Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

The Eyes have it!
The Eyes have it!

In my Part V review I called that film

the point where the series stopped taking itself so dang seriously, signing its own aesthetic death certificate.

I stand by that, as I stand by every other half-coherent statement I’ve ever made, sensible or otherwise. But I’d be remiss not to confess that the very thing I criticized about Part V lies at the root of my appreciation for Part VI. I’d always liked Jason Lives, but now I fucking love it. If it were a woman, I’d shower its path with rose petals and cake. We’d go back to my place and I’d make Jason Lives fried potatoes and onions for breakfast the next morning. I see a healthy and long-lasting relationship in our future…just as long as we avoid her eleven electrical socket-licking siblings.

After some mood-setting shots of foggy woods, we catch up to a very-adult-looking-by-now Tommy Jarvis (now played by Thom Mathews) as he drives through a dark and stormy night. He and his reluctant partner Allen (Ron Palillo) are on a quest to dig up Jason Voorhees and cremate his remains. Tommy hopes that this will somehow stave off his PTSD flashbacks to the end of The Final Chapter. Never mind that the Mayor (of where? is a whole other question) in the last film explained Jason was already cremated at some point in the indeterminate time between The Final Chapter and Part Vargh. Already my head hurts.

This series certainly isn't.
This series certainly isn't.

The film asks us to believe Jason’s lay a’moldering in the grave all this time (how much time? Another unanswered question!) in the not-at-all-ironically-named Eternal Peace Cemetery. Digging up the grave, Tommy comes face-to-face with the thing that’s haunted him for all these years. Temporarily enraged (and apparently possessed of superhuman strength), Tommy tears an iron post out of the cemetery fence and sets about shish kabobing Jason’s corpse through the chest. Allen eventually success in talking him out of the grave, and a good thing, too. Tommy escapes getting flash-fried by the most convenient bolt of lightning in all existence, as if Zeus himself wanted to punish America’s teeangers for their premarital sex and flagrant disregard for Nancy Regan’s drug policies.

Yes, it’s another surprise resurrection that only manages to surprise the main characters. But in the universe of old-fashioned Oh Shit Moments you can’t get much older-fashioned than a corpse rising from the grave. The ambiance of this whole pre-credit sequence (great big Frankenstein-homage that it is) adds a whiff of classic Horror Movie to what would otherwise be the standard Slasher sequel formula: resurrected killer kills whole new batch of New Meat and dies. Insert bullshit twist ending here.

That still happens…but first, Tommy sees the horrific consequences of mucking about with graves in the general vicinity of Crystal Lake Woods. Jason rises, Allen dies, and Tommy’s attempts to light Jason on fire are stymied by a rainstorm (which chooses just that moment to break). His struggles with his book of matches as Jason lumbers toward him – stiff with the grave, his body shedding maggots who, despite working hard all this time, have yet to touch his one remaining eye (slackers) – is a genuinely brilliant moment, usually reserved for serious zombie films.

You can't get much more on the nose than this.
You can't get much more on the nose than this.

This is anything but a serious picture, as that rainstorm reveals. You get the sense that, whatever God rules the Friday the 13th universe, He (and it’s certainly a “He”) has a twisted, malignant sense of humor that I find rather endearing. The credits should remove any doubts about this from your mind: they begin with a conscious nod to (of all things) James Bond movies.

Getting a big presumptuous, aren’t we, Friday the 13thseries? Or had Jason Voorhees, by 1986, already escaped into the cultural cannon? If 007 is the epitome of 1950s manhood, what does that say about Jason and the 1980s? There’s a frightening thought. I know I’m pissing my pants…and we haven’t even gotten to the Sheriff’s office.

Tommy does, but his story would sound loony even if it weren’t coming from a known loon. “Aren’t you the kid who’s mother and friends were killed by that maniac?” Sheriff Garris (David Kagen) asks. “And you’ve been in some psychiatric clinic ever since, haven’t you?” (Yes, and God spare us its memory.) These two facts are more than enough to convince Garris that Tommy is another punk kid pulling a prank. Tommy’s attempts to grab a shotgun from the station armory only confirm this in the Sheriff’s eyes.

Garris is an interesting figure. He’s an aspect of every disbelieving peace officer who ever shrugged off warnings about incoming monsters. Sgt. Bert from The Blob best exemplifies this archetype, which I believe my colleague Liz Kingsley collectively dubbed it “the Impotent (or Incompetent) Arm of the Law.” In the 50s, you’ll notice Sgt. Bert united with the rest of Small Town American to triumph over the Communist otherworldly menace, reminding us we’re all Americans and that those who sow division sow the seeds of (gasp) Socialism. By the late 1980s, law enforcement became one more Victim Generator in the Slasher Movie Industrial Complex, symbolic of the culture-wide breakdown of trust in existing social mechanisms of Law and Order. After all, neither stand much chance against Death on Two Legs…especially not when its wearing a hockey mask.

Speaking of which, Jason departs the cemetery, Fence Post of Resurrection clutched in his hands. Within minutes (?) he not-so-randomly runs smack into…two camp councilors lost in the woods. Driving their VW Bug, no less.

