It's Friday the 13th, and yet once again we've failed to get a new entry in the infamous horror franchise. In fact, it's been 18 Friday 13ths since a new Jason Vorhees adventure released, 2009's Michael Bay remake. This is the longest gap between movies in the franchise since it started in 1981 with Sean Cunningham's low-budget, well-marketed Friday the 13th (the previous biggest gap was the eight years between Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday in 1993 and Jason X in 2001).
In the near decade since the Platinum Dunes re-imagining (which despite its mixed reputation had some genuine moments of innovation, including a protracted pre-title prologue that's one of the longest of its kind), there have been multiple attempts to bring Jason back to life. First, a direct sequel to the remake, then a found footage slant, and various other scripts were all worked on. Most recently a reboot that would incorporate Jason's long-absentee father into the mix was in pre-production and only canceled when fellow horror restart Rings crashed at the box office.
That so many failed attempts have been made, though, is the more surprising side of this story. Friday the 13th isn't Star Wars or Batman, properties with billion-dollar projections that need to be treated with care for expectations and branding. It is a cheap, trashy slasher franchise; a grimier, more rudimentary counterpart to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween (which is not necessarily a criticism). The entire subgenre exists from the realization that effective scary films could be made for cheap and make a killing from gore hounds - a similar logic that today powers Blumhouse - which often meant movies were made to tight deadlines at a major detriment to quality yet ensured they still released.
To balk because of Rings, in particular, is a sign of the studio vastly overthinking what Friday the 13th is. The average cost of a Friday the 13th movie from the early era was in the $2 million range, a mere $5 million adjusting for inflation. The bar for profit (and expectation) was low. However, the 2009 movie cost $19 million, and it's easy to believe the approach was similar for the many planned follow-ups. This pushes required profit from the $10-20 million range to the $40-50 million: a major step up considering Rings' underperformance, yet one that incorrectly lumps Friday in with a different crowd.
You need only look to, yes, Blumhouse for how it can be done right. Halloween is on the brink of a franchise-redefining reboot that continues the story of the original film, bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis and original Michael Myers Nick Castle. The story involves an older Laurie anticipating Michael's (who is now not her brother) return, and based on the trailer looks to be aiming for the same classic horror action that made the series' name. Fans David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are calling the shots, with a budget of around $10 million to play with. As with last year's IT, there's a lot of moves to make this look like a labor of love to win over fans (contrast to Paramount's ever-cynical approach of chasing the current horror flavor), but crucially it's got a rational budget that ignores branding escalation and reduces risk. Above all, here there's a real sense of doing over thinking.
And there is no need to overthink Friday the 13th. There's a real wealth of directions to go, and the video game proves a fandom eager for that exploration. Friday the 13th may not have gone quite as crazy as some of its contemporaries (although Jason Goes To Hell's Deadite twist gives Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers' incest cult a run for its money), but the variety within the series is extreme: Jason famously wasn't the killer until the second movie and didn't gain his mask until the third, yet beyond that so many of the franchise's intrinsic elements have grown and twisted over time. Does he run or stalk? Is he vengeful brute or a powered force of nature? Is Tommy Jarvis his ultimate foe or a bit of a punk? Jason's all and none. You can do a straight reimagining (like the 2009 version), continue the story (as all movies up to Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan did, albeit loosely), or deliver the long-held fan wish of a survivor team-up, or take the series' constituent elements to a smelting pot and create a meta twist. Some of that's rudimentary, some of its fan service, but it's all easy enough if you get rid of the overthinking. All you really need is Camp Crystal Lake, Jason, and teens.
And if it comes down to marketing and perception, this movie's in a unique situation too. It's the thirteenth Friday the 13th. That's one hell of a hook, even if the previous twelve are a muddle, and the title writes itself: Friday 13, Friday the 13th: Part 13 (the one the producers almost went with), or any other variant of the date. That the simple route has been so repeatedly ignored, and the potential here missed is galling.
Of course, a major part of the issue is the constantly shifting rights. Originally a Paramount property the studio guiltily released every other year, it was sold to "The House That Freddy Built" New Line in the early 1990s, then the property reverted back again in 2013 as part of a joint-distribution deal with Interstellar. The problems come in how those rights were divvied up: Parmount retained the rights to the first Friday movie, meaning anything pertaining to that wasn't part of the initial deal. This is why New Line's movies never used the phrase "Friday the 13th" in their titles, led to the 2009 reboot being a co-production, and today creates a block on making the movies; original screenwriter Victor Miller has recently claimed he owns the rights to the IP. But that's added complications to already jagged productions, and are proving so static in part because of the lack of development.
Paramount don't care for making more Friday the 13th; they never really did at the time, finding them embarrassing yet financially useful, and now times are tougher don't really understand the property they have. When (or if) a new entry releases, it will only happen because they actually looked back over the series' four-decade history and realize they spent ten of it aggressively overcomplicating matters.