Mitchell Brown ranks the Friday the 13th film series and discusses the evolution of Jason Voorhees in pop culture.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) is one of the most iconic horror franchises. These films are ingrained in pop culture, from Jason Voorhees to the Harry Manfredini score. They’re all over the place concerning quality. Two of them are great, most of them are average, and one of them borders on being so bad it’s entertaining. These films are guilty pleasures and a delight to binge-watch. While it might dismay some of you, Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and Friday the 13th (2009) don’t even make this list, so consider them the worst of the worst.
Let’s rank the films in the franchise from worst to best.
JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993)
It’s terrible. As a weird standalone Terminator (1984) rip-off, it’s almost watchable. As a Friday the 13th movie, it’s baffling and the lowest point in the series. It feels like what Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) might’ve been if Donald Pleasance hadn’t passed away before filming.
Jason is not just a mad killer with superpowers because of constant retcons to keep the franchise moving. He’s a nearly mythical being that can survive as long as his bloodline does. He can only be killed by a family member with a magic knife. He also has a sister and a niece now. Sean Cunningham (director and producer of the original film) can’t resist copying even the worst aspects of the Halloween franchise.
I’ll say one positive thing; the cold open is glorious. The same goes for the ending that teases Freddy vs. Jason. It also demonstrates the importance of Kane Hodder in the role of Jason. This film feels more like a repurposed horror film than a proper sequel. They tried to go in a new direction, which is admirable but strayed too far from the established formula. At a certain point, it’s best just to let a franchise end.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989)
I put this entry close to the bottom based on its wasted premise. Its main flaw, the title is a lie. Jason doesn’t take Manhattan; he creates an inconvenience for Vancouver. What's worse, it doesn’t happen until over an hour into the movie. Most of the film takes place on a boat, which is just way less entertaining than Jason slaying in New York City.
The best scene is Jason in Times Square. That’s the only time where it feels authentic. However, Jason kicking a boombox out of annoyance might be my favorite visual in the whole series. If you want a better New York psycho-killer movie, watch Maniac Cop 2 (1990). It’s not great, but it was filmed in New York.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988)
Have you ever wanted to see Jason Voorhees fight Carrie White? I hope the answer is yes. That gimmick is one of the few things this movie has going for it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of it, and when there is, it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s the first film in the franchise with Hodder in the role of Jason. He reprises the role in each sequel to follow until Freddy vs. Jason, where Ken Kirzinger replaces him. Hodder brought a lot to the part with his physical presence alone, from his whole chest moving when he breathed to the pure rage that seemed to radiate from him. He also has the most incredible character design of all the films.
This film is known for an iconic kill which depicts Jason grabbing a girl in a sleeping bag and swinging the bag into a tree. Let us not forget that this film has one of the most extraordinary house explosions this side of Critters (1986). Otherwise, it's pretty forgettable.
JASON X (2001)
When there’s no more room in Hell, go to space. Space is the final frontier, but it’s also an indicator that a horror franchise has entirely run out of ideas. It’s a bad movie, but it’s not dull. Jason Voorhees ends up on a ship in space, frozen and sedated in a fabricated dream-like state for 400 years. Unlike the false advertising with Jason Takes Manhattan, you get what you expect with this franchise entry.
Jason X doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a post Scream (1996) world, so the film has an almost meta quality to it. In one scene, Jason is on the holodeck of the ship and finds himself back at Camp Crystal Lake, and there’s a little flourish of the famous “ki ki ki, ma ma ma.” I wasn’t expecting it to give me a wave of nostalgia, but it worked. In one of the movie’s more amusing moments, he beats a few holographic campers in sleeping bags to death.
An underwhelming element of the film is Jason. His design is great, but he never gets to do anything extraordinary. He’s less effective because he’s slower and never successfully kills any of the main characters. Sometimes, being modestly entertained is enough, even if this movie is just an Alien (1979) knock-off because the franchise ran out of ideas.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
The one that started it all proved that you could rip off other films provided you cover your tracks to avoid getting sued. The film’s director famously spun up the movie following the success of Halloween (1978) and drew a lot of inspiration from its tropes like seeing things from the Killer’s perspective, having a “final girl,” the reveal of dead bodies at the end of the film, and a cold opening that established the backstory. An exciting similarity that probably wasn’t intentional is that the final girl Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), isn’t the final girl due to any cleverness on her part. She’s just the last one left. Laurie Strode was a lot more interesting, but Friday the 13th has the better ending.
