The Tommy Jarvis “trilogy” of Friday the 13th movies is among the franchise’s most popular. When looking at The Final Chapter, A New Beginning, and Jason Lives, it’s clear that we’re talking about three very different slasher movies—each with its own style.
They utilize the Tommy Jarvis protagonist in three very different ways, and there isn’t a massive character arc that strings them together, but they lend an air of continuity to a series that rarely bothered to have any.
Why does Tommy remain a consistent fan favorite? Examining the popular decisions of other franchises may help bring the issue into focus.
Surely we can agree that Dr. Loomis lends weight to the Halloween series as the boogeyman’s foil. He’s what every villain’s nemesis should be: resourceful, determined, and flawed. It’s this combination that I would argue makes him an enduring character. It’s never easy going after ”evil on two legs”, and yet he remains undeterred—despite numerous failures throughout the series. Loomis fails upward while trying to do the right thing, and it only adds to the history between Michael and him. As we reach the later films in the series, where Loomis has descended into full-on Captain Ahab mode, it feels like a logical progression after everything we’ve seen.
Conversely, most Nightmare on Elm Street fans agree that bringing Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) back into the fray was a wise decision for Dream Warriors after Freddy’s Revenge explored some drastically different avenues. Nancy will forever be remembered as one of the genre’s greatest heroines for her ability to beat Fred Krueger at his own game. And while she might’ve been unceremoniously killed off in the third film as a means of giving its titular heroes a trial by fire, it was nice to see her evolve and progress as a direct result of the events of the first Nightmare.
To be clear, Friday the 13th has never had a problem with likable final girls. Ask five Jason fans which is their favorite, and it’s entirely possible you’ll get five different answers (for the record, I’m team Melanie Kinnaman). But the series sort of refused to bring its heroines back in any meaningful way, and so we never had the benefit of watching how they evolved to deal with the Jason problem again.
But that changed with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. That’s not to suggest this was the result of meticulous planning by any means, but there was obviously enough potential within Tommy Jarvis to keep him around for a few movies. At last Friday the 13th was about to give Jason his own nemesis, and at the end of the trilogy we’ve got a character with a pretty interesting through-line. No one would ever accuse these films of offering rich character arcs, but Tommy is painted with enough broad strokes to make his arc across all three movies worthy of revisit.
It’s really hard to dislike him in The Final Chapter. He’s a young kid with an affinity for monster masks and video games, not above peeping on the beautiful women parading around in the nude next door, either. In short, he’s us: any young kid who watched these movies before they were old enough. He’s also the only one in his family with an excuse for not knowing that there have been brutal murders occurring on the lake where they live all weekend. Corey Feldman is great in this, and he probably has a lot to do with audiences getting in on the ground floor of the Tommy Jarvis movement. After all, he’s earnest and likable when a lot of kids in horror tend to be whiney and annoying. What’s great about The Final Chapter is that it’s unafraid to put him through some pretty terrifying paces as well. When I first saw this movie, I was much younger than Tommy is in the film, and I was constantly terrified of Jason smashing through my window to take me.
Tommy also figures out how to get at Jason’s psyche, dolling out the most uncompromising besting we’ve ever seen the big guy take. Not only do we like the kid, but the determination with which he protects his older sister is sort of touching.
For all the flak A New Beginning takes, give it credit for showing the emotional fallout of The Final Chapter—no matter how superficial it may be. One of the most hotly contested aspects is Tommy’s age jump. We don’t know how much time has passed between movies, but the casting of then 25-year-old John Shepard in a role previously played by then 14-year-old Corey Feldman certainly implies a considerable leap forward. I always thought that in A New Beginning he was supposed to be around 18-20 as I think it works best for the movie. It presents a long-suffering Tommy this way, whose torment shows no signs of receding.
This is the lowest point for him. He’s antisocial and prone to violent outbursts, and it’s perhaps unclear why he’s been deemed fit for a halfway house with a fuse that short (then again, precious few of the Pinehurst inhabitants are). Still, it’s a natural progression from the last movie, and the filmmakers were really smart to add the somewhat trivial “whodunit” element, since virtually everyone was certain that Tommy would be donning the hockey mask for all future installments. I distinctly recall my brother coming home from seeing The Final Chapter on opening weekend and telling me that “the little kid is going to be taking over for Jason in the next one.” And he was hardly alone in that sentiment; even New York Times critic Janet Maslin suspected as much in her menial review.
Again Tommy endures some traumatic stuff, and again we’re left wondering if he won’t really be hacking and slashing his way through the next installment. A New Beginning really wants to fan those speculative flames, doesn’t it? But after the emotionally despondent Tommy of A New Beginning, there’s really nowhere to go but up, right?
Writer/director Tom McLoughlin certainly seemed to think so, working off the mandate that the “real” Jason Voorhees had to be resurrected for this and all future sequels (the fans apparently didn’t like seeing a hockey mask with BLUE chevrons, regardless of the gigantic body count it delivered). McLoughlin isn’t interested in the temperamental psychology of Tommy Jarvis, propelling him instead into the role of intrepid hero. Yes, this is still a character haunted by his past (it’s what motivates him to seek out and destroy Jason once and for all), but he’s become Friday the 13th’s Abraham Van Helsing in the entry that so clearly owes a lot to the era of Hammer horror that inspired its director. Newfound heroism is perfectly suited to the character, and Thom Mathews wears it well. He’s determined to put a stop to Jason’s seemingly endless reign of terror, while failing upward in ways that would make Dr. Loomis proud. Sure he sparks Jason’s latest killing spree, but he also manages to get the sucker back to his rightful resting place, while saving the sheriff’s lovely daughter in the process.
Jason Lives is still a slasher film about a group of ill-fated camp counselors, but the added dimension of a dashing hero grows the series in an interesting direction. This is the audience’s third go ‘round with Tommy, and we’ve followed his journey from good-natured child to full-fledged hero. It’s pretty difficult not to side with him after all he’s been through, and we’re actually glad that he turned out pretty well (because it was looking dicey there for a while).
It’s a shame that Tommy was cast aside just as he had moved comfortably into the franchise’s “protector” role. The guy could spout doomsday gospel, follow Jason’s trail, and run afoul of all sorts of authorities who would rather forget the whole thing rather than lift a finger to help. Instead of Tommy, the The New Blood gave us Tina Shepard’s telekinesis, and while I quite liked Lar Park Lincoln in the role, I never had the emotional bond with her that I did with Tommy. After all, she was a one and done, and I spent the next few Fridays hoping they might wise up and bring him back. Especially when Jason went to hell.
But to this day, Friday the 13th never has brought him back, and that’s a tragedy. Paramount is readying the most dismal-sounding Friday the 13th yet for 2015, a found footage remake that tells me I probably don’t have to spend the next year and a half hoping that it’ll be any good. But the real shame of this is that we’re living in a time when audiences have almost come to expect more complicated mythologies. Hell, everything is about “shared universes” these days, not just comic book movies. Universal would like to pull this off with modern reinventions of their classic monsters, while The Terminator reboot aims to share its story between a new film series and a television show.
There has never been a better time to open up Friday the 13th a little more, and so it saddens me to hear that Paramount is taking the cheapest possible route for the series’ immediate future. I’m not saying that these movies should be big, epic stories, but there’s a great character like Tommy gathering dust on the bench, just begging to have some playtime. Nobody makes a Dracula without an iteration of Van Helsing, and even Rob Zombie insisted upon butchering the character of Dr. Loomis with his own Halloween bastardizations. Jason had a nemesis too, once upon a time. And we very much liked him.
Can we have him back?
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