Monday, March 4, 2024

Death, Taxes, and Jason Vorhees: The ‘Friday the 13th’ Icon Turns Forty

The first time I ran into Jason Vorhees, I was wandering through the woods. The gargantuan man came through the mist with stunning speed, and I nearly fell into my friends behind me. He stopped, chuckled, and disappeared back into the darkness. Sure, you could say he stopped because we were at Halloween Horror Nights, Universal Studio’s yearly haunted house experience. You could say he recognized my fear and felt like I wasn’t worth his time. Or, most likely, he realized what a huge fan I was (the Camp Crystal Lake shirt was a dead giveaway). It’s not often you meet your heroes, but even rarer, you meet your villains.

Jason Voorhees, the often misremembered star of Friday the 13th, turned forty this week with the anniversary of Friday the 13th Part II on Saturday. While yes, Jason cameoed in Friday the 13th, the big man made his bones in the sequel slasher. Over the next 18 months, Mr. Voorhees has carved his face into the Mount Rushmore of Horror. By 1992, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the MTV Movie Awards. He’s joined Halloween Horror Nights, defended Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat, and fought Freddy Krueger. Jason’s reach far exceeds most of his horror brethren, but what makes him so disgustingly fun to watch on the big screen? The argument for what makes Jason so popular is rather straightforward.

The most obvious reason for Jason’s popularity is his horrific and iconic design. Originally designed for his cameo role for Part I, Tom Savini crafted an oddly misshapen child. Inspired by one of his own childhood friends, Savini’s flourish for the grotesque would take hold in future designs. Steve Miner built on Savini’s designs but drastically aged Jason to make him the physical specimen we’ve come to fear. However, leaving a bag on his head was too similar to other horror classics, most notably The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It wasn’t until Part III that Jason picked up his iconic hockey mask, but once on, it was an undeniably frightening addition that defined his iconography. The Simpsons, ParaNorman, and the video Zombies Ate My Neighbors have co-opted the mask to evoke the Jason imagery at the drop of a hat.

Over the course of the series, Jason got as big as a house, probably by never skipping leg day. As you watch the films, his strength becomes more and more impressive. In Friday the 13th Part III, Jason chops a man in half from the groin down. In the widely derided Jason Takes Manhattan, he punches a victim so hard he decapitates them. Using a person-filled sleeping bag like a baseball bat remains his most iconic kill, especially given the brute strength it would take to accomplish the feat. The emergence of “Mecha-Jason” in Jason X is both a highlight and lowlight of the franchise, yet remains an iconic look to this day. Between his physical prowess and simple design, Jason felt like the everyman.

The highlights of the franchise remain Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (ironically the fourth of twelve movies) and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Each film earns its spot near the top of the franchise because of the creativity and competence on the filmmaking front. Each is well-paced, delivers on the body count, and features genuine moments of tension. Jason Lives gets bonus points as a legitimately funny and self-aware horror-comedy. The Final Chapter finds room for creative kills and human emotion the other films lack. It’s no surprise that the film in the middle, A New Beginning, is undeniably the worst in the franchise.

Then again, Friday the 13th movies were made fast, cheap, and dumb. They rarely have the nuance of Halloween or the creativity of A Nightmare on Elm Street. In a way, this made them far more accessible to the masses. It certainly did not hurt that Jason stopped in at the megaplex for all but two years in the 1980s (skipping ’83 and ’87). The pure number of entries in the franchise helped immortalize and kill the slasher genre. Remember, even-numbered Jason films are often the best (often, not always). It also made them a mainstay of the VHS market, particularly for the video rental era. Gore, sex, and blood run rampant throughout the franchise, making it an easy choice for teens across America. Jason dug his hooks into our psyche, and with so many entries available at the drop of a hat, the series had gained a foothold in the culture.

Despite his ever-present role in our lives, we just concluded the first decade without the arrival of our favorite camper. The excellent video game certainly earned its place with hardcore fans, but the films have continued to stall out. There will be another feature at some point. A studio will realize the value of the IP is too high to ignore, and after a year in-doors, the thought of a forest-dwelling killing machine will feel spookier than ever.

There’s also a fair critique that the space for these films is gone. Horror continues to thrive on cheap films, with many of its hits consistently surprising on low budgets. A new Friday the 13th will certainly deliver on that front. However, killing victims for the “sin of sex” has been outdated since the 1980s. Jason’s also had a nasty habit of picking on women, people living with disabilities, and the elderly. Many of the most iconic kills feature characters with one or more of these traits. The David Gordon Green Halloween proved you can still make a slasher with value in the 2010s. Yet Friday the 13th carries baggage few other franchises hold. Perhaps more than any other franchise, Friday the 13th could use an infusion of young, underrepresented talent to create a new lens to view the character.

While Jason may have been best suited for the Covid era, alone in his cabin in the woods, he retains his icon status. Forty years after his first headlining role, Jason continues to inspire nightmares and knockoffs. It’s been a few years since Jason scared me out of my shoes, and I’m thankful for that. Still, it’s hard not to fantasize about the return of the icon to a theater near you.

Alan French
Alan French
Alan French is a Rotten Tomatoes certified critic for film and television. He loves horror and action films but has become genre-agnostic in the last decade. He first started writing about the industry while pursuing his MA at UCF and holds a pair of degrees from FSU as well. When he's not watching movies, he's fantasizing about road-tripping at National Parks or visiting theme parks across the country.

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