There’s something about Friday the 13th…
Friday the 13th certainly wasn’t the first of its kind. Well before 1980 you had a long history of slashers and proto-slashers from the likes of Hitchcock, Bava, Fulci, Argento, Canada… Friday the 13th’s writer Victor Miller was even given the explicit order to go to a screening of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and to write that, in the process unknowingly setting in stone just about all of the tropes we know the genre for today.
But Friday the 13th was the first of its kind to seriously blow up the box office, thus opening the bloodgates for the onslaught of cheaply and quickly produced slashers that would dominate the 80s and eventually go the way of parachute pants and acid wash denim. Somehow, Jason Voorhees and the shadowy allure of Crystal Lake survived the close of the decade, and after 12 films, a line of plushies, a thermos, and a lunchbox, horror fanatics still hunger for more.
Is it the hockey mask? The machete? The immortal whispering on the soundtrack your friend will swear to you is saying ch-ch-ch ah-ah-ah even as you play for them what is quite clearly ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma? Perhaps it’s the brilliant simplicity behind how the original inverted Psycho’s twisted mother/son relationship. Or maybe it’s the simple pleasure of vicariously enjoying a relaxing trip to the lake for a couple hours without the bother of dealing with mosquitoes, poison ivy, sunburn, and well-aimed spearguns.
No matter the reason, Jason continues to capture hearts (literally and otherwise). Whether you’re looking for an entry-point into the world of Crystal Lake or just another perspective on a beloved horror franchise, here’s my purely subjective ranking of all 12 Friday the 13th films based on my most recent marathon. If you’re a hardcore fan, I’d say there’s a 50% chance I ranked your personal favorite way lower than you’re cool with. All is fair in love and horror.
12. Friday the 13th (2009)
Reboots are always a bit troublesome. They’re generally based on some film that was perfectly good the first time and required no fancy tinkering or updating. With few exceptions (see: Fede Álvarez’s surprisingly good 2013 Evil Dead or Zack Snyder’s fan-pleasing 2004 Dawn of the Dead), horror reboots tend to play it safe, leaning into nostalgia while following the same beats of the originals and pulling the choicest, most memorable parts from the series’ most beloved entries to send up in one sanitized and soulless package that fails to capture one tenth the magic of the original. This unfortunately is 2009’s imaginatively titled Friday the 13th.
In the outstanding Crystal Lake Memories retrospective, the various writers, producers, and actors involved hem and haw about whether the film was supposed to be a reboot, a remake, a proper sequel, or all of the above. Nobody who worked on the project really seems to know, and that may in part explain why the film has trouble finding its own identity. The film opens with the beheading of Jason’s mother and goes on to retread storylines and developments from the first few films, including a leading man searching for his sister who had disappeared at Crystal Lake and the moment Jason first puts on his iconic hockey mask. While revisiting these ideas could have been perfect fuel for nostalgia, the film instead simply leaves them there without any winking, any clever commentary, or even so much as a well-placed ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma on the soundtrack to put a wry smile on your face.
For all its interest in going back to the beginning, Friday the 13th (2009) actually feels more like Michael Bay’s 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre than it does classic Friday the 13th (which makes perfect sense when you realize Bay also served as a producer on Friday’s reboot and brought director Marcus Nispel along with him). Despite the writers’ best intentions, this most recent entry in the Friday the 13th canon feels aimed toward a different, more modern horror audience. Jason himself is shown to be peculiarly intelligent and calculating and even kidnaps and chains a victim for weeks on end in a particularly out-of-character move. The kills also seem crueler and more methodical than the series’ usual outlandish yet largely tongue-in-cheek mayhem—less a celebration of special effects wizardry and more an exercise in one’s tolerance for sadism.
At a certain point, the film starts to feel like another genre of slasher entirely, and if you’re not going to do Friday the 13th with your Friday the 13th film, well, what’s the point? With a script that piles crude jokes like Lincoln Logs and record levels of gratuitous nudity, they threw everything they had into this one without ever seeming to grasp what really makes the Friday the 13th films so enjoyable.
11. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
I trust it’s been long enough since Part VIII’s release that people have by now gotten over how unbelievably misleading the title is and can simply appraise the film for its inherent merits (or lack thereof). So Jason isn’t really in Manhattan for the majority of the film—he’s chilling on a boat with his machete and an ample supply of recent graduates to slaughter—and when he does arrive in the Big Apple, he’s only actually there for one admittedly really cool shot in Times Square and the rest is grimy alleys in Vancouver. Let’s forget about that and ask the hard question here: toyed with expectations aside, is Jason Takes Manhattan a good film? Well…no would be the answer you’re looking for. No, it very much isn’t.
Fan favorite Kane Hodder in his sophomore turn behind the mask does sterling work as usual, stalking about the doomed voyage of the SS Lazarus looking very much like he’s wearing the actual contents of Crystal Lake on Jason’s by now quite slimy, zombified husk. The problem is that Part VIII’s core cast of machete fodder ranges in appeal from uninvolving to unlikable to underdeveloped to just plain poorly performed. The kills are equally unimaginative this time around save for the nifty use of a sauna rock, an electric guitar to the face, and a terrifically captured dance floor dispatch featuring a very young Kelly Hu.
While Manhattan might have gotten away with merely being underwhelming, the filmmakers decided they might inject some gravitas into the proceedings by having a deluge of toxic waste somehow transform Jason back into his child-self (not making this up) and presumably sweep him away to go kick it with some Ninja Turtles or whatever else results from all that toxic waste just pooling about beneath New York (seriously, New Yorkers, you guys need to take better care of your sewers). After witnessing what is quite possibly the daftest climax of any Friday the 13th, you’ll find yourself wishing they had kept the movie on the damn boat.
10. Freddy Vs. Jason (2003)
“Really?” you might be asking yourself. “Freddy vs. Jason all the way down here at #10? Was it really that bad?” No, your memory does not deceive you. Taken on its own, this long-gestating showdown between two of horror cinema’s greatest icons is not by any means a bad watch. But while it may be a competent, if comic-booky, slash ‘em up, Freddy vs. Jason does make a pretty lousy Friday the 13th (and that is after all what we’re ranking here). For while Freddy and Jason may share top billing, make no mistake about it: this is Freddy’s film through and through.
To kick things off, zombie Jason is resurrected once again, this time by Freddy in the hope that Jason will terrorize the teens of Springwood, Ohio into remembering who Freddy is and as a result invite him once more into their dreams (yeah, don’t think about it too hard). Jason essentially turns into a pawn of Freddy’s here and in the process loses something of his intrigue and his cool factor. He’s also completely out of his element, popping up sporadically in suburban environments crawling with cops—in other words, straight Wes Craven territory and not this backwoods country boy’s usual slashing grounds.
Freddy vs. Jason plays not only on Freddy’s turf but by Freddy’s rules and Freddy’s formula. Jason is frequently left looking frustrated and upstaged, only occasionally gaining the upper hand and then usually by accident. If ever a film made Jason out to look the chump, it’s this one. There’s even a scene where he’s slammed about a furnace room by Freddy’s supernatural will, bouncing from one pipe to the next to the ridiculous tune of pinball machine sound effects. But the silliest moment of all arrives when Jason is stopped cold in his tracks by the sight of running water (that is, by water that’s leaking from the ceiling). This is presumably because of his near drowning as a child, but when you consider all the times Jason happily went for a swim in pursuit of some amorous raft-bound youths to machete, it reads as very silly indeed.
Suffice it to say, the filmmakers were clearly more interested in Freddy, leaving Jason to feel like a guest star in somebody else’s film. To be fair, maybe this was the only way a Freddy vs. Jason film was ever going to work. There is a zany kind of energy here that makes for compelling, popcorn-munching entertainment and Jason is not without his moments. The folding bed kill is memorably gruesome and things really come alive when Jason interrupts one of Freddy’s dream-based slaughters-in-progress, only to become engulfed in flames and go on a blazing rampage through a rave in a cornfield. Freddy vs. Jason does get bonus points for zaniness and originality, but if you’re looking to get your Friday the 13th on, keep reading.
9. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Speaking of getting bonus points for originality…
Jason Goes to Hell is probably the singularly most divisive film among fans of Friday the 13th—you’re down with what it’s doing or you’re not; there’s little between. The film actually opens brilliantly with a bombshell brunette deciding to drive out to and shower in a cabin in the woods alone at night, as if she’s completely unaware she’s in the opening act of a horror movie. Turns out she’s very aware of what she’s doing as the setup is an FBI sting designed to lure Jason into the open so they can blow him to kingdom come with machine guns and explosives. But the destruction of Jason’s body is a mere prelude to what turns out to be the weirdest Friday the 13th of all time.
The series had always kind of played with the idea of giving Jason more of a backstory or of allowing him to form special connections with certain characters. But these were always ideas that floated in the background and never took any real precedence over the stalking, the screaming, and the splattering. Well, after a decade of successfully ensuring moviegoers would never feel safe while camping again by way of the simplest and purest of movie formulas, the filmmakers decided it was finally time they saddled their hockey-masked icon with an astoundingly convoluted mythology involving Jason really being a demonic spirit that can hop from one body to the next by means of an orally transferred slug-thing that can only be destroyed by a magic dagger wielded by a Voorhees family relative, whom slug Jason must ultimately be reborn through in order to retrieve his true form. You’ve come a long way from wearing sacks on your head and jumping out at skinny-dippers, Jason my boy.
The film is ambitious, no question there. I would love to give it more credit simply for attempting something so daring in lieu of more of the same. But the truth of it is, Jason Goes to Hell is one big, weird, hot mess. The movie simultaneously takes its mythology-expanding plot far too seriously and not seriously enough, combining the darker, more serious tone of its premise with the silliness found in many of the Friday films from Part III onward. The result is a confused tone on top of a very confused narrative. Much of Jason Goes to Hell will actually remind you of 1987’s body-swapping cult classic The Hidden. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that you show up to a Friday the 13th film for Jason, not for pissed-off slugs and an endless guessing game of whose body is Jason’s spirit in now? Even with Harry Manfredini’s telltale music playing throughout, you’ll forget for long portions of the film’s running length that this is even supposed to be Friday the 13th.
The most classically Friday the film ever gets is when a trio of good-looking campers go skinny-dipping in the woods of Crystal Lake at night and are spectacularly interrupted in one of the series’ best executed special effects. Producer Sean S. Cunningham insisted the scene be shot after a test audience clamored for a bit of what they all loved and hungered for. For all its ambitions, Jason Goes to Hell may have been better off delivering more of the same after all.
8. Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
If you’re looking for a good film to put on and enjoy some stormy Friday the 13th, you really can’t go wrong with any of the series’ earliest entries. There’s just something about the raw, low budget, special effects-driven vibe of those early films that can’t be matched by any of today’s slick, studio-controlled offerings. That said, Friday the 13th Part III (also known as Part 3-D for obvious reasons) regrettably relies more on its flashy gimmicks and a new silly streak than on the solid characterization and storytelling found in most of the other 80s Fridays.
I’m sure in 1982 there were few things quite as cool as seeing popcorn, a yo-yo, juggling balls, the handle of a broom (or whatever other silly thing they could think of to shoehorn into the script) leap off the screen and into your face in mesmerizing 3-D. Nowadays, while viewing the film on home entertainment, it’s just kinda weird seeing the butt of a broom poke around in the camera lens for an uncomfortable length of time. The actors all look vaguely uncomfortable themselves while they’re pulling off these stunts and that’s because they are—the 3-D effects were apparently quite difficult to execute and required tremendous concentration and numerous takes.