Unlike Halloween, where there’s minimal blood and gore, this film leans into the violence thanks to special effects artist Tom Savini. The most notable kill is Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon) getting impaled through the throat with an arrow. Betsy Palmer is an unsettling Mrs. Voorhees, yet exudes warm and motherly qualities while also being noticeably unhinged. She delivers a dignified performance, considering the role was just a paycheck to help her buy a new car. Sadly, the film is pretty bland. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), it paved the way for superior sequels.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II (1981)
“Camp Blood” reopens with a fresh batch of idyllic counselors ready to meet the wrong end of sharp objects, marking Jason's introduction to the franchise. The filmmakers do Alice dirty in the film’s opening, but we never liked her character much anyway. Unfortunately, without his iconic hockey mask. This entry has him cosplaying as the mysterious masked killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), using a burlap sack as a mask.
Jason is the film’s villain, but he doesn’t feel like a fully formed character. His character design is flawed and makes no sense. At the end of the original, he’s a creepy, dirty boy emerging from a lake, yet one year later, he’s a grown man with a pitchfork to grind. His appearance and importance to the rest of the franchise are way more interesting than the film itself. It’s a sequel that’s just more of the same. It doesn’t stand out, but Ginny (Amy Steel) is a strong final girl representation and a huge step up from Alice Hardy. The film’s ending was also iconic enough to land it in Gun Interactive’s video game adaptation of the film series.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III: 3D (1982)
This entry and Friday the 13th Part II are interchangeable for me. The characters are entirely forgettable, with the exception being Shelly. She’s one of the more likable characters in the series and the one who gives Jason his iconic hockey mask.
The film was released in 3D because that was popular at the time. It would be acceptable to watch it in that format, but the intended 3D moments just feel awkward if you're not. None of the characters have previous knowledge of who Jason is. His name is never mentioned in the film’s timeline. He could be a new and nameless killer, explaining why his character design is so different. It’s unorthodox, considering this film takes place within the same weekend as the previous one. You'll get a killer and no filler watch with this one.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985)
This entry is a guilty pleasure, and I’m not sure it wasn’t intended as satire. There are many scenes where characters are introduced just to be killed within the same scene, usually after sex. Most of the characters are so one-dimensional and unlikeable that their short-lived screen time doesn’t matter. It feels like a fake movie inside an actual movie commenting on slasher movies, like the opening of Scream 2 (1997) or the movie theater scene in The Blob (1988). A point of contention for people is that Jason isn’t the killer. I don’t mind because at least the killer has some sort of set-up within the story, unlike Mrs. Voorhees, who just shows up. I like when franchises try to mix things up.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES (1986)
Jason is back. Despite being cremated in the previous film, he’s again made of flesh. They literally dug him up. Jason goes from being a masked killer to a full-fledged movie monster, and Tommy Jarvis (Thom Mathews) becomes the series hero. It’s one of several horror sequels in the ‘80s, The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and later Evil Dead 2 (1987), that added comedy to the horror, which is one of the reasons people love it.
Tommy Jarvis is an established character in the series and understands the threat Jason presents. There isn’t a build-up to the action. Jason is a zombified behemoth and feels like a movie monster. This is probably the biggest crowd-pleaser. It’s an absolute blast, and its self-aware humor adds a twist without the film losing its slasher edge.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)
Despite the misleading title, the first installment of the unofficial Tommy Jarvis Trilogy is my favorite in the franchise. I can see the argument being made for why Jason Lives is superior. Still, I’ve always enjoyed The Final Chapter best. It’s one of the few slasher films with likable characters that I want them to make it out alive. My biggest problem with slasher movies is the dedication to the backstories and personal dynamics of characters whose sole purpose is to die. If they’re going to die anyway, why should I care? Then again, you could make that same argument about all movie characters.
This movie differs from the others in the series because it feels like a coming-of-age film. Jimmy’s (Crispin Glover) arc is that he wants to prove to his friend Teddy (Lawrence Monoson) that he’s not bad at sex. The funny thing is, I root for him. Throughout the film, he’s such a downer character that it’s one of the more endearing moments when he finally gets together with a girl. I feel happy for him, and then he dies.
The characters aren’t deep, and once again, I can’t remember what most of their names are, but the film works as a hangout movie. I know I’m probably in the minority opinion about this one being the best. It works as an origin story for Tommy Jarvis, and it’s the first film where Jason starts to feel like the iconic slasher villain we all know and love. Jason is also beaten repeatedly in the head with a hammer by Trish Jarvis (Kimberly Beck), which is arguably a cinematic highlight.