How ‘Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’ Refined the Formula and Defined the Franchise
I’ve made it no secret that The Final Chapter is my favorite Friday the 13th movie. But being who I am, I have naturally thought too often about why that is. I love the whole franchise, so what makes that one particular entry stand out from the rest? I was enamored with the concept of Jason before I had even seen a single one of the movies, thanks to my friends who had seen them telling me all about them on the playground. Friday the 13th is a unique horror franchise in that the things that make up its “classic” elements are not present at the beginning, but are introduced over time. That’s certainly what led me to latch onto The Final Chapter as a child: it was the first entry to feature Jason in the hockey mask from beginning to end, which was all I had ever wanted to see in the first place. Despite the fact that I was working my way through the series at that point in time, when I reached The Final Chapter I just stuck on that movie for what seemed like forever, because it was everything I wanted. Not just from a Friday the 13th movie, but from a movie. It was like it was catered to my adolescent interests. The movie became an instant favorite. I didn’t stop to think about why, of course, until I was much older. But it is an interesting question to explore.
After all, structurally, there’s basically no difference from the previous three movies. Once again, a group of young teens are on their way to Crystal Lake for the weekend, and once again, tragedy strikes in the form of a murderous Voorhees. At first glance, the changes that are made are superficial and extremely on-the-surface. They’re a kid and a dog. Other than that, most of the basic plot elements are basically carried over from the first three. The group of friends are spending the weekend partying at a house by the lake, just like the friends from Part III. But not breaking from the formula, for the most part, is the thing that ultimately makes The Final Chapter so great. Because, instead, it refines and even perfects that formula, improving on everything that had come before to ultimately make what many have wisely come to know as the ultimate Friday the 13th movie.
It starts with the group of kids. There’s not much different about them on the surface. They’re horny teenagers, each with individual and often clashing personalities. There’s one of every kind of them. Yet they are so fleshed out, each of them given their individual personalities, that it’s hard not to get invested in them, even more than any of the groups of counselors or partygoers that had come before them. This doesn’t just feel like the cast of an ‘80s slasher, it feels like the cast of a full-blown ‘80s teen comedy. And, sure, it might be one of the lewder comedies, geared toward the late night crowd, but it is the cast of a great ‘80s teen sex comedy nonetheless. From the weird twin-infused love triangle to sex-craved Sarah to (especially) Jimmy and Ted’s “dead f–k” debate, these characters are bursting with personality and individual quirks in a way that outshines even the best characters that had come before them.
At the same time, while The Final Chapter embraces the formula, it also subverts it in some really interesting ways. By this point in time, the slasher cycle was basically winding down. After all, the first Friday the 13th had sparked dozens of imitators, movies that—even if they had their own flair—certainly took that feature as a primary source of inspiration, just as Sean Cunningham and Victor Miller had done with Halloween. The virginal heroine was well established by this point. But that trope had never actually appeared in the Friday series. Alice alluded to a night with Steve Christy in the original, Ginny has sex with Paul in Part 2, Chris and Rick had clearly had a sexual past as evidenced by his kind of gross impatience with her. Sarah, in that respect, marks a clever play on that trope, because even if that type of character had never been present in the franchise, she leans into the expectation of it.
It’s a smart character choice on a couple of different levels. Most obviously, there is the fact that this girl who embodies the classic meek, virginal heroine winds up dying. That’s actually not half as interesting as the general way that Sarah is characterized overall. She might appear to be quiet, shy, even a little repressed, but her interest in sex is made clear from the beginning and only becomes clearer and clearer as the movie goes on. Sure, it’s unexpected that this quintessential “good girl” would not survive the movie, at least for the audience expecting it, but it’s the way she approaches the topic of sex overall that proves to be so much more interesting. Sarah is the most repressed, but partly because of that repression, she is also absolutely the horniest character in the entire film. This girl is sex-crazed and it just becomes more and more abundantly clear as the story unfolds. She has a genuine arc of being shy and curious and eventually taking charge, making the first move, letting him know she is very clearly interested. Sure, this could obviously be lumped in with the “have sex and die” trope, and people often joke that she would have lived if she hadn’t done that, but I don’t think that’s true. Sarah dies because it’s a Friday the 13th movie and she’s not the protagonist. She was probably never going to get out alive, but I do think that the movie takes her in a refreshing, interesting and unexpected direction, regardless.
