Its exceedingly easy to dismiss the Friday the 13th series. From Sean S Cunningham’s 1980 original through to the trash-humping 2009 Marcus Nispel remake, the slasher series is about as disposable as franchise cinema gets, even in horror circles. There’s no single outright masterpiece in the set, and even the hardcore fans of the series will argue over which entry is the definitive.
But here’s the thing. While none of these summer camp hack-n-slash outings reached the peak of respectability afforded to John Carpenter’s Halloween, they managed a more enduring level of consistency compared to the ongoing exploits of Michael Myers. Hence the clashing opinions. Jason Voorhees’ relentless rampage went through its series of gimmicks and wrong-turns over the years, but the quality of what was offered remained at a certain level throughout (right up until Jason Takes Manhattan that is…).
It’s taken me a little while to find my niche with Jason, having been one of those naysayers for many years. A recent rewatched of the series has helped me to settle on Parts 2 and 4 as my clear personal favourites. They have the most pathos and the most palpable atmospheres (I’m a sucker for a slasher that takes place in the rain). But even if Friday the 13th Part II just pips it for me, I’ll happily admit that The Final Chapter exceeds all entries in one respect… it’s characters.
And you might well scoff. If Friday the 13th is famed for anything its not well-drawn character studies. Most entries combine generic ciphers who canoodle until they’re killed off. In terms of formula, The Final Chapter only differs very slightly, but director Joseph Zito lucked out with the crop of young actors he picked who, between them, raise its slasher-by-numbers escapades up a good couple of notches.
Mostly people talk about Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman; two young actors who would go on to become synonymous with ’80s franchise fare such as Back to the Future and Gremlins along with many other beloved titles. Both appear here in early roles and are standouts. Glover’s goofy dancing to the band Lion in the middle of the picture is so specifically him – nobody else would’ve brought it like that. And Feldman is that rare, rare thing in a horror picture; a kid who isn’t unjustifiably annoying. A minor miracle in itself. Between them they make the characters of Jimmy and Tommy shine.
But I want to draw focus elsewhere, to Barbara Howard who plays Sara; a relatively minor character in a busy ensemble, and specifically one moment that stands out and evidences the superiority of the character work in The Final Chapter.
Its toward the end of the picture. Sara and Doug (Peter Barton) have just had sex in the shower (a big ‘no-no’ for ’80s slasher movies). For Doug, its little more than a cool conquest. For Sara it’s something quite different, however.
As Sara exits the shower in a steamy aura of post-coital bliss, Doug sighs, “Sara, I think I’m in heaven”. Wrapped in a towel and as much for our benefit as for her own, Sara follows up his ‘release’ with her own; a wistful whisper of “…I think I’m in love.”
What’s this? Love? In a Friday the 13th picture? Barf-o-rama! Except no. It’s played with beautiful tenderness by Howard. There’s a little bit of bravery and danger in the proclamation – what if Doug hears her!? Is she daring him to? Her tone has a register of timidity in case he has heard her (he hasn’t), but there’s a boldness to it, too; an open-heartedness that will be cruelly rendered visceral in just a few short minutes’ time.
American movies almost always cast older when showing teens on screen. It’s often commented on, when the reasoning is more often practical. You can only work with minors for so long at a time and their acting skills can be variable. Barbara Howard was in her mid-20s when filming The Final Chapter, but in this moment she absolutely sells the excitement and hesitancy of teenage romance. The emotional nakedness of Sara in this moment is quite different to any sexual encounter that preceded it in the franchise. Most of the other couplings are blasé, bawdy, horny or defunct and embarrassing. Doug and Sara’s – for Sara at least – has genuine emotional sincerity. Not that this saves either of them from Jason. Doug’s death is one of the series’ most horrific, but Sara’s – an axe to the chest that happens so fast – is heartbreaking (no pun intended).
And this is the crux of what pushes The Final Chapter up above most of its peers. It actively asks for your investment in these characters and, in turn, makes their demises all the more painful to bear. Fearful of the MPAA and a little ashamed of their hit franchise, Paramount went with brevity when it came to the kills in Part IV. Some may well see that as a missed opportunity, seeing as Tom Savini was behind the gore effects. But I’d argue that the clipped cutting in this entry makes it feel more brutal. It works in tandem with the emotional maturity. You see less, sure. But you feel more.
Sara’s admission of love in this scene makes me love her character. It reminds me of expressing similar sentiments to myself in the throws of puppy love in days-gone-by. It’s cute and knowable. Too knowable, perhaps.
The first cut is the deepest, so they say. Here, first love is downright lethal.