It isn’t so very often that we get two Friday the 13th months in a row. You don’t have to be superstitious to perk up whenever the fateful date approaches. You might just be a fan of some of the cheesiest, least frightening horror movies ever made, the Friday the 13th franchise.
Ranking them out seems an exercise in futility. Not only does the whole series lack the panache of the best Nightmare on Elm Street entries or the genuine terror of the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre installment, for some reason, they’ve proven as resilient and undying as Jason Voorhees himself. Ten official films, one cross-promotional battle with Freddy Krueger, and a recent reboot. Those are some thick, hockey player legs.
That being said, the series practically built itself on the junky, disposable interchangeability of its sequels. As I saw one other critic point out, the Friday the 13th films were practically engineered to sit in one single place on the video store shelf, where groups of slumber party-bound teenagers could simply pluck whichever cassettes happened to be available.
So keep that in mind as I run through the entire series, from worst to first … which, contrary to what you might expect, isn’t necessarily the chronological first. (Note: I’m omitting Freddy Vs. Jason to avoid sidestepping “that whole debate,” and also leaving out the 2009 reboot because even Friday the 13th fans have standards.)
- Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Eight million potential victims? Not really. Somehow, this entry manages to be the biggest cheat in a dozen-film franchise whose fourth film promised “The Final Chapter.” Rather than slicing and dicing the Big Apple into bite-sized chunks, Jason here spends almost the entire film milling about on a yacht with a bunch of co-eds who like saunas, dancing and, apparently, the slowest means of transport to NYC imaginable. An abominably boring entry.
- Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Gee, where have we seen the word “final” before? Oh right, five Friday the 13th movies ago. Cashing in a bit on the crepuscular trend initiated a few years prior by Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, the tacky and unpleasant Jason Goes to Hell promises mayhem and, at the very least, delivers it. It set the new record for the most deaths in a Friday the 13th film (a record that stood until … the next one). And though the puritanical ’80s depictions of violence were now indisputably in the past, the more overtly gory ’90s sheen doesn’t exactly help sell one of the most ludicrous plots, involving Jason’s “spirit” being passed from body to body in the form of black mucus. Yup.
- Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Rightfully likened to Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the fifth film in the series functions almost like a reboot before the term entered slasher movie parlance, but comes out more like an unnecessary digression. Following the character of Tommy Jarvis (who offed Jason in the previous entry) to a halfway house, and flirting with psychological thriller overtures this series frankly can’t support, the comparative box-office bomb A New Beginning came awfully close to A New Ending for the films. Apparently, the production was beset with more drugs than usual.
- Jason X (2001)
Produced as a placeholder while Freddy vs. Jason struggled to get off the ground, Jason X is unquestionably the biggest stretch for the format. Among its contemporaries, it was more Event Horizon than Final Destination (the natural, and by the way flagrantly superior, antecedent). By this point, the kids raised on the first few Friday the 13th films their parents hated were parents themselves, so naturally the gore quotient has gone up considerably. It has the highest body count of any franchise film at a ghastly 28 — three fewer than the first three movies combined. On its own loopy terms, not a waste of time.
- Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Most people who don’t choose the first film as the best usually opt for this one. Why? Because it’s playful, inventive, and cheerfully self-referential. In fact, it’s borderline satirically meta. Bringing Jason back to life with a bolt of lightning, the film provided a shot of adrenaline for the sagging series. Jason may have been a quasi-supernatural force of evil before, but this is the one that turned him into the slasher movie equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. He punches someone’s heart through his chest, twists off someone else’s, and folds an ill-fated sheriff clean in half.
- Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
I mean it with affection when I say that Friday the 13th is almost too lowbrow for gimmicks. (I mean it, you wouldn’t even catch William Castle helming one of these potboilers.) But nonetheless, this 1982 installment took a chance on the kinda-not-really recrudescent 3-D mini-craze. It’s almost more amusing, though, to watch it now in regular 2-D to enjoy all of those gratuitous frontal-axis shots of pitchforks, arrows, and even an eyeball thrusting out into the presumed audience. Oh, and this is the one that gave Jason his immortal but highly generic hockey mask, ensuring that Paramount would be forever screwed out of being able to reap the full rewards of Halloween costume sales.
- Friday the 13th (1980)
For many, there are no two ways about it. The first one is the best. Period. But how many of them have watched it lately? Sure, it’s got splatter make-up artist Tom Savini’s typically inventive work, but quite a bit of it ended up on the cutting room floor to avoid the wrath of the MPAA. Yes, it has Kevin Bacon in it. What doesn’t, at least by six degrees of separation? Yes, its twist ending was, by the standards of its ilk, reasonably surprising. But almost everything it represents has been bested by other films both in the series and external as well. (See Sleepaway Camp for a brilliant dissection of the slasher genre’s sexual politics.) The one unambiguous asset: it has Harry Manfredini’s stunning half-Penderecki, half-Herrmann musical themes, fully formed right off the bat.
- Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Some would say to introduce Jason to a pseudo-Carrie was a flagrant misstep. Apparently these same people hold a series that resurrects a psycho killer over and over to the same standards of Italian neorealism when it comes to things like telekinesis. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Anyway, to my eyes, the movie’s an impressive mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. Death scenes can be as laughable as the party horn jammed into the eye or as hauntingly brutal as the girl who gets slammed against a tree while in her sleeping bag.
- Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
The second film in the series takes everything that made the first movie a hit and refines it. Startlingly well directed by Steve Miner — compared to the strictly workmanlike point-and-shoot job Sean Cunningham offered in the original — the first sequel crafts legitimately tense suspense sequences, sympathetic characters (no death stung quite as hard as poor Mark in his wheelchair, clattering down a long set of outdoor stairs), and joy-buzzer shock moments that are seared into memory. Call me a heretic, I think that bag over the head is far scarier than the hockey mask.
- Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
If they would’ve only just stopped with this one, the series could’ve ended on a high note. Everything I wrote about the second installment — genuine suspense, real shocks, likeable characters — goes for this one too. And then add to that mix Cory Feldman shaving his scalp bald and Crispin Glover’s geek chic dance moves, which bring The Final Chapter as close to near-classic status as any Friday the 13th film will ever get.