A Storytelling Autopsy: Jason Lives - Friday The 13th Part 6

What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of JASON LIVES – FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI.  Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this recuperative entry in the franchise still haunts us.

(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)

While no one was declaring FRIDAY THE 13th PART V: A NEW BEGINNING to be a financial failure, its 21.9 million dollar gross was a steep drop from THE FINAL CHAPTER's 32.9 million. Without the benefit of a strong gimmick such as 3D or killing off the main character, the series was floundering. While still immensely profitable, it was clear that the previous film had alienated the fan base.  Another misstep may very well have meant the end of the franchise.

What's an entertainment empire to do, then?

Paging Mr. Voorhees.

The decision to bring back Jason Voorhees was, ultimately, a business decision not a creative one. Built into that equation is a reversal of the mindset that produced A NEW BEGINNING.  Lightbulbs must have flickered on at 555 Melrose Ave (Paramount Studios, Hollywood).  It wasn't just the blood and the breasts after all.  What had always separated the FRIDAY THE 13th series from the other movies in the endless parade of slasher films was its central character.  Jason Voorhees was the star.

The title of the sixth film in the series was a direct communication to the fans that this new FRIDAY was intended as a return to form.  No pretenders on the throne this time, horror's premiere madman was returning from the grave to dish out his unique form of punishment on a fresh batch of college-aged teens.  JASON LIVES isn't a title, it's a promise.

Whether the Paramount executives liked it or not, Jason had become as iconic a character as Godzilla, Abbot and Costello, or James Bond... which would made explicit in the winking-and-nodding opening credit sequence.

Unlike the previous five films, the core creative center of PART VI burdened the film with the task of transitioning the series from relatively “realistic” to outright fantasy.  Jason's resurrection in the opening moments of FINAL CHAPTER is handled in an ambiguous, non-supernatural manner.  We don't see the process; there's no magic at play. Perhaps he wasn't altogether dead at all, but in some unstated but natural form of chrysalis?  The serial killer sinking into death to emerge... as something more.  JASON LIVES had no such luxury.  By the end of the fourth film, the villain has his head nearly cleaved in two and his body hacked up.  It would take more to bring him back.

And that brings us to a side note.  JASON LIVES never makes any mention of the events from NEW BEGINNING.  In fact, the story directly contradicts the earlier film's assertion that Jason was cremated after the events of FINAL CHAPTER.  This represents the first- but by far not the last, or even most sweeping- case of revision in the series.

With the acknowledgment that Jason Voorhees had become the most identifiable screen boogyman since the heyday of Universal Pictures, the film begins with a direct homage to 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  It's hard to mistake the borrowed imagery as an adult Tommy Jarvis and his loyal friend Allen Hawes work their way through a desolate wind-blown cemetery towards Jason's “final” resting place.  This new spirit towards the character would carry on from then on- each new FRIDAY would feature Jason's name in the title until the 2009 remake.  The newfound respect, if grudging, is best exemplified by the grave site.  NEW BEGINNING treated Jason as disposable and easily replaced.  His “grave” in the opening dream sequence is a cheap, unconvincing set, no more elaborate than a hastily assembled front yard decoration in front of any suburban home on Halloween.  Here, Jason's tombstone is a work of beautiful Gothic artwork, a monument to the long shadow the character had already cast over mainstream movie culture.

Later, the SCREAM series would heavily leverage self-awareness as its trademark, but JASON LIVES was the true pioneer, albeit one that never allows the winks and nods to interact directly with the plot.  Characters breaks the fourth wall with frequency, whether it's Martin the caretaker speaking directly into the camera to playfully chastise the audience (“Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment.”) or the two twelve year old boys who serve as a Greek chorus (“I think we're dead meat.”), but the communication is always one sided, unlike in SCREAM, where the audience seems to be encouraged to derisively participate in outlining the “rules”.  Here, the absence of a fourth wall is not meant as a criticism of the slasher movie as an art form, but rather a good-natured acknowledgment that the filmmakers and audience are on the same page.

That same celebration of movie grandeur quickly elevates JASON LIVES from straight exploitation flick into the realm of more traditional summer movies, complete with Dirty Harryesque quips (“Wherever the red dot goes, ya-bang.”), car chases, and elaborate stunts (the spectacle of the RV flipping is on a scale no other FRIDAY attempts).  To some purists, this may seem like a move in the wrong direction, but in a film that wholeheartedly embraces bigger-than-life fantasy ideas, such as Jason's lightning-bolt resurrection, it makes more sense than to keep things low-key.  To play this material completely straight, especially coming after the mentally challenged NEW BEGINNING, would likely have pushed the film into unintentional camp.  By playing along, the filmmakers are invulnerable to criticisms than they pushed too far, even as they do exactly that.

With less skill, this film would be a horrendous failure, but at every turn the creative team make surprising, smart, spry decisions that keep the fragile premise alive.  In another film in the series, the paint ball scene would be unnecessary and distracting.  By injecting both pratfall humor and genuinely outrageous pathos into the sequence, the viewer is too entertained to notice that the deaths of these characters does nothing to advance the plot, except perhaps to showcase the ludicrous strength of the reborn Big Jay.  Having the “red shirts” of the movie wear headbands that declare them “DEAD” is both a great visual gag and a sublime wink to the audience.  It shouldn't, and in less capable hands wouldn't, but it all works.

At the movie's climax, Tommy attempts to chain Jason to the bottom of Crystal Lake, thereby returning to him to original resting place and the franchise to its origins.  It's clear that the plan here is to level set the series back to before the events of FINAL CHAPTER, thus allowing for further adventures.  Of course, the film makes no pretense that Tommy's idea could ever really dispatch the hometown favorite psychopath, as evident by the final scene.  There's no way to ignore the message here, as we repeat the ending of the fourth film but now with the rolls reversed.  As we gaze into Jason's eyes, they widen, exactly as young Tommy's did at the end of FINAL CHAPTER.  Is there any doubt who the main character has become?  From here on out the heroes and heroines will come and go, but the star will remain.

Frequently in long-running franchises, there's a film that stands apart from the rest not because of any failings, but because it beats insurmountable odds to become one of the best in its series.  ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE had to contend with an unfamiliar leading man in a roll many associated exclusively with Sean Connery.  A black sheep to be sure, but today considered one of the crown jewels of the 007 library.  GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, the fourth go-round for the big guy in the green suit, had a bizarre hand to play: antagonist dinosaur against giant mythical moth.  That shouldn't work.  But by any rational measure it's one of the very best.  JASON LIVES is that film for the FRIDAY cycle, the odd man out in a series that too often has lost sight of its core premise and  trespassed into territory it should never have considered.  Somewhere amongst the telekinetic blondes, seafaring daytrips to New York, body swapping, and impromptu astronaut training, JASON LIVES stands very, very tall.

As tall as a burning RV, actually.
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