Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Film Appreciation - Nothing This Evil Ever Dies

In the first installment of our Film Appreciation series, we take a trip down memory lane as Cody Hamman celebrates the 1986 slasher film Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI.

When deciding which film I wanted to write about in my first contribution to the Film Appreciation series, Jason Lives stood out as the top choice because my first viewing of it turned out to be a very important event in my life.

The sixth entry in the Friday the 13th series hit U.S. theatres on August 1, 1986, and according to Wikipedia the VHS release followed in February of 1987. That's when I was introduced to the film.

I was three years old at the time. My teenage sister and her boyfriend had rented the video cassette and brought it home to watch. I sat on the couch to check it out with them and was not prepared for what I saw. The film begins with Tommy Jarvis, disturbed by previous encounters with both Jason Voorhees himself and a copycat, and a pal (obligatory mention that his friend is played by Ron Palillo, who was Horshack in the great 70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter) going into a cemetery on a dark and stormy night and digging up the rotten corpse of Voorhees, planning to put Tommy's mind at ease by performing their own cremation.

Things don't go as intended. Tommy loses control and repeatedly plunges a fence post into Jason's dead chest, and when this metal rod is struck by a bolt of lightning, things really go wrong. Jason is brought back to life, and this worm and maggot-ridden corpse climbs out of his grave and attacks, tearing poor Ron Palillo's heart out. I reacted to this as you might expect a three year old to - I freaked out. I screamed, I cried, I was so scared that my sister had to take the VHS out of our VCR and go watch the movie at her boyfriend's house.

But when I settled down, I had a different feeling about the movie. I wanted to watch the whole thing. The landscape of my entertainment world changed right there, as horror became a prominent part of it. Realizing that it was all just harmless entertainment, I was never again so terrified by a movie. I could be creeped out, but to be scared was rare. I was a full-fledged horror fan by the time the next sequel in the Friday the 13th series, The New Blood, came out in May 1988, and was begging my mom to take me to see it in the theatre...

Jason Lives has gotten regular viewings from me for almost twenty-four years now, and it's never lost its entertainment value.

Writer/director Tom McLoughlin got the job to make Friday the 13th Part VI and was given one directive - "bring Jason back". A young, Corey Feldman version of Tommy Jarvis had taken Jason down with a machete at the end of the fourth film and messed him up so bad that the hockey masked killer had to - aside from some dreams and hallucinations - sit out the fifth film and let a copycat take over. Faced with having to resurrect a corpse, McLoughlin sought inspiration from a classic tale and thus the Universal/Hammer-esque opening, making Jason the modern Frankenstein and offically pulling the Friday the 13th series into supernatural territory. Whether or not Jason was a supernatural force in the earlier films is debatable, now there was no question, and the zombification of Jason opened the door to allow future sequels to go as crazy as they wanted.

The Frankenstein resurrection by lightning is only one of several film references/homages in the movie, from self-referential cracks by a character who's "seen enough horror movies to know that any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly" and a drunken caretaker who breaks the fourth wall to note that "some folks have a strange idea of entertainment", to nods to genre directors (Cunningham/Carpenter) and actors (Karloff), and even a parody of the 007 gunbarrel, with Jason standing in for James Bond (Bond being another of my favorite franchises, I really like this).

It's clear from the beginning that McLoughlin brought his A game to this movie. Jason Lives brought to the series its best production value and cinematography yet, as well as a wider scope than the previous films. In addition to the usual lakeside slashing, the story branches out into the town of Crystal Lake (here re-named Forest Green), the local police force gets some action, the camp is open and full of kids for the only time in the series, there's a car chase, and an awesome RV crash, which ends with a great, iconic shot of Jason standing atop the wreckage, a sight that even impressed my sister-in-law during a 1996 viewing.

McLoughlin also brought more humor to his film, and I usually enjoy the mixture of horror and comedy. When people get scared by a movie or in a haunted house attraction, they usually follow their screams with laughter, so I've always felt that horror and comedy go naturally hand-in-hand.

Despite the extra level of humor around him, the character of Jason is always taken seriously, allowing for some stalking scenes that are effectively suspenseful.

Not only is Jason now a walking corpse, but he's "even more powerful" now, able to tear out hearts, rip off arms, take gunshots without much problem, and crush heads in his bare hands. (And check out the glorious river of green snot running from the nose of the head crush victim. That's attention to detail!) And Jason is literally a walking corpse now. He ran after victims in his previous films, but after crawling out of the grave he tended to keep his speed slow and steady for the next several movies, until the running version returned in the 2009 Friday the 13th.

