This sixth installment in the all but interminable FRIDAY THE 13TH series seems deliberately designed to be the first one to make classic horror movie fans sit up and take notice. If you prefer the living dead to masked slashers, if you taste runs toward Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man rather than Michael Myers, Leatherface, and the old Jason Voorhees, this film is for you. No longer a mere maniac in a hockey mask, Jason is reinvented as a walking corpse, and writer-director Tom McLoughlin strives to bend the familiar FRIDAY formula into a throwback to an earlier era of horror monsters. The results are mixed – neither fish nor fowl (or, rather, neither bat nor snake) – but you have to give McLoughlin credit for trying.
Most of the previous FRIDAY films had played the lazy slasher trick of killing off the killer and reviving him without explanation, fudging the details with dream sequences that obscured exactly what had happened. Some fans even speculated that Jason had been a zombie all along, having drowned (as Mrs. Voorhees relates in FRIDAY THE 13TH) and then come back from the grave in PART 2 to avenge his mother’s death. That interpretation pretty much bit the dust when the character of Tommy Jarvis performed a little unauthorized cranial surgery on Jason in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. The “Final” in the title lured customers eager to see Jason’s demise; predictably, the box office success led to FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING. That film’s attempt to jump-start the series by having someone else don Jason’s hockey mask showed a steep decline in ticket sales; ergo, Paramount decided to bring Jason back from the dead.
Ignoring the events of A NEW BEGINNING,* JASON LIVES begins with Tommy Jarvis (now played by Thom Matthews of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) heading out to a cemetery, along with his friend Allen (Ron Palillo, in order to make sure that Jason remains in his grave. Needless to say, this ill considered operation has exactly the opposite effect: a metal spike that Tommy jabs into Jason’s chest acts as a lighting rod, and faster than you can say “Frankenstein” (or “Godzilla vs the Sea Monster,” come to think of it), the old serial killer is back in action.
As disastrous as Tommy’s attempt to seal Jason in his grave turns out to be, at least it does something that few FRIDAY films do: it sets up an actual plot. Instead of gathering together a bunch of ignorant boobs who get killed off one by one until the Final Girl faces off with Jason, JASON LIVES focuses on Tommy’s attempts to warn the police and put an end to the reborn killer. You know, it’s almost like a real movie, with a protagonist pursuing a clearly defined goal!
This is both good news and bad news. McLoughlin can go only so far in overturning the cliches. This remains a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie striving to be something different but only partially succeeding. The gore is toned way down; the nudity is non-existant, and the only sex scene is so tame it feels like its inclusion was the result of a contractual obligation. In place of the grim and gritty exploitation of the earlier films, McLoughlin offers mild scares that undercut the series’ main strength. Some of them are amusing (with a single swing of a machete, Jason takes out a trio of victims standing side by side; he also takes out one foolish weekend warrior who shoots him with a paintball), but they lack the shock value of the graphic deaths in earlier films.
The problem is that, without the threat of horrendous carnage at every opporutinty, there is only so much you can do to make Jason scary; he’s just not a particularly spooky character whose mere presence can make your skin crawl. McLouglin tries to compensate with tongue-in-cheek humor and an old-fashioned monster movie approach to the material (two elements that combine in “Karloff’s General Store” – a reference to the actor who starred as the monster in the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN). Some of the sight gags and one-liners are amusing: when one pretty female victim is yanked right out of her cute little bunny slippers, the incongruous juxtaposition of her footwear and her horrible death is worth a chuckle; when two young kids are hiding in the dark from Jason, their future survival by no means certain, one asks the other, “So, what were you planning to be when you grew up?”
Jokes like these, along with the fact that many of the potential victims are not sexually active teens but prepubescent children (who we know will never be in any real jeopardy, let alone killed), lowers the horror level way down into the tolerable level instead of pushing the envelope. Consequently, if you never much liked the FRIDAY movies, you can comfortably sit back enjoy this one as a sort of self-spoof, but if you’re a hardcore fan, you’re likely to be just pissed off and disappointed.
Or put another way, this is the FRIDAY THE 13TH film for viewers who do not like FRIDAY THE 13TH films. But even if you’re a fan who finds the film disappointing, you have to give it credit for putting Jason back behind the mask and setting up the series for future sequels. The legacy of JASON LIVES for the rest of the franchise was that it let the filmmakers off the hook from having to end each new film on an ambiguous note regarding Jason’s survival. From this point on, Jason could be satisfactorily killed off at the conclusion because, being dead, he could easily be revived for the next sequel.
The previous FRIDAY films were one-note affairs; this time out, a slightly new tune is being played (this is literally the case: composer Henry Manfredini’s familiar theme music is augmented with a couple songs performed by Alice Cooper (including “He’s Back: The Man Behind the Mask”). Whatever its weaknesses, JASON LIVES is a reasonably fun attempt at remaking the franchise into an old-fashioned monster movie, and fans of Frankenstein, the Mummy, and other creatures of the walking dead may find it appealing.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 6: JASON LIVES(1986). Written and directed by Tom McLoughlin. Cast: Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen, Kerry Noonan, Renee Jones, Tom Fridley, C. J. Graham, Darcy DeMoss, Vincent Guastaferro, Tony Goldwyn.
- It is just barely possible to rationalize a continuity between the fifth and sixth FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. JASON LIVES tells us that Tommy has been in therapy since offing Jason back in Part 4, and the motivation for his trip to Jason’s grave is to put an end to the hallucinations and nightmares that have plagued him during the intervening years. One could charitably assume that the events of A NEW BEGINNING were part of one long nightmare in Tommy’s mind.