Whole books have been written about the conservative-leaning “sex = death” politics of early-’80s slasher films and the Friday The 13th series in particular. But since, the Friday The 13th saga stretches from 1980 to 2003 (so far), has it had anything else to say about the world in which we’ve lived? Has it changed along with that world? Can you flip past Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and instantly recognize that it came out in 1989?
Short answer: Yes. For the long answer, read the survey below.
1980: Friday The 13th
The plot: Twenty-plus years after an unattended mongoloid drowns at Camp Crystal Lake, a group of counselors works to re-open the summer camp, but get slaughtered one-by-one by the mongoloid’s mother, Pamela Voorhees.
The victims: A band of shaggy, fornicating pot-smokers with a dream to provide a wilderness experience for “inner-city kids.” Plus Kevin Bacon.
Series motifs: As the series’ first and arguably best, Friday The 13th forges the mold for what’s to come, introducing Harry Manfredini’s Bernard Hermann-ish score (peppered with creepy, breathy “ki-ki-ki”s and “ja-ja-ja”s), stark white credits on a pitch-black screen, transitional fades to white, and methods of teen seduction that range from strip-Monopoly to classical guitar recitals. The film’s climactic image of a gnarled little boy rising from Crystal Lake to maul a seemingly safe survivor recurs throughout the series—though never to as terrifying effect.
The style: Strictly post-Halloween. Director Sean Cunningham apes John Carpenter’s steadicam POV shots to such a degree that even when the shot couldn’t logistically be from the killer’s perspective, the audience still reflexively tenses up. Also like Halloween, the darkness in Friday The 13th is an inky dark, threatening to swallow up the counselors and their warmly lit cabins. Friday The 13th is one of the last of the horror films in the earthy, low-budget ‘70s style of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where funky-looking bit players and naturalistic location footage play as much a role in creating atmosphere as the score or the dialogue.
1980 signifiers: In keeping with the counterculture fascination with old Hollywood movies, the counselors do impressions of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. And nothing screams “1980" like the camp’s director, a virile leader whose hunkiness is indicated by his wavy hair, moustache, glasses and bandana. “Sexy” was different back then.
1981: Friday The 13th Part II
The plot: Five years after the rampage of Pamela Voorhees, the slaughter resumes, as her apparently undead, now-grown son Jason offs the lone survivor of his mother’s kill-spree, then sets his sights on another group of counselors prepping another summer camp nearby.
The victims: “Prep” is the right word to describe this lot. The post-hippies of the first film have been replaced by clean-cut, feather-haired, tucked-clothed, gods and goddesses. The women are a little curvier (and expose themselves a little more), and aside from one fellow in a wheelchair, the men are more studly. (And even the wheelchair guy’s a jock.)
Series motifs: On the bonus disc in the DVD box set From Crystal Lake To Manhattan, Sean Cunningham (who produced Friday The 13th Part II but didn’t direct) explains that he briefly debated whether to use the “Friday The 13th” title as a hook for an entirely new story. But then the demand for a quick sequel—combined with fan interest in that strange “monster in the lake” at the end of the first film—pushed him to repeat himself, and to set the series on what would become a very narrow course. The most significant additions to Part II include Jason himself, and a few soon-to-be repeated pieces of horny teenager behavior: skinny-dipping, and a woman heading off alone to her room to prep herself for sex. Also, the addition of Jason is accompanied by the addition of one way to defeat Jason: by pretending to be someone else and momentarily confusing him.
The style: Slapdash. An already short film is eaten up by six minutes of recap, and director Steve Miner draws out the action further by introducing every fake scare in the book: leaping cats, whistling teakettles, boyfriends jumping out at girlfriends, and so on. Nevetheless, even though the pacing is slack and the suspense sequences thoroughly pedestrian—with still more steadicam POV shots that don’t make logical sense—the climactic chase scene is legitimately nail-biting, leading up to an ending that’s arguably scarier than the heart-stopper that ended part one. And the head counselor’s warning to the women to avoid bears by “keeping clean during your menstrual cycle” foregrounds the series’ preoccupation with female sexuality.
