On Hatchets, Hell and Hockey Masks A brief overview of the Friday the 13th franchise

It’s vile, misanthropic garbage. An essential pillar of horror cinema. Exploitative nonsense. Bonafide classic. Overrated. Underrated. Career makers. Career enders. Cheap knockoffs. Influencer of thousands. The Friday the 13th franchise is all of these things, and more. Or possibly less. It all depends on whom you ask.

Personally, I’m of two minds about it. I’m not a big fan of Friday the 13th in general, but there’s simply no denying its “Mount Rushmore” spot in the horror world and indeed, in Halloween culture. If Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolfman were the original horror icons, Myers, Freddy, and Jason are the modern reboot.

The image of the goalie mask killer has reached a level of ubiquity so absolute that it’s familiar to people who never actually saw any of the movies. To people who don’t even know Jason’s name. Granted, with first names as generic as Michael, Freddy and Jason I can see how laypeople get confused. Right around this time of year, every year, you can walk into a Walgreens anywhere in the country and pick up a white plastic hockey mask that may or may not carry any Friday the 13th branding. It’s kind of like that “Velcro”, “Band-Aid”, “Trampoline” phenomenon – it’s a specific branded IP, but public domain status has been practically thrust upon it, for better or worse.

A Friday the 13th occurs every single year, often twice, and occasionally even three times. That, combined with the associated superstition, gave the original film’s creators the germ of the idea for their very own “Halloween” knockoff, which was already becoming all the rage just a year after that movie’s success. As a matter of fact, they had settled on the “Friday the 13th” title first, and even started marketing the thing, before they had so much as a plot in place. If that doesn’t speak to the true intentions of the people responsible, I don’t know what does.

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1980 was smack in the middle of the first wave of the slasher craze, and Friday the 13th was perfectly timed. But looking back on that film now illuminates why it – and the series as a whole – has such a divided reputation. There’s honestly not much special about it. The “mystery killer” gimmick was already a thing by this point and Friday the 13th was pretty paint-by-numbers in that respect. You already know that Jason wasn’t even really in the original movie. All of the scenes taking place at night time are so poorly lit it’s difficult to tell what’s even happening much of the time. The kill scenes – fairly extreme at the time – have been eclipsed many times over by what came immediately in this wake. The only thing that really sets Friday the 13th apart today is that infamous (and somewhat nonsensical) gotcha moment at the very end.

The series also has the dubious distinction of being one of the only horror series in history (and indeed one of the only film series in general) in which the first entry is not the high watermark. Jason proper is introduced in Part 2, but sans the hockey mask. He gets the famous mask in Part 3, which also employed the then-trendy 3D gimmick to now hilarious effect in two dimensions. They pulled the BS “final chapter” hook in Part 4, which was and still remains the purest and most proficient version of Friday the 13th there is. They would lie to us again in Part 9, “The Final Friday”, before sending Jason, naturally, to space (Jason X), pitting him against Freddy Krueger, and stalling the whole franchise out on a not-that-bad remake 10 ENTIRE YEARS AGO.

And about all those entries I skipped over? Parts 5 – 8 belonged to the late 80’s annual sequel epidemic that watered down many a horror icon with cheap cash grabs, and earned everyone a mountain of scathing reviews by critics (Siskel & Ebert were notoriously loathsome of Friday the 13th). But unlike the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street series, Friday the 13th started as a cash grab, and it arguably works best when in that mode. Many Friday fans revere parts 5 and 6 as high points in the series, if only because they didn’t bother to pretend at any high-minded intent. Here’s a new group of horny, forgettable teenagers, here’s Jason getting resurrected somehow, now enjoy the carnage.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since we got a new Friday the 13th. As mentioned above, that particular date is at least an annual event, providing those so inclined a convenient excuse to watch one or more of these movies as a ritualistic practice. Even I – a critic of the franchise – will be watching Part 4 tonight. And I might even throw on the original just for the hell of it…

Just for the sake of reference, note that the Nightmare on Elm Street series includes 9 films (if you count Freddy vs. Jason). Halloween is up to 11, with two more in pre-production now. Chucky and Leatherface have 8 each. Paranormal Activity and Saw are developing their 7th and 9th movies, respectively. So how many films has Friday the 13th racked up overall? Twelve. TWELVE. The world is sitting on the potential 13th entry in Friday the 13th, and there’s been no progress for an entire decade. Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense.

I only set out to scratch the surface with this post, but if your curiosity remains, I recommend checking out the exhaustive and passionate 6.5 hour-plus documentary Crystal Lake Memories, available now on Shudder. There’s also a surprisingly good short fan film out there – Never Hike Alone – that distills everything great Friday the 13th ever had to offer and completely removes all the fat. I spoke to the director at this year’s Mad Monster Party convention, and his passion for the series was palpable. Hire this guy to bring Jason back from the dead once again.

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