VHS Revival ranks the most divisive horror franchise of the 20th century
Love him or you loathe him, he can’t be denied. The indomitable Jason Voorhees: a cynical Halloween cash-in who Paramount would take a punt on time and time again, and they wouldn’t regret it. For more than a decade the scourge of Camp Crystal Lake was one of horror‘s most profitable creations, and although he would later return for a Fred Kruger crossover and a couple of modern reboots, he will always be remembered for his original run, a 21-year period in which he racked up an incredible 129 kills.
With so many gimmicks and concepts and variations over the years, debate between fans has always proved divisive. Who is the best Jason? Who is the best final girl? Which is your favourite kill? And, perhaps most pressingly, which period do you belong to in a series that went from straight-up-slasher to tongue-in-cheek silliness? All of those are questions for another day, but they are also vital components in choosing your favourite instalment. At the risk of becoming unpopular VHS Revival attempts to answer that question.
Feel free to challenge our picks in the comments section.
10. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
This was a tough decision, but not really; tough because first time writer-director Adam Marcus tried something new, and easy because the whole project proved an abject failure. Marcus was only 23 when he was given the unenviable task of freshening a long-stale franchise, as New Line Cinema—fresh off purchasing the series rights from Paramount—looked to set up the long-awaited Freddy vs. Jason crossover which, thanks to the critical backlash for this particular instalment, was put on the back-burner for another decade.
So what makes Jason Goes to Hell the very worst in the series? First of all, Jason hardly appears in the movie—yes, you heard me. For years, Camp Crystal’s brutal scourge had dragged a censor-slashed series through the woods backwards, and now we had a movie low on suspense without an iconic figure to carry it as Jason’s ‘Hellbaby’ soul moved from body to body, giving us a collection of anonymous killers and a convoluted plot at pains to explain the machete wielding mad man’s unnecessary mythology.
Marcus was a fan of the series, and had no choice but to try something new, but for a franchise which had survived on the shoulders of its iconic lead player, this proved the death knell. This, in spite of some top-notch practical effects from the maestros at KNB EFX. Kudos for audacity, but a movie without Jason isn’t a Friday the 13th movie, unless Pamela Voorhees one day manages to reattach her head, which wouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given her son’s regenerative capacities.
After Jason’s spirit enters the body of a coroner possessed into eating his still-beating heart, his none-the-wiser assistant makes the fatal mistake of ridiculing the monster’s corpse. Unsurprisingly, the man is then pinned to a grate with a particularly sharp implement, pieces of his face sluicing through like mincemeat.
9. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Some fans actually dig this Big Apple bound instalment, and I can almost see why. Jason had long since become the series focal point, an antihero bloodthirsty fans would root for above his increasingly peripheral victims. Jason Takes Manhattan would take this formula to a whole new level, director Rob Hedden designing a vehicle for the mindless MTV generation by transforming Jason into a veritable pop star and fetishising his every move. This would lead to some iconic shots of Pamela’s baby boy that would not have been possible in previous instalments, some of them touched by a delicious sense of irony.
But focusing so heavily on Jason comes with its own set of problems, the main one being a lack of suspense. Yes, the movie had lacked any real suspense for years, and yes we primarily pay to see Jason’s various acts of barbarism, but in the most heavily censored entry in the entire series we see next to nothing in the creative kills department, and Jason’s almost ceaseless presence kills the horror dead. Oh, and Jason is melted with toxic waste, somehow becoming a perfectly formed child in the process. Freud would have had a field day.
The movie would also struggle with budgetary issues that saw Paramount renege on their promise of having Jason wreak havoc on some of New York City’s most famous monuments. This would include a boxing match in Madison Square Garden and Jason leaping off the Statue of Liberty, but in the end we spent the majority of our time on a boat, while most of the city scenes were filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Perhaps Jason will one day return for Jason Takes Paramount Headquarters.
Now that I’d pay to see!
Having given Jason a run for his money (well, almost) with a rooftop bout of fisticuffs, young pugilist Julius gives up from sheer exhaustion, daring Jason to take his turn. With one punch, the youngster’s head then ends up in a nearby dumpster. Dumb move, kid.
8. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
What exactly does The New Blood refer to? A new batch of victims? A fresh stream of blood trickling towards Camp Crystal Lake? The truth is nobody knows, not even the movie’s screenwriters as they themselves have purportedly admitted. At the time of the movie’s release, Paramount were already toying with the idea of a Freddy vs Jason crossover as horror’s two most prolific killers became bona fide rock stars, but due to rights issues that was set to prove rather costly, so the always underhanded Paramount aped another horror icon instead.
