There comes a time in any franchise where the formula has just gotten stale or flat. Shoveling out the exact same formula every few years is no longer enough to keep anyone but the most devoted fans coming back for more--and they just don't cut it. So you can either bring the franchise to an end while it's still turning some profit, or try to shake things up.
The Friday The 13th franchise managed to try both approaches.
After Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan failed to perform as well as previous entries--no doubt due to negative word of mouth when people realized its title was basically a blatant lie--Paramount washed their hands of the franchise and sold the rights to any subsequent entries off to New Line Entertainment. New Line Entertainment, bizarrely, decided that the only thing to do with their new cash cow was to wait until the bad word of mouth about its last entry had died down sufficiently--and then kill it.
To do so, they hired the director/producer/uncredited writer of the original film, Sean S. Cunningham, to develop the story of the film. Cunningham had, like most involved in the franchise's origin, long since become like the mad scientist who lost control of his creation and ever since hoped to one day kill it. Given his chance, he decided to go about ending the franchise whilst shaking it up in a way I doubt anyone could ever have expected.
For you see, that hideous demonic worm on the poster is not the bit of blatant dishonesty I assumed it was as a child. And if you somehow have never heard of this film before my review, you'll never guess what I mean by that.
So, stop me if you've heard this one: a shapely young woman (Julie Michaels) drives out to a mysterious cabin in the woods by Crystal Lake. Despite all the strange noises and burnt-out light bulbs, she decides to strip down and take a bath. When the lights go out, she wraps a towel around herself--and apparently glues it there--before she is suddenly attacked by a shambling, deformed figure in a hockey mask wielding a machete (Kane Hodder, in his third turn as Jason Voorhees). She then flees from Jason, who nonetheless keeps up with her despite pursuing a running victim at a leisurely stroll, until she gets to a clearing--and she dives to ground as food lights switch on and FBI agents pour out of every hiding place to pepper Jason with bullets, until someone nails the undead maniac with a mortar round and blasts him to pieces.
Okay, so you probably haven't heard that last part before.
The woman who served as bait was also an FBI agent, you see, and apparently the FBI decided it was high time they put some real effort into eliminating America's most prolific serial killer. Unbeknownst to the FBI, they are being watched by a figure we'll later learn is famed bounty hunter Creighton Duke (Steven Williams, who would play almost the same role as Rufus on Supernatural many years later), who clearly doesn't believe that old Jason can be put down that easy.
Well, it would be a retread of a strong contender for the series' shittiest movie (Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning) if he were wrong, so naturally he's not. You see, rather than incinerating the Jason chunks or putting them in a rocket to launch at the sun, they are trundled off to a crime lab in Ohio for analysis. This proves to be a mistake. While the coroner (Richard Gant) is examining Jason's heart, which is twice as big as it should be and filled with a black, viscous fluid--the heart begins beating. The coroner, hypnotied by the heart, eats it. Immediately he is surrounded by glowing metaphysical energy--and promptly murders everyone in the facility, including the security guard (Kane Hodder, again) who dared to call Jason Voorhees a "big old pussy."
Now, it should be fairly clear to the average horror viewer before it ever gets explained to us that Jason has somehow possessed the coroner, especially when we see that his reflection on a shiny cabinet is that of Jason himself, but trust me--it's actually far weirder than that makes it sound.
True crime TV show, American Casefile, hosted by Robert Campbell (Steven Culp) picks up the story of the massacre in Ohio, as well as several more Jason Voorhees-style killings that indicate the killer is moving towards Crystal Lake. Campbell then cuts to an interview segment with Creighton Duke, who reveals that he knows that Jason is not dead because what was destroyed by the FBI was merely a vessel. The real Jason Voorhees is a creature that can jump from host to host. And it just so happens that Duke knows how to kill Jason, for good--and for a measly $500,000 he'll be happy to do the job. Naturally, Campbell immediately agrees to pay Duke should he produce evidence that Jason is still alive and that Duke has sent him back to the dead.
