You’ve got Freddy murdering Zsa Zsa Gabor on The Dick Cavett Show in one; Jason skewers Ron “Horshack” Palillo on a fence post in the other. Hell, both films even had an MTV music video tie-in that further cemented the nebulous association between Horror and (Hair) Metal. So yeah, they’ve got stuff in common, but if you want to know the biggest similarity between the two, it’s the fact that both films jump the shark so spectacularly that neither franchise ever came down again; it’s no coincidence that Jason eventually winds up in outer space. Yes, that was a metaphor, but it also literally happens, minus the shark part (which would be so stupid that I’m surprised it isn’t actually in the movie).
So now Jason’s a zombie. Whatever. Dude was able to take an axe to the head and survive, so turning him into a Terminator just means he walks slower. Meanwhile, his adversary is once again Tommy Jarvis (played by the third actor in as many movies, only this time with an unfortunate speech impediment), who has become some sort of bizarre riff on Sam Loomis rather than the deranged weirdo of the previous film. Even his kung-fu skills have fallen by the wayside, which is unfortunate for both people who enjoy the climax of HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION. Director Tom McLoughlin gets a lot of praise for bringing in car chases, American Express jokes, and James Bond homages, but really, what more was left to do with the character? Oh yeah — paintball jokes. Overrated and fucking stupid.
Flash forward a year later to 1987. Paramount Pictures decided that the best way to challenge up-and-coming Slasher rival Freddy Krueger (while simultaneously riding his red and green coattails) was to initiate FREDDY VS. JASON, albeit with switched billing. Needless to say, New Line passed; Jason had grown long in the rotten tooth, and Paramount needed Freddy more than he needed them. So what does a creatively bankrupt series do by way of alternative? They pit their antihero against a different iconic rival…in this case, a CARRIE knock-off played by Lar Park Lincoln, sporting a mullet that can be best described “Wet Dog.” Welcome to THE NEW BLOOD, a film starring the corpse from WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S as a doctor who is constantly dodging telekinetically-launched office supplies (i.e., dangling from strings), and a male cast who are almost entirely made up of homosexuals. This latter point isn’t a criticism so much as a warning that the boy-girl chemistry takes on a very curious dynamic in this particular installment, which is probably the most interesting aspect of the film.
Oh, yeah, it also stars Kane Hodder as Jason, marking the first of four appearances in the role (though never looking the same in any two installments). Hodder is considered the definitive embodiment of the character by everyone who is wrong; check out the second and fourth films to see far more interesting effective takes. All the same, the design is strong in this one, with the undead monster’s spine exposed, and a strong focus on general overall ickiness. It all kind of goes underwater (literally) during the climax, during which Lincoln drops a roof on her adversary (WITH HER MIND), electrocutes him (WITH HER MIND), and then summons the abusive father she killed (WITH HER MIND) to drag Jason back into the lake a mere two feet from shore (WITH HER — wait, what?). With those sorts of skills, you’d think she could figure out how to change the setting on her Flowbee.
Thanks to JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, we next learn the following Important Life Lessons about the city of New York.
- It looks like Vancouver.
- It is almost entirely a series of alleyways filled with drug addicts who are eager to share their heroin.
- Spray-paint graffiti looks shockingly like washable colored-charcoal.
- It can be accessed via a landlocked New Jersey lake flanked by towering cliffs and mountains.
- The sewers are flooded with toxic waste at midnight just because fuck you, that’s how they roll in New York.
- If Jason Voorhees visits the city, he will reveal that beneath his mask, he looks like a cross between an albino turnip and that picture your two-year-old drew of you.
We learn even more in JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY – namely that Erin Grey was still chasing that sweet, sweet SILVER SPOONS money, and probably didn’t find it here at Crystal Lake. JASON GOES TO HELL is a movie filled with fun ideas, and the best nemesis for our villain that the franchise had introduced to date (by which I mean, Steven, of course); it also features a clever opening bit with the FBI finally getting around to taking Jason down, as well as a violent impalement that may be the best series death apart from the wonderfully unforgiveable one involving a wheelchair. The problem is that none of these elements gel together, particularly the sudden inclusion of a mythology that had never been so much as hinted at previously.
This doesn’t stop producer Sean Cunningham from reaching for that star, literally. JASON x takes place in space, which is really all you need to know. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s dumb fun, which places it right alongside the more traditional entries in the series; but like JASON GOES TO HELL, it so completely retcons the basic premise as to seem more befitting an entirely different franchise altogether.
So where does this leave FREDDY VS JASON and the 2009 remake? From JASON GOES TO HELL onward, the series was under the ownership of New Line Cinema, with the end goal being the Slasher Battle of the century. It was a long road to achieve these aims, and the result is as worth the effort as it is underwhelming. New Line (aided/hindered by Paramount and Platinum Dunes in the case of the remake) essentially produced four completely disconnected films, which, unlike the previous eight stories, made no effort to create any semblance of narrative harmony. They’re impossible to reconcile. Only the remake attempts to address the ridiculous nature of the overall concept, but even then the idea that Jason survived the drowning and didn’t return to his mother is shunted aside by way of shorthand; we never quite know whether Pamela Voorhees is killing counselors long after her son’s supposed death (as in the original), or whether she is responding to an event that has just occurred, and misunderstood. For better or worse, poor Pamela simply doesn’t matter to the series beyond providing an inciting incident.
There are websites managed by fans who have gone to great lengths to make sense of the FRIDAY THE 13TH history, and generated timelines that supposedly unite the films into a cohesive whole. They’re adorable, these creatures. If I could pat them on the head I would, but I can’t, and I wouldn’t anyway.
In the end, it’s clear that the filmmakers don’t give a shit about whether any of this makes sense, and neither should you. You have to admire the series its refusal to care.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)