The New Blood, or Jason vs Carrie, pits our long-suffering monster against a troubled young teen with the power of telekinesis, a gift so potent she can use it to light a box of matches on fire, but only if she becomes mad enough. The New Blood was the first instalment to make Friday’s paper-thin supporting cast truly peripheral, and also suffered from the most anaemic cuts to date (a shame since the existing raw footage hints at something rather special), turning Jason into a largely impotent presence for the movie’s first two acts.
It did, however, feature one of the most unique final girls in the entire series, at least in a superficial sense, as well as benefiting from perhaps the best finale in the entire series as an unmasked Jason, looking better than he ever would, is wrestled by trees, electrocuted, drowned in a puddle, struck with all manner of heavy furniture, headbutted by a decapitated victim, crushed by a porch, smashed through a staircase, hung from a ceiling, burnt alive, blown up, and shot several times with a pistol. Is this enough to finally put Jason away for good?
You’d think so, wouldn’t you?
Due to the MPAA’s relentless censorship crusade, none of the final cut deserves the title, although the sight of a sleeping bag bound victim being smashed against a tree remains a sight to behold, even if the existing raw footage shows that victim being swung repeatedly with far bloodier consequences.
7. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)
I actually like A New Beginning; in a goofy sort of way, it’s actually pretty charming. But after the ‘video nasty‘ hysteria of the early 80s, horror movies would be subjected to the kind of cuts that required filmmakers to use intelligence and technical prowess to create something genuinely scary, and the nihilistic formula of the series meant that hardly anything would sluice through the cutting floor post The Final Chapter, a title which Paramount took a whole year to renege on.
So what’s good about the fifth entry in the longest running horror series in history? Well, it’s just a little bit silly. Irresistibly so. First of all we have a returning Tommy Jarvis: a preteen in 1984 but somehow a fully-grown adult just one year later. We also have the Pinewood Home for troubled kids, an institute so lax it allows its musclebound residents to run around wielding axes. Oh, and there’s the only sheriff in the entire series who puts two and two together and figures out that Jason Voorhees is probably behind this latest spate of murders, only this time he isn’t, and the movie isn’t even set at Camp Crystal Lake.
In the end, that’s the movie’s biggest crux, the fact that Jason doesn’t make a single appearance (unless you count Tommy’s flashback), and in the studio’s most audacious move to date we have an impostor killer with a dubious motive. Did all of those kids really deserve to be hacked to pieces for the sake of one person’s actions? Of course not, especially when you consider the fact that victim Joey is one of the most deserving in the series, although not as deserving as the insufferable Junior, who also gets his comeuppance with a lovely head chopping. Cheers, Jace!
One unlucky teen gets pinned to a tree with a leather strap, which is then tightened until his eyes and head are crushed. At least I assume his head is crushed. Thanks to those God-fearing bastards at the Motion Picture Association of America, we will sadly never know.
6. Jason X (2001)
I’m sure some purists will slay me for this one, but for me Jason X is a charming and unique entry in the Friday the 13th canon. Sure, the set design looks straight out of a game of laser tag, its 2455 depiction of outer space belonging to a b-grade sci-fi drama from the late 90s, but this was a breath of fresh air following the creatively barren later sequels, which would mostly regurgitate the same old neutered formula for the sake of Paramount’s bottomless coffers.
After the failed first attempt by New Line to freshen the franchise with the disastrous Final Friday, Sean Cunningham’s undying creation was finally jettisoned into space, where a cryogenic chamber brought an end to his indestructible rampage—or so the ever-naive cast would initially presume. Here, Jason is back to his brutal best, with a cast of generic victims and a screenplay that delights in sending up horror’s most irresistible force.
But this is no simple retread; oh, no. Once Jason lays waste to a gaggle of primed fodder, Jason X audaciously treads Alien territory, with a bad ass android who gives Jason a run for his money and a corporate shill with an expositional oversight that will lead our quasi-antagonist on a record 9th killing spree. We also have a delicious virtual reality programme that recreates the trite backdrop of the original Camp Crystal series in an attempt to distract our celestial beast. Oh, and there’s the legendary Kane Hodder as the genetically modified uber-Jason. Truly tremendous stuff!
