A Beginner’s Guide to Friday the 13th

Let’s get this straight: Friday the 13th movies aren’t good.

Please understand, I say this as someone currently wearing one of my two Jason Voorhees shirts, with a Jason picture as my phone lock screen, the Friday NES game in my system, the Friday PC game installed on my desktop, and with 11 out of 12 Friday movies sitting in my home video collection. I love Friday the 13th, and have seen each entry many times. But they aren’t for everyone.

As a fan, I’m very excited to think that people will be diving into the series tonight. But as a fan, I also know that the series is strange, and doesn’t jibe well with people’s expectations.

So to help the most people get the most enjoyment of their viewings, I present this beginner’s guide to the series.

(All movies available for rental on Amazon)

Crystal Lake Lore

The key to enjoying a Friday the 13th movie begins with understanding its basic premise and formula.

While staying with his mother Pamela at Camp Crystal Lake, young deformed boy Jason Voorhees endures teasing and neglect from camper and counselor alike. When a pair of counselors sneak off to have sex, leaving the kids alone at the waterfronts, the abandoned Jason drowns (or maybe doesn’t drown), driving Pamela crazy.

For decades that follow, Jason (in one form or another) haunts Crystal Lake, violently killing anyone who enters the camp, particularly the teenage partiers who always seem to show up.

Most of the movies, then, feature a new group of unlikable teens, who drink, smoke, and screw until Jason begins offing them. But most of the movies tweak that formula and premise in various ways, sometimes creatively and sometimes disastrously. This list will direct you toward the good stuff and away from the entries that are bound to disappoint.

The Friday Five

1. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter

You’ll notice that the description above says nothing about Jason’s iconic hockey mask, one of the main aspects of Friday the 13th imagery. That’s because he doesn’t get the mask until halfway through Part III, and Jason isn’t wearing the mask in Parts V or 9.

So while “The Final Chapter” doesn’t sound like a good starting point (spoiler alert: it isn’t the final chapter), it’s actually the movie that perfected the Friday model, with a fully hockey-masked Jason, inventive kills, and a solid plot.

Well, the plot’s actually just “Jason kills a lot of people,” but it has unusually solid bones on which it’s hanging that plot. The family of young monster mask enthusiast Tommy Jarvis (Cory Feldman) moves into a house near Crystal Lake at the same time the world’s best set of partying teens (including Crispin Glover!) visit a nearby cabin and a monster hunter comes to track down Jason.

Okay, I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s much better than the premises of most Friday films. Jarvis, whose arc continues over the next two movies, puts the Voorhees mayhem into a relatively human perspective, the kills are fun (especially the monster hunter’s), and the teens have more character than your average victim. I mean, just watch this clip of Glover dancing!

All in all, Part IV the ideal Friday the 13th movie.

2. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

Again, you’re probably wondering, “First Part IV and then Part VI? What about Part V?”

Part V has its charms, especially a great child actor and a couple of iconic scenes (Demon’s death was my introduction to the series), and it carries over an older Tommy Jarvis from the last movie. But it goes too often for big broad humor that falls flat, and tries a mystery that isn’t interesting or plausible.

Part VI on the other hand is delightful all the way through, hitting all of the comedy notes its predecessor misses. Predating the meta-horror trend that Scream inaugurated in the 1990s, Part VI knows how silly and tired the Friday premise has become and fully embraces it. Jason’s still an unstoppable killing machine, but his victims embrace their fate with a sense of humor.

Part VI also features the last appearance of Tommy Jarvis, here as a young man whose initially blamed for Jason’s kills, and the first of zombie Jason, who will become a mainstay of the series until the 2009 reboot.

If you’re looking for more fun than scares, then Part VI is the best the series has to offer.

3. Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th began as a ripoff of Halloween (and Carrie, for one scene), as director Sean S. Cunningham saw slasher movies as a good model for cheap and profitable horror movies. But while there isn’t much that’s original to the first Friday movie, it does work as a solid slasher and mystery movie.

The kills aren’t always plausible, but the special effects by legend Tom Savini always impress (especially the infamous arrow through the neck of a young Kevin Bacon), Betsy Palmer turns in a wonderfully over-the-top performance as Pamela Voorhees, and the Harry Manfedini score stands up next to any other horror soundtrack.

In fact, the only reason I don’t recommend it first is that Friday the 13th is missing one key ingredient. If you’re reading this, you probably already know what that is, but I won’t spoil it here. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the movie.

4. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood

In a way, you have to hand it to Friday producers: they don’t rest on their laurels. After finally establishing the ideal Friday style in Part IV, they immediately deviated for Part V, only to return to form (albeit with more of a wink) in Part VI. But from VII on out, the series refuses to wait on a “Jason kills teens in the woods” plot, and keeps looking for new twists on the formula.

Unfortunately, most of these new takes aren’t successful, as I’ll discuss in a minute, but this attempt works pretty well. Relegated to a mindless force of nature, Jason takes a further step back here, ceding the movie’s focus to troubled teen while the focus stays largely on Tina Shepherd (Lar Park-Lincoln), a telekinetic teen who is basically Carrie White from Carrie.

After an early manifestation of her powers killed her abusive father, Tina spends most of her life under psychiatric with the manipulative Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser). Hoping to manipulate Tina’s powers and score a lucrative book deal, Crews brings Tina to Crystal Lake for seclusion therapy. Of course, she accidentally resurrects Jason, starting up a whole new round of mayhem.

While not the scariest Friday movie, Part VII features the best Jason fight of the series (yes, even better than the disappointing climax of 2004’s Freddy vs. Jason). The plot makes even less sense than most Friday films, but the kills are generally so good, and the psychic elements are new enough, that it makes up for any shortcomings.

5. Jason X

In 1989, New Line Cinema bought the film rights to Jason Voorhees, with one caveat — they could not use footage from the previous films and could not call the new movies Friday the 13th.

New Line took the rules as a challenge, and each of its three films completely deviated from the original model, finding new ways for Jason to kill: Jason Goes to Hell has the killer jumping from body to body, while Freddy vs. Jason pits Voorhees against New Line’s premier monster Freddy Kruger.

For its part, Jason X sends Jason into the far off future and into space, after a group of science students find his cryogenic body. A mash-up of Aliens, in which well armed space marines fight back against a heretofore unkillable monster, and Scream, with lots and lots of self-referential jokes, Jason X has no pretenses. It serves up silly kills with a wink and smirk.

Not all of it works. The production has a cheap 2000s tv quality, and the cast is too big, filled with unmemorable characters with stupid “future” names. But if you want to turn your brain completely off and just get goofy kills, Jason X delivers.

“They’ve Got a Death Curse!” (Avoid these three!)

1) Friday the 13th (2009)

In his review of Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake of Evil Dead, BBC critic Mark Kermode compared the film to a sludge metal band covering a Ramones song. All the lyrics and structure are there, but the new version is joyless and bleak.

I think that’s a much better descriptor for the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th. The basic premise is no different than other Friday film, with Jason killing a bunch of unlikable teens, but it’s just so nasty and meanspirited. Almost none of the kills leave no impression, save the few that are too ugly to be fun, and while all Friday movies have unpleasant sexual politics, the remake’s excessive nudity eclipses any silliness. On top of that, the film has a baffling structure, squeezing events from the first three original Friday films into the first 20 mins, baffling newcomers to the mythos and failing to satisfy longtime fans.

Derek Mears gives a good performance as a smarter yet more feral Jason, but there’s nothing to recommend beyond that.

2) Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

The last entry in the original Paramount run, Part VIII should be called Jason Takes a Boat. Because 80% of the film is on a boat. Producers fail to do anything interesting with the maritime setting, or when Jason finally lands in New York ( as played by Toronto).

That said, the movie does offer a few fun scenes and a couple great kills, including a beheading that belongs among the top ten in the series.

But those are better enjoyed as YouTube clips, rather than sitting through this sad slog of a film.

3) Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday

To be honest, I kind of like Jason Goes to Hell. It has one of the absolute best kills in the series, and Steven Williams is a blast as monster hunter Creighton Duke. It’s just not a Jason movie, despite what it’s title says.

Jason Goes to Hell adds all sorts of mythology to the series, stuff never suggested before or referred to again. Here, Jason is a demonic worm that jumps from body to body. So when the traditional hockey mask Jason gets blown up in the (very satisfying) opening scene, the worm sneaks into all sorts of other bodies, making them into Jason. And then there’s all sorts of nonsense involving the Voorhees family and magic knives, but none of it matters.

Again, there’s some fun stuff here, and it’s actually a pretty satisfying 90s slasher. It’s just, you know, not a Friday the 13th movie.

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