Today is Friday the 13th, and any self-respecting horror fan always finds a way to turn any Friday the 13th into an excuse to gab about Jason Voorhees, the most prolific slasher villain in cinematic history. With somewhere around 150 kills to his name (there’s some discrepancy due to Friday the 13th Part V featuring a Jason impostor), the hockey mask wearing maniac is as much a part of horror history as Dracula and the Devil.
But Jason has seen his blood-soaked star diminish in recent years. The 2009 remake was a box office success but hasn’t maintained much of a legacy with either general audiences or the fans. Personally, I felt the remake was a valiant effort with some immensely praiseworthy aspects — sorry Kane Hodder fans, but Derek Mears is my favorite actor to portray Jason — but tried to be a little too smart and glossy for its own good. A new film in the series has been bandied about since the remake but nothing has manifested in any serious way. Are audiences tired of Jason Voorhees? Does the franchise even hold an appeal to modern moviegoers?
Formula v Freshness: Dawn of the Smarty Pants Audience
One of the things that makes a Friday the 13th film is the formula: a group of kids are in an isolated place (usually the woods) and are picked off by the killer in inventive ways. It’s a simple structure that is constructed for low engagement thrills; you aren’t set up to care about most of the characters you meet because they will likely be murdered. The fun comes in seeing the ridiculous methods by which these people are dispatched. In the ’80s, audiences were much more accepting of this level of knowingly dumb entertainment. It was a virtue of the series, allowing it to stand apart from the more arty and fantastical A Nightmare on Elm Street films and the projected seriousness of the Halloween movies.
Once the ’90s rolled around and Scream took an enormous stab at the slasher genre, audiences suddenly believed themselves to be too intelligent for Friday the 13th. Even though the formula was well established and obvious from the outset, audiences now felt that their slasher films needed to have some satirical edge, a self-aware sense of humor, or offer another fresh and subversive perspective. While the series did eventually produce such an entry — the underappreciated Jason X — the world had already begun moving toward viewing Friday the 13th as passé. People felt they were too savvy for the simple-minded pleasures of Jason Voorhees and his marvelous mutilations.
Your Hero is Your Villain
The original Friday the 13th took its inspiration from the Italian giallo film, a genre built around mysterious killers and grisly POV murders. The antagonist was an unknown figure who was abruptly revealed at the end of the movie to be Pamela Voorhees, the vengeful mother of the drowned Jason. Right from the start, Jason Voorhees was given almost mythic significance; a young disabled boy who died due to the neglect of some horny camp counselors. It made Jason a sympathetic character even before he became a full-fledged villain in the immediate sequel. Fans immediately saw Jason as the protagonist and the doomed teenagers as little more than his machete fodder.
This is a big part of why Jason became such a beloved icon, but it may have also been instrumental in his downfall from pop culture relevance. As the movies continued on, Jason became the true star of the series. This was a shift that worked for a verbose villain like Freddy Krueger, but a mute force of nature like Jason was never going to benefit from such a targeted focus. The films would continually throw a gimmick into the mix to help liven things up — a telekinetic adversary, a trip to Manhattan, a soul-hopping demon — but most of them only served to highlight how difficult it was to keep Jason interesting. In the end, it took a complete reboot of the series to give Jason some much needed character and even an attempt at some depth, but even that proved to be a double-edged sword. Jason is a simple character for simple stories, and the further to the front he was pushed, the starker his non-complex nature stood out.
Should Jason Be Put to Rest?
Let me make something very clear: I love the Friday the 13th films. I admire their lack of pretense and their “play to the groundlings” attitude. They are pure popcorn: salty, not filling, but delicious and addictive all the same. You should absolutely watch them (if you only watch one, go with Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI) and revel in their sordid pleasures.
With that said, it’s tough to see how Jason could anchor another successful feature film. He and his classic slasher compatriots — Freddy, Michael Myers, Leatherface — have all gone through the reboot machine and come out the other end somewhat tarnished. They will always sit high upon the Mount Olympus of American boogeymen, but their glory days are clearly behind them. Though an occasional revival like Curse of Chucky is met with fan approval, such small offerings are never going to bring these characters back into the mainstream.
However, that’s not to say there isn’t a future for Camp Crystal Lake‘s most famous inhabitant. The most recent rumblings have Jason being resurrected on television. This makes a ton of sense for a myriad of reasons, chief among them the comparative success horror has found on the small screen with shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, and Bates Motel (based on the granddaddy of all slashers, Psycho). A serialized story allows for Jason’s creative kills to be spread out over the course of a season, and it could even do the unthinkable and produce characters we don’t want to see on the business end of Jason’s machete.
A television series has the potential to please longtime fans as well as draw in new acolytes. There are plenty of opportunities for subverting expectations and embracing the formula that made Jason the figurehead he is today. Friday the 13th can absolutely still work but it may need to take on a form that fans aren’t immediately familiar with.
But even if that didn’t come to pass and Jason was never brought back to life, it wouldn’t change the enjoyable legacy he’s left behind. To this day, fans continue to hold a torch for the son of Pamela Voorhees. He’s remained present in our pop culture thanks to his addition in Mortal Kombat X, and a Kickstarter for a Friday the 13th video game met its funding and is currently in development. Still, ff there was never to be another Jason story, you could still pop in the very first film and get a kick out of it. No matter what the future may or may not hold for Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th will always work.
As long as it’s not about some cursed antiques.