One of the least likely success stories of horror filmmaking is that of the Friday the 13th series. By the end of its first decade, what had started as a clear cash-in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween had established its own brand without experiencing any Halloween III-level flops. With that 1982 film forcing Carpenter’s franchise into an extended hiatus, and Friday the 13th seemingly content to recycle the same plot set-up with each yearly installment, it was no wonder that the wise-cracking and visually audacious A Nightmare on Elm Street films quickly became the premier horror series around. When Jason Takes Manhattan‘s popular marketing push only resulted in a $14 million box office take in 1989, Paramount was happy to unload the rights off to Freddy’s studio, New Line. Needing to re-invigorate interest in the property, the producers greenlit one of the strangest and most misunderstood slasher films of all time: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday.
Directed by 23-year-old Adam Marcus, the film immediately shakes up the Friday the 13th slasher formula. Opening on another pretty woman staying alone in a Crystal Lake cabin, her cat-and-mouse chase with Jason is quickly revealed to be an FBI sting where our titular antagonist is blown to smithereens. At the morgue, the spirit of Jason hops from his destroyed body into that of the coroner, escaping back into the world and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
As Jason body-swaps his way across the country, we are introduced to his half-sister Diana, her adult daughter Jessica, and Jessica’s baby Stephanie. After running and escaping from various Jason-possessed people, Jessica confronts Jason at the dilapidated Vorhees home. A bounty named Creighton Duke is also there, and explains that Jason is an evil force whom can only be killed by his family members. Stephanie is handed a magical dagger to use while Jason is able to finally be reborn into the iconic hockey mask-wearing form, just in time to be stabbed by said magical dagger and die.
If you think all of that sounds like a lot to cram into an 88-minute horror film, you are correct. Jason Goes to Hell is absolutely overflowing with ideas in a franchise known for its lack of them, and none of them are given the screentime to develop or pay off in satisfying ways. The fault for this, however, seems to lie not with director Adam Marcus, but rather with producer Sean S. Cunningham.
After the sale to Paramount, Cunningham’s main goal was to bring Jason and Freddy Krueger together for a massive crossover event film: Freddy vs. Jason. With Freddy killed off in 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, using that same approach for the Friday the 13th franchise seemed like a good way to put the two characters on equal footing while also enticing audiences to come see how the iconic villain would meet his “end.”
What Adam Marcus seemed to understand that Cunningham did not was that any match-up between the two characters would be severely lopsided. Freddy Krueger’s backstory and abilities had been clearly fleshed out, giving the sequels the latitude to create the interesting visuals that enthralled audiences. Jason, on the other hand, was a silent killer with minimal backstory and no clear idea as to what his powers were. That lack of mythology had led to the franchise’s staleness, and Jason Goes to Hell‘s introduction of Voorhees siblings and an explanation for Jason’s invulnerability are a clear attempt to push the series into a more creatively fertile direction. Cunningham was not having it.
Shutting Marcus out of the editing process, Cunningham and other producers chopped and rearranged the movie down to its too-short runtime, losing whole subplots and making characters such as Duke seem superfluous. It also turned the mythology into a jumbled mess, much of it simply told to characters by Duke. For the producers, it was clear that they did not want to substantially alter the character while trying to convince New Line to move forward on the crossover film, afraid fans would flee and they would be left with a fundamentally different Jason to pit against Freddy. That the previous films had played it safe to decreasing popularity did not seem to matter.
When the film premiered in its almost incomprehensible theatrical cut, fans were quick to voice their distaste for it, and who could blame them? It was a major redirection for their beloved slasher, but presented in a form where none could be convinced that the choices were interesting or a reason to hope for the future sequels. Not helping matters was Jason’s absence from the film outside of its first and final scenes, making much of the film feel like just a generic slasher.
Despite the backlash, in the end, Marcus was mostly proven correct. The producer’s version of the film under-performed at the box office, and even an attempt to relocate the standard Friday the 13th formula to outer space could not get audiences excited for another round of the same movie in different clothes. While a remake in 2009 was decently successful, sequel hopes fizzled as writers could not figure out what to do with the character for a follow-up.
While a director’s cut of the film may one day see the light of day, the current form of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday deserves much more appreciation than it has received from fans of the series. Instead of another re-tread, it shows a director trying hard to keep a franchise fresh and relevant, putting it on stabler footing as it sets out on a new phase. Even now, it is worth revisiting if only to see the Friday the 13th franchise that might have been.
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