Paramount Pictures had run their course with Jason Voorhees, and gladly sold the rights to New Line Cinema for them to do with it as they pleased. What they gave us was something that remains a mixed result for many fans. Personally, I really love Jason Goes To Hell. I believe it to be a great, original storyline that dared to do something drastically different with the franchise. The filmmakers populated it with a very solid and impressive cast, and put together an inventive script.
An FBI sting operation at Crystal Lake succeeds in blowing Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) to pieces, and all believe he is permanently dead, except for bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams). Interviewed on the news program American Case File by Robert Campbell (Steven Culp), Duke claims that Jason is not dead, and that he is the only one who knows how to send him to hell for all time. He sets a bounty of $500,000 to paid for doing so. Meanwhile, Jason’s demonic heart takes possession of person after person on a path of death back to Crystal Lake in the effort to be fully reborn in the body of another Voorhees. Coincidentally, Robert Campbell is dating Jessica Kimble (Kari Keegan), the daughter of the woman Duke seeks out in Crystal Lake, but he doesn’t get far as he is locked up for insulting the town Sheriff. The father of Jessica’s daughter, Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay), eventually encounters Duke after Diana Kimble (Erin Gray) is accidentally killed, and he learns the truth about Jason and what it will take to destroy him forever.
Many fans are content with just leaving all the origins and explanations for Jason being whatever he is unknown. However, at a certain point, a franchise has to look back on itself, and realize that some sense has to be made of its menacing slasher juggernaut that continually comes back from the dead. In this case, I believe Dean Lorey and Jay Huguely succeeded in conjuring a story that takes itself seriously while dealing with some fantastical ideas. This film turned the franchise around from its campy decent into cheap horror, and back into a far gorier and violent direction. It lays several implications upon Jason’s undead origins such as with the Necronomicon from Army of Darkness sitting inside the Voorhees house. Granted, it was likely a prop happenstance due to the same effects company working on both films, but it’s presence alone enhances the occult and supernatural implications of the film. It certainly helped spark the idea for a Freddy vs. Jason sequel, ultimately adapted into a comic book, featuring Ash Williams fighting against both slasher foes.
The addition of the Creighton Duke character was pure brilliance. A hard edged bounty hunter with the secrets to what Jason is, and what became of his family lineage injects that air of mystery and urgency into the plot. I have become a big fan of Steven Williams from 21 Jump Street to The X-Files. He’s an incredibly talented actor capable of a wide range of characterizations. As Duke, he’s got charisma that really grips an audience. He can have an mischievous wit when he offers answers to Steven Freeman in the jail, but also has an intense, captivating energy when finally delivering those answers. Duke’s a man with a dedicated purpose, and a confident, bold attitude backed by his rugged skill set. He doesn’t offer trust easily, thus, reinforcing a sort of loner attitude. He doesn’t back down from anyone, but has the intelligence to remain focused and level headed. He’s not blindly obsessed with destroying Jason. He knows he cannot do it by himself, and must come to trust that others will do what is necessary when the time comes. Creighton Duke is one of my absolute favorite characters of the entire franchise, right up there with Tommy Jarvis. Steven Williams’ performance is immensely entertaining and compelling.
On the opposite side of the hero spectrum is John D. LeMay as Steven Freeman. He’s very much just an average guy with no special skills, but has his motivations. He desires to see and hold the child he helped father with Jessica, and wants to see both of them protected from this murderous evil out stalking them. LeMay starred in the unrelated Friday The 13th: The Series where he solidly played a similar protagonist, but Steven is even more unlikely. He’s not at all a man of action, but when forced into extraordinary circumstances, he rises to the challenge by doing whatever it takes to survive and protect those he cares about. LeMay gives the role plenty of light-hearted charm, and an audience easily feels for him when things go terribly awry.
This is undoubtedly the best cast assembled for a Friday The 13th movie. There is just a wealth of credible talent throughout the ranks, and they are all handled excellently by director Adam Marcus. For the most part, they project a grounded feeling that works towards the very serious dread and horror that is present in this film. The diner owners, Joey B. & Shelby, are kind of comical, but in a way that sells Joey’s heartless exploitative nature and Shelby’s warmer sensibilities. However, Steven Culp is probably the best of the supporting cast giving us a very sleazy, unscrupulous news anchor in Robert Campbell. This is a guy who has deceived Jessica into a romantic relationship only for the chance to exploit her family for his own personal gain. Culp puts in an excellent performance as a character you love to hate, but there’s more to it that I will touch on later.
