When the original Friday the 13th hit theaters in 1980, it was Gene Siskel who delivered the most memorable entry in a sea of scathing reviews. Four years later, it was his sparring partner Roger Ebert's turn to take an axe to the fourth installment in the Friday the 13th franchise, in an uncharacteristically preachy tirade. "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is an immoral and reprehensible piece of trash that sold more tickets than any other movie on its opening weekend in 1984," Ebert began. "And that is a very, very depressing commentary."
What's notably missing from Ebert's commentary — like so many critics who were baffled by the popularity of the Friday the 13th franchise — is analysis of the movie itself. Ebert's take on The Final Chapter, as opposed to the cultural firestorm surrounding the Friday the 13th franchise, could be summed up in a single sentence: It's "a cynical retread of the first three."
At the risk of defying one of the all-time great film critics, Ebert's appraisal of The Final Chapter is wrong. Love it or hate it, The Final Chapter doesn't just attempt to shake up the predictable Friday the 13th formula — it attempts to kill it altogether.
It's hard to imagine anyone who wasn't a fan of the first three Friday the 13th movies ponying up for The Final Chapter — but nevertheless, the film opens with a quick scene that clarifies the basics of the franchise's convoluted mythology. "I don't wanna scare anyone," says a teenager at a bonfire, just moments before he spins an aggressively scary tale about a psychopathic drowning victim named Jason Vorhees who seeks revenge for the beheading death of his mother. (This quasi-revision, which recasts Jason as a kind of urban legend, also enables The Final Chapter to present a highlight reel of gory kills from the first three movies.)
But even as The Final Chapter aims to condense Friday the 13th's patchy mythology, it takes it surprisingly seriously. After the intro, with the customary exploding logo, the film picks up just moments after the events of Part III in 3-D, as baffled authorities clean up a mountain of corpses — including the body of Jason Vorhees. This "death," which came from an axe to the skull in the previous films, lasts for a few hours — until Jason climbs off of his gurney, skewers a couple of amorous morgue employees, and goes right back to his Crystal Lake killing spree.
Final Chapter's dogged adherence to the continuity of Part III in 3-D is admirable — but it also means that the entirety of the film takes place several days after Friday the 13th. (Apparently Paramount didn't think Sunday the 15th or Monday the 16th had the same ring to it.) In fact, everything about the title Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter turns out to be a lie: It doesn't take place on Friday the 13th, and it's not the final chapter.
For what it's worth, most of the people involved with The Final Chapter still maintain that they really did intend to lay Friday the 13th to rest. Inspired by the cost-to-profit ratio of Halloween and Friday the 13th, the market had been absolutely flooded with slipshod thrillers, leading to a Hollywood arms race of blood and boobs. The novelty was drying up, and producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. was content to take the money Friday the 13th had already made and run. "With the fourth one — which I entitled The Final Chapter for a reason — I really wanted it to be done and walk away," he later recalled. "In some ways, I felt I had grown beyond it, but it was really more me coming to terms with the fact that these movies should be made by people who are pushing themselves and learning and growing."
With director Steve Miner leaving the series after directing Part 2 and Part III in 3D, producers found just the man for the job: Joseph Zito, who established his horror chops with a nasty low-budget slasher film called The Prowler in 1981.
Zito had some bold and uncompromising ideas for The Final Chapter, but he was smart enough not to mess with the formula. Jason remains silent and ruthless and implacable, played for the first (and last) time by veteran stuntman Ted White, who insisted on going uncredited. ("It's my name, and if I don't want it on this piece of shit, it's not going to be on it," he recalled telling the film's producers.)
Jason's main pool of victims is, inevitably, a group of sexed-up teenagers who rent a cabin on the lake. It would be overly generous to claim that these characters are well-developed, but they certainly make more of an impression than the interchangeable feather-haired idiots that got killed off in the previous Friday the 13th films. Screenwriter Barney Cohen received very specific instructions from Zito. "Don't try to think of any new ways to kill kids, 'cause people have seen everything," Cohen recalled Zito saying. "Just make them real, like your Afterschool Special kids, and whatever we do to them will be horrific."