1981 signifiers: Aside from a twisty telephone cord and some designer labels, the biggest era-definer was happening off-screen and in the real world, where “slasher fatigue” was already setting in among critics, if not yet audiences. In Roger Ebert’s review of Friday The 13th Part II, he writes, “The movie fantasies when I was a kid… involved teenagers who fell in love, made out with each other, customized their cars, listened to rock and roll, and were rebels without causes. Neither the kids in those movies nor the kids watching them would have understood a world view in which the primary function of teenagers is to be hacked to death.” Thus, a new front for the culture war was opened.
1982: Friday The 13th Part III (in 3-D)
The plot: Jason. Teenagers. 3-D.
The victims: Two groups: A band of culturally diverse young people (including a pair of stoners, a pregnant chick, and a nerdy practical joker) vacationing at an old farm, and a gang of culturally diverse local toughs (as indicated by their leather jackets, chains and bandanas) who bully the vacationers.
Series motifs: All the fades to white and warnings from creepy old men remain, along with the skinny-dipping, shower scenes, prepping-for-sex scenes and fake scares. But Friday The 13th Part Three is best remembered for one key addition to the series’ mythology: the hockey mask, which Jason swipes from the practical joker and makes his own.
The style: 3-D-riffic. Eyeballs pop out, harpoons shoot into the camera, boys play with yo-yos—yes, yo-yos—and even the credits come right at ya (in the manner of the previous year’s unexpected 3-D hit, Comin’ At Ya.) An element of tongue-in-cheek humor begins to creep into the series as well, along with touches of self-reference. (Example: The teens walk by a Fangoria magazine with a Tom Savini cover photo.) Scare-wise though, this is one of the slackest Fridays, as the limitations of the “separate, then kill” plot structure begin to reveal themselves. Since only one or two kids survive long enough to find out what’s happening to them and their friends, no kind of character arc can develop, so the story stalls. Really, none of these first three movies get revved up until the last 20 minutes.
1982 signifiers: The creepy Harry Manfredini score over the opening credits is replaced by a bumpin’ electro-funk instrumental.
1984: Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter
The plot: A now fully superhuman Jason rises from the dead at a local morgue then heads back to the lake to torment a group of partying teens and a nearby family.
The victims: The usual horny idiots (including Crispin Glover!), but also the series’ first child: a horror movie fanatic and make-up expert played by Corey Feldman.
Series motifs: The opening credits feature the already-iconic hockey mask (and a return to scary music), while the teens run through their paces: skinny-dipping, prepping-for-sex, and showering. (Though in a twist, the showering victim is a man, not a woman.) With the anti-slasher movement at a peak in the year of Silent Night, Deadly Night, Paramount tried to kill the profitable-but-embarrassing Friday The 13th series by adding “The Final Chapter” to the title, and yet, in the closing moments, a steely gleam in Feldman’s eyes leaves an opening for a sequel. As it happened, both Feldman’s character and the idea of a soul-jumping Jason would return in subsequent movies, though not in the way this chapter suggests.
The style: Suspense-wise, this is one of the series’ better entries, in part because the victims become aware of their circumstances relatively quickly, and in part because the few moments of humor are more mordant than goofy. (When Glover bellows, “Where’s my corkscrew?,” it’s not hard to guess what weapon he’s about to be offed with.) The Feldman-as-killer-to-be bit is legitimately unnerving, as is a climactic dream sequence fake-out that nods to the first film. But the most notable aspect of The Final Chapter may be the copious nudity, including a long scene where a character watches an old stag film before Jason rips through the screen and dispatches him. In retrospect, Paramount seemed to be trading one disreputable genre for another.