Jason is played for the most part by former Marine C.J. Graham, who gives a great performance, with very methodical, almost robotic movements, and he comes off as very sinister. For years, Graham was my favorite Jason and I hoped that he'd get another chance to play the role. Now that he's happily running Las Vegas, that seems very unlikely. I met Graham at the Cinema Wasteland convention in April of 2006, where I got him to sign my copy of the Crystal Lake Memories book and he put me in a friendly stranglehold.

For one sequence, Jason is also played by stuntman Dan Bradley, who would go on to be a very successful second unit director (in another Bond connection, Bradley was second unit director on the 2008 007 film Quantum of Solace). Though Bradley was fired not long into production, supposedly because producers didn't like his build, his moments are memorable and he seems fine in the role.

The sequence Bradley appears in is one of my favorites, where Jason takes out a group of doofus insurance salesmen playing paintball in the woods. One of these salesmen is the dweeby Roy, who trips and falls and loses his gun, accidentally breaks a limb off a tree and then tries to re-attach it, and is mocked by his co-workers. I remember that during one viewing of the film with my brother and his friends, they were making fun of one of their pals by comparing him to Roy, and the comparison was quite accurate. The irony is, Roy is all set to win the paintball game until Jason drops in and ruins his victory with a triple decapitation.

The locations in the film are great. The camp and lake, an old cemetery, a great fake section of cemetery created by production designer Joe Garrity. Standing in for the town of Crystal Lake/Forest Green is lovely downtown Covington, Georgia (Rob Zombie would later film his Halloween II there), which I hope to someday visit. I want to see that clocktower in person. Jason spends a lot of his time walking through the picturesque, kudzu-choked Georgia woods.

It's these "walking through the woods" scenes that inspired one of the few nightmares I had of Jason as a child. In it, my grandfather had taken me to some kind of convention center, where Jason Lives was playing on a large projection screen in the lobby. Jason was walking through the woods in the movie and continued walking right off the screen, making his way across the lobby, through the crowd of people, coming straight toward me. Oddly, something similar happens in the video for Alice Cooper's "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)", one of three Cooper songs featured on the Jason Lives soundtrack, but I don't think I saw that video until many years later.

The characters are well-written and the acting is very good for the series. Our hero Tommy Jarvis is played by Thom Mathews, who went on to run a successful construction company and befriend George Clooney. I always liked seeing Mathews in films, whether in the first two Return of the Living Dead films or as Bill in Kickboxer 4, though I often got him mixed up with American Ninja Michael Dudikoff. Jarvis's mission to stop Jason is hindered by David Kagen's tough, disbelieving local Sheriff Garris and aided by camp counselor/the Sheriff's rebellious daughter Megan, played by Jennifer Cooke.

Some fun supporting characters include the aforementioned, and all ill-fated, friend of Tommy's, the horror watcher (played by the director's wife, Nancy McLoughlin), the drunken caretaker, and the insurance salesmen, as well as the Sheriff's overzealous Deputy, who's obsessed with his gun's new lazer scope, and Megan's fellow camp counselors - game loving Sissy, nice/responsible girl Paula, and Cort (John Travolta's nephew Tom Fridley), who shows his knowledge of Native Americans in a funny scene and whose late night rendezvous with a local girl leads to the spectacular RV sequence, which includes the girl being on the losing end of my favorite kill in the film. Even the kids in the camp get some good, fun moments, and the most featured kid is very well played by a young actress named Courtney Vickery.

All of the elements - well-written characters, good acting, a large scope, a badass Jason, exciting sequences, fun kills, and humor - come together to make a very enjoyable film. I'm glad that my sister rented it in 1987, giving me my gateway into horror, a genre which has been a huge part of my life from then on. I couldn't have asked for a better way to kick off my fandom than Jason Lives.

Any film that is still so entertaining to rewatch after twenty-four years and an innumerable amount of viewings is well worth celebrating.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up to such a great flick. This was my first F13 flick and to this day still my fav.
    Jason Lives, in my eyes, is everything that the F13 series is. Killer in the woods, terrifying camp counsellors and campers!
    "Hang on, this is gonna be a hairy turn" classic!