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Legends of Horror, Ranked: Friday the 13th

It’s nearly impossible to talk about horror as an all-encompassing genre without at least briefly touching on Friday the 13th. Starting in 1980 and spawning 12 films over nearly four decades, the series is one of the longest running and most iconic of all time. Even if you’ve never seen any of the films within the franchise, you almost certainly know of its star killer and mascot: Jason Voorhees.

Yes, the big, dumb, machete-wielding maniac and his trademark hockey mask are some of the most recognizable pieces of iconography in not just horror history, but pop culture cinema in general. In fact, the hockey mask itself is so familiar and notorious in the zeitgeist that it’s almost synonymous with horror itself. If you see a figure wearing a hockey mask in a piece of media, odds are you don’t think “Goalie for the Detroit Red Wings.” You think “Horror Movie Slasher.”

Or maybe you’re just a huge fan of that one scene in Wayne’s World.

But despite its status as horror royalty, being considered one of the “Big Three” slasher franchises alongside Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th when taken as a whole is actually fairly weak as far as quality goes. While the other members of the Big Three have at least one or two films that are genuinely great (amidst a sea of other mediocre-to-terrible installments), I’m hard pressed to really say whether Friday contains any real gems at all. They’re all extremely formulaic, like most slashers at the time, and rarely try to do anything truly unique or inventive with their central premise of “Guy in a mask kills a bunch of horny teens at a lake.”

I can’t really say any of the 12 films in the Friday franchise are among my favorite horror movies, but there’s a few that I love as sort of guilty pleasures.

That being said, Friday the 13th deserves some recognition for its role in popularizing horror in the popular conscious in the 80s, influencing and directly causing the inception of some truly phenomenal post-modern films in its wake, like Scream and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. So despite their middling quality, I still have a fair amount of respect for Jason, and his overall legacy as a figure in pop culture.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Friday the 13th as a franchise, and see if we can discern if there’s anything truly worth seeing behind that legendary mask. Here’s my ranking of all 12 installments in the series:

12. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

A movie that may as well have been called “Jason Takes a Boat Ride for 80 Minutes,” Part VIII feels like the cheapest film in the franchise, not in terms of budget, but in terms of concept and execution. When you advertise a film as taking place in New York City, there’s a certain expectation that the film will actually, you know, take place there. Or at least get to it eventually. Jason Takes Manhattan instead wastes nearly its entire runtime on some inconsequential shenanigans on a party, which is somehow making its way from the entirely landlocked Crystal Lake to the Big Apple for a high school graduation party. Jason on a cruise ship is an interesting gimmick for all of 10 minutes, before falling into the usual trappings of the franchise. Worse, when we finally get to New York, there’s basically one single money shot in Time’s Square, one decent kill (a boxer who gets his head knocked clean off), and then one of the most anticlimactic and nonsensical finales in the whole series. Which, believe me, is saying something. Easily the most forgettable Friday the 13th film, despite having one of the snappiest titles and most interesting premises.

11. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday

Another blatant case of false advertisement, which comes up a lot in this series, Jason Goes to Hell is more or less exactly what it says on the tin: Jason has finally been killed off for good, blown to hell by the FBI of all people (where they’ve been for the past couple of decades, who knows). Which would be a reasonably cool sendoff, if it didn’t happen in the first five minutes of the movie. What follows is a ridiculous (even by Friday standards), random series of events that completely defy the canon and established framework of the franchise, and not in a good way. Jason’s heart is consumed by people, which allows him to possess them, for reasons, all in the hopes of possessing/killing/standing uncomfortably close to his long-lost sister (a trend that’s going to pop up a lot in the next couple of franchises we take a look at). It doesn’t make much sense, and spends little time trying to explain it. All that, coupled with some of the most forgettable characters to ever have the misfortune of starring in one of these films, makes Jason Goes to Hell one of the most unbearable, incomprehensible experiences I’ve ever had with a slasher film.

10. Friday the 13th (1980)

Slightly blasphemous, I know, but outside of the fact that it launched this horror behemoth into the stratosphere in terms of mainstream popularity, the original 1980 Friday the 13th really doesn’t have a lot going for it. An intentional, blatant rip-off of Halloween and other films that were popping up in its wake, the first Friday suffers from shoddy cinematography, bizarre camerawork (including a nearly two-minute-long single take of a character making coffee, for no reason), and an overall lack of direction that makes it seem like it’s just sort of aimlessly wandering around for 90 minutes. Our final girl Alice is pretty great, and an early appearance from Kevin Bacon is fun in retrospect, but outside of that and the killer performance from Betsy Palmer as Jason’s mad mother Pamela, there’s really not much here to write home about. An important piece of horror history, to be sure, but a fairly dull one, all things considered.