Meanwhile, Crystal Lake is celebrating the death of its most famous son in true capitalist fashion: the local greasy spoon is having a "Jason's Dead: 2-for-1 Burger Deal". As the proprietor of the establishment, Joey B (Rusty Schwimmer) explains to her fry cook son, Ward (Adam Cranner) while her diminutive husband Shelby (Leslie Jordan) looks on, that one burger is meant to look like a hockey mask and the trimmings are used to make the second burger. Waitresses Vicki (Allison Smith) and Diana Kimble (Erin Gray) are less than thrilled with the crass exploitation of the murderer's death, but it pays the bills.
Diana has bigger problems. For at one of her tables sits Creighton Duke and he addresses her by saying that he knows who she really is and that he needs her help to truly kill Jason. When Diana's boyfriend Sheriff Ed Landis (Billy Green Bush) arrives to ask if Diana's customer is bothering her, Duke turns nasty and Landis orders Officer Randy Parker (Kipp Marcus, brother of the director, Adam Marcus) to haul him off to the station for disturbing the peace. Diana, however, is far more shaken up by Duke's words than she at first appears and goes to the counter to address Steven Freeman (John D. LeMay). Steven is her daughter Jessica's (Kari Keegan) ex-boyfriend and the father of Diana's infant granddaughter, Stephanie (Brooke Scher). Diana advises that if Steven ever wants to patch things up with Jessica, he needs to come over to Diana's house at 11PM that evening so she can tell him something.
While driving around later that evening, Steven picks up a trio of hitchhiking campers headed to the old Crystal Lake campgrounds. After making some jokes about the usual fate of people who do that in these parts, he drops them off--just barely being able to resist the invitation from the group's unpaired member. Naturally, it's a good thing Steven turned her down, though he can't have guessed why. The coroner appears at the campsite and kills the single woman with a knife, then after the couple seals their doom by deciding to not use a condom--he impales them with a sign post.
A word about the sex scene here: you'll note that it contains probably the only female and male nudity in the entire franchise. This was by the director's design, as he felt it was unfair that the franchise so often only included female nudity. So good on him.
Diana is closing up at the diner when she runs into Josh (Andrew Bloch), another police officer. Josh and Diana exchange some small talk about her relationship with Sheriff Landis and then Josh's married girlfriend shows up to pick him up for some illicit fun while her husband is off at bowling. Unfortunately for them, the coroner arrives and kills Josh's girlfriend by slamming her head in the car door. The next thing Josh knows, he's naked and strapped to a table in the old "Vorhees" (quoth the maiilbox) house. The corner shaves Josh with a straight razor and then leans in as if he were going to kiss him...
Meanwhile, Diana is at home waiting for Steven when she gets a call from Jessica. Jessica currently works as a production assistant for American Casefile. She will be coming home from California with her daughter to visit Diana--and she'll be bringing her new boyfriend with. Said boyfriend being none other than Robert Campbell, as it turns out. As Diana is talking to Jessica, suddenly Josh bursts into her house and attacks her--Jessica gets a hint that something is wrong when the call drops. Diana has no idea what Josh is after: until she sees the reflection of Jason Voorhees in the mirror.
She grabs Josh's revolver and shoots him in the head. Naturally, this does nothing and Josh holds her down as a bizarre serpent begins to snake out of his mouth--but luckily Steven arives just then and tackles Josh off of her. Unfortunately, Josh grabs a knife and kills Diana with it. Steven impales Josh with a fireplace poker and then Josh falls out the window, seemingly dead. But when Sheriff Landis arrives, he finds Steven hunched over Diana's corpse with bloody hands--and Josh is nowhere to be found. And so it is that Jessica comes home the next day to find Vicky scrubbing at the bloodstain in the carpet and finds out that Steven is the prime suspect in her mother's murder.
Steven finds himself in a cell next to Duke, who tells Steven that it was Jason that killed Diana. What's more, he'll tell Steven why if Steven is willing to pay the price--which turns out to be Duke breaking one of Steven's fingers for every bit of information he gives. Diana Kimble was actually Diana Voorhees, Jason's sister. You see, when the FBI destroyed Jason's body, the creature inside of him--the true Jason Voorhees--was forced to find a new vessel. Except, the average human cannot play host to Jason for more than a few days before its body self-destructs: Jason needs a very specific host.