This is undoubtedly the goriest movie of the entire franchise. The filmmaker made the blood thick and plentiful. The scene of the coroner consuming Jason’s enlarged heart is beautifully disgusting and graphic. The gooey black blood oozes and splatters all over. It’s an amazing effect, yet again provided by the masterful talents at KNB EFX Group. They really went all out for this installment creating very elaborate effects which are seen in all their glory right there on the screen, in the unrated cut, of course. New Line Cinema was the first to officially release an unrated version of a film in this franchise, and this couldn’t have been a better film to do that for. The practical effects work is absolutely spectacular, and the visual effects are also highly impressive. There is nothing at all that is just mediocre or sub-standard in this film. Everyone was fully dedicated to making a high quality feature, and I applaud each and every one of them for that commitment and hard work.
Yet, this isn’t just a mindless splatter flick. There is plenty of classic Friday The 13th style suspense. Adam Marcus shows a talent for crafting solid atmosphere and tension. The film has a dark visual tone creating a gritty feel that tells you this is going to be straight-on horror. Lighting is quite moody with rich, deep blacks that really strengthen that hardened atmosphere. It’s a hell of a great look for this film that really sets it apart from the rest of the series in a very good way.
What many fans count as a negative mark against the film is that Jason himself is barely in it. He spends most of the runtime jumping from one temporary body to another in pursuit of a permanent resurrection. However, this does allow for an unexpectedly menacing and kick ass performance by Steven Culp while possessed by Jason. He tears through the diner massacre sequence savagely. It’s absolutely awesome. Of course, there is no discounting Kane Hodder, but he does appear lethargic in this film. Possibly, this is due to the padding added to his costume to reflected a bloated and malformed Jason. It definitely adds more bulk that works well in contrast to everyone in the film, but Hodder just seemed to have a harder time throwing himself into the end fight scene. Regardless of that, he still delivers a performance up to his established standards for Jason Voorhees.
Now, Harry Manfredini’s score in this film is a split opinion for me. It is quite good, and might be one of his best of the series. Unfortunately, instead of using an orchestra, the entire score is synthesized. He takes what he regularly would have done with an orchestra and apply it to a synthesizer, and it just loses far too much in that transition. While the composition is very good, the sound of shrieking strings on a keyboard sound like the score to some cheap direct-to-video horror flick. There are times it doesn’t sound that bad, but certainly from the opening credits and elsewhere, it has always given me that feeling.
I know I am not the only one who believes there are many places to take the Friday the 13th concept outside of its formulaic comfort zone, and to me, this film shows it can be done with the right ambition and talent. It’s certainly a concept that you will either like or won’t, and it’s understandable if you don’t. Many are happy to revisit the standard formula, and just see Jason killing innocent campers. However, I find that many franchises could use an infusion of new ideas. It’s only unfortunate that most times, those new ideas become bad ones that result in poor movies. Thankfully, the right talents were employed that did love the series, and wanted to do something more supernatural, graphic, and demonic with Jason without betraying the core of his character. Many would argue otherwise, but this is my opinion on Jason Goes To Hell.
I do hardly believe that even New Line Cinema was serious about this being The Final Friday considering they just picked up the rights to the character. The ending of this film blatantly and cleverly sets up Freddy vs. Jason, so, there were obvious plans to keep utilizing Jason however they could. Regardless of that issue, Jason Goes To Hell is one of my top favorite Friday The 13th films, and I feel it is one of the best and most successfully innovative of the series. There’s a first rate cast here that really push the film towards that more serious, convincing tone instead of one of camp, which is refreshing. The make-up effects are off the chart incredible giving us more gore than any other film in the franchise, before or after, but it has no lack of genuine suspense or terror. If you care for a return to more serious horror for this franchise, and don’t mind more fantastical ideas injected into the concept, I strongly recommend giving Jason Goes To Hell an honest chance.
Sometimes, the first film in a franchise is the best and all sequels are just watered down retreads. Other times, the first film is merely a rugged blueprint for future installments to build upon to create better films. I believe the original Friday The 13th fits into the latter category. That is not to say it doesn’t have admirable qualities, but the formula and execution is not as refined as some of the other films in the franchise later became. There are numerous elements that downgrade this even in comparison to the first sequel, and the difference in who the killer is does not factor into my opinion here.
