By the mid-’80s, the Friday the 13th series was in a rut. A New Beginning, the fifth installment from 1985, disappointed fans with its relentless sleaziness, drastic change to protagonist Tommy Jarvis’ personality and blasphemous twist ending.
Paramount Pictures needed someone to draw fresh blood from the franchise, and that’s precisely what mastermind Tom McLoughlin did with 1986’s Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
Specifically, he elevated the filmic qualities of the saga; restored Jason to his formidable glory; gratifyingly concluded the Tommy Jarvis trilogy; utilized a killer soundtrack (dominated by Alice Cooper); and struck a fine balance of horror, drama, action and, most importantly, meta comedy. The result is a reinvigorated, focused and influential gem that remains the best Friday the 13th movie.
Much of the credit goes to the engrossing cast for providing some of the series’ strongest acting and characterizations. Primarily, The Return of the Living Dead’s personable Thom Mathews – who took over after John Shepherd refused to return due to his religious reservations – feels like the natural evolution of Corey Feldman’s spry yet fearful and resolute adolescent hero from The Final Chapter.
Similarly, Jennifer Cooke imbues Tommy’s equally determined and feisty counterpart, Megan, with a pioneering sense of agency and sexual liberation. Even her obtusely antagonistic father, Sheriff Garris (David Kagen), is complex and endearing, and each of her fellow counselors is – to varying degrees – authentic and affable, never veering too far into grating blandness or irritating eccentricity.
Watch the ‘Friday the 13th Part VI’ Trailer
Then there’s Jason, who was initially played by stuntman Dan Bradley before being swapped for former marine C.J. Graham. In later interviews, McLoughlin aptly compliments Graham for bringing a dedicated and imposing “machine-like” precision to the character that evokes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn in The Terminator. Indeed, Graham’s rendition isn’t the bulkiest or grossest Jason, but it is the most chillingly precise and efficient.
Rather than waste time bullshitting before getting down to business, he shows up, gets busy and moves on with swift indifference. As such – and despite this being when the MPAA’s censorship truly started taking hold – he delivers some of the fiercest kills in the franchise. From punching out the heart of Tommy’s friend Allen and performing a triple decapitation in the woods to shoving Nikki’s face into an RV bathroom wall and folding Sheriff Garris in half, Jason Lives rarely lets its comparable lack of gore or complete lack of nudity diminish Jason’s brutality.
McLoughlin’s infusion of gothic dismay into the movie’s traditional slasher template adds to the engrossing dread. In Jason Lives: The Making of Friday the 13th: Part VI, he explains: “I was trying to set a tone right from the beginning that this was going to be like the Universal horror movies used to be: a stormy night at a cemetery, digging up the grave, a monster that is actually dead coming back and is unstoppable.”
The opening resurrection scene – where Tommy stabs Jason’s corpse with a metal rod, only for it to then be struck by lightning and revived during the series’ first canonical confirmation of Jason’s supernaturality – is classically macabre and moody. From there, many scenes are bathed in atmospheric fog and lighting, and Jason’s robotic stalking frequently conjures the deliberate autonomy of the Frankenstein monster.
Amid the scares are surprisingly healthy doses of drama. For instance, the journey begins in medias res, with Tommy driving erratically toward Jason’s grave to ensure that he’s truly deceased. While it’s precisely Tommy’s hubris and hastiness that brings the titan back, Mathews’ legitimizes his actions by effectively conveying the lasting impact of his PTSD from The Final Chapter. Likewise, his unyielding fight to stop Jason – alongside Megan’s caring assistance and the sheriff’s steadfast resistance – produces an unexpectedly compelling narrative around Jason’s visceral antics. Ironically, this is still the only Friday the 13th chapter to involve child campers in the chaos, and as McLoughlin deduces, “Innocence in a horrific situation like that makes drama all the more powerful.”
Watch the Opening Scene From ‘Friday the 13th Part VI’
Jason Lives’ place as the conclusion of a multi-movie character arc also helped establish a trend that would be followed by several other franchises (namely, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play and Hellraiser). Although it references A New Beginning intermittently, it’s really a direct follow-up to The Final Chapter as well, and the impact of its narrative retconning can be seen in many genre heirs, such as David Gordon Green’s later Halloween trilogy, 2021’s Wrong Turn and the Candyman and Exorcist reboots.
Above all else, it’s McLoughlin’s fusion of horror and humor that makes Jason Lives the best Friday the 13th movie. Sure, there are overtly playful moments like the misogynistic paintballer’s blood smearing on the smiley faced tree or Cort’s amusingly misguided lecture to his campers.
But it’s the clever homages and satire that impress most. In particular, there are references to Karloff’s Grocers, Cunningham Road, the town of Carpenter and a child reading Sartre’s No Exit. Plus, we get two direct winks at the audience: ill-fated counsellor Lizbeth joking, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly” and cemetery groundskeeper Martin looking into the camera and proclaiming, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” Not only do these remarks enrich the film’s diverse tone, but they paved the way for countless other stylistic successors to get silly or self-referential.
It’s not as witty as Cabin in the Woods or Scream, but it’s also not as insultingly absurd as Seed of Chucky or Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Instead, it strikes an immensely pleasing middle ground. Jason Lives wasn’t especially popular when it came out, but decades of hindsight allows it to be rightly assessed as the ultimate Friday the 13th entry. Simply put, while the original was groundbreaking, The Final Chapter was more intense and Jason Goes to Hell was lovably strange and experimental, Jason Lives encapsulated the best qualities of the series while innovating as much as any of its siblings.
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