This is a joke on several levels. At base, it’s a simple beat in the story, a way to keep the audience awake as we advance the plot (such as it is). Beyond that, the inclusion of a VW Bug is a conscious callback to Part 2, meant to invoke memories of Ginny, beloved of Final Girls. Beyond that the whole set-up is a patently silly bit of fan service, requiring its audience possess pre-existing knowledge of how a gratuitous kill scene is set up. It’s as if Jason Lives is winking at us, saying, Hey, assholes…incoming death in five…four…three…two…incoming death now.

It's like Tom Savini had Mel Blank's honkey-masked lovechild.
It's like Tom Savini had Mel Blank's hokey-masked lovechild.

Lizabeth (Nancy McLoughlin, the writer/director’s wife) is our driver. Her male counterpart, Derran (Tony Goldwyn), has gotten them lost on their way to something called “Camp Forrest Green” and now refuses to ask directions from the trees. They find Jason in their path and Lizabeth insists they drive back to town in reverse. “Because I’ve seen enough horror movies to know that any guy in a mask is never friendly.”

Yes, the movie’s taking us back to camp in more ways that one. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier, because exploitative crap is only bearable when its campy enough to offset the inherent ugliness of what it depicts. A spoon full of sugar helps the gobs of blood go down, and I’ll go out on a limb to say Jason Lives is one of the first genuinely self-conscious Slasher films, deploying humor to off-set what previous (and subsequent) Slasher films consider to be their serious work. With these two camp councilors (and their clunky, expository dialogue) the film does everything to signal to us that it knows we know how silly all this is, that it’s in on the joke with us…going so far as to have one character actually reference gratuitous horror movies…a tactic which Scream would go onto make unjustly (in)famous.

After Darren meets the end reserved for all stupid males in horror movies and Lizabeth meets the end reserved for all simpering, whinny females, we jump to the next morning and back to the Sheriff’s office. Garris’ daughter, Megan (Jennifer Cooke) arrives with the rest of the New Meat in tow. Surprise! They’re all councilors at the newly re-opened Camp Forrest Green, come to report the disappearance of their two comrades. Megan takes an instant likely to Tommy, marking her as our Final Girl, meaning I can reasonably ignore the rest of the cast until they die horribly.

Megan’s fairly adventurous as Final Girls go, making her my second-favorite Final Girl of the series (after Tina Shepherd, of course). Over the course of the film, I decided Megan must be a visitor from some alternate 1986 where Annie Brackett survived her encounter with Michael Myers back in alternate-1978, meaning all subsequent Final Girls were modeled after Rebellious Sheriff’s Daughters instead of sexually-repressed Nerd Girls.

Dead. Dead. Dead. Final Girl. And Dead.
Dead. Dead. Dead. Final Girl. And Dead.

Considering my eternal love of sexually-repressed nerd girls (they tend to have the best sexual imaginations) I’m a bit ambivalent about this. As with Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2‘s Final Girl, Lisa, Megan becomes the plot’s main mover and shaker once Tommy’s ranting earns him a ticket to the county line, courtesy Sheriff Dad. This makes Megan not so much a character as a plot device. Her inexplicable attraction to Tommy is only part of the problem. That’s just Designated Romance rearing its ugly head. My real problem? Megan’s unmotivated disdain for everything her father says and does. They obviously have a decent relationship: all the deputies call her by her childhood nickname and she brings the New Meat gang by first thing in the morning. Dad leaves her to mind the store whenever he has to run off and draw the wrong conclusions…so why would Megan jeopardize all that for one tramp in the holding cell…to say nothing of a tramp her dad eventually fingers for a psycho killer? Clearly Megan’s never heard about the long, storied history of trouble her dad’s department’s had with those types. Except when the script needs her to, of course.

At least the Elm Street Kid’s sad tale has a definable trajectory, with a beginning, middle and nonsensical end (in Freddy’s Dead, since Jason vs. Freddy doesn’t count…because I say it doesn’t, damnit) and the occasional stab at continuity throughout. Liz (and others) have suggested that, by contrast, Jason Voorhees’ adventures parse themselves out into incompatable parallel dimensions after The “Final” Chapter. Part V, according to this theory, took place in its own universe, as far away from Part VI as Jay Garrick was from Barry Allen…until one fateful day in September, 1961. This explains why Crystal Lake wasn’t even named in A New Beginning, why the town (and its attendant Summer Camp) is here renamed “Forrest Green,” and why both will resume their former name in the next film with no explanation or attempt at overall continuity preservation.

I like how "Sportsmanship" comes second on the list.
I like how "Sportsmanship" comes second on the list.

To hell with what the county tourist board thinks will be “good for business.” Frankly, I’m amazed “Camp Blood” hasn’t become a tourist trap in its own right. Just think of all the assholes who gather around the homes of sensational serial killers in our wacky, parallel universe. Yet we’re to believe not only has town’s changed its name and its camp been reopened, but gullable, ignorant, helicopter parents have actually paid money to send their spawn there! Halfway through the film, a whole busload of them descends into the killing fields, much to the New Meat Brigade’s chagrin.

