No film in the Friday the 13th canon will ever be mistaken for great cinema. At their best, they’re mindless, overblown entertainment. At their worst, they’re dull, insipid, mean-spirited trash. And Jason Voorhees, while iconic, may be more than a bit lacking in the traditional Great Villain criteria – his motivations are inconsistent, his origins nonsensical, his goals unclear, and his methods unpleasant. He’s not the hero of his own story, we don’t even know what he thinks his story is. He’s mute and for many films, it’s not clear at all what’s going through his head, what he’s feeling, what he thinks. He’s really not all that scary, but he is an icon, a real screen presence, and he embodies the 80’s slasher in a way that no other character really does. He went from a meaningless (if effective) final scare cameo in his mother’s film to the star of the franchise in no time flat. And he joined the ranks of iconic horror figures alongside Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein in a way that his predecessor, and rather obvious inspiration, Michael Myers, never really did. If not for Freddy Krueger, he’d be the most iconic horror figure of the 80’s.
But who is Jason, really? The Friday the 13th series emerged in the early days of the slasher boom, shortly after the success of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween. Early on, the series was defined by its atmosphere: a mixture of New England fireside folk tales and greasy 80’s teen culture. However, Jason was not to show up until the very end of the first film, and not to take on a major role – or even make his first kill – until the second. Instead, it’s his mother who takes the role of the mystery slasher. But we’re not here to talk about Mrs. Voorhees.
HIS NAME WAS JASON
Her son, Jason, makes his first kill revenging the death of his mother in the cold open of Part 2, beginning a 22 year murder spree (only briefly interrupted by death) that would take him to Manhattan, to hell and back, and to space, eventually pitting him against the Man of Your Dreams, Freddy Krueger himself. Jason would stab, harpoon, slash, and smash his way through 9 blood-filled sequels, missing out on Part V after his death in “The Final Chapter.” Mr. Voorhees ultimately would make his way through two ¨Final Chapters¨ alive (Parts IV and IX), and, despite the most dogged efforts of a censoring MPAA, outraged film critics, and the ravages of sequelitis, never truly died. Adjusted for inflation, none of Jason’s outings were able to beat out his mother’s blood-soaked first entry at the box office, but they were no slouches either, managing to sustain a nearly annual film franchise for 10 years before one truly crashed in the era that killed the slasher film: the late 80’s. Slightly better news for New Line’s first Friday (Jason Goes to Hell) was unable to sustain its second (Jason X), which well and truly tanked (partially due to a huge studio shake-up). Freddy Vs. Jason turned fortunes around, but still marked an end to the Crystal Lake Stalker’s rampage.
I. The Look
Most slashers emerge fully-formed – Michael was created with his jumpsuit and Shatner mask, Freddy emerged with claw, hat, and sweater, Leatherface had his apron and mask, Chucky was, well, Chucky, and so on and so forth. But not so with Jason. He began without much of a costume at all, and changed significantly throughout the years, in clothing, mask, and facial disfiguration.
As you can see, Jason slowly became more zombified over the years, and, after his third appearance his established hockey mask and machete combo remained for the rest of the series, with variations on his clothing and his unmasked face. In my opinion, it took them 7 tries to really get it right, with the ideal Jason lumbering through The New Blood.
The make-up here is very ahead of its time, especially considering the low budget these films operated on. The New Blood expanded on the zombie concept introduced in Jason Lives (a film that never gave us a full-on Jason unmasking), with rotted skin, a skull-like face, and a visible rib cage and spine. Jason’s clothes are here in tatters – apparently, Mr. Voorhees decided against bringing back those bright yellow gloves from Part VI.
Jason’s outfit was so tattered in The New Blood, however, that by Jason Takes Manhattan, he needed a new jumpsuit.
I actually am a bit of a fan of this look, the always wet look is kind of nice, but they really screwed up his face.
He looks like a Muppet. I understand continuing the zombie thing to its logical conclusion, but nothing about this says scary. He looks waterlogged. Which is kind of the point, but still. The next time we saw our boy Jason, he was looking a little worse for wear.
