On March 22 1985, less than a year after promising its final chapter, the Friday the 13th franchise returned with its latest offering A New Beginning. Despite having successfully killed off its antagonist in the previous instalment, when the box office returns indicated that there was more life in the series Paramount Pictures wasted little time in rushing another sequel into production. And while audiences were eager to see horror icon Jason Voorhees resurrected and wielding his machete once again, fans were disappointed to find a movie that lacked the familiar location of Camp Crystal Lake or even Jason himself.
The critics, which had been a thorn in the side of the slasher genre ever since the original Friday the 13th reared its ugly head five years earlier, were even more hostile against the latest stalk-and-slash rehash. ‘It’s worth recognising only as an artifact of our culture,’ derided Vincent Canby of the New York Times, a cynical view of the movie shared by the majority of the mainstream media. Even more telling was the poor box office performance, with A New Beginning earning a little over £10m less than its predecessor. The producers that had nurtured the series for the last half a decade knew that if Jason was to compete with the latest slasher superstar Freddy Krueger then the next sequel would have to do something spectacular, or Friday the 13th may very well face its final chapter after all.
With the fifth entry in the series having been considerably more sadistic and sleazy than fans had been accustomed to the decision was made that Part VI would be lighter in tone and more appealing to the average cinemagoer. While the man responsible for A New Beginning had initially cut his teeth on pornographic pictures in the 1970s, the filmmaker who would ultimately be responding for bringing Jason back from the dead for Part VI had recently made his directorial debut with an offbeat horror comedy called One Dark Night.
The hiring of Tom McLoughlin was an inspired touch and would give the franchise a much-needed resurrection, with the tired old clichés replaced with a self-referential satirical tone while also transforming its antagonist into an unstoppable force of nature. A decade before Wes Craven gave the slasher genre a postmodern spin with New Nightmare and Scream, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives would both playfully mock the formula while also improving on it, providing audiences with strong heroes, witty dialogue and a soundtrack boasting not one but three tracks from a newly reinvigorated Alice Cooper.
Even over thirty years later Jason Lives remains one of the most beloved entries in the long-running franchise and one that has become a benchmark on how to successfully blend horror and comedy without having to compromise either. McLoughlin’s love of both genres shines through every scene, from an array of outrageous set pieces to such memorable dialogue as one character breaking the fourth wall to declare ‘some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.’ Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives has stood the test of time because it knew exactly what its audience wanted…to jump, to scream and, above all, to be entertained.
Writer and director Tom McLoughlin looks back on his experience making Jason Lives and the influence the picture has had on evolution of the series.
Jason Lives is what many fans consider to be the closing chapter in the Tommy Jarvis trilogy. What is it about that character that audiences found so enduring and was it always your intention to bring him back as the hero?
The primary marching orders from Paramount was bringing Jason back. I felt that if the boy Tommy had killed him in The Final Chapter then Tommy needs to continue the mythology. I basically skipped over that there was a someone pretending to be Jason in Part V. I wanted Tommy to be the hero of Jason Lives. He caused the resurrection and now he has to fix the problem. Megan was also a driving force to help Tommy accomplish this.
By the mid-1980s the slasher genre had lost popularity and the MPAA were enforcing strict cuts on horror pictures. Knowing that times had changed since the release of the first movie did this influence your decision to employ a more comedic approach?
No, not at all. The comedy just came along in my storytelling. I did want to show the audience that it’s time to have more fun and satire within the genre so that was clearly intentional. Plus I really wanted to like the characters, so having them with dry humour helped that element.
Jason Lives is responsible for the undead Jason that would drive the series for the next twenty years. Was the opportunity to reinvent a horror icon too tempting to resist?