Cohen responded by crafting characters that were, if not three-dimensional, at least memorable. In rapid succession, we meet Samantha (Judie Aronson), a teen unfairly derided as a "slut" by her peers; Ted (Lawrence Monoson), a smug chatterbox who projects confidence to conceal his own shortcomings; and Tina and Terri (Camilla and Carey More), identical twins who diverge on the subject of promiscuity. And then there's the most compelling by far: Jimmy Mortimer, a gawky nerd played by Crispin Glover in full-blown weirdo Crispin Glover mode. Just look at this psychotic dance scene he improvised:
By the time the third act begins, all of them are dead. It's hard to sum up the strengths and weaknesses of this approach better than The New York Times' Janet Maslin. "The Final Chapter takes pains to make its characters a little more personable than the horror-movie norm," she wrote. "This is unfortunate, since there is nothing to do during the second half of the film but watch them die."
On top of that de rigueur group of doomed teens, The Final Chapter adds an intriguing wrinkle: the Jarvis family, who live in the house next door to the one rented by the teenaged sitting ducks. The Jarvis family consists of three members: a cheery matriarch (Joan Freeman); a pretty teenaged daughter named Trish (Kimberly Beck); and Tommy, a horror-obsessed youngster played by '80s icon Corey Feldman. (References to Mrs. Jarvis' absent husband — who Trish adamantly hopes will return — seem to be setting up for a twist that never actually arrives.)
Feldman was just 13 when The Final Chapter was released in theaters, but he was already a seasoned child actor, with dozens of credits (including a pair of recurring TV parts). The Final Chapter catches him on the precipice of superstardom, just months before movies like Gremlins, The Goonies, and Stand By Me would make him a household name.
By most accounts, Feldman's experience filming The Final Chapter was a generally unpleasant one. Years later, Feldman described his genuine terror while shooting a scene in which Jason leaps through a window and grabs him from behind. The climactic scene required Feldman to repeatedly slam a machete into Jason's head; Feldman later said he worked himself into a convincing rage by imagining he was smashing director Joseph Zito's head instead.
In the 2006 series retrospective book Crystal Lake Memories, several people involved with The Final Chapter expressed some level of discomfort with Feldman's role in the film. The most telling account comes from casting director Fern Champion:
Corey was never a kid, you know? He was old before he should've been. His parents were going through a terrible time, and he was caught. He had to fend for himself — the typical situation of coming from a split family. Great kid, but lost. So he was very vulnerable, which made it all that much more interesting, because he got the character, especially the fear. He wasn't one of those happy kids. The bad news is, I think we relied on that reality. Maybe too much. [Crystal Lake Memories]
Today, Feldman is better-known for his off-screen antics than his on-screen performances — but as an adolescent, he managed to deliver The Final Chapter's most nuanced and unnerving performance.
The Final Chapter takes great pains to set up Tommy Jarvis as both the most vulnerable of Jason's potential victims and a kind of proto-Jason. He's a weird, sort of lonely kid with a penchant for blood and gore. He enviously spies on teenaged women in various states of undress. He reads newspaper clippings about Jason Vorhees' death with a vaguely alarming level of interest. He endures the (presumptive) death of his own mother. And in the end, he defeats Jason by becoming him — using his penchant for monster makeup to disguise himself as the young Jason, then hacking him to death with a machete.
The Final Chapter ends on a freeze-frame of Tommy's face, staring directly at the camera with a sinister expression, as if killing Jason had somehow infused Tommy with the same kind of evil. The Final Chapter delivers on its promise to kill off Jason Vorhees — but it's hard to look at that ending and see anything "final" about it.
Which brings us back to Roger Ebert's excoriating review, which contained one glittering nugget of truth. "This isn't the final chapter," Ebert insisted. "That's just an advertising gimmick." Ebert was right. Less than a year later, the franchise would return — without Jason Vorhees — in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.
Coming next Friday the 13th (May 13, 2016): The franchise tries (and fails) to forge a Jason Vorhees-less future for itself in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.