Audiences were disappointed with Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. They wanted Jason, doing what he does best. Despite the film’s other merits, they couldn’t get over the absence of the franchise icon and so Jason Voorhees was resurrected in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. This entry has divided fans of the series for years. For those just watching for the gore and nudity—and that’s a lot of people—Jason Lives offers little.
But what it does have is a smart script and a self-aware style that sets it apart from other entries in the series. To overlook it would be to deny yourself one of the best, most fun horror comedies of the 1980’s.
It starts off in typical horror tradition. Tommy Jarvis, survivor of parts 4 and 5, is still plagued by the horrible memory of Jason Voorhees and has returned to Jason’s grave to make sure that the murderer is still there. And he is, peacefully. Upon seeing the corpse again, Tommy hacks at it with a pole, which is then struck by lightning, which revives the corpse and brings Jason Voorhees back to life. And so the carnage begins anew. The opening, while slightly tongue in cheek especially considering the nature of the resurrection, is played surprisingly straight. It’s not until the credits begin that we realize exactly what kind of movie we are in for.
The title sequence starts off with Jason stepping into the frame in a James Bond styled opening as Jason slashes the camera and the blood runs down the screen. It’s a quick shot, but it perfectly sums up what the franchise had become by this point and why this film had to go in the direction it did. Everything had been played out. Jason Voorhees was an icon, he was as well known as Ronald McDonald. To do another entry pretending that nobody was aware of the series and how it worked would have been a mistake.
Instead, Jason Lives perfectly plays to audience expectations. This works extremely well for a couple of different reasons. It keeps us engaged, entertained, and makes for some well-timed humor. But it also makes the characters smarter, in some ways.
While it’s full of winks and nods, Jason Lives still tells an engaging story. Like all great horror comedies, there’s a balance. Maybe the most important thing is that Jason himself is never played for laughs. That’s probably the number one thing that separates this from the later entries of the Nightmare on Elm Street series. It’s not the monster that becomes funny here and that’s an incredibly important distinction to make. This movie has a perfectly balanced tone. There are funny moments that involve Jason, but the character is still treated with respect. At the same time, we have genuine sympathy for protagonist Tommy and the rest of the cast. Like the best horror comedies of the era, it’s not a comedy all the time. It knows when to be funny and when to be scary.
Many fans hate this entry for being the first segment in Jason’s supernatural phase, when he truly became an unstoppable walking dead boogeyman. But realistically, that shift works for the series and it works for the heightened reality that Jason Lives presents. Jason had always been hard to put down, but making him actually indestructible here kind of seems to be a play on that. In a way, it’s another joke.
Screenwriter Kevin Williamson reportedly cited Jason Lives as one of the inspirations for Scream. That’s very easy to see. One almost leads right into the other. While Jason Lives is campier, it has that same sort of style. It winks at the camera a little more often than Scream, but it is fully aware of the franchise and the conventions of the series. It allows the audience to have fun with the series and how they expect things to go.
The film is perfectly summed up when the cemetery’s caretaker, spotting Jason’s empty grave, remarks “Why’d they have to go and dig up Jason?” and then proceeds to look directly into the camera as he says “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” It’s not a jab against the audience. If anything, it’s the embodiment of the movie’s charm and wit. The feature is full of scenes like this, letting us know that it is on our side and shares our love of the series and all of its clichés and conventions.