A Storytelling Autopsy: Friday The 13th - The Final Chapter
What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this pseudo-concluding entry in the franchise still haunts us.
(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)
The title of the third sequel to Sean Cunningham's mold-making FRIDAY THE 13TH was a cynical marketing ploy long before the decision was made to continue the series past the death of Jason Voorhees. Promoting the new film as "The Final Chapter" suggests that a plan was in place all along and that the preceding films all form a direct path to this predetermined conclusion. That, of course, was never the case. Had Frank Mancuso Jr.s's initial gamble proved a poor bet and the original film had flopped at the box office, there would never have been a sequel, or a franchise, and no story would have been left untold. Each new FRIDAY owes its existence to the success of the previous film, at first in box office dollars, but increasingly in what Hollywood refers to as the "afterlife": video sales, broadcast licensing, and merchandising. By 1984, it was already obvious that the series was a hugely lucrative. THE FINAL CHAPTER, in both title and intent, is a lie. There had never been a plan to reach four films, and as long as the money kept coming in, there was never a plan to end it here.
That said, in the early 1980s (in America, anyway), the very notion of a fourth film in a contemporary movie series was something of an absurdity. In only a few short years the home video revolution would change everything, but for now, young moviegoers were unaccustomed to the concept of revisiting a character annually. Depending on their view of cinema, the novelty of a continuing chain of films drew or repelled potential ticket buyers, but the promise of one last hurrah- punctuated with the shameless tag line "Friday, April 13th is Jason's Unlucky Day"- had gravity. Who could possibly not want to see justice catch up to Jason?
All of that to say this: FRIDAY THE 13TH – THE FINAL CHAPTER should have been an atrocious, bare-bones, audience-demeaning cash-in. It had a built-in audience to exploit, a gimmick to rival its 3D predecessor, and absolutely nothing to lose. It was, after all, calling itself the last entry in the series. In theory, disappointing the core audience wouldn't hurt future sales, since there wouldn't be any. Paramount didn't care about the series. The producers thought of it as no more than product. This film, to paraphrase a man on a bicycle, should have been doomed.
Unforeseeable, then, that THE FINAL CHAPTER is the strongest sequel of the entire library.
Given that PART III was unable to maintain the structure of the earlier films, TFC breaks away from the established formula for perspective: the events of the film are not the nightmare recollection of a surviving Final Girl. Important here, because this will also prove to be the first film in the series that leaves both a male and female standing at the end. Understanding the storytelling perspective is crucial to grasping why this film succeeds where the previous feature failed. PART III's narrative was fractured and inconsistent, mostly because the film's protagonist (and audience surrogate) was horribly underdeveloped. Here, however, the narrative slips from a single character to---
The film opens with Paul Holt's campfire story. Here's the familiar story of Jason retold. The choice to replay the scene mixed with flashes of all three previous FRIDAYs, is telling. We know what happens to these characters. The urban legend is no longer being told to the other camp counselors in training. The story is being told directly to the audience. Us.
In THE FINAL CHAPTER, we, the moviegoers, provide the narrative perspective.
Each of the previous films featured an obvious "dream" coda that featured the return of a dead character (young Jason, Muffin, Mrs. Voorhees). Here, the film begins with the image of Jason lying on his side, ax buried in his head. Up until this point in the series, Jason has displayed absolutely no abnormal or superhuman abilities. No super strength. No regeneration. And certainly no resurrection. It could be argued, I suppose, that the machete-to-the-shoulder wound in PART II is forgotten, but we're never asked to believe it miraculously healed. How then, to take Jason's awakening in the coroner freezer after what could only be a fatal blow?
The entirety of FINAL CHAPTER takes place inside the hazy nightmare-logic of a chair-jumper ending. We'll return to that in a little while.
Like the original, FINAL CHAPTER relies on disambiguation, visual and dialogue repetition, and unstable association as a structural base. For example, in the opening moments, coroner Axel and nurse Morgan essentially recreate Barry and Claudette's coupling before the presence of Jason's dead body kills the mood. Dejected, Axel turns to a vaguely sexual aerobics show on television for relief. Jason, reborn, murders him in spectacular fashion, not just sawing through his neck with a bone saw, but also twisting his head around ninety-degrees, forcing his attention away from the gyrating, spandex-clad exercise instructor. Later, Teddy (no relation to Ted or Ned) would suffer a similar fate: impaled through a movie screen on which he'd watched stag porno films.
