If Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning was starting to grasp towards a new melange of slapstick, screwball and suspense, then Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives is the first film in the franchise that emphatically works as both as a comedy and a horror film. At times, it was unclear whether Part 5 was intentionally or inadvertently funny – whether we were laughing with or at the film – while a great deal of the action played out in weird, diffuse zones that weren’t quite comedy and weren’t quite horror without solidifying into a fully-formed horror-comedy aesthetic either. As a result, Part 5 often felt like a transition between the austerity of Parts 1-4 and a more comic and campy possibility for the franchise, which is perhaps why Jason Lives really feels like a new beginning for the Friday the 13th films, even if A New Beginning was technically the first step in the process.
One of the key hallmarks of these later films in the franchise is that their opening sequences don’t tend to rely on flashbacks as extensively as Parts 1-4. Instead, it becomes more of a pattern for each film to open with the attempted disposal of Jason’s body, as if Jason’s body itself were enough of a flashback, or enough to guarantee serial continuity. As a result, it’s also at this point in the franchise – and in Jason Lives in particular – that we begin to get a real sense of Jason as a supernatural being, an entity that is somehow more than human in his inability to die in any permanent way. With each film opening with increasingly absurd and extravagant resurrections of Jason’s body, the question of when and how he can be defeated – at least through earthly means – becomes somewhat moot, as the series instead starts to shift its attention to the spectacle of his mask, body and gait in a much more pronounced manner than in Parts 1-4. Instead of watching victims elude Jason, the shift starts to focus to Jason himself stalking victims, paving the way for his fully-fledged characterisation in The Final Friday, Freddy vs. Jason, Jason X and the very last phase of the franchise.
For all that it marks a new beginning, however, that process is still somewhat inchoate in Jason Lives, which is content to articulate a new horror-comedy aesthetic and to reframe the franchise as a horror-comedy venture. Of course, horror is still a crucial part of that combination, but in order to accommodate the comedy Jason Lives moves towards a more spectacular, extravagant, plastic form of horror that seems to announce the franchise’s arrival in the lat 1980s. By this point, it had become clear that horror and blockbuster releases weren’t mutually exclusive, and for all its grindhouse credentials Jason Lives often feels as if it is trying to find a way into the blockbuster cycle.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the opening sequence, which revolves around a pair of teenagers who set out to rob Jason’s grave, only to be stopped in their tracks by the first genuinely supernatural event in the series – a bolt of lightning that strikes Jason’s corpse, reanimating him and restoring his powers. Marking a drastic break from the austere suspense of Parts 1-5, director Tom McLoughlin here opts for the kinds of extravagantly Gothic coordinates that would soon find their way into Tim Burton’s universe: storm, moon, graveyard, stonework, masonry, ivy. At times, it almost feels like the beginning to a children’s film or a family-friendly version of the franchise, since it’s gross more than gory, creepy more than confronting, with Jason’s coffin drenched in a miasma of cobwebs, worms and spiders that feel lifted straight from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indeed, the overall effect is of robbing a tomb more than exhuming a grave, which in turn makes Jason feel like a monster more than a slasher. Whereas Part 2 felt indebted to Alfred Hitchcock, Jason Lives feels indebted to the Universal cycle, with its grotesque, caricatured and highly plastic mise-en-scenes often making Jason feel more like a zombie, a mummy, a vampire or some other monstrous creature than a traditional slasher, a process that continues even more emphatically in The New Blood.
It feels right, then, that the comic component also feels drawn from the 1930s, although in this case it’s the wave of screwball comedies that emerged in response to the Hays Code rather than the Universal horror cycle that feels like the point of reference. From the very beginning of the film, when we return to Camp Crystal Lake – now Camp Forest Green – for a new generation of campers, there’s a hyperactive, hyperbolic and manic quality that tends to place insane and inane characters front and centre. At the same time, this is the first film that really gets how to use 80s music for camp value – a possibility that was glimpsed in the New Wave fangirl of A New Beginning but is here solidified into a fantastic sequence of songs by Alice Cooper that imbue the kill scenes with an off-kilter MTV aesthetic, especially when they occur in and around cars (and this by far the most autocentric film of the franchise so far, with much more time spent driving around the woods than running, walking or navigating through them). Once again, that seems to reflect a new mainstream visibility and blockbuster potentiality for the slasher film, with several key scenes playing as a wry parody of both Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
Within that context, Jason becomes a kind of screwball counterpoint to all the various interactions taking place within the woods at large. In the greatest screwball comedies of the 1930s – The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday – the ideal screwball conversation usually takes place between three people, with the third providing a point from which the exchange is unsettled, destabilised and turned awry into a panoply of cross-purposes and cross-nuances. In Part 6, Jason tends to fulfil the role of that third party – in nearly every kill scene he is used to contour some screwy exchange between two or three other people, most brilliantly in the funniest scene in the entire franchise in which his terrifying presence quickly gives way to a screwy couple bickering about how best to elude or combat him.
In Pursuits of Happiness, Stanley Cavell observes that most screwball comedies contained a “pastoral interlude” in which the bickering couple retreated to the New England woods to sort out their relationship, and in many ways Jason Lives plays as an extended pastoral interlude from a screwball comedy – or a series from pastoral interludes from a whole lot of screwball comedies – that have gone wrong. In effect, it is like seeing characters from a whole host of comic films retreating to a pastoral woodland that just happens to be haunted by Jason, which means that – as in Part 4 – these landscapes feel richly, picaresquely populated, with a whole lot of people going about their business, to the point where it doesn’t make sense to frame the woods as a space of concealment for Jason any more, nor to shy back from the spectacle of his entire body.
One of the most original aspects of Part 6, then, is just how often is cuts back to Jason and keeps tabs on him, removing all of the withdrawal, reticence and mercuriality that characterised his presence up until Part 5. In The New Blood, Jason’s body is reframed as a new source of plastic horror, but here the effect tends to be comic, since after being so tactfully concealed for five movies, the frankness with which he appears in Jason Lives inevitably has a certain clownish quality, not least because this is also the closest Jason comes to actual facial expressions in this part of the franchise. Although he is still masked, many of the kills manage to imbue him with comic reaction shots, as he registers surprise at some small detail that doesn’t go to plan, or at the incongruity and inanity of his victims. At times, it almost feels like a comic book – I was reminded of the masked reaction shots in Deadpool – while the brilliantly incongruous and irreverent editing often recalls the early Zucker comedies as well, with the perfect and sudden transitions between horror and comedy transforming transitions themselves into a source of absurd and surreal humour. In particular, now that the repeated efforts to kill Jason are no longer tenable – and no longer terrifying – there’s a bit of a Naked Gun vibe to the way people just keep coming at him, in what increasingly feel like a series of slapstick repetition-gags than a tribute to Jason’s austerity and sublimity.
For all the raucous comedy, though, the great achievement of Jason Lives is that it nevertheless manages to conclude with one of the most terrifying images in the franchise so far. After the latest incarnation of Tommy sets Camp Crystal Lake on fire and chains Jason to a rock, the film concludes with the spectacle of this most insatiable of slashers anchored to the bottom of the Lake, watching and waiting. For a series that has been so driven by spatial imagination, this final spectacle represents a new imaginative expansion that arguably only finds its fulfilment in 2002’s Jason X, which is set in outer space. For the moment, however, it beautifully gestures towards The New Blood as an even more fully-formed monster movie as well as the first point in the series at which we start to glimpse a science-fictional aesthetic, even as Jason Lives remains the high watermark for the series’ comic ambitions, and one of the greatest screwball comedies of the 1980s.