Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles.
The canonical birthday for Jason Voorhees is June 13, 1946, but that wasn’t always the case. Betsy Palmer, who played mother Pamela Voorhees in the original Friday the 13th, created her own backstory where her son Jason was born in 1944. But we wouldn’t have any sort of official answer to his birth year until the ninth film in the series, Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. It only feels fitting that this birth date would be minted in an installment where Jason is played by Kane Hodder, because for all intents and purposes, Hodder is Jason Voorhees.
Since appearing in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, Hodder has been the only actor to have played the iconic slasher multiple times, including in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason X. For many fans, this fact alone is enough to solidify him as the end-all and be-all for the character, but what exactly is it about Hodder’s performance that makes his Jason so compelling to watch?
To fully appreciate his take on the killer, you have to look at how Jason was performed in the previous six films. He was played by competent stuntmen, but they made him merely a menacing presence as you’d expect in any general, run-of-the-mill slasher. They each had their own power, in their own way, but ultimately their interpretations were devoid of any personality, either emotionally or physically. Jason was just a stiff, lumbering killing machine, like the shark from Jaws on two legs.
You can see how stiff he was performed in the opening moments of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. When he’s brought back to life, his torso from hips to head moves in one unnaturally rigid motion like a macabre Ken doll. It reads as a stunt person hitting their mark, rather than a character being motivated to look at something in a scene. By not approaching Jason intellectually, you confine the role to serving as a prop, a means to an end for some blood and guts, rather than a fully realized character.
But Hodder changed all of that by quite literally breathing life into his Jason. As he says in the documentary on his life, To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story:
“I thought when Jason is staring at someone, and not moving, he looks like a mannequin. So what can I do to still do that same stare, but add life to the character? I came up with the breathing thing. To me, that made it look like the character was about to spring any moment; even though he’s motionless, staring at you, the heaving chest looks scary as hell!”
Rather than breathing normally, Hodder made Jason’s upper body move with each breath, keeping the character activated and giving him a sense of urgency and danger, even when completely still. This was a kind of energy we hadn’t seen in Jason Voorhees before, and it informed everything Hodder did with the character, especially in the way he moved the rest of his body.
Theatre practitioner Étienne Decroux, developer of Corporeal Mime, felt that the emotional language of a character could be motivated from individual movements of the body. For instance, if your character walked with their chest forward, it would speak to their compassion as the movement comes from an area symbolic of the heart. If you wanted to highlight your character’s sexual desires, for obvious reasons you’d initiate your movement from the pelvis.
In The New Blood, when Jason emerges from Crystal Lake – Hodder’s first appearance in-character – you notice his neck is pushed forward, and he’s physically leading the rest of his body with his head. Decroux would argue that this signifies an intellectual motivation for his character. As his head leads, his eyes stare at the cabins before him, and together we get a sense of intelligent recognition and understanding. It’s as if, for the first time ever, we see the character realize he has a purpose. Once he sees Camp Crystal Lake, he instantly understands that he has come back to life to slaughter a bunch of twenty-somethings.
You never really saw other Jasons be so self-aware of their surroundings like this before. Hodder, on the other hand, allows this revelation to propel his character not only through the rest of The New Blood, but in every appearance he makes. His Jason is always looking around, surveying his periphery, and staying on guard. It even made his version more agile. When doing one of the series’ famous “window jumping” scenes, rather than leaping head first, Hodder jumps through like a soldier landing surefooted on a battlefield. That’s what Jason is in the hands of Kane Hodder, a kind of supernatural undead soldier waging a war in the name of his mother.
Kane Hodder mentions in To Hell and Back that he preferred to never take off the Jason mask when he was on set. I’m sure this was because it was difficult to reapply his prosthetics, but also because he wanted to stay in character through the shoot. He may not be Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, but what he describes here is still the purest form of method acting. As we know with actors like Heath Ledger, method acting doesn’t mean being difficult on set, it means having a dedication to your character that goes above and beyond what’s expected. And I can’t think of anyone more dedicated to a character than Kane Hodder is to Jason Voorhees.
“When I put that stuff on and went to the set, it felt so natural,” Hodder said about his first experience being behind the famed hockey mask. That’s an extremely relatable moment for every serious actor. You can rehearse for weeks, but when the time comes for you to finally be in costume, and you can look in the mirror and physically see yourself as the character, it’s transformative. This is especially true when you are playing someone who communicates strictly with their body as Jason Voorhees does.
Kane Hodder gave his silent slasher personality and purpose, putting intention and motivation behind every movement he made. He gave Jason intelligence because he approached him intelligently. Hodder may have been best known as a stunt man before Friday the 13th, but after becoming Jason, he was a full-fledged actor.