We totally didn’t know IF there would even be another Friday the 13th. It was always that way back them. The hope is the audience comes and wants to see another but nothing is for sure. Part V’s decision to not have the real Jason seriously hurt the return audience and box office for Part VI. I wrote it so it could end with him back in the lake to complete the legend bookend. I never conceived Jason as a zombie, as we normally think of zombies, but more in the Frankenstein tradition of a dead-but-now reanimated character who continues with his previous agenda of revenge. This time he’s targeting Tommy for bringing him back and will kill anyone that comes across his path.
Having grown up on movie sets and with your father also fascinated by filmmaking, what kind of movies in particular inspired you growing up?
Like I’ve said the influence of Frankenstein was the direction I chose for bringing Jason back to life. The challenge was how to make that happen so it’s not intentional. All the countless gothic horror movies I grew up on have influences: the Classic Universal movie monsters, the Hammer films, Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe series, The Haunting, The Exorcist, Halloween, on and on.
While Danny Steinmann would contribute to the screenplay for A New Beginning, Jason Lives was the first Friday the 13thto be solely written and directed by the same person. How confident did you feel to write a sequel to a popular franchise by yourself and how what do you recall of your experience working on the script?
It all happened very fast. Paramount liked my film One Dark Night and I met with Frank Mancuso, Jr. and we talked. I wrote a treatment for the film (the original treatment can be read in my book A Strange Idea of Entertainment, available on Amazon). He loved the treatment and I went immediately into writing the script. Wrote a lot of it at the now Hollywood Forever Cemetery next door to Paramount Studios. Normally there’s two years between the Friday 13th films; this all happened in less than a year.
Most male characters in the series perish before the end of the movie, yet Tommy Jarvis survived all three films. Were you ever tempted to kill him off to allow Megan to be the final girl without the chance of the hero coming to save her?
Nope. It was Tommy’s story and he had to fix the problem he created AND he gets the girl. Classic old school storytelling.
Were you under any kind of pressure for Tommy to be portrayed in the same kind of unstable way as in The New Beginning and at what point did you decide to make him more charming and proactive?
He needed to be a hero up against an unstoppable monster. He goes off the deep end in the beginning, when all the Jason memories come into his head and he starts spearing Jason’s corpse. After his freak-out he gets back to the business of burning the corpse, then fate intervenes.
It had already been mentioned in the previous movie that Jason’s remains had been cremated. How did you approach overcoming this issue so that you could show Jason’s corpse?
It was a rumour he was cremated. I really didn’t include anything from Part V except Tommy was in a mental intuition. Not that I have anything against The New Beginning, it has a lot of cool things in it, I just needed to stay focused on the Jason legend.
While Jason’s mother had been the killer in the first movie, his father had never been mentioned. Your script had included the character Elias Voorhees but this was cut from the movie. What could fans have expected from his role in the story?
It was cut from the script. We never filmed it. Frank Mancuso wanted to be sure the audience knows Jason is back and HE’S the focus. Not his father, his ghost, or the illegitimate Son of Jason. But yes, my original concept was to just introduce the father here. Then eventually we learn that this man was his true father, having raped Mrs. Voorhees when she was married. I had many twists and turns but the feeling was just bring back Jason.
Does creating characters purely to kill them off ever feel sadistic to you as a writer? Do you sometimes like one of them so much you allow them to survive?
The entire issue of killing for entertainment’s sake is a tough subject bottom line. But it’s the ultimate act and crime of taking away another’s life. We’ve been told in the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ But we enjoy seeing the bad guys get killed, yet it’s scary when the good or innocent people get killed. I purposely set out to make you like these characters on some level. They made you laugh, or they seem to have a good heart. Why did they have to die? Because it’s a horror movie and it’s scary if it happened to them ’cause it could happen to you. I think the issue borders on sadistic when you are made to be annoyed by a character and you want Jason to kill them so you can cheer. I didn’t want to go that way.
With characters in the previous instalments having been impaled, their throats slit and all manner of gruesome deaths, how challenging did you find it trying to conjure up original ways to slaughter your victims?
BIG challenge! I tried to be unique as much as I could. Also make the kills superhuman and not easily to go home and do yourself. Like punch out a heart or twist a head around and pull it off.
