August 1st marks thirty-two years since the theatrical release of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, director Tom McLoughlin’s satirical, gothic horror-inspired contribution to the Jason Voorhees saga. The film’s tongue-in-cheek humor and persistent eagerness to poke fun at itself was a considerable shift in tone for the Friday series, but clearly not an unwelcome one; after three decades and six additional films, Jason Lives today sits proudly near the top of the franchise in terms of fan appreciation.
More crucial than the film’s favorable audience reception though, is how the success of Jason Lives likely extended the life span of the popular slasher series, an aspect of the film that is often overlooked.
The Friday the 13th franchise was at serious risk of crashing and burning in 1985 after the wildly unpopular Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, which infamously neglected to put Jason in the film. Though A New Beginning opened at #1 and cleaned up to the tune of nearly $22 million overall, fans were furious that their favorite masked murderer was left out of the fun. Paramount Pictures got an earful, and quickly began plotting Jason’s return.
Longtime Friday producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. was unhappy with the crass nudity and exceedingly violent nature of A New Beginning, and sought out a director who would take things in a different direction. Mancuso chose Tom McLoughlin, a young writer/director with only one completed feature to his name.
In 1983, McLoughlin earned notice for his film One Dark Night, which centered around a small group of teens forced to survive an evening inside a haunted mausoleum. This film, combined with McLoughlin’s well-known interest in comedy projects, intrigued Mancuso. McLoughlin was brought on board and given the latitude to write and direct Friday VI in his own style, the only mandate being that Jason must return and be the film’s villain.
McLoughlin, a lifelong fan of classic monster movies, drew heavily on those influences when conceiving his project. Regarding the opening sequence of Jason Lives, McLoughlin says:
“I wanted to start off right away with…a kind of a classic gothic opening. I love these kinds of movies, probably from my love of Hammer horror movies I grew up with that immediately set an atmosphere and a mood with the opening shots.”
In his commentary track for the blu-ray release of the film, McLoughlin continually points out the gothic touches he used to define his picture, from elements as simple as a sky full of dark, threatening clouds and smoke-heavy sets, to the obvious monster movie nod that is Jason’s resurrection sequence, saying: “whether you want to accept it or not, (this is) the way I chose to bring (Jason) back from the dead; the old Frankenstein lightning bolt brings life.”
McLoughlin also includes a great deal of genre references throughout Jason Lives, both classic and contemporary.
For instance, late in the film Tommy Jarvis makes a call from a phone booth outside “Karloff’s General Store”, a nod to legendary horror actor Boris Karloff. There are dropped lines about “Cunningham Road” – the original Friday the 13th was directed by Sean S. Cunningham – and the town of “Carpenter” – Halloween director John Carpenter. The character Sheriff Garris is named after McLoughlin’s friend and fellow horror director Mick Garris (Critters 2, Psycho IV). Perhaps most unabashedly, Jason Lives features a character delivering the line, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.”
One of my personal favorites is a scene where an elderly gravedigger discovers Jason’s violated burial plot and begins shoveling dirt back into the hole. “Why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?”, he asks before looking directly into the camera and declaring, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.”
McLoughlin’s referential sense of fun extends far beyond the horror genre. One of the most famous examples is when a newly-resurrected Jason dons the hockey mask just prior to the opening credits. The camera zooms toward one of his eyes, upon which a parody of the famous James Bond “gun barrel” opening plays out, with Jason slashing a gushing wound into the screen in place of a gun shot. McLoughlin comments:
“I was hoping that would set the tone immediately on…what kind of movie I was going to be make here. Something that was going to be not just another Jason movie, but kind of an homage to the other slasher films as well as sort of a satirization of them at the same time.”
Incorporating so much humor into the film was certainly a risk, and a choice that put McLoughlin at odds with producers, who demanded more gore. The initial cut of Jason Lives already featured over a dozen murders – including the memorable triple-decapitation of some merry corporate retreaters – but McLoughlin was forced to add three bodies to the heap as well as extend the death of Sissy in an attempt to make the film feel more violent.
Even without these additions, Jason Lives boasts several entertaining kill scenes, including an impressively accurate knife toss, a fiery Winnebago crash, and a cabin interior that has been quite literally bathed in blood. The latter of these includes a closeup on a bowl of bloody popcorn, an image that always makes me cringe. Of all the murders in Jason Lives, my personal favorite has to be poor Sheriff Garris, who is bent completely backwards like a folding chair after attacking Jason with a rock. The effect is cartoonish, but convincing, and the embellished crunch sound effect is a lot of fun.
When Jason Lives opened in 1986, Paramount again earned a pretty penny, though it seems many audience members felt too burned by A New Beginning to give Jason another chance; part VI was the first sequel that failed to open at #1. Even so, fans – and even some critics – were impressed with McLoughlin’s film, and the redemption of the Friday the 13th franchise was on.
Now, thirty-two years later, I can’t help but imagine what this series might have looked like had Jason Lives not been a success.
For comparison, when Halloween III: Season of the Witch removed Michael Myers from the equation in 1982, fans had to wait a full six years before being given a proper sequel. Halloween 4 was less adroit at course correction than Jason Lives, and featured a very New Beginning-esque fake-out finale that was immediately retconned in the quickie follow-up. By 1988, the Halloween series had hit a dead-end, and only two installments were produced during the next decade.
I can’t help but think that Friday the 13th would have followed a similar trajectory had Jason Lives not re-energized genre audiences with its cheeky, fan-friendly approach. Consider that if Jason had gone on hiatus in 1986, fans may never have been introduced to Kane Hodder, who was cast as Jason for the first time in the next film. Hodder is considered by many to be the premier Jason, having contributed a signature arsenal of movements and gestures that makes every post-Hodder Jason feel off. Hodder is also a staple of horror conventions, and is known for his graciousness and enthusiasm with Friday fans.
It’s not a stretch to say that Jason Lives may be responsible for leading us to Hodder, who I consider to be the franchise’s most valuable addition since the hockey mask. Hodder is not only an effective performer in the role, but a willing ambassador for the brand that has helped keep fan interest alive for decades. It’s difficult to imagine the franchise remaining so strong without him, and we have Tom McLoughlin to thank.
The eventual decline of Friday the 13th – in this author’s eyes, at least – was fueled by Jason Takes Manhattan in 1988. Paramount execs must have short memories because they made almost the same pivotal mistake with that film as they did with A New Beginning. The advertising teased a fun romp with Jason in a comically absurd scenario, and instead delivered a very dull Jason-at-sea movie. Only a few scenes of New York even made it into the final film, and most of the city scenes were actually filmed in Vancouver. Again, fans were handed a bag of beans for their ticket money, and this second betrayal led to the ultimate sale of the property to New Line Cinema and the longest gap between installments to that point in the series’ history.
Since then we’ve been given an uneven collection of mostly stand-alone Jason films that have never quite risen to the level of those beloved Paramount releases from the early and mid-eighties. I still have a lot of love for this franchise, but it’s never been the same since Jason sailed away on The Lazarus thirty years ago. Bon voyage, childhood hero.
Jason’s demise was inevitable, all slasher heroes struggle to find work sooner or later. But thanks to Tom McLoughlin and Jason Lives, my favorite slasher was able to extended his career, even for just a few bloody good years, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
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