Jason Goes to Hell’s redesign is certainly interesting, if not perfect. He’s really rotted this time, his head’s bloated up and his mask has embedded into his face. I don’t know if I like it per se, but it’s a new direction, and it’s barely in the film anyways. By Jason X, we’d returned to a traditional (if rather cheap-looking) Jason:
Until the silly, Power Rangers-style Über-Jason redesign, which is a whole lot of fun, but really stupid (kind of like Jason X in general).
In Freddy vs. Jason, a bizarre redesign placed weird emphasis on Jason’s eyes (which had been unseen through the mask for 17 years to make him appear menacing), enlarging the hockey mask, and keeping the scraggly hair strands of JGTH.
Just doesn’t pack the same punch, does it? The lackluster Jason also comes from a cruel recasting decision, pitching out Horror Icon Kane Hodder in favor of Some Guy Ken Kerzinger. New Line has claimed both that it was done so Jason would tower over Freddy (which is BS because Kerzinger’s only an inch taller than Hodder) and for Kerzinger’s “soulful eyes” (odd trait to look for in a vicious killer). Both claims are false – it’s likely Kane Hodder was replaced to save a bit of money, and to make it more convenient. Who’s Kane Hodder, you ask, that New Line Cinema should go to lengths to cooperate with him? Well, I’m glad you asked.
II. Mr. Hodder, Meet Mr. Voorhees
Hodder was first brought on to the series based on the recommendation of The New Blood director Carl Buechler (Hodder and Buechler had worked together on 1987’s Prison). Hodder brought a new angle to the role: Warrington Gillette of Part 2 portrayed him as an unusually inept killer who spends large portions of the film getting beaten up, Richard Brooker brought the interesting aura of a petulant child to young Mr. Voorhees, while Ted White brought a more iconic slasher air to Jason in The Final Chapter. All the Jasons had played Jason as a somewhat intelligent, emotionless killer, with visible “crazy eyes.” With Part VI, and the newly zombified Jason, a redesigned mask reduced the size and visibility of the eyeholes, rendering them empty black voids. They say that eyes are the window to the soul, so it’s appropriate that a soulless killer should have none.
While other Jasons had portrayed Jason as a durable, yet decidedly human, character, the zombified Jason of Jason Lives required a different approach. C.J. Graham had brought a serviceable, Frankensteinian movement to Jason in Part VI, with a few standout sequences. His baffled reaction to his own enhanced strength is hilarious.
But Hodder brought something new to the table: pure, unadulterated rage. Even without the luxury of facial expressions, Jason never seems anything less than utterly pissed off in every scene from Parts VII-X. Throughout a studio shake-up and diminishing quality, Kane Hodder was the only saving grace of some of the worst slashers of the era. Hodder’s posture, his gait, his facial expressions through heavy make-up when Jason was unmasked, all conveyed more character than any Jason actor before or since
The rise of self-referential humor in the series coincided with Hodder’s stay, possessing a surprising knack for physical comedy. Sure, he’s no Chaplin, but he’s no slouch either. His energy and dedication to the role helps to liven up dull as dirt films like Jason Takes Manhattan, and his absence in Freddy vs. Jason is sorely felt. Kane Hodder embodied a seemingly empty role so completely that he made himself irreplaceable, something no slasher actor except Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger was able to do. Michael Myers actors came and went, changing drastically with no one caring, Leatherface could be literally anybody, and nobody cared. But quite honestly, no matter the Jason, we’re only here for the blood. And Friday the 13th delivered on kills in a way more creative than Halloween and somewhat less cartoony than A Nightmare on Elm Street.
III. The Kills
Throughout his over two decades of murder, Jason Voorhees has killed 158 people, making him the most deadly movie maniac. Michael Myers, his closest competitor, had only 111 kills, and his rival, Freddy Krueger, killed a measly 48. For a reference point, Jaws killed only 18, and that was like 4 different sharks.