9. Friday the 13th Part III

Most notable for being the film that introduced Jason’s iconic hockey mask, Part III really has nothing noteworthy to offer outside of this addition to the iconography of the franchise. A fairly by-the-numbers slasher, with some supremely cheesy 3D effects tacked on for no real reason whatsoever (save the fact that Friday the 13th Part 3D was catchy on a poster), Part III only manages to edge out the previous films on this countdown by having a slightly snappier pace and some admittedly fun kills, even with the constant 3D gimmick. And really, Part III deserves a slightly elevated position for the inspired genius of the hockey mask alone. It was a spur-of-the-moment choice by the filmmakers and crew, and somehow managed to spawn one of the most recognizable pieces of horror imager in history. Intended or not, the film deserves some credit for that alone.

8. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

I’ll always give a film credit for trying something new, even if the end result is terrible. Original thought should be rewarded, especially in a sea of mostly repetitive drivel like Friday the 13th. So for that alone, I’ll give credit where credit is due: A New Beginning tries to go some new places with its story. The operative word being tries. Haunted by the events of the previous film, The Final Chapter’s young hero Tommy Jarvis is now in his teens, and living in a halfway house for troubled youths. Plagued by nightmares and post-traumatic stress (as one would be, after having to brutally kill a deformed psychopath wearing a hockey mask), Tommy finds himself suddenly in the midst of another string of gruesome murders at the hands of another deformed killer wearing a hockey mask. Despite an actually pretty interesting initial premise, A New Beginning of course then devolves into your standard slasher romp, with horny teens being murdered in a typically gory fashion. Whether or not it’s actually Jason returned from the grave is ultimately completely irrelevant (hand-waved, contrived Scooby-Doo identity reveal aside) as his absence or lack thereof makes little difference at all. If it walks like a hockey-mask-wearing serial killer, and it kills like one too, then it may as well be Jason at the end of the day, even if it isn’t. Still, points for trying.

7. Friday the 13th (2009)

Man, I have really turned a corner on this film. I pretty much loath all the remakes cranked out by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company with a fiery passion. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to A Nightmare on Elm Street, all they manage to be are cheap, lazy cash-grabs that drain their respective franchises of any and all unique character they may have possessed, turning them into overly-violent, needlessly grim and serious, watered-down imitations of their originals. And I used to think Friday the 13th was the absolute worst of the bunch. But upon a rewatch following a refresher on the previous entries in the franchise, I now realize that, honestly, it’s no worse than the vast majority of the other installments in the series. Frankly, it’s better than nearly half of them. Yes, it falls into the same grooves and trappings as every other Friday, but it does it with a slick, modern coat of paint and some genuinely interesting twists on Jason Voorhees as we’ve come to know him. He’s faster, smarter, leaner and meaner, and perhaps more threatening here than he’s ever been. I still don’t think I like this movie very much, but I at least accept it now as an equally valid addition to an already pretty terrible collection of films.  

6. Jason X

Jason X is a solid contender for the dumbest movie ever made, and I almost love it for it. Set in the limbo period between the underwhelming and underperforming Jason Goes to Hell and the still-in-development Freddy vs Jason, Jason X was mostly made to simply retain the rights to the franchise, and it kind of shows. Believing (rightfully) that the franchise really had no where else to go at this point, writer Todd Farmer pitched the idea of Jason going to space, and the studio, having assuredly just finished the last of their cocaine, enthusiastically agreed. What resulted from this half-baked story suggestion is what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of Taco Bell, completely lacking in nutrition and substance, and yet oh-so-delicious. Completely abandoning all notions of being a horror movie at this point, Jason X is a goofy sci-fi cheesefest that sees the machete-wielding maniac go toe-to-toe with androids, space marines, and the cold vacuum of space itself. If that wasn’t enough, the big guy becomes a cyborg partway through the film, which is simultaneously the stupidest and coolest thing to happen in this broken franchise. Every series should go to space, I don’t care how little it makes sense.

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

Part VII is basically “Carrie vs Jason,” which as a concept, is pretty great. Psychically-powered teen final girl Tina Shepard finds herself – you guessed it – at Camp Crystal Lake, where she accidentally awakens the masked face of the franchise with her abilities (in an attempt to summon her father instead, who she accidentally killed years ago in a scene weirdly reminiscent of something out of an X-Men movie). The newly revived Jason is the coolest he’s ever looked, all zombified and covered in chains like some sort of gothic specter, and has some of his most clever, inventive kills in this installment, including one involving a sleeping bag that might be my favorite moment in the franchise. The rest of the film is your average Friday the 13th experience, but the inclusion of a character with literal superpowers is so out-there that I can’t help but to dig it. Try weird things, movies, and I will respect you for it. Even if the end result is still mostly bland and unoriginal.

4. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Probably the most “meh” of all the Friday films, The Final Chapter is yet another case of false advertising. Wanting to distance themselves from a seemingly-declining market for slasher films, Paramount decided that enough was enough, and it was time to kill Jason for good. The result is a surprisingly safe, by-the-numbers Friday, with Jason finishing out his 3-day killing spree that started all the way back in Part 2 (making this movie technically, if you think about it, Sunday the 15th) by mowing through the usual crop of teenage morons. What helps is the inclusion of a young 80s mainstay, Corey Feldman, as the eventually-reoccurring Friday protagonist Tommy Jarvis. Joining him is an uncharacteristically likable family unit of other Jarvises, including mother Tracy and sister Trish, who give this particular entry just a smidge more character and charm than usual. Of course, the box office numbers for The Final Chapter would convince the studio to crank out even more, but for a brief window of time, this was a fitting end for the series.

3. Freddy vs. Jason

The sheer, utter stupidity and self-aware cheese of this movie earns it points more than anything else. After all, how serious and well thought-out could a film really be if it has to justify A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger and Friday the 13th’s own Jason Voorhees not only crossing paths, but coming to blows as well? It’s a ridiculously fun, over-the-top popcorn horror flick that delivers equal-parts fan-service and inventive new material, and has some of the most entertaining moments in either of the title characters’ respective franchises. Director Ronny Yu, who also directed the equally outrageous Bride of Chucky, brings a unique flair and visual style to the film that really elevates and accentuates the ridiculousness of the proceedings. The characters are a fun mix of Friday’s dumb party teens and Nightmare’s more intelligent, cerebral survivors, and the two icons duke it out in a climactic prizefight that gives Alien vs Predator and Godzilla vs Kong both a run for their money. It’s dumb, it’s loud, it’s violent, it’s everything you’d ever want from the concept. I completely, shamelessly adore this movie.

2. Friday the 13th Part 2

Friday the 13th Part 2 is the film that would finally introduce Jason Voorhees as our series antagonist, after a middling initial entry saw his mother Pamela as the psychopath du jour. Still in sort of a larval stage, clad in dirty overalls and a burlap sack for a mask, Jason is nonetheless as menacing as he’ll ever be in this franchise. Slicker and more efficient than the ambling original film, Part 2 also features some of the series’ most endearing and likable teenage murder victims, including final girl Ginny, who actually make you somewhat care when they’re inevitable chopped in half or stabbed in the face. I know not many people hold this particular installment in such high regard, mostly because it had yet to really start embracing some of the franchise’s more well-known tropes and gags, but I still hold that Part 2 is one of the more fresh, original installments, before it became a cookie-cutter assembly line of near-identical slasher-fests.

1. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

Jason Lives is pretty much the quintessential Friday the 13th film. It’s got everything you’d want out of the franchise: dumb teenagers, gruesome deaths, likable leads, returning protagonist Tommy Jarvis, and a final showdown with a reanimated, zombified Jason (before that would eventually become old hat). It’s smart, self-aware, and seems to be one of the only Friday films that doesn’t take itself overly seriously. It has a sort of tongue-in-cheek genre savviness that feels almost like a precursor to meta horror favorites like Scream and Cabin in the Woods. Maybe the funniest film with Jason as antagonist, while still not compromising on the danger or the menace of our jumpsuit-clad homicidal mascot, Jason Lives, for my money, is the most rewatchable, most entertaining, and most well-rounded Friday the 13th installment. Plus, it’s got a young Crispin Glover doing bizarre mating dances and complaining about his prowess in bed, which is great. It’s still not what I would call objectively good, but it’s serviceable, which is more than I can say for most of the movies on this list.

Honestly, the fact that there aren’t 13 of these movies is mildly infuriating. And, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your personal point of view), it looks like we won’t be getting another Friday the 13th for a long time, if ever. The rights to the franchise are currently in an ongoing, nasty legal dispute between director Sean Cunningham and writer Victor Miller, both of whom are responsible for the first Friday and both of whom claim to be the sole IP holder for the franchise. The lawsuit has persisted with no signs of stopping for several years now, putting a halt to any talk of reviving or continuing the franchise until the smoke clears.

But maybe that’s for the best. As iconic as Jason Voorhees and that mask of his are, the overall quality of the franchise has historically left a lot to be desired, and no studio seems to be overly keen on changing that, regardless of who owns the rights. If the only thing waiting for us in the future is another cookie-cutter entry where Jason kills a group of sexed-up, pot-smoking high schoolers in the woods for the umpteenth time, then maybe he should stay dead at the bottom of Crystal Lake where he belongs.

Unless they want to go back to space. That, I support 100%.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

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