1984 signifiers: Early in the film, a hospital orderly watches a jazzercise video. Later, Glover—in a buttoned-up Oxford shirt—puts a trashy hair-metal song on the radio and dances spasmodically, while his best friend sits around in his jean-jacket vest and rolled-up shirtsleeves, listening to his Walkman.
1985: Friday The 13th: A New Beginning
The plot: In a move that needlessly tangles the series chronology and continuity (such as it is), the story leaps ahead to roughly eight years after the end of the previous film, with the-character-formerly-played-by-Corey-Feldman-but-now-played-by-John-Shepard having become a dazed young man, plagued by visions of Jason. Surprisingly, when a new string of murders begins, the culprit is neither Jason nor the kid, but rather a paramedic seeking vengeance for the accidental death of his son.
The victims: Inmates at a camp-like institution for troubled teens, including a new wave chick and a black dude in Michael Jackson gear. Next to Jason Goes To Hell, A New Beginning features the highest percentage of black characters, perhaps as a way of acknowledging the persistent popularity of these films in the African-American community.
Series motifs: The fades-to-white are gone for good, but otherwise A New Beginning offers the greatest number of direct steals from earlier Friday The 13th movies: A woman primps for sex by spraying perfume down her panties, just like in Part II. A dude gets offed while taking a dump, just like in Part III. A camper is impaled from below his bed, just like in the first film. And teenagers hang out in a party van, just like in every other Friday The 13th film. Also, the victims’ liberal use of marijuana is accented by a few lines of cocaine.
The style: The post-Porky’s emphasis on nudity continues, in what’s easily the coarsest entry in the series. The language is rougher—typical line: “You big fat dildo, eat your fuckin’ slop!”—the sex earthier, and the murders grosser. Halfway through the Reagan era, and with cable TV and VCRs blanketing the nation, the ante had been upped.
1985 signifiers: The opening credits music is overtly action movie-ish, like something straight out of a Canon Films production.
1986: Jason Lives: Friday The 13th Part VI
The plot: The-character-formerly-played-by-Corey-Feldman-and-John-Shepard-but-now-played-by-Thom-Matthews inadvertently revives Jason’s corpse while trying to consign him to hell, and the newly undead Jason heads back to Camp Crystal Lake, which for some reason is operational again. (And with actual little kids for once.) Meanwhile, the local authorities do all they can to pretend nothing is amiss, even going so far as to lock Matthews in jail to shut him up.
The victims: Cops and counselors, plus Tony Goldwyn and Ron “Horshack” Palillo.
Series motifs: The tinny, synthesized music of A New Beginning returns, making the movie sound like a feature-length G.I. Joe cartoon. Jason Lives also introduces the idea that the masked murderer can be revived supernaturally, and can only be destroyed by removal to the bottom of Crystal Lake.
The style: Hyper-winking. Writer-director Tom McLoughlin practically turns Jason Lives into a parody of Friday The 13th and horror movies in general, starting with a Frankenstein-like rebirth for Jason—all lightning and metal rods—and extending to the moment when one of Jason’s victims says, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly.” McLoughlin piles up the cute, sticking in place names like Karloff’s Grocery, Cunningham Road, and the town of Carpenter, and having campers read Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Even the murders have some slapstick elements, as one victim leaves behind a bloody smiley face on the tree Jason smashes him into. At one point, the film’s designated crazy old coot looks straight into the camera and growls, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” Indeed.
1986 signifiers: The boys look like Bruce Springsteen and the girls look like either Madonna or Lisa Bonet. But the biggest clue to what year this is may be the film’s song-heavy soundtrack—no doubt a post-Top Gun attempt to develop some ancillary revenue streams. And don’t overlook Jason Lives’ lighting: The inky black nights of the early ‘80s have been replaced by a kind of well-lit darkness, like a used car lot having a midnight madness sale, and the believably shabby small town locations have given way to a quaint, Hollywood-ized small town that could pass for the set of Back To The Future.
