How many horror movie series start with a good movie and then just get worse and worse? I'm talking mainly horror movies that move past the "trilogy" stage, like Halloween, The Exorcist, Hellraiser, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.
What sets the Friday the 13th series apart is that it started in mediocrity and continues in mediocrity. No one has ever been disappointed by a Friday the 13th movie; each and every one delivers exactly the same thing. A friend of mine, a beer connoisseur, once explained to me that even though Budweiser beer is bland and horrible, it's apparently a difficult task to continually brew beer with the same taste. There's something admirable, even comforting about that. When one comes to a Budweiser or a Friday the 13th movie, one attains the illusion of stability in an unstable world.
Friday the 13th began, obviously, as a Halloween ripoff. John Carpenter's 1978 film had been the highest-grossing independent film in history up to that point. Two years later, Paramount pictures snapped up an equally dreadful holiday, created an equally dreadful supernatural slasher, and Sean S. Cunningham's original Friday the 13th (1980) was unleashed. Fans -- as well as anyone who remembers Wes Craven's Scream (1996) -- will remember that the killer in the first film is not the memorable Jason Voorhees, clad in his dirty hockey mask, but rather a "surprise" killer whose identity is saved until the end, like a low-rent Agatha Christie tale.
A young Kevin Bacon, fresh from National Lampoon's Animal House, but pre-Diner, became the first of the series' star alumni.
The original film cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000 and grossed somewhere near $40 million. That's a big hit by any standards, and a sequel was not just a good idea, but practically necessary. The makers of Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) got the idea of bringing in the killer's son, Jason, for this film. But the mystery aspect was gone, and all that remained was horror. The rule was that anyone could be killed at any time. True to horror movie standards, the hero was female and usually virginal, and would live to see the prologue of the next movie. Jason appears to die at the end, but as we now know, he's never really dead.
Director Steve Miner returned to do Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), in 3D! Unfortunately, most fans have only seen it in 2D on cable or on video. Though the series was still making big bucks, pulling in about $33 million on a $4 million budget, Paramount apparently decided that it was running out of creative steam, and so Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) was released. It turned out to be a good one, though, featuring both the accomplished child star Corey Feldman (who grew up to do what most child stars grow up to do) and the ultra-freaky Crispin Glover, and so -- without shame or guilt -- Paramount gave us Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985).
Tom McLoughlin's Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) is one of my favorites, for two reasons. In the opening scene, a caretaker discovers Jason's empty grave, from which he has just emerged, ready to hack up more fornicating teenagers. The caretaker surveys the damage, and -- practically to the camera -- says: "Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment." Better still, the movie ends with a synthesizer-laden title song by Alice Cooper, "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)," still a staple at Halloween parties.
In Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988), stuntman Kane Hodder (what a great name!) took over the role of Jason, and would go on to play it in three more films, more than any other actor. Hodder has since become a staple in low-budget horror films and at horror/sci-fi conventions.
If there is a disappointment anywhere in the series, it's Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989). Fans probably salivated at the prospect of their psycho killer leaving Camp Crystal Lake and running around in the big city for 90 minutes, as the title promises. But every review complained about the same thing: Jason doesn't even get to Manhattan until the final ten minutes of the film.
At this point, Paramount dumped the series and New Line took up the reins, waiting four years before dropping the "Friday the 13th" idea altogether and releasing Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). (After all, how many of these movies actually take place on Friday the 13th, or even mention that date?) This entry introduced more wink-wink humor to the series and features the most recognizable actors (mainly on television): Steven Culp, Rusty Schwimmer, Allison Smith and Michael B. Silver. It ends with a humorously ominous reference to another famous killer.
Otherwise known as "Jason in Space," Jason X (2001) featured a cameo by David Cronenberg (director James Isaac had previously worked on several Cronenberg pictures) as well as a hilarious "holo-deck" reference to the earlier Friday the 13th films.
Up to this point, it didn't particularly matter who directed these films; they each had their own built-in style. But the most recent film lured the talented Ronny Yu, best known in Hong Kong for his great The Bride with White Hair (1993) and this year's amazing Jet Li film Fearless. Not to mention that it had an irresistible gimmick: a fight to the finish between two famous killers: Freddy vs. Jason (2003).Throughout, the films have never varied much from the original rules; the series has even maintained its 'R' ratings, without editing to pander to younger teenagers. The horror is all jump-shock stuff, the filmmaking is never very challenging, or even particularly good, and yet, I'm continually drawn to them, even excited by them. I'm even looking forward to movie #12, still untitled, and tentatively scheduled for release next year. Legend has it that 13 movies are planned, but I can't imagine that even hitting that milestone would stop Jason.