Wednesday, 9 December 2009
JASON HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE!
There will be blood and there will be spoilers!
So here we again, it’s 1986 and Jason’s back in business. You can’t keep a good man down, or indeed in the case of slasher movies, a very bad one. And although Part 5 had been roundly slated for its pretend Jason antics, Paramount still raked it in at the box office and so there was only one thing to do – resurrect everyone’s favourite psychopathic slaphead for Part 6 and watch the cash roll in once more. Proof positive that the only thing that can truly kill a slasher villain is a loss at the box office.
Hence, in a storm crazed opening sequence, Tommy Jarvis, who has regenerated into Thom Matthews, returns to Crystal Lake to make sure that his old enemy is truly dead. And indeed he is - the scourge of nubile teens everywhere is now a mouldering corpse, with worms crawling in and crawling out, and presumably playing pinochle on his snout. But then, in a twist that proves that irony does indeed exist in some areas of the US of A, Tommy accidentally reanimates his foe…
Now, I distinctly remember back in the day reading in Fangoria that Jason was to be resurrected as an undead killing machine, and thinking that apart from being a bit of a U-turn in the series’ direction, leaving Part 5 now looking more like “The False Start” than “The New Beginning”, it seemed like Paramount were trying to Freddy-ise Jason by having him join the legions of the undead. But at the same time, it did pique my interest in the franchise once more; sure turning Jason into a zombie sounded dumb, but it also sounded like a lot of fun.
And indeed Friday 13th Part 6 – Jason Lives is a ball from start to finish. And incredibly, especially for a fifth sequel, the movie turned out to be not just so bad it’s good, but actually entertaining and thrilling for all the right reasons. In short, this flick is way better than any Part 6 of any franchise has any right to be, and even more amazingly, stands up as one of the best entries in the series.
Firstly the movie manages to get the number of leading characters just right. The challenge for any script for a slasher outing is to have enough fodder for your maniac to slaughter but not so many as to make your story telling unfocused and choppy. Director Tom McLoughlin realised that we don’t actually really care about most of the characters in a slasher flick, and so Jason Lives wisely keeps its main cast numbers down to a handful. But it also shrewdly bulks up the body count with plenty of one shot characters, such as policemen and random campers, for our killer corpse to hack down. Hence there are plenty of kills, but without the story line wasting scenes on characters that we know are going to die horribly very soon.
But apart from pacing the slasher formula spot on, Jason Lives, again surprisingly for an umpteenth sequel, actually brings something new to the table. Firstly, the film’s main theatre of operations is the newly re-opened Camp Blood, now re-branded Forest Green in a Windscale to Sellafield piece of local reputation spinning. Now the causal reader may be thinking - “yeah so what! Aren’t they all set at summer camps?” but surprisingly this is only the second film to be set in a camp proper. The original was, the second was at a camp counsellor training centre, and subsequent entries are simply set around Crystal Lake. More importantly though, this is the first film that has a camp that actually has some children present.
Victor Miller, who scripted the first film, has stated that isolation is a key ingredient in the Friday 13th recipe, which is usually why the locations in the series contrive to have a bunch of characters alone somewhere in the woods. And although the inclusion of a horde of ankle-biters running about the place somewhat wrecks this element, there is a good trade off. In Part 4, Jason appeared all the more dangerous and down right evil by the fact he was as keen to off Corey Feldman as he was the rest of the grown-up cast. Hence putting a bus load of kids in Jason’s path ups his threat quotient considerably.
Similarly, although McLoughlin emphasises the camp’s rural location, with plenty of establishing shots and scenes of the brooding woods, there is for once an outside world too. For once we actually see the cops do something other than appear at the beginning, cleaning up the aftermath of the last movie’s massacre, or turning up too late at the end. And aside from being a refreshing change, having Jason square off against the local fuzz boost his menace rating and fear factor. After all it’s one thing to off the usual bunch of teenage stereotypes, but having him take down hordes of armed professionals establishes his new unstoppable undead status and increased powers.
Though all that said, the isolation element is present after a fashion: here it’s more about psychological distance than geographical remoteness. The dynamic is not that the cast are miles away from anywhere, from any help or potential saviours, but that most of them are unaware that they are in danger at all or refuse to believe that Jason is back. So despite a large cast – and this is probably the most heavily populated of all the Friday 13th movies – only Tommy and Megan know that Jason is out there, effectively isolated by that knowledge, and they have to contend not only with a resurrected killing machine but the local authorities getting in their way.
And having our young leads in this position taps into classic adolescent attitudes and feelings; of being misunderstood, repressed and generally devalued by adults. There is a strong theme of this kind of teenage rebellion against their elders, and again it’s surprising it look the series, a franchise featuring and aimed at teens, six movies to incorporate this.
However the biggest new element McLoughlin introduces to the franchise is humour. Now horror and humour certainly share a fence as genres and but any movie missing two runs the risk of ending up of the two cancelling each out. Too much humour and the horror evaporates like Nosferatu at a tanning salon, and not enough humour leaves the comedy moments looking like they’ve lurched in from another movie Blazing Saddles style.