Camp Crystal Lake used to be an idyllic summer camp for kids, but for over twenty years, it has had a supposed death curse upon it. Camp counselors found dead, the water gone bad, and various accidents of sorts have plagued it. Even the local prophet of doom, Crazy Ralph, tries to warn all comers to the danger ahead. However, Steve Christie is determined to re-open the camp and mend its reputation. The teenage counselors feel safe and comfortable in the deep woods, but soon, on this Friday the 13th, an unseen killer stalks them all intent on seeing their bloody corpses litter the campgrounds.
First off, the positives. You can never deny the high quality talents of Tom Savini. He’s a master make-up effects artist, and he had honed his skills most notably on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead prior to this film. Here, he created some of the best gore effects and special make-up of the series. They are seamless, and that only enhances the surprise elements of the movie. I believe the success of this Friday The 13th owes a lot to what Savini accomplished as it raised the bar for gore very high, and that gave it something different than the more atmosphere-driven Halloween. This film really started the bloody slasher film craze, and it is due to the effectiveness of these physical effects.
The score by Harry Manfredini has always been a divided issue for me. In some ways, it is suspenseful, but in others, it is just wild strings shrieking on the soundtrack with no sense of tension or rhythm at all. However, it rarely feels like a Friday The 13th movie without his signature style, but there are exceptions. For what Manfredini offers, his first foray with the franchise is a solid effort. It creates a good atmosphere that services the film’s style of horror.
The acting from our two leads is very admirable in a subgenre known for a lot of cringable performances, to say the least. Adrienne King is a fresh faced, likable talent here, and reflects a lot of vulnerability and sympathy. Yet, she is able to demonstrate some strong will in the more intense fight-for-your-life sequences. The other talent I mention is who portrays the killer, and that acting talent really elevates the film above its unrefined shortcomings.
What truly detracts from this movie are two things. The first is the pace. Even by my patient standards, the film drags along at a very slow pace. By modern cinematic standards, it’s terribly sluggish. This is mainly due to the fact that very little occurs in the story. People slowly arrive in town, and it goes along like a slow, calming weekend until the killings really pick up the pace. That doesn’t start happening until about halfway through the movie. The characters don’t offer up much personality or charisma to maintain interest or momentum in the first half of the movie. By the time the film really gets a good stride going, it’s almost over.
The second issue is that Sean Cunningham is not a very inventive or dynamic filmmaker. There is nothing outright bad about what he does, but there’s also nothing exceptional or impressive about it either. The incessant use of the killer’s point of view shots tend to take away from the tension and mystery since you always know where the killer is, and who the killer is stalking. Some sequels would lay off of this idea, and create suspense and tension through more clever methods. Here, it works for a little while, but ultimately, it overstays its welcome by wearing thin quickly. It’s almost as if Cunningham saw the opening scene of Halloween, and wanted to recapture that idea and feeling for this entire film. I don’t feel it works to that extent. Hiding the killer’s identity was key to the story, but better filmmakers later demonstrated a more diverse approach to maintaining that idea.
If, by chance, you have not had the identity of the film’s killer revealed to you by now, I won’t be the spoiler. Let’s just say, it is an unexpected twist in the story that is probably the most intelligent part of the screenwriting and casting. This is before Jason Voorhees began his killing spree under a burlap sack or a hockey mask. So, it has a different sort of ending as we get a killer with dialogue who can showcase their madness without a mask. There is a further twist ending beyond this that captivated and terrified audiences in 1980, and gave the franchise a jumping off point to actually become a franchise. It truly is nightmarish.
Friday The 13th does deliver some good scares that remain effective to this day, and again, Savini’s work has been key to maintaining that effectiveness. However, there’s little beyond that to hold the film together through its run time, and even then, the scares are not spread out enough to keep that heightened tension going for the majority of the film. It was not a film written with compelling characters, and not vastly cast with charismatic acting talents. So, it shouldn’t have been plotted out where the performances or characters needed to carry the movie for a hefty distance before the horror aspects took over. Again, this works as a template for future installments to build upon to make more well balanced and tighter films. The Friday The 13th franchise is my favorite slasher film series, and just because Jason is not the killer in this film does not affect my opinion of it. At one time, I had hoped that a remake could take this film, and re-manufacture it into a more evenly paced and tighter movie. Bring it up to the more intense and entertaining levels of the better sequels. Sadly, the 2009 remake from Platinum Dunes was an utter failure, and like many horror remakes, put a death nail in the franchise. I will give credit that this 1980 film was a horror milestone, and it launched the entire slasher subgenre that ran rampant through most of the decade. However, it was not the best of the genre, and there are better films within the franchise than Sean Cunningham’s original.