Since little kids never seem to die in American horror movies, I’m all for traumatizing them to the nth degree. Lord knows these films have traumatized enough little kids in the “real” world, and I love it when art imitates life. At one point, Eternal Peace Cemetery’s drunken caretaker mugs for the camera as he says, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” My strange idea of entertainment involves scaring children spitless.

That’s why I love Nancy, my new favorite character of the entire series. Nancy’s a little girl camper with horrible, horrible parents who, I’m sure, tried desperately to convince her that Jason Voorhees was and is just a legend before they sent her off to camp. Snatches of Megan-dialogue indicate a sustained campaign of forced amnesia is at work in the little town of “Forrest Green”…not that the teenagers pay it any attention. If they did, Megan couldn’t ape Paul’s little campfire speech from Part 2…and Nancy would have no cause for bad dreams…other than, you know, simple precognition.

The scene where Megan’s fellow councilors, Paula (Kerry Noonan) and Sissy (Renée Jones) talk Nancy down from a nightmare is a direct shot across Nightmare on Elm Street‘s bow. “There’s this monster,” she squeals, “and he was after me, and he wanted to kill me…he was everywhere.” She insists it wasn’t a dream. “It was real. Just like on TV.” Twice more she’ll encounter evidence of Jason Voorhees’ reality and twice more she’ll be ignored by her elders…to their detriment.

Here's what every horror movie needs: Jean-Paul Sartre.
Here's what every horror movie needs: Jean-Paul Sartre.

Little touches like this are the only things I notice about these films anymore. I’ve stopped caring about the horrible acting and the plot holes that could devour worlds. Instead, I chose to focus on the bits that elevate Jason Lives above its contemporaries. Some of them are downright silly…and consciously so…as when Jason stumbles across four corporate paintball players at the end of their game. (In Crystal Lake Woods? Fools!) Three of the four are “out” by the time Jason finds them, wearing black headbands with the word “DEAD” around their foreheads. Jason faceplants one into a  tree with so much force the man leaves a blood-stained Smiley Face behind. Another makes the mistake of hitting Jason with a paintball. The masked monster’s reaction isn’t just utterly priceless, it’s comically well-timed, too…as is Jason’s reaction to a certain Winnebago a bit later on. Never have I laughed so hard a psudo-zombie’s tilted head.

For that I must shout out C.J. Graham, the nightclub owner and military veteran animating Jason this time around. Writer/director Tom McLoughlin stands behind him, winking at us all the while, as aware of his status as a hired gun as we are. It’s as if this motivated him to twist the series toward Loony Tunes land, rather like Return of the Living Dead. He apes the horror implicit in cartoonishly excessive violence once that violence is transferred to more-realistic images.

Not that this damn thing is some sort of outrageous, ball-bustingly good time. It’s got the same plot as all the others, with many of the same difficulties. The limited time, limited budget, no motivation, and complete lack of ambition that characterized Parts 2 through V are all still here. But behind it all there’s a lively, interesting energy this series – and the American horror film as a whole – hadn’t seen  since…say, An American Werewolf in London .

"...the fuck?"
"...the fuck?"

I’m probably going to get crap for even mentioning that film in same breath as Jason Lives, but if I name-checked Evil Dead II (godfather of all not-so-serious-horror movies) my fellow Bruce Campbell fans would cast me out like a leper. It’s enough to say Jason Lives is a briskly-paced breath of fresh air, disturbing the cobwebs that were fast strangling a series whose throat was already clogged with dustbunnies and tits.

If Part V is a clanking, clattering clunker that’s not even worth the rusting metal in its frame, Part VI is the retrofitted classic rodester…sort of like the Munster’s car. It’s not the big bowl of wonderful that is Part VII, and it’s crazy-susceptible to refrigerator logic…but after the complete and utter failure of Part V, at least Part VI succeeds on its own merits, wanting nothing so much as to be a decent Slasher movie. Which is more than the rest of the series can say for itself.


3 thoughts on “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)”

  1. Good review – but I have to point out – your reference to two different Jason reactions in the film are actually referring to two different Jasons. Dan Bradley started out playing Jason, and did all the daytime stuff, so he’s responsible for the paintballer kills and that reaction you mention. Then they fired him (so he could go on to stunt coordinate the Bourne movies and Quantum of Solace for some unknown reason) and replaced him with C.J. Graham who gave you that Winnebago reaction. I’m going to chalk them both up to solid direction from Tom McLoughlin and call it a day! All the best to you!

    1. And all the best to you as well. That’s Why I Love the Internet, Reason #465: all of our mistakes are crowd-sourced, but so are all our research projects.

  2. The best Friday the 13th movie. Maybe I’m biased because it was the first, of the original Paramount series, I saw. (First Jason film I saw was Jason X!) But man I love all the effort Tom McLoughlin puts into this movie. Humour aside, it doesn’t have the low budget feel of a generic slasher film or the earlier Friday films for that matter. The previous ones had relatively cheap lighting. This one has more of a stylized look with lots of fog and light and shadow like the Hammer horror films of the 60s. And the marvellously atmospheric old-school Gothic cemetery scene in the opening owes more to Hammer horror than it does to the 80’s slasher cycle. Love it.

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