Failing miserably to convince us of her biological pedigree, a vacuous blonde with designs on regenerating the long-dormant Jason wakes the proverbial dragon and has her head cryogenically frozen and smashed to smithereens.
5. Friday the 13th (1980)
I’m risking a ceaseless backlash for positioning the original instalment at a lowly fifth, but let me just take a moment to present my case. As an exercise in horror tension, Friday the 13th is perhaps the most effective instalment, but for a series that’s led predominantly by Jason it’s difficult for me to place it at the top of such a list. The original movie of any series can usually be considered the best based on the fact that it was the innovator, but it is no secret that Friday the 13th was a cash-in on the success of John Carpenter‘s Halloween, and, for better and for worse, its gimmicky offspring can arguably be considered more unique.
Sean S. Cunningham did a fantastic job replicating that success, and it was his genesis, regardless of how derivative the formula, that spawned an entire money-spinning franchise that is still going strong today. Without Friday the 13th, there would be no Jason, and for fans of the franchise that is something that can not be taken lightly. There are also parallels to be drawn with Hitchcock, and that in itself was a wise decision. As was that to imitate A Bay of Blood‘s cabin location, a move that would ultimately influence subsequent Stateside slashers, transforming it into the sub-genre’s most recognisable setting.
Played with maniacal relish by the wonderful Betsy Palmer, Pamela Voorhees is an exceptional antagonist in her own right, and a largely uncensored theatrical cut gave fans a glimpse of the murder and mayhem that lay ahead. The movie is also notable for the appearance of a young Kevin Bacon, who is more deserving of the movie’s best kill with every mobile phone ad he deigns to subject us to.
Only kidding, Kevin.
After lighting up a post-sex doob, Kevin Bacon’s Jack is distracted by a strange dripping from above. Cue Pamela’s giant hand and a rusty spear through the throat. We can thank franchise mainstay and practical effects icon Tom Savini for that beautiful geyser of the red stuff.
4. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Perhaps the purest slasher to star the one and only Jason Voorhees, although far from the purest instalment, Friday the 13th Part 2 represents something of an anomaly in the series. On the surface of things it may seem like the least anomalous due to its complete lack of gimmickry, but this isn’t Jason as we know and love him, giving us a much more vulnerable and altogether human incarnation than we would come to expect.
The second instalment in the franchise is something of a transitional entry, and is perhaps unique for being the least unique, which ironically makes it unique in itself. Without a plethora of gambits to disguise Friday’s more-of-the-same formula, director Steve Miner is able to concentrate on the basics, relying on the kind of suspense that would become peripheral as Jason made the leap from POV killer to pop culture antihero. The movie also benefits from a relatively rounded cast, as well as arguably the most resourceful final girl of the series in Amy Steel’s Ginny.
All of this results in one of the most technically rewarding entries in the series. Aping everything from Carpenter to Hitchcock, Part 2 even has the gall to imitate the infamous skewer death from Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and is basically a rehash of the original with Jason at the helm. Although a Town that Dreaded Sundown clone who prefers a peephole sack to a hockey mask, this also marked the beginning of Jason’s insatiable killing spree, as well as a never-say-die attitude that would spawn the regenerative freak of nature most synonymous with the series.
As smartly derivative as its antecedent, but the presence of Jason gives this one the edge.
In a beautifully paced ode to Halloween, Friday the 13th‘s final girl, Alice, opens the fridge to find a severed head; just enough of a distraction for an inhumanly patient Jason to drive an ice pick through her temple. John Carpenter would have been proud.
3. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives! (1986)
With the MPAA draining every drop of blood imaginable, the series required a fresh angle if it was to survive the decade, and director Tom McLoughlin hit the severed head out of the park with tongue-in-cheek meta riot Jason Lives! With three instalments under his belt, the irrepressible Mr Voorhees had already proven himself inhumanly resourceful, but Part VI was the first entry to throw the rule book down a bottomless well, giving us an eyebrow-raising incarnation on par with Roger Moore‘s James Bond.
As an exercise in suspense, Jason Lives! would not even survive the first round, and once again the gore is at a minimum, but this movie implies like a cheap innuendo, and an irresistible one at that. Where else can you find Jason painting a smiley face with a poor sap’s crimson napper, or a brazen nod to the famous 007 opening titles sequence, a miniature Jason slashing at the screen with a much blunter version of a Walther PPK. The movie also features the madman’s most audacious regeneration, a convenient blast of lighting giving him the strength to rise from the grave and rip out a still-beating heart. I mean, what an entrance!