Jason’s stabbed, slit, choked, beaten, speared, electrocuted, hacked, burned, melted, and fried his way through scores of corpses, even after becoming a corpse himself. In fact, his death seemed only to fuel his bloodlust, with his highest bodycount-per-movie ratios coming post-death, in Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X with 22 and 24 kills, respectively, finally managing to beat out the surprisingly deadly copycat killer in Part V. Here’s an infographic displaying Jason’s kills in chronological order:
Some of my personal favorite kills include:
The wheelchair down the stairs from Part 2:
The 3D harpoon from Part 3:
The heart punch from Part VI:
The infamous sleeping bag kill from Part VII:
The head punch from Part VIII:
The head freeze/smash from Jason X:
The double sleeping bag kill from Jason X:
IV. Jason vs. Censorship
Ironically, Jason’s biggest enemy was never his bona fide nemesis, Tommy Jarvis, nor the blatant Carrie rip-off from The New Blood, but the very real, very puritanical Motion Pictures Association of America of the 1980’s, operating with a much more stringent definition of an R rating than modern filmgoers are used to. Every Friday the 13th film struggled to avoid the dreaded X-rating (a marketing nightmare) with their edge intact.
Part VII, the most heavily censored film, had to be submitted to the MPAA 9 times before passing, leaving it with almost no blood and gore whatsoever. The other films faced a harsh and bureaucratic organization with inconsistent standards that was more than willing to kill a film with an unnecessary (and frankly unearned) X-rating. Some arty films (Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange) could survive with an X-rating, but a horror blockbuster like Friday the 13th needed the kind of mass marketing that just couldn’t be achieved without an R. Until Jason Goes to Hell, the Friday movies had very little gore at all, and even in modern times, it remains impossible to watch full, uncensored, uncut versions of the films, because the original negatives, and most of the footage in general, has been lost. Here’s what the famous sleeping bag kill in Part VII would’ve been like:
As opposed to the neutered version we did get:
The most ridiculous part is that they weren’t censoring just any gore, in some cases they were censoring gore auteurs like Tom Savini, who was allowed free reign on gorier films like Day of the Dead, due to the studio’s willingness to go unrated. Friday the 13th as a series is filled with kills that lack any bite, involving countless offscreen stabbings and quick cuts, ruining the exploitation film nature of the original. By Jason Goes to Hell, the MPAA had relaxed, and the following films—Jason X and Freddy vs. Jason—were given much freer reign, but the damage was done. Jason wasn’t allowed to be the ultra-violent superkiller he was intended to be, and the hard work of underpaid effects artists was destroyed, all because of the qualms of interfering moral busybodies.
And while the MPAA certainly had the power to hurt Mr. Voorhees, the stronger, more violent vitriol came from outraged film critics, including the respected institution that was Siskel & Ebert. While dislike of the cynical, exploitative tendencies of the franchise were to be expected, to be outraged is another thing, to give out addresses of film execs, to incite targeted harassment towards star Betsy Palmer (as Gene Siskel did in his original Chicago Tribune review) is another thing entirely. And the duo’s hatred for the franchise did not wane over the years, in their At the Movies reviews of Parts IV and V (where Ebert outlandishly claims that the films will destroy the hopes and dreams of teens everywhere) and in Ebert’s reviews of Part 2 and Jason X. The strangest thing about this is that Parts 2 and IV are easily among the best films in the slasher boom of the earl 80’s. Sure, they’re not genre classics like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they’re better than schlock like April Fool’s Day, Final Exam, My Bloody Valentine, Silent Night Deadly Night, The House on Sorority Row, Happy Birthday to Me, Mother’s Day, and the literally hundreds of other slashers of that era. It’s strange to pick on the Friday films specifically, other than their success in enduring. But the critics weren’t able to hurt Jason, he lived and died on his audiences. He lasted so long because he gave teens what they wanted to see: sex, death, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s no mystery why Jason (and later, to a much greater extent, Freddy) had such wide appeal: he was cool, he was hip, he was edgy. His films were controversial, nearly X-rated affairs; it was almost an act of rebellion seeing them. And Jason died when he did because his fans had grown up; Jason was old hat by the time he Took Manhattan, the slashers were dead as they were in 1984 at the end of the 80’s, and there was no “Final” Chapter to revive them. Only Scream poking fun at Jason and his ilk would kickstart a new slasher boom, and Jason wasn’t to be a part of it, firmly stuck in the past with halfhearted attempts at gimmickry. Only a reboot brought Jason back to the world, and even that endeavor was short-lived, with a sequel seemingly stuck in development hell for good. But perhaps that’s best for Jason. As Tommy Jarvis said, “Jason belongs in Hell—” but it seems that apathetic audiences, not Tommy, have kept him there.
As a bonus, perhaps the greatest thing to come out of Friday the 13th: Crispin Glover’s arrhythmic “dancing.”