Was it an unusual experience killing your wife onscreen and was the role of Lizbeth written with Nancy in mind?
Yes, Lizbeth was written for Nancy to play. That whole scene with Darren and Lizbeth is like a short Jason film; set up characters, they face major conflict and it concludes with their demise and a little dark humour with the American Express card.
During his criticism of slashers in a 1980 episode of Sneak Previews, noted critic Gene Siskel claimed that slasher movies were a reaction to ‘the growth of the woman’s movement in America.’ How would you respond to accusations of misogyny against the series and were you conscious of this while writing the screenplay?
I don’t have any answer for that. Gene is far more astute than me. I remember how he and his bud Roger tore Jason Lives apart while admitting that they had not even watched the film but just knew it was going to be bad. For the record, I tried to have an equal amount of men killed in mine as women. I think maybe there were even more guys killed. Somebody do a head count.
One scene that would ultimately be heavily censored by the MPAA was the triple-header death during the paintball scene. Was it exciting to create a gory sequence for a Friday the 13th movie and was it frustrating to see all the hard work of the FX artists go to waste?
It was VERY frustrating. These guys created a really cool and technically difficult stunt to pull off. It looked incredible! But it wasn’t gory, it was surreal horror. Beyond reality visually. But they MPAA felt otherwise.
Jason Lives seemed as much an action film as it did a horror, was this your attempt to capitalise on the popularity of action movies in the mid-1980s?
I wasn’t trying to capitalise on anything. I was just trying to push the franchise in every different direction I could. Do the impossible with the budget and time we had. I had an amazing cast and crew and we were all wanting to make the movie as fun as possible.
While the movie was guaranteed to make a profit, slashers and Friday the 13th in particular were hated by mainstream critics. How did it feel to know that even though the reviews for Jason Lives were an improvement on past instalments your movie would still be heavily criticised by association?
I knew the critics were going to hate us. It was a shock when most of the major ones didn’t because of the satire aspect to the film. I thought the fans might hate me for messing with the standard structure and tone of the series. It was another shock when they didn’t. The main thing that hurt was the lack of a huge box office opening because the series lost a lot of the fans after Part V, figuring it won’t be the real Jason in Part VI, despite the title Jason Lives.
Had you been allowed to shoot the promo video for Alice Cooper’s He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), did you have an idea for what kind of concept you would have used?
I had a few ideas that I thought Alice might love but I was told almost immediately that the record label already had the video director they wanted to use. I would have loved to have done it but it wasn’t in the cards.
You were approached about Freddy vs. Jason shortly after Jason Lives but at the time the two studios could not come to an agreement. Was this a project you were interested in and did you have any concepts in mind?
I honestly didn’t. I saw the challenge of trying to have them in the same reality to have a stand-off but I had not figured it out before I was told it was a no-go.
Your contribution to the franchise would have a significant impact on the films that would follow, are you proud of the influence you had on Jason Voorhees and how do you feel about the direction the character would take in later sequels?
I only now realise the impact Jason Lives had on the franchise ’cause after thirty-three-plus years it’s still loved and talked about as one of the fan favourites. I never in a million years expected anything like that. I just wanted to make a horror movie with a classic monster who was beyond human and was fun to watch. None of us had the slightest notion that the ’80s horror figures were going to be so famous decades later. Each of the following films tried to bring something different to the table. Never knew what to expect.
I have been asked for so many years if I’d ever do another Jason movie. I’ve always said, ‘Yeah, when I come up with something that hasn’t been done yet stays true to the mythology and basically follows where I left off.’ A little over a year ago I FINALLY figured out how to do it. A new Friday the 13th that I, as a fan and filmmaker, would love to see. So I wrote the script. And am still excited. But due to the ongoing lawsuit between Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller the studios involved don’t want to even read it since nothing can move forward until the suit is settled. So, like Jason, I wait for my time to return.