Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) returns to Crystal Lake to overcome his fears of Jason Voorhees (C.J. Graham) once and for all. He digs up Jason’s grave in order to destroy the corpse completely, except that a freak lightning storm revives Jason from the dead. While Jason continues his murderous rampage, Tommy struggles to convince the local sheriff (David Kagen) that the killer has returned.
When audiences responded negatively to Paramount’s new direction on the Friday the 13th films, the studio backed away immediately to safe territory. They hired writer/director Tom McLoughlin to make a sixth Friday film with pretty much one condition: however he arranged it, the film had to bring back Jason Voorhees as the villain. McLoughlin’s solution was to physically resurrect Jason as a now-supernatural undead monster. By drawing inspiration from the classic Universal Pictures monster movies McLoughlin set the franchise off in a more fantastic and outlandish direction. The strategy works well: Jason Lives is a wonderfully enjoyable and knowingly silly return to form after the wholly dreadful The New Beginning.
It is perhaps a sign that fewer viewers were paying attention by the time Friday the 13th hit its sixth film that no one seems confused or perplexed that the franchise suddenly went supernatural. It is a massive shift in its fictional universe, and it testament to McLoughlin’s screenplay that the change occurs without ever feeling entirely silly or unbelievable. Ultimately I suspect the dedicated audience’s desire to see Jason return outweighed any quibbles over how that happened.
It is a very self-aware screenplay, and knowingly played by the cast. A particular highlight is the local gravedigger, who complains what a terrible idea it is to dig Jason out of his grave and bemoans the poor taste of American teenagers. It is not a surprise to learn that one person watching Jason Lives in the cinema was Kevin Williamson, who a decade or so later took that self-awareness to new heights with his own horror film Scream. McLoughlin clearly understands his audience here, and as part of that understands the audience like Friday the 13th precisely because of its ‘Jason kills a bunch of over-sexed teenagers’ formula. This is a film sequel that gives it audience precisely what they want – and then adds self-referential humour and a car chase.
The film boasts a solid cast as well, particularly David Kagen as the local sheriff Mike Garris, Jennifer Cooke as his rebellious daughter Megan, and Thom Mathews as Tommy Jarvis – re-positioned from troubled teen to desperate romantic hero. Mathews replaces John Shepherd, who played the role in Part V but who declined to return. Each actor actually feels better suited to the kind of character they are asked to play.
One thing that really stands out in this film is the musical score by Harry Manfredini. His Herrmann-esque scores have been a stable of the franchise from the very beginning, and in this – his final score for Friday the 13th – he pulls out all of the stops to present something hugely effective and enjoyable.
It is important not to over-rate the film: it is, at the end of the day, a slasher film following a largely well-drawn and repetitive pattern. Within those parameters, however, McLoughlin presents a bold and inventive new direction as well as giving his audience the sort of gleeful carnage that they want to see. Along with the 1980 original and The Final Chapter, this is one of the Friday the 13th highlights.