‘Jason Lives’ Turns 30: How the meta ‘F13’ sequel helped inspire ‘Scream’

I'm not particularly one to celebrate the Friday the 13th franchise, but here's something: in 1986, the sixth installment in the prolific slasher series anticipated the “meta” approach popularized by Scream by a full 10 years. Indeed, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was the first film in the long-running series — and the first, if not one of the first, horror films — in which the characters were self-aware of the genre's conventions. 

“I've seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly,” says one victim early in the film.

“So, what were you gonna be when you grew up?” says another, sensing his imminent demise.

At one point, an elderly gravedigger even goes so far as to break the fourth wall when he implores the audience: “Why'd they have to go and dig up Jason? Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment.”

The tongue-in-cheek tone was a natural byproduct of hiring writer-director Tom McLoughlin, a comedy writer who earned a Primetime Emmy nomination in 1977 for his work on the short-lived Van Dyke and Company variety series before making his feature directorial debut on the mausoleum-set 1982 horror film One Dark Night starring Meg Tilly. As McLoughlin told me via phone on the film's 30th anniversary, Friday the 13th producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. — reeling after poor fan reception to the Jason-less Part V — was supportive of the idea from the very beginning, just as long as McLoughlin didn't take the teeth out of his main villain.

“I said, 'I'd like to put humor into it. I can't take this 100% seriously, being the sixth one of these,'” said McLoughlin. “And he said, 'Fine, just don't make fun of Jason.'”

The creative success of Jason Lives is all relative, of course. To illustrate the point, it would be prudent to echo the sentiments of Gene Siskel, who in his review named Jason Lives the “least offensive” entry in the “most offensive series in film history.” It's not as well-crafted, funny, or as smart as Scream, and — perhaps constrained by the desires of the studio not to stray too far from formula — it never fully capitalizes on the possibilities offered by McLoughlin's self-aware approach. 

Still, as Friday the 13th movies go, it doesn't get much better than this. Take the following scene set in an RV, which manages to work up something approaching real sympathy for its prototypical teens in peril by giving them actual personalities:

Note that the lovable doofuses also act the way real people would act by removing themselves from the source of the perceived danger (only to die anyway), an element that McLoughlin tells me grew out of a friendship/mentorship he had with master filmmaker Frank Capra.

“Capra taught me is that it's a people-to-people medium,” he said. “No matter what it is, if you love the people up there, you'll care about the story. You'll be involved. So I really wanted each one of those [characters] to be somebody — you don't really wanna see them die. They may be in a stupid situation, but they're not really dumb, or they're dumb cause they're stoned…other than that, I wanted them to be witty, I wanted you to kind of enjoy the time spent with them, and then their death would be a little of a mixed [bag] — 'aww shit, they died,' and also, 'woah, that was a cool death!'”

Jason Lives' “final girl,” too, shows a bit more spunk and personality than the almost uniformly blonde and bland woman protagonists seen in the other films. Here, for example, Jennifer Cooke's Megan demonstrates a sense of agency and attitude that sets her apart from the majority of the final girls in the F13 canon:

Is Jason Lives a perfect movie? Far from it. But McLoughlin brings a sense of fun, energy and, importantly, filmmaking craft to the endeavor that raises it a notch or two above the majority of films in the franchise — and that counts for a lot. Indeed, fans still approach McLoughlin about the movie all those years later.

“People will say it changed their lives…[one fan told me] 'It became my all-time favorite movie.' Things like that, it's something I can't quite understand, but I've gotta say, I'm honored that it had that kind of impact on certain people's lives,” said McLoughlin, adding: “I didn't go out to celebrate killing, I just went out to celebrate a thrill ride with things that hopefully fans would enjoy.”

One of those fans is none other than Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who rose to fame and fortune by utilizing some of the very same elements that makes Jason Lives one of the most beloved — if not the most beloved — sequel of the entire series.

“I came in on a TV series that Kevin Williamson was doing…and at one point he said to me, 'You know, your movie…had an impact on me in writing Scream,” said McLoughlin, who, in a brutal twist of irony, turned down the opportunity to potentially direct the influential 1996 hit when the script [then called Scary Movie] came his way. He then added, “That's not [him] saying he saw that and [then wrote Scream], so I can't say that was a direct thing.”

Despite missing out on the movie that would perfect the self-aware tone he brought to Friday 6, McLoughlin remains proud of the film and the impact it had on so many fans. When I asked him how he looks back on it 30 years hence, he had this rather touching response to offer: “Today feels more like my birthday than any other birthday I've ever had.”