There’s another character in The Final Chapter who sidesteps the expectations of the franchise and subverts the tropes we have come to expect from the series, and that’s Rob. On paper, Rob is another Crazy Ralph. He’s the one who knows what’s going on, he’s the character that every Friday the 13th needs: the guy with knowledge of Jason who can explain to the other characters the danger that they’re in. The major difference, of course, is that Rob is actually involved in the plot. He’s not simply there to warn people, to tell everyone they’re going to die without lifting a finger to do anything about it. No, Rob is a man of action. His sister, Sandra, was killed by Jason in Part 2 and he is out for revenge. This is admittedly questionable, considering that Part 2 would have happened only days ago and Rob acts like he’s been planning this for months, but many films have depicted people seeking revenge and taking matters into their own hands in a far shorter timeframe than this.
There’s something so confident and unquestioning about this character, too, that also lures the audience into a false sense of security. Unlike most of the others, people don’t really expect Rob to die, because his character type is basically the guy who comes in at the end and saves everyone. He’s Dr. Loomis, and we don’t tend to expect Dr. Loomis to die. What’s smart, though, is that Rob definitely doesn’t expect to die either. He is so sure in his pursuit of Jason, so positive that he is going to take him out, that he never once seems to consider that it might not go his way. That’s why, as often as it’s made fun of for its delivery, Rob’s repeating scream of “Oh God, he’s killing me,” works. Because it’s coming from a place of complete and total shock. He legitimately did not think that that was going to happen and he cannot process it when it comes. It’s great, just for the movie as a whole, to see such a confident hero being reduced to screaming in disbelief when the time comes. He doesn’t go out stabbing like Quint in Jaws. He’s terrified, and it shows. It also raises the stakes for the third act and turns Jason into a scarier presence than he had ever been before that moment. After all, if the person who had planned and prepared for killing Jason failed, how can this teenage girl and her little brother possibly succeed? And because of that, it’s all the more satisfying when they do.
While many of the strongest elements of The Final Chapter lie in the way it refines the pre-existing formula, there are new additions that also strengthen the core concept and the movie as a whole, and Tommy Jarvis is chief among them. There are so many reasons why people love this character so much, why this is the character that fans have wanted to see return to the series more than any other. Much of that naturally has to do with the fact that he returned for the next two sequels and became the franchise’s first recurring protagonist. But I think so much of the strength of Tommy is built right here in The Final Chapter. As I mentioned previously, I was a kid when I saw this movie for the first time, as I’m sure a lot of people were. Kids had seen ads for the movies on TV, had seen them in the video store, maybe even tagged along to the Drive-In by the time The Final Chapter came out. Horror always resonates with kids, always has. Even when it’s not technically aimed at them, they’re going to see it. I was absolutely a horror loving kid, as were most of my friends.
When I first saw this film at that age, Tommy immediately resonated with me. It was like the ultimate wish fulfillment. Here was a kid who loved horror and monster movies, just like I did. Tommy not only had my same dream hobby at the time of making masks and doing his own DIY FX, but he was supernaturally gifted at it. And, most importantly, here was a kid who got to stand up and be the one to take down the monster at the end. Jason was defeated by a kid who was just like me, and that was the coolest feeling in the world. I think the real brilliance of Tommy as a character is not only that he is a monster-loving kid, it’s how he utilizes that. It’s reminiscent of The Monster Squad, where these kids’ useless knowledge of monsters proves to be anything but once the monsters actually show up. Tommy is very similar to that. He doesn’t just stand up to Jason at the end, he researches him and he uses his own skills in make-up artistry, his own useless hobby, to evoke a memory of Jason’s childhood self and give the killer that necessary moment of pause needed to take the upper hand and defeat him.
There’s a great dramatic irony to the rivalry between Jason and Tommy that is first formed in this movie, too, one that Tommy’s makeshift transformation into Jason at the end is certainly reflective of. Over the course of the movie, Jason murders Tommy and Trish’s mother. It’s the only death we don’t actually see, so it’s left to our imagination, with some even occasionally wondering if she even actually died. She did, though. Not only is that confirmed by the later sequels, there was an ending tag that was shot for the movie in which Tommy and Trish discover their mother’s body and it was legitimately too disturbing and horrifying to show, even for a film like this. What matters, though, is that it happens. Jason’s targets this time include a lonely, isolated boy in the woods who clearly doesn’t have much outside his family, not unlike Jason himself. And then Jason kills his mother. When he does that, he creates an emptiness and a hunger for revenge in the kid that’s exactly like his own, and he doesn’t even realize that he’s done it. He’s created a rival without even doing it intentionally, by doing exactly to Tommy what had been done to him. That’s such a huge part of what makes Tommy’s further character development over the course of the next two sequels so satisfying.
It’s all of these elements together that make The Final Chapter a true standout of the franchise, one of the very best that it has to offer and one of the best slashers of the 1980s in general. It’s a movie that added fresh blood in its new young protagonist but, at the same time, succeeded because it did not seek to break formula, only to tighten it. And because of that, it remains a fan-favorite to this day.
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