Granted, Jason Lives! is not everyone’s cup of tea, and is perhaps the most divisive in the series in terms of ranking. For while this instalment breathed new life into the series, it took us down a path from which we would never return. It all depends on whose side you’re on: the overtly self-referential or traditional slasher Jason. Me? I have eclectic tastes when it comes to the Friday series, and as a standalone treat Jason Lives! is one of the most memorable in the franchise, encapsulating what many feel the series stood for.
Stumbling upon a pair of unlucky motorists, Jason shrugs off the threat of firearms by jabbing a spear into a poor fellows testicles, pole vaulting him into the recesses of victim’s past. Now that’s the way to do it!
2. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984)
Perhaps the purest example of a Friday the 13th movie, and one of the finest slashers ever put to celluloid, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is a flawless exercise in Jason-led destruction, and only missed out on the number one spot by a sharply plucked nose hair. This was the last ‘serious’ Friday instalment, although it is not without a sense of irony. Jason is superhuman, but still savvy enough to remain predominantly in the shadows. It is blatant and subtle, unruly yet tied to convention. Put succinctly, it manages to establish the perfect balance between horror and humour, with enough variation to please the entire spectrum of Voorhees fans.
The movie is also the last to avoid the cutting floor in a way that damaged the reputation of Camp Crystal’s most fearsome killing machine. Thanks to some of practical effects maestro Tom Savini’s finest work, The Final Chapter includes some of the most memorable kills in the series, and in terms of importance that cannot be underestimated. It is also notable for the first appearance of Tommy Jarvis, a practical effects whizz-kid who would go on to become a franchise mainstay, as well as featuring cameos from 80s royalty such as Judie Aronson (Weird Science) and Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover, who would immortalise himself with one of the oddest attempts at dancing ever recorded.
For many The Final Chapter is the last legitimate Friday the 13th movie and the very pinnacle of the franchise. It may have fallen short for me personally, but even for those who don’t agree with its number one status, it’s hard to argue that this is the template for all Friday the 13th movies, giving us the most rounded Jason incarnation of them all.
After canoodling with a nurse in an examination room where Jason rests, a cocky doctor has his throat sliced with a hacksaw, allowing Jason to twist his head around by 180 degrees. Yikes!
Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982)
Before you sigh and close the lid on your laptop, let me explain to you exactly why Friday the 13th Part 3 made our top spot. This particular instalment will always be remembered for its Reagan era 3-D debacle, and also marks the beginning of Paramount’s love affair with the annual gimmick. But it is so much more than laborious sequences of swinging hay bales and in-your-face yo-yo action.
For one thing, Friday the 13th part 3 is a movie of firsts. Obviously, it is the first and only time Jason was able to come at us through the screen, but it is also the first to introduce our monster as the movie’s focal point, bringing him out of the POV shadows for more than just the prerequisite finale. The sight of Jason lumbering in search of his next victim after the infamous harpoon kill is significant in triggering his transition to antihero, setting the groundwork for Jason’s cinematic identity as a standalone franchise killer. The film’s other first is a little more obvious, and easily the most vital. This is the movie where Jason first obtained his iconic hockey mask, without which there may not have been a Final Chapter. Put succinctly, Part 3 gave Paramount the hook they craved.
The third instalment also gave us some of the best ingredients in the entire series. For one, it features the best kills in the series, hands down. It also features arguably the best Jason in Richard Brooker (sorry Kane Hodder fans), the most unique score in Harry Manfredini’s post-funk classic, and a colourful cast of characters who go beyond your standard beauties in bikinis with an absurd biker gang who soon discover the true definition of badass.
It is also the most graphic of the series, dodging the MPAA’s more stringent impositions by a matter of months. It may not be as rounded as The Final Chapter, as suspenseful as Part II or as unique as Jason Lives!, but it is brutal and ridiculous in equal measures, and in many ways the most important entry in the franchise.
There are so many to choose from here: the aforementioned harpoon through the eyeball, Rick’s crushed cranium and popped eye socket, but for shear brutality the title has to go to handstand cretin Andy Beltrami, who is brutally hacked in half and stacked neatly on a ceiling beam.
Is there any more satisfying Jason kill? Not in my eyes.