1988: Friday The 13th Part VII: The New Blood
The plot: A stressed-out telekinetic teen joins her friends at Crystal Lake under the advice of her psychiatrist, but a misuse of her powers draws Jason out of his watery tomb, at which point he commences to slaughtering…
The victims: …a group of horny teens who…
Series motifs: …smoke pot and skinny-dip and fool around in bitchin’ vans. And like Part III’s practical joker and The Final Chapter’s Crispin Glover, The New Blood has its own awkward nerd: a sci-fi/horror buff who says things like, “I’ve been rejected by some of the finest science fiction magazines in the continental United States,” and “The Battle Of The Gargantuan Throng is a work of genius!”
The style: Despite the attempt to give Jason a worthy adversary and to give that adversary a love story, The New Blood quickly falls into the usual patterns of screw-and-slash. Only much tamer. The heyday of sex and violence is over here at the end of the Reagan era. The nudity is now scant, and the gore effects relatively tasteful At this point in the evolution of Friday The 13th, the movies have more in common with action movies like Predator.
1988 signifiers: One chaperone sports her best Markie Post hairdo. Also, when one of the kids leaves the room, he says “I’ll be bock” in a Terminator accent.
1989: Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
The plot: Dredged up yet again from the bottom of Crystal Lake, Jason makes his way aboard a cruise ship headed for New York, and does in a handful of high school students on their senior trip. In a possible sop to A Nightmare On Elm Street fans, the murders are a little wilder: death by hot spa rock, death by kickboxing, and so on.
The victims: On the boat, it’s a diverse group of high schoolers including a horror fiction writer, a hair-metal chick (who gets crushed by her own flying-V guitar), and an alterna-dude with a video camera permanently perched on his shoulder. Off the boat, it’s the backlot version of New York street toughs, with the ubiquitous torn clothes and bandanas.
Series motifs: The “ki-ki-ki” sound returns to the soundtrack, the fake-out scares return to the script, and the drug of choice? Cocaine again. The film also gets back into the jokey mode of Jason Lives, especially when the bad guy steps off the boat and takes a hard look at a billboard for the Eastern Hockey League. The series has also stopped giving much of a reason for Jason’s existence. At one point, an authority figure explains, “Every now and then, the murders just start up.”
The style: This is one of the few Friday The 13th films with a three-act structure, and since the heroes become aware of the threat fairly early on, they get to grow and confront their fears and do all those things that screenwriting seminars were pitching hard at the end of the ‘80s.
1989 signifiers: It’s all about the hair: Shoulder-length Sunset Strip ‘dos for the dudes, and L.A. Law helmets for the ladies. Also, in this pre-Giuliani era, New York is depicted as the ultimate hellhole.
1993: Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday
The plot: A covert military force lures Jason into the open by dangling a naked, showering female agent in front of him, then blasts him to bits, bundling the remains to scientific study. But in creeping zombie-like fashion, the “Jason essence” infects the doctor assigned to examine the body parts, then passes from person to person in a manner suggested way back in Part IV. Some incredibly explicit unrated butchery ensues.
The victims: A few oversexed teenagers of course—at least the ones who don’t wear condoms when they fornicate—but also scientists, law officers, and a sleazy reality TV producer played by Steven Culp.
Series motifs: For the first Friday The 13th movie made by New Line instead of Paramount, the title “Friday The 13th” disappears, and Jason continues his evolution to supernatural demon status by becoming even bulkier, and having his hockey mask turn into a metal face plate grown into his skin. This Jason also behaves more like a post-Silence Of The Lambs serial killer, torturing his victims before finishing them off. And in a fan-friendly nod that wouldn’t pay off for another 10 years, the film ends with Jason’s head being dragged underground by the blade-festooned hand of Freddy Krueger, New Line’s other horror star.
The style: The Freddy appearance signals a shift in the series’ overall tone and purpose, almost into the realm of fanfic. From here on out, the movies dismantle the slasher formula and become about exploring the mythology of the Jason character in other contexts. In Jason Goes To Hell he’s treated like a celebrity. Crystal Lake capitalizes on his fame by selling “Jason burgers”—cut to look like a hockey mask—while Culp dedicates whole episodes of American Case File to hunting Jason down.
