The most horrifying death in all of the FRIDAY THE 13th franchise barely even takes place on screen…and no, it’s not kid Jason.
Like any self-respecting horror fan who grew up with a VCR and cable in the 1980s, I’ve seen every FRIDAY movie at least a dozen times each. They’re horror comfort food, demanding little of the viewer but delivering so many of the things we want out of a slasher movie. They’re low risk, high reward…for the most part. Every once in a while Jason boards a cruise ship and we have to work for it a little harder.
One of the things that makes these movies so rewatchable is that they’re so light and entertaining, despite the fact that they exist primarily to show sexed up teenagers eviscerated in creative fashion. Death has little meaning in the FRIDAY films. It exists as the punchline of a joke told again and again, or like song and dance numbers in a musical. It’s the fun of the films. It’s why we buy our ticket.
But there’s one death scene in 1984’s FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER – for my money, still the best entry in the series (with apologies to the JASON LIVES fans) – that isn’t fun or enjoyable at all. It’s actually the most truly horrifying moment over the course of 10 movies, one crossover and a remake: it’s the scene in which Rob Dier (Erich Anderson), in a moment of self-sacrifice so that final girl Trish can escape, is attacked and killed by Jason more or less offscreen. It is maybe the only kill in the entire franchise in which both life and death have real meaning. It is the only kill with the power to truly horrify.
A little background: the character of Rob is one of the few acknowledgements of continuity in the FRIDAY series – references to Jason Voorhees, his mother or previous slaughters at Camp Crystal Lake notwithstanding. He has come to Crystal Lake to avenge the death of his sister Sandra, who we saw killed in FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2 (she’s the girl who gets speared during sex with her boyfriend in a direct lift of the same scene in Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD).
This is one of the few instances in the franchise in which a death – usually forgotten by the next scene, or at least until the Final Girl discovers all the bodies in the last act – actually ripples through other movies and has a direct impact on the life of an outside character. The choice by screenwriter Barney Cohen to make Rob the relative of a previous victim gives weight to deaths that were previously weightless. We suddenly understand that lives are destroyed and families are torn apart by the carnage we have formerly cheered on screen. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so fun.
But things get worse from there, specifically in the scene in which Jason finally kills Rob. For starters, Rob more or less sacrifices himself so that Trish can get away, which functions both as the moment in which Ahab jumps full bore into the mouth of his Great White Whale and as further confirmation of the idea that in THE FINAL CHAPTER, life has value. Rob doesn’t know if he’s going to win his fight against Jason (spoilers: HE DOES NOT), but damn if he’s going to try so that another character might live. Director Joseph Zito does not show exactly what happens to Rob on camera, which only serves to make it more horrifying: after three and a half movies’ worth of gory, splattery death, our brains fill in the blanks with something so awful that the filmmakers must have shied away from showing it.
The most horrifying aspect of this scene – and what really makes this the most horrifying death in all of the FRIDAY films – is the way that Rob screams as Jason attacks. Most of the masked killer’s past victims are barely able to let out a gasp of surprise before being offed, but sure, past victims have managed a scream of terror from time to time. Rob’s screams are different. As Jason hacks away, Rob screams out “Oh God, he’s killing me! He’s killing me!” It is positively chilling, because here we finally have a character who understands exactly what is happening to him as it happens. This is no “Surprise! You’re dead!” moment. This is a long, protracted and brutal death made so much more awful by the victim’s self-awareness. Rob’s death isn’t just the same gory punchline as every other character’s in the FRIDAY-verse. His death means something. It shakes us.
If you want further proof of just how effectively Joseph Zito stages this moment, look no further than the 2009 FRIDAY THE 13th remake by Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel. The remake basically recasts the Rob character with SUPERNATURAL star Jared Padalecki, playing a guy who is searching for his missing sister. But because the remake is bent on keeping the same sense of late-night fun most of the original movies had, it loses the gravitas and humanity afforded THE FINAL CHAPTER in just that one scene. It turns the Rob proxy into the de facto hero and never really has the courage to put his sister in danger. It takes the single most horrifying moment in the series and returns it to the status quo: Jason is a rock star and death is entertainment.
There is nothing entertaining about the murder of Rob Dier. It is scary and it is sad, and for just a moment reminds us of our own fleeting mortality. All due credit to Joseph Zito and Erich Anderson for having the guts to go there, but it’s no wonder the franchise only did it once. No one wants to be reminded of how scary real death is during a bunch of movies that have so much fun with it.