"In a Voorhees was he born. Through a Voorhees may he be re-born. And only by the hands of a Voorhees may he die." Diana now being dead, Jason will try to either possess or kill his only remaining blood relatives: Jessica and baby Stephanie. The thing is, Duke knows how to kill Jason. Or rather, he knows how Jessica can kill Jason. When Steven offers Duke his hand for a third time, completely willing to once again endure a fractured finger, Duke advises him that the rest of the information is on the house--Steven needs to go to the old Voorhees house and find evidence to convince Jessica before it's too late.
Steven uses his broken fingers as ruse to grab Randy's gun and escape from lock-up. He briefly sneaks into the diner where Vicki is keeping baby Stephanie in the back room. Ward finds Steven standing over Stephanie, just as Steven confesses that it was the first time he'd ever been able to touch his daughter. Ward gives Steven his car keys and tells him to run. So Steven heads to the Voorhees house, walking past the jungle gym from The Birds on his way in. Inside he finds where Josh had been tied up and a desk covered with occult objects--including the Necronomicon prop from Evil Dead 2, which Steven leafs through. So Jason is a Candarian demon, huh?
Steven is forced to hide when Robert Campbell arrives, talking on his cell phone. See, Campbell has decided that they need to spruce up the Voorhees house with some body parts in the freezer and other macabre details--and then they'll film Jessica finding her mother's body, which Campbell has stolen from the morgue and hidden in the very closet that Steven is hiding in. Of course, Campbell didn't count on Josh barging in, grabbing him and passing the Jason parasite onto him. And now we discover that the bodies that Jason evacuates very messily melt into nothing.
Campbell wakes up, the parasite having taken hold, and heads off. Now Steven has his work cut out for him. Not only does he have to try to beat Campbell to Jessica, but he has to convince the woman who thinks that he murdered her mother that her mother was killed by a demonic entity that she alone can kill for good. A demonic entity that currently looks like her boyfriend, no less.
Good luck with that,
|No wonder he wears a Jason suit,|
Worse, the idea that Jason is actually some kind of body-hopping demon slug instead of the feral man-child and occasionally undead killer makes zero sense from any continuity standpoint. (Even by this series' standards!) And having the familiar Jason appear only at the beginning and end of the film must have been even more disappointing to fans of the series.
Strange then, that Jason Goes To Hell ends up being one of the best films in the series. Regardless of its plot, it has easily the most compelling characters in the series this side of Ginny in Friday the 13th, Part 2. The amount of characters you don't give a shit about is actually outnumbered by the ones you do care about. Even seemingly one-note characters like the diner owners have more depth than they first seem to.
Part of this may be that the film actually focuses on adult characters instead of the usual series reliance on adult actors playing teenagers. Since no one in the series has ever been much good at writing teenagers, that was a wise choice. And while the "estranged couple who have to reunite during a crisis" trope has been done to death, the addition of the couple having a child that the father has never even held adds an extra layer to it. (One that now rings fairly close to home for me, as someone who is co-parenting with an ex) That Steven and Jessica feel like ordinary people instead of typical Hollywood leads adds a lot to the way the audience relates to them, as well,
The makeup effects, aside from Jason Voorhees, are on the whole very accomplished. A particular standout being the messy destruction of Josh after he passes the Jason parasite on. The creature effects are a bit of a mixed bag: the slug we never get all that good a look at, but the demon baby thing that it turns into prior to finding a way to be reborn as Jason is pretty well-done--however the creatures that drag Jason to Hell at the end, as promised by the title, are just plain goofy. In a lot of the promo art you can see that Jason was originally dragged to Hell by some kind of demons--but in the finished film he is grabbed by big, clunky rubber hands. Why the cool-looking demons were jettisoned in favor of this laughable effect is beyond me. They couldn't possibly have been less convincing,
|...big rubber hands.|
Either way, this is a really good horror film--though I hesitate to call it a slasher since aside from the death of the campers it never follows that formula--that deserves to be seen by fans of the genre. Hell, if you go about it like I did and watch this before you watch the preceding eight films, you just might enjoy it even more.
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