The Wry Stuff
When I was a kid, Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives was my favorite Friday film. It's still up there, but much of the sheen has worn off. Adult eyes are often hard on childhood classics, and this is no exception.
What I appreciated most about Jason Lives was the fact that writer/director Tom McLoughlin delivered a different kind of "Jason" picture. His take is sillier than many of the other installments, but it also harkens back to the grimness and brutality of the original. Had he reined in some of the campier elements, Jason Lives might have been one of the strongest horror sequels ever.
The movie opens on a dark and stormy night. Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) and his friend, Allen (Ron Palillo), drive to the Forest Green Cemetery to unearth and cremate the body of serial killer Jason Voorhees (C.J. Graham). In Part 4 (the hilariously named "Final Chapter"), Jason killed Tommy's mother--and just about everyone else near Camp Crystal Lake--before the pre-teen hero hacked him to death with his own machete. Tommy then spent several years in a mental institution, where he battled a Jason imposter and eventually became--or did not become--a new incarnation of the hockey-masked maniac (don't ask).
After digging up Jason's rotted-out, maggot-infested shell, Tommy has a flashback so traumatic that he rips a pole off the cemetery's gate and stabs his dead enemy repeatedly. While hunting for matches, a bolt of lightning strikes the giant metal rod that Tommy left sticking out of Jason's chest--thus introducing the world to the first* incarnation of Zombie Jason. Tommy narrowly escapes (Allen isn't so lucky) and hauls ass to the sheriff's station to warn the authorities that there's a killer on the loose. Meanwhile, Jason dons the mask that Tommy very helpfully brought with him, and sets out on a not-so-quiet walk in the woods.
Of course, Sheriff Garris (David Kagen) doesn't believe Tommy, and has his firearms-obsessed deputy, Rick (Vincent Guastaferro), lock up the hysterical punk until someone from the nut-house can retrieve him. His daughter, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), drops by the station with her group of hot, young friends and falls instantly in love with the jailed bad boy. Garris warns her to stay away from him, and to get back to the summer camp where the gang works as counselors.
As with most of these movies, the post set-up plot is not very interesting. What makes Jason Lives remarkable is the variety of victims and the sick humor with which McLoughlin dispatches them. Jason doesn't just eviscerate horny teenagers: he takes out a Yuppie couple; a drunk, fourth-wall-breaking caretaker; and a group of corporate executives on a paintball retreat. To help the audience feel better about watching (mostly) innocent people get butchered for ninety minutes, McLoughlin packs his movie with precious horror-film references, playful music cues, and a World-Record-worthy amount of cutesy edits and scene transitions:
- Jason chucks a dart at a cop's face. Cut to a closeup of a dart board hanging on a cabin wall.
- Two counselors discussing the whereabouts of a third: "He said he was going to look for things that go bump in the night". Cut to an exterior shot of an RV bouncing wildly about as the occupants have sex.
- During a car chase, Megan warns Tommy--whose head is in her lap--that she's about to make a "hairy turn". Cut to Tommy's close-up view of the skin-tight "V" of Megan's blue jeans.
And on and on. It's not that I don't appreciate the jokes, wild over-acting, and front-loaded expository dialogue that plays like the "Previously on..." intro to an 80s TV show. I just wish the film had been balanced better. Because for every smug allusion to Boris Karloff, there's a cruel moment of pure terror that I'd somehow managed to block out of my memory.
Zombie Jason doesn't fuck around. He's intent on murdering anyone who stumbles onto his land, including--for the first time, if I'm not mistaken--a camp counselor who shows no evidence of having had sex, used drugs or alcohol, or even so much as made a snide remark towards a person of authority. I'm talking, of course, about Paula (Kerry Noonan), perhaps the series most good (best? goodest?) "good girl". She does nothing but show concern for her missing friends and try to keep the dozens of kids in her care safe and calm. For her virtuousness, she gets ripped apart and strewn across the inside of a cabin like a chunky, red coat of paint.
You know who does survive, though? Megan. And in another series first, the "survivor girl" is an obnoxious whiner. I assume Cooke did with the character as she was asked, so I can't fault her performance; instead of invincible, teenage bravado, we get total cluelessness. When she finally figures out that the whole evening isn't just some kind of kinky thrill ride with her mysterious, would-be (possibly homicidal) boyfriend, the climax is half over and all we care about is Tommy's last stand against Jason.
And what a last stand it is! Tommy lures the psycho out into the lake and intends to anchor him to the dirt floor below (he read a book on the occult that said the only way to permanently stop an undead person is to return them to their original resting place). Jason Lives ends with a real action-movie fight scene, with Tommy and Jason wrestling on a row boat in the middle of a fiery lake. Rather than a half-out-of-her-mind girl fending off a lumbering, knife-wielding monolith, McLoughlin opts for an unexpected, refreshing man-to-man brawl. He tweaks his own tweak by finally giving Megan something to do; I won't spoil her finest hour, except to say that it's "pulpy".
As a sidebar, some have argued that it's not fair for a critic to judge a movie based on what they want it to be, rather than what is is. I disagree. Wishing characters had been omitted or suggesting that moving around scenes would've made a story stronger doesn't make me a snob or an armchair director. Everyone does this, every day; from calling "bullshit" on the mechanic who says your leaky tire means it's time for a new transmission, to thinking about that shirt you would've bought if it had been a slightly darker shade of blue, criticism is our natural, sentient reaction to things that offend our education, taste, and life experience.
So, yes, I'm fine with describing Jason Lives as a flawed slasher masterpiece whose horrific elements are far more effective than its humorous ones. While one or two gags might have been fine, there's a difference between sly winking and an epileptic seizure, and Friday 6 gave me the spins. It's a shame, too, because McLoughlin creates an atmosphere so chilly and spooky that I wanted to wrap a blanket around me while watching his film. But in his attempt to lighten up his modern-day version of a classic Universal monster movie, the director put a clown nose on Frankenstein.
*Despite popular perception, Jason wasn't killed at the end of parts two and three, only part four. Ostensibly, Jason would never have been a problem for New York, psychics, or outer space had Tommy just left him in the ground.