While the gimmicks and the silliness definitely detract from the film’s ability to build any true sense of horror, they’re also what help give this third installment its own special identity. The film would surely be a duller, more ho-hum affair without the “Whoa! It’s coming right at you!” gags to make you roll your eyes every few minutes. Harry Manfredini’s spectacular disco-driven main theme perfectly embodies the goofiness of it all, as do the trio of leather-jacketed bikers who are aggravated by bumbling prankster Shelly Finkelstein (fan favorite Larry Zerner) and who exist purely to add to the body count (and possibly because someone on the production had a thing for Roger Corman biker movies).
Part III does deliver nicely when it comes to the kills. In one very cool sequence filmed directly up through the floor, a guy walking on his hands is split straight down the middle. The prolonged chase sequence between Jason and final girl Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmell) stands up there with the series’ all-time great climaxes as well. It’s so good in fact it makes you wish the rest of the film lived up to its quality. It’s something to look forward to at least while you’re putting up with endless yo-yos and pitchforks in the face. Ultimately, while overshadowed in greatness by its 80s brethren, Part III is still very much worth popping on when you’re in the mood for some spooky silliness.
7. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
The word “overrated” gets thrown around all too carelessly these days…so don’t mind if I join the party! Look, I get the appeal behind Jason Lives. Really I do. The opening scene where Jason’s maggot-teeming corpse is reanimated by lightning plays in perfect homage to the grandaddy of all zombie tales, Frankenstein, and is an absolutely dynamite way to kick things off. The Winnebago set piece with Darcy DeMoss’s face clearly indented through the aluminum bathroom wall is (if I may) to die for. Alice Cooper’s “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)” and “Teenage Frankenstein” rock just as hard today as they surely did in 1986—both add immensely to the film’s image as some kind of a rockstar Friday the 13th. Everyone in the cast seems to be having a great time and there’s a kind of kinetic energy running throughout. When the jokes land, they do so superbly. I’m tickled pink every time by the idea of camp counselors playing a Jason Voorhees card game (which one ambitious fan has reverse-engineered into an actual game you can play). Even Kevin Williamson praises Jason Lives and cites its self-referential humor as the primary influence on his screenplay for Scream.
So what gives?
For all its brilliance, for every shot of a kid sleeping peacefully with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential vision of Hell, No Exit, open on their chest, Jason Lives gives you a camera-mugging gravedigger sneering the word “farthead!” That’s what gives. The film is self-aware to a cloying degree and in its lesser moments descends to some of the series’ most juvenile and most baffling attempts at comedy. The American Express card left floating in a puddle may originally have been intended to get audiences to shout a slogan from commercials that were popular at the time, but the punchline fails to materialize today. Other gags like the smiley face impression left in a tree trunk by one unfortunate victim or the Road Runner-esque speed sign covered in question marks were surely too ridiculous to ever have garnered a proper laugh. When Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) finally faces off against his recurring nemesis in an oil-fueled ring of fire in the middle of Crystal Lake, you want to feel as though the whole film has been building toward this one epic, climactic moment, but the reality of it is very little is done dramatically to build toward such a showdown. Instead, the film is more interested in pulling off gags and getting Tommy and the disbelieving Sheriff Garris (David Kagen) to out-crazy each other with increasingly exaggerated performances. Don’t get me wrong, there is fun to be had here. I’m just saying, you know, maybe there are better Friday the 13ths?
6. Jason X (2001)
After a decade of happy campers being macheted every which way at Crystal Lake and one really weird attempt at shaking things up in the early 90s (seriously, Jason Goes to Hell, why you gotta be so weird?), 2001’s Jason X hits you with the force of a spaceship’s air supply violently decompressing when some idiot opens the airlock. But, you know, in a good way. With the new millennium approaching and no end in sight to the legal quest for a Freddy vs. Jason, Jason’s stakeholders decided they might as well whip up one more Friday to keep their franchise in the public consciousness. They would just have to ensure whatever they did with the character wouldn’t interfere with a Freddy vs. Jason film should one eventually come to fruition. Thus came the decision to launch Crystal Lake’s local legend far into the future and into space.