So when your slasher film series hits a brick wall, there are only so many things you can do. You can keep making the same movie over and over again, but critics already accuse you of doing that; you can start taking unrelated scripts that are floating around and cannibalize them by putting your franchise name on them, but you don’t feel you’re quite there yet; you can try to re-group and release something more cerebral and psychological, but you just tried that and it didn’t work so well. Nossir, you are Friday the 13th, it’s 1986, and there’s only one thing to do: get funny.
“Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” was the first film in the series to introduce comedic elements, as well as blatantly supernatural ones. For those of us who came of age in the “Jason Takes Manhattan” to “Jason X” era, this is, no doubt, a more familiar hockey mask. Of course, Jason was never the most talkative fellow, so it doesn’t change his character an awful lot to make him a reanimated slasher. He wasn’t very animated to begin with.
Additionally, the comedic, even metafictional, elements were taken as a boon at the time. This was still years away from the Scream franchise. This was cutting edge stuff (insert machete joke here). The film reportedly did better with fans and critics than its predecessor, and for once, this blog agrees with fans and critics.
Tommy Jarvis, hero of the previous couple of pictures (now played by horror actor Thom Matthews), apparently has nothing better to do than dig up the corpse of Jason (you’d think he’d know better, given how the last film turned out). When he does so, Jason gets zapped by lightning, wakes up and starts murdering again. Tommy tries to tell the local sheriff, but he fails to convince anyone and gets locked in jail for his efforts. In the meantime, Jason, free to wander around with strawberry jam dripping from his machete, starts heading back to Camp Crystal Lake, which has been renamed Lake Forest Green for PR purposes, and is loaded with clueless counselors and campers…
Right from the start, with a quick nod to the James Bond films of all things, “Jason Lives” wants to tell you it’s not going to take itself too seriously. It’s not going to pull any punches either. Since the genre has shifted back to horror from mystery, the focus is allowed to return to fun killings, and they’re all handled quite well. The most memorable sequence might be Jason dispatching a group of executives playing paintball in the woods as part of a corporate retreat, although there’s nothing wrong with Jason vs. a Volkswagen or Jason stalking a camp full of middle school children either.
Except the film is actually pretty series about its metafictional elements. The dialogue drips with clever comments. When Tommy bursts into the sheriff’s station, panting and proclaiming that Jason, well, lives, the sheriff notes his performance and asks him: “You in show business?” Elsewhere, a woman begs her passenger not to get out of the car, telling him that she’s seen enough horror movies to know that anyone in a mask wandering the woods in the middle of night is not good news. These are little moments, not laid on too thick, but intelligently and organically inserted into the script.
Even the simple act of renaming the camp begs the question: Is it possible to escape the past by changing something cosmetically? In terms of franchise cinema, is it possible to escape past missteps by just putting a new name on what is basically the same film? Of course not. Real change must come from within.
Also, due to the film’s black comedic nature, I honestly wasn’t sure who would survive until the end. If any movie wasn’t going to be shy about eliminating main characters, it was this one.
The film was well acted, well shot and well blocked by thriller director Tom McLoughlin, and well scored, but that’s to be expected. Series vet Harry Manfredini returned to compose the soundtrack, and the score is appropriately spritely and dynamic to fit the film’s character, as compared to the ungainly bombast of the previous entry.
Kids in the camp act less like horror movie victims and more like horror movie fans, cheering and cracking jokes while hiding from Jason under their bunk beds. As one character on screen puts it: “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” Maybe so, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.