In a recent Onion AV Club article dealing with the Friday The 13th re-imagining/re-make, the author - who was an unabashed fan of the series despite clearly recognizing its shortcomings - stated that the joy in re-visting the 11(!) official films in the series comes from a very psychoglogically interesting place that I found myself immediately relating to. As a child, even the idea of watching "entertainment" focusing on a psychopath in a hockey mask butchering teenagers was something beyond my grasp. I was legitimately scared to watch such films (I remember the video box for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 really freaking me out). That I can now recognize the cobbled together, exploitive nature of the series as a whole, and laugh at the ridiculous gore effects and plot contrivances which comprise most of the entries, represents something psychologically very satisfying. I not only have conquered a fear of my youth, but I have actively turned it into something I can enjoy in laughter. The films are predictable, repetitive, and - strangely - comforting.
That is, until the ninth film in the Friday The 13th series: Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. Having newly acquired the Friday brand, New Line Cinema decided to try something a bit different with their first entry in the series, while also attempting to set up the inevitable crossover with their homegrown Nightmare on Elm Street series (which managed to take another eight years to hit the screens). Sean S. Cunningham, the director of the first film, was brought back as producer and he promptly settled on the young Adam Marcus as director. Marcus, along with screenwriter Dean Lorey, crafted a very different sort of tale - obviously strongly influenced by the body swapping sci-fi film The Hidden - with which they hoped to reinvigorate the series. The choice proved to be a controversial one for those who were comfortable with the series' predictable pattern, and the entry remains strictly in the "love it or hate it" category.
We begin as expected, with a young woman stopping at Camp Crystal Lake, and eventually disrobing before the lights go out unexpectedly. She goes to check it out and is confronted by Jason Vorhees; who proceeds to chase her through the woods, seemingly always able to pop out from any corner. The two reach a clearing and then.. Flood lights reveal a SWAT team in position, who proceed to blow the living hell out of Jason until he is literally left in pieces on the ground. A rather shocking and original opening scene, and one that lets on immediately that this will be a different sort of horror film. A gooey autopsy leads to the coroner being hypnotized into eating Jason's heart and, filled with the spirit of Jason, he then proceeds to hop from body to body in an attempt to find a Voorhees woman through which to be reborn. Meanwhile he is being pursued by bounty hunter Creighton Duke, as well as the geeky Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay from the Friday The 13th TV series) who thinks Jason is after his estranged girlfriend. Eventually all roads lead to the Voorhees' home, where he gets his just desserts.
Making a case for a Friday The 13th film is a bit of a difficult proposition. Even at its best the series never provided the special-effects assisted skill of the Nightmare On Elm Street series, or even the erratic boogeyman tension of the Halloween films. Even the best Friday entry (likely the fourth, which saw the return of Tom Savini's make-up effects as well as starring Crispin Glover and a young Corey Feldman) is really only an average, artless slasher film with a particularly attractive and appealling killer. But WHAT a killer. Jason is essentially a silent, brutal frankenstein's monster with a mommy complex, and the audiences enjoyment comes simply from watching him do what he does best. The series formula has been hugely profitable, and has inspired some devoted fandom.
So I suppose that fans of the series can be excused for getting a little upset that Jason is all but missing from the ninth entry. After the rather postmodern opening scene Jason appears only in reflections until the film's finale where he's reborn before being finally (temporarily) dispatched. Since the previous appeal has been almost strictly because of the incredible look of the killer - the big twist of a previous entry is that the killer is merely dressing as Jason - things really do take a hit with him out of the picture. Of course, his body-hopping spirit is plenty violent in its own right. In fact, this might very well be the most bloody entry in the entire series, particularly in the unrated version thanks to the always impressive FX work from KNB. But this is cold comfort for those expecting an epic send-off for their favorite horror antagonist.
Also controversial was the decision to add a more overt supernatural element to the series, though there had always been something otherwordly about Jason's ability to return from the grave. The rules for killing Jason that are presented by Creighton Duke - that only a Voorhees can kill a Voorhees, and that Jason can be reborn through one of his female family members - are new to the series and can feel like a bit of a cheat to longtime fans. Even the filmmakers joke at these new rules in the special features, but their motivations to give Jason a more elaborate mythology are worthwhile even if they are not totally successful.
One welcome addition to the series was an element of light satire which preceded the jokey Scream series by several years. The local greasy spoon making hockey mask-shaped burgers; a television news show (think Inside Edition) planting a body in the Voorhees house for ratings; and just the general noteriety of Crystal Lake because of Jason's killing spree which leads to the SWAT team opening. While many thought it sacrilige to add laughs to the series, there has always been an element of black humor to the Friday films, and Marcus keeps things from getting too silly. Appearances by the Evil Dead Necromicon, the crate from Creepshow and other horror movie references add to the kitchen sink approach.
Perhaps i'm giving the director too much credit for simply trying to stir up the formula a bit, but even the requisite camper slaughter scene, forced upon Marcus during re-shoots, feels a little more fresh and ends in one of the most memorable kills in the entire series. Marcus doesn't get many chances to build actual suspense, but shows himself to be capable in a few early scenes. Unfortunately, the Harry Manfredini score is particularly intrusive and is distractingly bad throughout - particularly compared to some of his other work in the series.
While the Friday series has suffered rough treatment on DVD, New Line has gone above and beyond with their DVD release of Jason Goes To Hell. Including both the R-rated and Unrated cut of the film (which runs about four minutes longer), the image quality is light years better than the dingy VHS release with which I was first introduced to the film. While nothing can help the lame soundtrack, the audio quality is a whole is perfectly fine and the "ki ki ki, ma ma ma" sounds come through loud and clear.
Thankfully we also get some welcome bonus features. First are a number of "television insert" scenes which contain little character development, but are a neat addition. But it's the commentary with Marcus and co-screenwriter Dean Lorey that makes this release particularly worthwhile. Refreshingly honest and entertaining, the two men provide plenty of anecdotes about the production while providing plenty of laughs at the rather obvious shortcomings. They explain their motivations for changing the series' formula, but don't apologize for the film they made. I wish they had gone a little deeper into the rather obvious similarities to The Hidden (which is briefly acknowledged) but this is a superior commentary track in every way. The short theatrical trailer rounds things off nicely.
I'm not sure I would go as far as saying that Jason Goes To Hell is a "good" film, and since it borrows much of its plot elements I can't even call it unique, but it's certainly interesting. Attempting to jump-start the mythology with a lot of supernatural nonsense might have been a mistake, but those involved (including original Friday director Sean S. Cunningham) were obviously passionate about the material and I respect their attempts to try something a little different. Not all of it succeeds, but when it does it makes this a superior entry in the series and one that is unfairly maligned by its fans.