See how dangerous it is to watch this morally reprehensible stuff? Suddenly it's obvious that Jason isn't just shredding through the characters on screen, but the audience watching the film. The third FRIDAY tried to break the fourth wall by projecting pointy objects off screen. This one channels its fury directly at its audience.
Who love it.
The sexual violence doesn't end there. The film offers up regular moments of titillation and follows them with absurdly vicious murder sequences. Skinny dipping college kids? A spear gun to the crotch. A midnight nude swim? Scorned naked lover impaled in raft. The nerd lands the "hot" twin? A corkscrew through the hand and a clever in the face. Even something as tame as an attractive girl in a weather-soaked shirt leads invariably to the sharp ends of a pitchfork.
Sex doesn't equal death, that's too simple. The sex didn't kill them. We, as viewers did. Our voyeurism guarantees their death. Need proof?
In any other FRIDAY, nubile but innocent Sara would be handpicked by the audience from the outset as the Final Girl. She's sweet and cute, but too shy to skinny dip with the others. Her flirtation with Doug has a naive charm to it that seems in line with Alice's gentle attraction to Bill or Ginny and Paul's relationship. But it's not to be. In this film, perhaps because we find ourselves drawn to her, the filmmakers choose to have her give in to passion- in a shower no less. She's doomed at that moment, of course, but it's still shocking when she's dispatched by an ax thrown through a closed door.
Dialogue plays a major role in the underlying thematics, as the screenplay introduces coded ideas inside seemly inane conversations. When Teddy chastises Jimmy for allowing his relationship with "BJ Betty" to end, the film is actually setting up the seemingly random violence set-piece that follows almost immediately. The college kids pass an overweight hitchhiker offering Free Love but choose to ridicule her. She responds by flipping over her sign. It now reads FUCK YOU. Notice how this pantomime scene plays out identically to the silent stag films Teddy later dies watching? The hitchhiker sits down and begins to eat a banana, the most phallic food their is. She may not be "BJ Betty", but she's acting the part. That she's killed with a knife through her throat should be telling enough, but the scene goes on to a closeup of the fruit withering in her hand. Subtle.
The previous three FRIDAYs all featured Final Girls who, while not virginal in a strict sense, maintained a more reserved sexual profile. Alice hesitates when she loses her shirt in strip monopoly ("Actually, I hadn't made up my mind."); Ginny partially rebuffs Paul ("Beware of Bears"); Chris literally and figuratively pushes Rick away with each of his physical advances. While Trish does very lightly flirt with Rob, there's a noticeable lack of sexual tension in their interactions. She's never in danger of falling in love, or bed, with him. Her main relationship is with her brother Tommy, which is by its nature asexual. In short, Trish and Tommy break the chain. Their status of sister and brother, a platonic relationship not totally dissimilar to mother and son (Mrs. Voorhees and Jason), allows them to survive.
One other scene is crucial to the film's structure. Young Tommy spies out through his bedroom window at Sammantha and Paul locked in a partially-clothed embrace. Denied the full show when his mother discovers the scene and lowers the shade, Tommy at that moment becomes an embodiment of the audience. We're not shown the intimate details of the lovemaking that surely followed, either. In FRIDAY THE 13TH – THE FINAL CHAPTER, that kind of built-up tension and frustration has very, very serious consequences.
At the end, with Jason dead (again), this time with a machete, not ax, deep in his head, Tommy and Trish reunite in a poorly-lit hospital room. Unlike previous FRIDAYs, there's no narrative reveal. No peek behind the curtain. Neither Tommy nor Trish awaken from a nightmare. In fact, just the opposite: the very last image is of Tommy opening his eyes even wider. The screen fades to white for the last time in the series.
And the FINAL CHAPTER leaves it up to us if we want the nightmare to end.
We all know what choice we made.