Thursday, July 12, 2018

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

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

Rated R

Score: 4 out of 5

My, my, my. Just when it seemed as though the Friday the 13th franchise had run out of gas, it found a way to come back from the grave -- and, appropriately enough, it did so by literally bringing Jason Voorhees back from the grave. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives is this series in full, swaggering '80s slasher franchise mode, a welcome return to form after its middling predecessor A New Beginning, and a contender with The Final Chapter for the best film in the series. Boasting a theme song by Alice Cooper (who also contributed other songs to the soundtrack), a tone that's almost as reminiscent of an action movie as it is a slasher horror flick, some sparing but effective use of gore effects, and a playful tone that's more than happy to engage in some self-parody of slasher cliches without losing sight of what makes Jason scary, Jason Lives is usually remembered as the last great film in the series before it fell into a death spiral of sequelitis. At the very least, it's an excellent mea culpa for A New Beginning.

I mean that literally, because according to the filmmakers, righting the wrongs of this film's predecessor was a major driving force behind it, even if only to keep the franchise profitable in the long run. The ending of A New Beginning is retconned away (the recent video game would reveal it all to be just a dream), the events of that film mentioned only in the broadest strokes as we are reunited with Tommy Jarvis one last time. Crippled by nightmares and hallucinations about Jason, Tommy has traveled with his friend to Jason's grave in order to dig up and burn his body and make sure he's dead, hoping that it might finally bring him peace. Unfortunately, an inopportune lightning strike is all it takes to resuscitate Jason's rotting corpse, now tougher than ever despite being half-eaten by worms and maggots. Yes, this is the birth of the "zombie Jason" that would characterize later films, and he immediately makes his presence felt by ripping the heart from Tommy's friend with a single punch. Tommy runs off to the police to warn them, but the sheriff, thinking that Jason is dead and buried, is understandably skeptical. Fortunately, the sheriff's daughter, camp counselor Megan, realizes that Jason is on the loose, and works together with Tommy to stop the hockey-masked killer before he reaches Camp Forest Green (the former Camp Crystal Lake, having renamed itself for obvious reasons) and starts killing counselors and kids alike.

It becomes immediately apparent soon after Jason's resurrection that this movie is here to have fun. After Tommy's friend, the first two victims are a pair of counselors who immediately try to nope their way out of there the moment they see Jason, having seen enough horror movies to know that a masked man holding a pointy object is never a good sign, though it's not like it saves them in the end. After that, we get Jason slaughtering an office paintball retreat that provides a bunch of great fake-outs before Jason arrives in force, and a pair of counselors getting killed in an RV in a death scene that's perhaps the most spectacle-driven in the series up to this point. The title card spoofs James Bond, numerous lines poke fun at how it's a strange idea of fun to willingly be scared (like, say, while watching a Friday movie), two young campers during the finale engage in some gallows humor about how screwed they are, and the cemetery's undertaker even makes a joke about digging up Jason that, when viewed from a distance, is pretty obviously a jab at the fact that this franchise logically should've ended two movies ago. While not as incisive as later slasher satires like ScreamThe Cabin in the Woods, or Wes Craven's New Nightmare, this is still a very fun, lighthearted goof on the genre by people who know and love the material, especially given that, even amidst all the stuff going on around him, Jason himself is still a terrifying and threatening presence. The effects work on his undead form is suitably disgusting, and he runs up a series-high body count that I almost lost track of as I was watching this. The aforementioned heart-ripping is just the start, as Jason smashes people's heads against walls and trees, twists them off with his bare hands, decapitates three people with a single machete slice, bends a man backwards, covers an entire cabin in a victim's blood, and more, and while few of the kills go above and beyond, there are times when quantity is a quality all its own; a whole ton of mostly good kills will certainly do the job. The blend of horror, action, and comedy in this film made for an exciting rollercoaster ride, not a particularly scary movie but definitely an entertaining slasher.

Tommy Jarvis is also rehabilitated after his showing in the last movie, which was underwhelming outside of the ending that this film pretends never happened. Here, he's a full-on Captain Ahab to Jason's Moby Dick, suffering a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder from the fourth movie, and emerges as a take-charge action hero after he tries, and fails, to get the police to do something. Right by his side is Megan, one of the best final girls that the series has seen. Tough, snarky, and cunning, Megan proves more than capable holding her own against both Jason and her stubborn sheriff father who tries to push her aside, and she and Tommy make an excellent hero team as they fight to save a besieged summer camp. Speaking of the sheriff, he was also entertaining as a guy who doesn't realize, until it's too late, that he's wandered into the role of the disbelieving authority figure, constantly serving as a pest for Tommy and Megan to thwart. (Sidenote: the sheriff was named Mike Garris. This isn't a reference to the director Mick Garris, who was fairly unknown at the time, though given the assorted shout-outs throughout the film to other horror filmmakers like John Carpenter and the first film's director Sean Cunningham, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.) The other characters mostly don't live long enough to leave much of an impression, but they still leave some, whether it was the friendly counselor Paula who tries to calm a young girl who says she saw "a monster", the horndog Cort and his girlfriend Nikki, or the wisecracking co-workers on a paintball trip. Getting me invested in the victims, if only for just a few seconds, made me care about them just a bit more when they finally bit it. Also of note, this is the first time when the camp was actually in session when Jason arrived, adding some extra stakes at the prospect of him going after the kids. While the film doesn't really do as much with this idea as I might have liked, it was still cool to see camp counselors actually being camp counselors in a Friday movie.

The Bottom Line

This is the sequel that A New Beginning should've been, a movie that represents all the best and most fun qualities that the Friday series had come to stand for by that point: entertaining violence, a pair of great lead characters, and a nice sense of humor about itself. It may be downhill after this, but the fact that this franchise could still deliver a good movie on its sixth installment is impressive in and of itself.

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