Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” (1986) wraps up the “Tommy Trilogy” in blandly competent fashion. This entry, written by directed by saga newcomer Tom McLoughlan, doesn’t descend into utter absurdity like some of its predecessors. In fact, it checks some boxes of things the “F13” saga should have done before this: One, the sheriff (David Kagen as Garris) and his deputies actually pursue Jason in the wake of his killings. Two, there are actually kids at the camp.
And three, “Jason Lives” winks at the audience more. It doesn’t come close to leaning into the style, but there is a tinge of meta humor. For example, a counselor (Kerry Noonan’s Paula) tells a young camper that adults think it’s funny to scary each other. By this point, people were attending “F13” movies to get that scary/funny mix.
It might be coincidence, but – as unoriginal as these three films are in most ways — one could argue that the “Tommy Trilogy” is rather influential. Later, “Halloween’s” “Jamie Trilogy” would follow a similar narrative pattern, with “Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers” (1995) being the most meta and comedic entry up to that point. That film also finds its heroes actively aiming to defeat Michael, just as the heroes here actively try to stop Jason.
As “Jason Lives” begins, Tommy (now played by Thom Mathews) inadvertently plays Dr. Frankenstein. Still traumatized by Jason’s killing of his mom in the fourth movie, Tommy digs up Jason (CJ Graham this time) in order to chop up the corpse some more. A lightning strike animates the corpse, and – spoiler alert — Jason lives. This film crystalizes Jason’s supernatural traits, as he also survives several point-blank gunshots, an attempted drowning and a motorboat rotor to the face.
Cinematographer Jon Kranhouse and his team put some effort into the opening segment, nicely emphasizing the fog. And the effects team does great work on Jason’s worm-ridden corpse. It’s the best advertisement you’ll find for the value of cremation over burial.
After that, “Jason Lives” is like a PG version of an “F13” movie (even though it is rated R). Aside from twisting one victim’s head off, Jason’s kills aren’t creative, and most are suggested with sound effects rather than explicitly shown. (Effects maven Tom Savini didn’t work on this entry.) The early atmosphere gets flattened out. And there’s no nudity in “Jason Lives,” although there is one vigorous sex scene (probably the reason for the R rating).
The couple does it to 1986 workout music, and all of this film’s fashions, hairstyles and set decorations are pure 1986. It’s the second straight movie where the producers don’t care about the time jumps that have put this storyline well into the 1990s.
On paper, “Jason Lives” should be the best character piece so far. The sheriff’s daughter, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), likes Tommy right away because he’s cute. These two spend the whole film as the protagonists, staying on the trail of Jason while also fending off the sheriff, who forbids Megan from hanging out with the supposedly crazy Tommy.
Tommy indeed is unstable; after all, he digs up a corpse. But Mathews doesn’t play him as unstable the way John Shepherd does in the previous film. So a viewer’s impression is that he’s not crazy anymore. Yet Sheriff Garris isn’t off base. He’s operating from the reasonable premise that a dead person can’t come back to life. Once the killings start, he’s on the case more quickly than any previous law-enforcement officer in this series.
Meanwhile, over at the camp (Camp Crystal Lake has been renamed Camp Forest Green to dodge the bad connotation), the counselors have to protect a gaggle of kids. Granted, there’s no chance at all that Jason will harm little kiddies – these movies aren’t that twisted – but you’d think the presence of children would make the proceedings tenser.
But for all the emphasis on characters and relationships – and despite the well-executed “Frankenstein”-style cold open — “Jason Lives” is a dull, rote experience when watched today. I will grant that it has an important place in film history, as it’s an early example of a slasher film showing internal self-awareness.
However, “Jason Lives” doesn’t do enough of that to truly be categorized as a meta horror-comedy. Like many “F13” sequels, it shows hints of doing something fresh, but it is too scared to go all out. It always snaps back to the basics of Jason picking people off until the 90 minutes are up.