Crystal Lake: Can Jason and Friday the 13th Be ‘Elevated?’

TV

We imagine many horror fans of a certain age never thought the day would come: Friday the 13th is finally returning to the screen! (Although not the big one.) More than 13 years after we last saw Jason Voorhees creep around Camp Crystal Lake in Platinum Dunes’ soulless Friday the 13th remake (2009), the legal battles that prevented anyone else from claiming the hockey mask have apparently been settled—at least insofar as to allow Peacock to announce the upcoming Crystal Lake on the NBCUni streaming service.

With Hannibal and Pushing Daisies’ Bryan Fuller attached as showrunner, the new series is also being produced by indie tastemaker studio A24, which has become synonymous with horror in the last decade. It was likewise announced that the series will be a prequel set before the events that led to young Jason’s death by accidental drowning at the camp. And as almost all horror audiences should know by now, that is the tragedy which caused his mother Mr. Voorhees to go on a homicidal killing spree. After her demise, Jason then returned from the dead as an adult to pick up where she left off.

The news is probably a relief for horror fans who grew up on Friday the 13th slasher movies in the 1980s. Back then, Jason reigned supreme, at least in terms of box office and quantity of sequels. He even became the first movie monster to be interviewed on late night television thanks to Arsenio Hall in 1989 (it was a one-sided conversation). Yet in recent years, Michael Myers has seen his legacy passed onto the next several generations via the fawning Halloween trilogy from David Gordon Green and Blumhouse Productions, and even ‘90s upstarts like Ghostface got the royal, revered treatment earlier this year with a Scream legacy sequel that’s launched a trilogy of its own. But Jason? Like Freddy Krueger, he’s had to sit out the 2010s and the latest trend of horror revivals.

So this news should be happy tidings for the genre’s most dedicated fans… and yet, personally, it’s still a bit hard to fathom how a Friday the 13th prequel set before Jason’s death would work—particularly from talent as revered as Fuller and A24.

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This is not a knock at either the popular television producer or the studio, by the by. While we imagine some old school ‘80s gorehounds have their own strong opinions about the 2010s’ horror renaissance and the rise of “elevated horror,” A24 has been nothing if not a welcome trendsetter in the genre. We generally loathe the term “elevated horror” (there have always been artful and challenging chillers), but there’s little denying A24 helped mainstream the idea again by reminding a new generation about the intellectual and emotional potential in horror. Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) are some of the best horror movies ever made in this writer’s humble opinion, and along with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014), which is not an A24 picture, they helped create a new era of classics in the form.

They’re also each in their own way descended from clear influences and lineages in the genre. Both Eggers’ horrors and Aster’s Midsommar (2019) pull from the long legacy of hypnotic folk horror, most notably The Wicker Man (1973) in Midsommar’s case. Meanwhile Hereditary is heavily influenced by William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), as well as more acutely Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which along with The Stepford Wives (1975) is likewise in the DNA of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).

And while there is perhaps less respect for the conventions of the “slasher movie” subgenre, efforts in that wheelhouse have still reached similar, influential heights. Green’s entire Halloween trilogy is nothing if not an ambitious (if uneven) attempt to reexamine and expand on the dark primal ideas in John Carpenter’s quintessential slasher from 1978. And the nightmarish scars left by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) linger over It Follows.

… But if we’re being completely honest, Friday the 13th was never one of those franchises, and to date there has yet to be a Jason Voorhees picture that has striven to be anything better than late night schlock. This is not to say you can’t enjoy stories from the Crystal Lake cycle. Personally, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) is a guilty pleasure. Is the movie good? Not particularly, but in my youth it sure was a lot of fun to watch, with Jason returning from the dead as a zombie after being struck by lightning, and finally having a showdown with the local authorities who never believe that he’s come back (Jason of course bends the sheriff in half like a pretzel).

Still, there’s a reason some of us can make a decent argument that Jason X (2001)—the one where Jason GOES TO SPACE!—is the best one. And that’s because there’s never been a good Friday the 13th movie. At best they’re amusing, and at worst they are very open to the criticism of fetishizing for male teens the image of a man punishing nubile, naked young women with his phallic machete.

The original Friday the 13th (1980) was a shameless copycat of Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in which teenage bodies are destroyed by a killer during a spooky quasi-holiday. And the first FT13’s one innovation (the killer is actually a vengeful mother) was abandoned by sequels that fully cloned Michael Myers into another mute killer, only now audiences weren’t asked to empathize with compelling characters like Laurie Strode or Dr. Loomis; instead they were encouraged to revel in the teens’ glorified murders. To this day, even the best slashers are reduced by the online chatter of “how were the kills?”

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I’m not saying you cannot like Friday the 13th movies, or that there isn’t a certain charm to Tom Savini’s gruesome makeup effects in those movies. Kane Hodder’s physical, silent performance as Jason in the later sequels is also an icon in horror cinema. But, even so, sometimes there’s not a lot of there, there.

Which makes the idea of A24 attempting to revisit and perhaps “elevate” the franchise with a talent like Fuller so bizarre. Bryan Fuller is of course one of the most interesting television producers and writers of his generation, including when he did the impossible and got audiences to forget about Anthony Hopkins while watching his twisty prequel/reimagining of Hannibal Lecter by way of Mads Mikkelsen. That is no small feat, but there was a lot more depth to the idea of the not-so-good doctor with a taste for exotic meats, just as there is to Norman Bates and his mother Norma, who also got the prestige TV treatment by way of Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin in Bates Motel, which premiered the same year as Fuller’s Hannibal.

But Friday the 13th is no Psycho or Silence of the Lambs. So is there a way to elevate Jason Voorhees into a concept as compelling as Hannibal or Norman Bates… or even Michael Myers? I suppose we’re about to find out.

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