Friday the 13th is one of the most iconic slasher franchises of all time, so why did the films stop being scary after the first few installments?
Friday the 13th is one of the most iconic slasher franchises in cinema history, so why did the films stop being scary after the first few installments? Beginning with the scrappy Sean S Cunningham-directed Friday the 13th in 1980, the ongoing story of Jason Voorhees has been one of horror cinema’s most influential franchises. Boasting eleven films, a reboot, a short-lived TV series, and countless unmade Friday the 13th movies, the franchise is almost as hard to kill as Voorhees himself. Despite the longevity and enduring popularity, the films in the franchise are far from having a consistent tone. Those who are new to the movies may be surprised to see that the Friday the 13th franchise loses its self-serious, dark horror tone as early as the corny 3-D third installment, Friday the 13th Part III.
From there, the series moves toward self-aware meta-humor in time for the sixth installment Jason Lives, a change that won over critics who were tired of the slasher formula by the mid-1980s. Soon after, all manner of demonic possessions, space travel, and boat trips to Manhattan are afoot, and the franchise slid into full-on horror-comedy for good. The later films in the franchise became so crazy that one fan theory claimed that every Friday the 13th sequel after Part 5 takes place in Tommy’s mind. Maybe Mr. Jarvis is that powerful, but there’s an alternative explanation for how the series ended up being so silly. The reasoning behind the gradual move from straight horror to a horror-comedy hybrid came down to the intended audience reaction. During the Friday the 13th series, audiences stopped putting themselves in the POV of Jason’s teen victims and instead started rooting for the man himself, prompting filmmakers to follow suit.
Unfortunately, the subsequent tone meant that Friday the 13th’s brand has become poisoned in the mind of studios, prompting teen network the CW to pick Riverdale and pass on Friday the 13th for a TV show option. How did Jason fall so far, and did he deserve this ignominious fate? Jason definitely deserves any unfortunate fate he gets, given the gruesome demises he’s been doling out over the decades, but the Friday the 13th franchise didn’t deserve to fall out of favor with audiences.
After the first film’s relatively serious and straightforward whodunit mystery, the second movie was an even simpler story of a maniac on a vengeful killing spree. There was no new backstory, no fuss, and not even the iconic hockey mask. But Friday the 13th Part 2 was ruined by the MPAA, which may have contributed to the decision to lighten the tone of later films. After all, if the creators couldn’t make the adventures of Crystal Lake’s most famous machete-swinging son disturbing, they might as well make the subsequent follow-up outings as fun as possible. Thus began a string of increasingly ludicrous sequels to Friday the 13th, each of which easily earned back their meager budgets at the box office.
The movie franchise was a smash throughout the 1980s. However, just like later A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, Friday the 13th marked a slasher with a difference. Teens who flocked to the multiplex for these films weren’t hoping to be shocked by the disturbing sight of a Halloween-style killer offing innocent victims, but to laugh at a hulking zombie-ghost-demon punching off heads and chopping intentionally insufferable characters in two. It’s no surprise that some think the next Friday the 13th film should completely retcon Jason, as these movies make the once-imposing killer a comical figure.
Compare the events of an early Friday the 13th installment with the later movies. In the first movie, Mrs. Voorhees, driven mad by grief, murders a group of counselors who hope to reopen the summer camp where her young son tragically drowned decades earlier. In Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, that same son is blown up by the FBI, possesses a coroner, and turns his heart into a demon-baby before being stabbed by a magic dagger and dragged down into Hell. Where the first film relied on a subtle, Giallo-influenced, Ten Little Indians-style mystery, Jason X offered viewers space travel alongside Jason killing virtual reality co-eds and freezing one victim’s head in liquid nitrogen, then smashing her face.
Friday the 13th’s (Always) Uncertain Future
The series became reckless enough that Creighton Duke almost got his own Friday the 13th movie, a development which would have been inconceivable in the early, darker days of Friday the 13th. As Creighton Duke’s charming character proves, this slide into silliness isn’t a bad thing for the Friday the 13th franchise. If anything, Jason’s antihero status is a detail which makes this franchise unique and, alongside the similarly blackly comic Child’s Play, provides ample opportunity for reboots, re-imaginings, and sequels alike.
Unlike competitors such as the Sleepaway Camp series, the popularity of the Friday the 13th franchise has managed to endure not only through the golden age of slashers but into the early 2000s heyday of meta-slashers, the dark age of late 2000s horror remakes, and through to 2020. Even now, the franchise remains well-loved. The real Camp Crystal Lake even became a haven for Friday the 13th fans.
Despite what some horror purists may claim, the tonal journey into self-referential humor was one that Jason’s franchise needed to make and one which helped bring the likes of the Scream and Hatchet series into existence by illustrating the public appetite for self-aware slashers. It also meant that a new generation of viewers knows Jason mostly as a figure of fun, unlike more self-serious horror icons like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and Halloween’s Michael Myers. But the most recent attempt to change this was 2009’s deathly serious—and deathly boring—franchise reboot, Friday the 13th. Gloomy and bleak, this unwanted addition to the franchise brought nothing new to the table, prompting some to claim that the next Friday the 13th film should be a prequel.
It’s a fair point to make as, having been to space, Hell, Manhattan, and fellow slasher Freddy Krueger’s stomping ground, there aren’t many places left for Jason to go. The fact that producers don’t know what they’ve got with Jason Voorhees doesn’t make the waterlogged, un-killable corpse any less impressive as a horror icon. No matter how many dour remakes insist otherwise, Jason is a rare slasher villain who proves horror movies can be good, if far from clean, fun.