1993 signifiers: American Case File kind of says it all.
2002: Jason X
The plot: Both an unloosed Jason—not in hell, for reasons unexplained—and the scientist studying him are frozen cryogenically and thawed out in the year 2455, aboard a spaceship full of…
The victims: …horny teens. And one horny android.
Series motifs: The already superhuman beast Jason gets an upgrade, as he’s rebuilt with nanobot technology into a literal killing machine. But he’s still pretty easily duped. The surviving space-teens and the unfrozen scientist create a simulacrum of Crystal Lake onboard their ship, and momentarily distract Jason with the illusion of two topless girls, smoking pot and cooing, “We loooove premarital seeeeex!”
The style: Welcome to the age of CGI, Mr. Voorhees. Made seven years after the previous film (then stuck on a shelf for two years), Jason X takes full advantage of whatever filmmaking technology its low budget can afford, most notably in the scene in which Jason shoves a student’s face into subzero liquid, then pounds it into a stainless steel counter, shattering it into pieces. Unsurprisingly, the reliance on computer effects over make-up makes this one of the least visceral films in the series, although it’s also one of the more generally entertaining, thanks to some lean direction by David Cronenberg crony James Isaac. (Cronenberg pops up in a cameo early in the film, as a favor to his friend.) And the final sequence at Virtual Crystal Lake is strangely moving, hinting at the nostalgic direction the series was about to take.
2002 signifiers: Two dudes sit in the simulacra room and play VR video games.
2003: Freddy Vs. Jason
The plot: The long awaited pairing of New Line’s two cult villains ends up being more an attempt to restart the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise than a proper return to Crystal Lake. Worried that children aren’t afraid of him anymore because they don’t remember him, Freddy revives Jason and has him travel to Elm Street for a little serial killin’, designed to convince the authorities that Freddy is on the loose again, and thus restore his legend. But when Jason kills the kids that Freddy was saving for himself, Freddy enters Jason’s dreams to try and stop him.
The victims: Ordinary teens, not necessarily horny. Also Freddy and Jason, whaling on each other.
Series motifs: The motifs are more familiar to the Nightmare universe than to the Friday universe—especially the nightmares themselves—although whenever Jason appears, snatches of the familiar “ki-ki-ki” score come with him. The movie also features a New Line-heavy Friday The 13th recap, including an entirely new scene that recalls the old Paramount series, right down to the skinny-dipping. But in a true sign of the times, the skinny-dipper has breast implants.
The style: Although director Ronnie Yu is renowned for his martial arts ghost stories, he doesn’t bring much of that flash to Freddy Vs. Jason, instead turning the action sequences into fairly leaden superguy-throws-stuff-at-superguy punch-outs. As for the tone of the film, it’s strictly post-Scream, with abundant pop culture references and genre-deconstructing moments, like the one where Kelly Rowland analyzes the sexual subtext of Freddy’s tiny blades versus Jason’s big hatchet. It’s a very plotty film as well, with far more complex motivation for the killers and the victims—unnecessarily so, in both cases.
2003 signifiers: In a post-Columbine, post-9/11, post J-horror world, there’s no shortage of relevant, era-specific themes and styles for Freddy Vs. Jason to explore, and yet what marks it as an early 21st-century horror movie—beyond the portrait of George W. Bush featured prominently behind one stubborn, misguided police officer—is the sense of yearning for a simpler scare. Freddy’s plan is Hollywood’s plan, urging the teens of today to remember the child-murderer who now kills kids in their dreams, and the neglected child who carves up campers by a placid lake. The fact that Freddy Vs. Jason made more money than any entry in either series ever proved the marketers right, but in the process, the image of the 1980s’ greatest monsters diminished slightly. Once they were boogeymen. Now, they’re corporate emblems.