Now Jason Lives has indeed been criticised for the inclusion of humour by some fans over the years. But make no mistake, the movie is not trying to be a horror comedy proper, nor is it removing the Michael out of the franchise. Admittedly there are some scenes featuring very broad comedy; for example the scenes with Jason and the paintballing business men is more than a little reminiscent of that other long running ‘80s franchise Police Academy, which may not reach everyone’s funny bone but there’s also some rather more sophisticated fare on offer too, such as the running gag of asides from two small boys which functions like a Greek chorus of sarcasm, and sly references to Boris Karloff and the James Bond titles.
The comic moments presented serve to add to a splatter of fun to the proceedings, and generally add a little extra entertainment to what usually are the longeurs between kills. This far down Sequel Lane, even the best director in the world would have trouble creating a pedal to the metal horror show, as the concepts of the series have been done to death and the lead villain has transformed into a beloved icon. By this stage, people are turning out for entertainment rather than a real scare and so the script encourages us to laugh along with the movie as part of the usual ride.
McLoughlin shows a deft hand in knowing when to be funny and when to play it straight, so we never have tension punctured by inappropriate laughs. In the main, most of the comedy comes in the first half, and when we hit the action packed last reel the moments of humour serve as a nice counterpoint to the carnage.
And there is carnage aplenty. There are some great kills in this flick, with Jason taking full advantage of his new undead super strength. Plus there are brilliant action sequences – we get car chases, fights on boats and a spectacular RV crash. Although on the surface, the newly reanimated Jason may seem to be reinventing him in a Freddy mould, there’s also a huge dose of the Terminator in his undead DNA – Mrs Voorhee’s little boy is now not just a stone killer but relentlessly unstoppable – neither guns nor wide scale property damage slow him down.
And naturally no discussion of Jason in these pages is complete without addressing the live or dead question. Now I can hear what you are all saying – “Give it up Jim, he’s definitely dead in this flick! He’s deceased! Passed on! He has ceased to be!”. But if I may interrupt the Pythonist liturgy, the old continuity issue does rise from the grave again here. Basically, Tommy plan to defeat Jason involves returning him to his original resting place… And this turns out to be the depths of Crystal Lake and not his maggot filled coffin back at the cemetery. All of which suggests that Jason has indeed been dead from the beginning…
Anyhow I must say I do really like this new definitely dead Jason. It’s a fair point that his resurrection is hokey in the extreme, lifted straight out of the Big Book of Horror Clichés, but it does let us get straight into the mayhem with no faffing about. And we do now have some narrative logic to explain why he’s invulnerable to all damage. But more interestingly, the old struck by lightning routine harks back to the way the classic Universal horrors would revive their characters. And I’m sure this isn’t accidental, as the opening sequence in the graveyard strongly echoes the beginning of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. And that’s very fitting as Friday 13th Part 6 brings us the most iconic Jason to date.
As we seen in the preceding dissections of the series, the look and even the behaviour of Jason has altered significantly from film to film. But Jason Lives establishes the version most people think of – the unstoppable, slow walking dead man. And though future entries in the original series will tweak the costume and fiddle with his features in the unmasking scenes, from now on the portrayal of Jason pretty much remains the same as is presented in this movie.
However aside from refining all the best elements of previous incarnations, Friday 13th Part 6 presents us with a Jason that is truly mythic. Now he is without a doubt a creature from beyond the grave; he’s not just some disfigured psychopath but homicide personified. Furthermore this film has him being defeated by suitably archetypal means – just as Dracula can only be destroyed by the rising sun or a stake through the heart, now Jason has a similar folkloric method of termination. The whole occult shtick of returning him to his resting place to end the rampage is far more satisfying on many levels than the old looks-down-but-is just-playing-possum-until-the-next-flick-is-green-lit routine. Every classic monster needs an arcane Achilles heel and in this movie Jason finally gets his.
As you can probably tell, this is one of my favourite movies in the whole series. It might not be the scariest (Part 1) or the most polished (the remake) but damn it, it is the most fun. The mix of thrills and humour hits the spot just right and I particularly like the way that McLoughlin has mixed the usual formula with new ingredients. The Universal gothic touches add flavour and colour while the classic teenage themes are a logical fit for the subject matter, and the movie is all the better for it. And if all that wasn’t enough you get the daddy of shock rockers, Alice Cooper contributing three tracks to the soundtrack.
Considering the limitations of time and budget alone, Jason Lives is a remarkable success. The firs two entries in the saga may be better serious horror films, but at heart I feel that Jason Lives is a better all round movie experience. It’s unassuming entertainment all the way, which probably explains why it finds its way into the DVD player on a regular basis after a few drinks. And it proves that contrary to all expectations, there was plenty more to be done with the format and the character. McLoughlin brought us a perfect Jason, recast with the bones of a mythology of his own, a real new beginning.
But unfortunately subsequent directors failed to pick up where he left off. The series was not to hit these heights again…