It’s difficult to criticise someone for trying something new. It’s even more difficult to criticise director Adam Marcus for Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. This was a franchise that was well past its sell-by-date by the early 90s, one that should have been laid to rest following 1989‘s censorship debacle Jason Takes Manhattan, which was not only disfigured beyond recognition by the all-censoring powers that be, but was even forced to renege on its gimmicky promise of exploring New York City, most of the movie actually shot in Vancouver, Canada.
The original screenplay nixed scene after scene thanks to the unmanageable expense of filming in The Big Apple. This transformed a movie that was supposed to have moments involving iconic monuments such as the Brooklyn Bridge and The Empire State Building into a long, laborious boat ride that all but killed the franchise, despite the genius idea of having a Jason who could teleport, and who doesn’t want that?
But something new was needed if producer Sean Cunningham and New Line Cinema, who had bought the rights to the Friday the 13th series for the long-mooted Freddy vs Jason crossover, were to dredge the irrepressible Mr. Voorhees from franchise ignominy. New Line wanted a precursor to Freddy vs Jason, a movie that wouldn’t see the light of day until a decade later. It was up to first time writer-director Marcus to provide that platform, and he did so with the kind of left-field experimentation that broke many of the golden rules.
The Friday the 13th series is unique in the respect that fans not only expect more of the same, they demand it. Later Halloween instalments failed to live up to the original movie because, let’s face it, there was much to live up to. The same cannot be said of Friday the 13th. For openers, it can’t hold a butcher’s knife to Carpenter’s opus. It was instead a savvy marketing exercise that turned a meagre production into a money-spinning monster, a film that was derivative by nature.
Halloween was also a movie that thrived on simplicity, and with every passing sequel the Myers mystique would fade a little more, resulting in weird narrative swerves involving men in black and demonic cults. Jason had no such ethos to respect. He was a smash-mouth killer plain and simple. Each instalment added a little twist to freshen the fold, but each was essentially the same animal and for whatever reason it worked a treat. Some things just aren’t suited to change, and Jason certainly falls into that category.
Unsurprisingly, Jason Goes to Hell didn’t go down too well with critics, but that in itself was nothing new. What really killed the movie was the way in which it polarised the character’s loyal fan base, who were pretty pissed to find that Jason hardly featured in the movie at all in the physical form we were all accustomed to. This was even more offensive than the impostor Jason from 1985‘s A New Beginning, which had also been sacrilegious in the minds of many. At least that instalment gave fans the illusion of Jason for most of the movie’s running time, retaining many of the principles that gave the series its essence.
Naturally, the blame for The Final Friday would fall in the lap of the man at the creative helm. But Marcus was a lifelong fan of the series. This wasn’t a case of some clueless film school grad using the franchise for the sole purpose of breaking into the business. He understood the character as much as the most ardent diehard and had a real love for horror, a fact made apparent by a series of genre nods involving other staple franchises, including the obvious tie-in with the A Nightmare on Elm Street series that sees Jason dragged to hell by Krueger’s iconic, razor-fingered glove.
Another tie-in sees Jason tied to the Evil Dead franchise and the infamous Necronomicon. The plot of Jason Goes to Hell sees our irrepressible killer destroyed in the opening sequence, his spirit then transferred from body to body via ‘Hellbaby’, a physical manifestation of Jason’s demonic soul. That soul takes the form of a worm-like parasite, one which holds more than a passing resemblance to that featured in Jack Sholder’s comical sci-fi horror The Hidden, a fact that was quickly shrugged off as coincidental by the director.
In a 2017 interview with Horror Geek Life, Marcus explained, “[Pamela Voorhees] makes a deal with the devil by reading from the Necronomicon to bring back her son. This is why Jason isn’t Jason. He’s Jason plus The Evil Dead, and now I can believe that he can go from a little boy that lives in a lake, to a full grown man in a couple of months, to Zombie Jason, to never being able to kill this guy.” According to Marcus, Sam Raimi loved the idea, but due to legal reasons he couldn’t develop the concept as much as he wanted, and the Necronomicon was slipped in as an Easter egg of the more implied variety.
It seems that Marcus’s heart was in the right place, so how does the movie fare? The answer is not too well. The basic plot is that Jason needs to possess the body of one of his three remaining relatives in order to resurrect his physical form, an increasingly convoluted idea that quickly becomes incoherent as the screenplay struggles to explain Jason’s newfound mythology. It is also completely lacking in suspense, which is nothing new for a franchise that had relied on cynical gimmicks for years, but without Jason at the helm it’s nigh-on unbearable at times.
On the plus side for Voorhees fans — if you can look past the fact that he is barely in the movie — Jason Goes to Hell features a record-equalling body count of 22, ironically sharing that title with A New Beginning. It also features arguably the finest special effects in the entire series thanks to Al Magliochetti and the wonderful maestros at KNB EFX, who were also responsible for such visual banquets as Scott Spiegel’s supermarket splatterfest Intruder. There are so many exceptional kills in this movie it may have proven more of a hit with horror fans had it not centred around Jason, and despite its audacious and wholly misguided digressions, it can actually be a lot of fun. At a time when mainstream horror had grown decidedly tepid, Jason Goes to Hell raises the bar.
The ninth instalment in the series also gives us the wonderfully hammy Creighton Duke, a smooth-talking man of mystery who strolls upon the movie’s fictional town like Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. The Blues Brothers‘ Steven Williams is easily the best thing about Jason Goes to Hell, a bad ass bounty hunter with a very personal vendetta against Jason, at least according to his intended backstory, which had Duke lose a girlfriend to a boat that was capsized by Voorhees back at Camp Crystal Lake, turning him into the kind of obsessive expert who feels confident he can finally defeat Jason. Good luck with that.
Such omissions only add to the movie’s scattergun plotting and general illogicality. Marcus was an exceedingly young director and it shows. From a technical standpoint he offers much promise, but a surer hand was needed to rein in the action and stop the movie from careening so far wide of the tried-and-tested Friday formula. Sometimes the film feels like it has been directed by an over-zealous adolescent with a wildly overactive imagination, leaving an oddball collection of figurines strewn across the living room floor. Kudos for possessing such cavalier sensibilities. The movie is brave and wildly conceived. Unfortunately, this proves more of a hindrance than anything.