There are some horror properties that invite reinvention, closer examination, or the development of added context and pretext. NBC’s Hannibal, for instance, had a natural hook by promising to show us segments of the life of Hannibal Lecter when he was actually operating as a baroque, artful serial killer hidden among high society. Given that these portions of Hannibal’s life are frequently alluded to in hushed tones in films such as The Silence of the Lambs, there’s built-in audience interest in seeing them explored. The same is true of a series like A&E’s Bates Motel—because Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho establishes an unspoken mystery at the root of the fraught relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, the audience is prepared for long, drawn-out psychological backstory in exploring how he came to be operating this hotel and speaking to a mummified corpse.
But this style of introspective, seasons-long prequelizing can’t simply be applied to any iconic horror franchise. Put simply, not everything is suited to be turned into four seasons of TV! And of all the classic slasher franchises that one might cynically try to turn into serialized entertainment, is there a more awkward fit for an extended prequel than Friday the 13th? The very format runs contrary to practically everything that fans love about and expect from the franchise, promising to fight writer and executive producer Bryan Fuller every step of the way as he tries to ram a Jason-shaped peg into a square hole.
Yes, Fuller was the man behind the aforementioned Hannibal, and his imagination has likewise brought fans beloved shows old and new such as Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, American Gods and Star Trek: Discovery. But his upcoming Friday the 13th prequel for Peacock, Crystal Lake, strains against both credibility and common sense as Fuller promises to dive into the “life and times” of Pamela and Jason Voorhees. Unlike the Bates family, there’s no implied mythology to explore here—we know precisely how Jason Voorhees came to be, and what he came to be. Nor are there other prominent, existing protagonists that such a series can revolve around, as each Friday the 13th entry typically disposes of its previous characters, leaving Jason as the only constant. And the last thing a character like Jason needs is to be subjected to a labored attempt to add complexity to a property that has been defined by its simplicity for more than four decades.
But at least the series will no doubt be full of pristine outdoors beauty, right?
From its beginning in 1980, Friday the 13th has hardly been what one would dub a cerebral film series. Its holiday title, almost entirely unrelated to the action or plot, was a clear attempt to sponge off the lingering notoriety of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, and the series follows a similarly exploitative mindset. Seven sequels in the 1980s alone set a precedent for cynical Hollywood moneymaking, but the reality is that the films simply continued to deliver what niche horror audiences of the time wanted from the genre: Sex, misanthropic humor and increasingly cartoonish violence. More than any of the other major slasher franchises, the Friday the 13th sequels preserve the core of the series unchanged, no doubt because there’s so little nuance to that core to begin with. The films are incredibly simple by default: People return to the lake yet again for one reason or another, and Jason kills them. That was literally all Friday the 13th needed for its first seven entries, before the poorly regarded eighth installment sent Jason on the slow boat to New York City.
How does one reconcile that sort of straightforward approach with the four full seasons of TV that Fuller recently stated he has planned? Where does one even begin telling the story? With Pamela Voorhees as a well-intentioned camp mom, raising a developmentally disabled son who has a hard time interacting with others? Would they even dare to depict Jason as the sort of malformed mutant kid he appears to already be in the flashbacks of the original 1980 Friday the 13th? What reason would Pamela have to be murdering people before Jason’s fateful swim? Do we spend an entire season in the build-up to Jason’s drowning? What compelling TV that would surely make.
I just can’t wait for Pamela’s May-December romance with the camp owner.
The adult depiction of Jason we’re all so familiar with, meanwhile, can’t help but sabotage any attempt to impart sympathy or pathos on the character if he’s depicted as a child or younger man. The “turn him into an antihero” trick that works fairly well for SyFy’s Chucky series isn’t an option here, not when every version of Jason ever depicted confirms his archetype as a mindless engine of destruction, and not when this is a prequel meant to be leading into the events of the Friday the 13th film series. Don’t ask the audience to buy that Jason Voorhees was turned into a monster by something like an abusive home life, like an ill-advised riff on Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Never in the course of 12 movies to date has this character ever expressed even a hint of humanity, as one might see in the likes of Michael Myers. Any attempt to imbue a soul into Jason Voorhees is thus going to ring as false. So how do you dance around depicting him on screen on a weekly basis?
Because make no mistake, when the Jason Voorhees that fans of the series know and love goes on one of his characteristic rampages, you can’t exactly stuff that genie back in the bottle. Michael Myers or Chucky, you might depict as hiding or eluding police, or vanishing back into the night to reappear at a later date. But Jason? He marches his ass straight toward whatever challenge is put in his path. He’s an indestructible juggernaut, completely lacking in complex motivators other than “see thing, kill thing.” He doesn’t even have any sense of self preservation. Jason Voorhees is a force of nature—a kaiju monster, in the rough outline of a man. And you can’t keep that kind of rampage going for entire episodes or seasons of television at a time—just how many people would an adult Jason Voorhees be murdering per episode of your show? And if the focus is on teenage protagonists, surely they’d be intent on either killing Jason or escaping from this godforsaken lake as soon as the threat is understood. What’s the alternative, an entire season of teen detectives hunting for the masked killer’s secret identity?
Try as I might, I can’t conceive of a way to make it all make sense—Crystal Lake just feels like it can’t help but come off as the unholy fusion of TV melodrama and legacy sequel pandering. I can’t will myself to get excited about Bryan Fuller’s involvement, or that of original writer Victor Miller. I don’t want to know what episode writer Kevin Williamson (of Scream fame) feels like bringing to the table, or how they’ll be shoehorning in the appearances of actress Adrienne King, 43 years after she played final girl Alice in the original Friday the 13th. I can’t summon the enthusiasm for any of it, when it’s in service of bringing Pamela and Jason Voorhees … to a Peacock Original. Sometimes a venue just doesn’t make any damn sense.
This all might beg the question of what fans of the Friday the 13th series would prefer to see instead. And although the answer isn’t particularly inventive or imaginative, the truth is that the people most ardent about Friday the 13th or Jason Voorhees primarily just want to see more of what they already know and love. Which is to say: New movies featuring Jason Voorhees butchering young people. No one is crying out to understand the tragic seeds of Jason’s path toward donning the iconic hockey mask. Nothing is gained by attempting to insert nuance where there is none. We should allow simple pleasures to remain simple, rather than burden them with artificially generated significance. Sometimes a machete is just a machete.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.