Ask most people and they'll know just who Jason Voorhees is. The name conjures up clear imagery of a hockey mask wearing, machete wielding maniac stalking teens at a summer camp. The details might not matter much, I doubt half as many people know that Jason stalked teens at Camp Crystal Lake, for example, or that his mother was the killer in the original, or that he didn't even don the iconic hockey mask until Part III, but almost everyone knows Jason.
He's as recognisable, and as memorable, as any character you can think of. Arguably more so, since several different actors have played Jason and pretty much no one noticed. It's not unusual for people to have a least favourite Bond, or to even dislike or refuse to watch the Bond movies that star a certain one, but with Jason most people would be hard pressed to even recognise when the actor has actually shifted.
And Jason doesn't stand alone in this way, either. Michael Myers, the killer who first appeared in John Carpenter's Halloween, has a similar sort of pull, and much like Jason he doesn't even appear in one of the franchises' entries (at least, not in the flesh).
Unlike Freddy Kruger, the antagonist of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street series, there's something about the Jason's, Michael's and Leatherface that transcend a performance, the iconography itself becoming more important, and the character somehow spilling over into the consciousness. A Kruger without Robert Englund, much like a Pin-Head without Doug Bradley, or a Frankenstein's Monster without Boris Karloff, doesn't seem to work quite as well. The actors themselves are entwined with the character and with its success.
Not the case for the others though. One could argue that it is because their faces are covered, all of my examples above are mask-wearing killers, after all, but these characters aren't the only ones to somehow have a life beyond a simple character.
Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, and yet the character continues to live on in countless different forms and guises. The performances of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman are all recognised as iconic in their own way, and while they each bring something drastically different to the character, the character itself somehow remains unchanged and instantly recognisable. And unlike The Wolf-Man or The Mummy or The Invisible Man, since each of those icons have literally been different characters at one point or another, the character of Dracula, or of Jason, or of Leatherface and Michael, remains the same.
Just what is it about these characters that make them so special and so versatile?
It might seem strange to consider, but all of them have clearly defined traits that remain consistent throughout. Dracula we all know as a vampire, but he is also a romantic, and, for lack of a better term, a smooth-talker. Jason, meanwhile, remains a mummy's boy, and often times, as presented through the films, actually has a far more human edge than one might expect - a lost child outcast from society. Michael Myers, meanwhile, is the human incarnation of pure evil, almost hollow and unflinching as a killer, while Leatherface has a strange unassuredness to him that shines through in several of the Texas Chain Saw movies.
And perhaps here is the key. While Freddy is recognisable as a character, so much of the character is recognisable as delivery. Robert Englund is Freddy and Freddy is Robert Englund. He helped craft the character, and helped build it, and he played it consistently and without change. Sure, the movies get sillier and sillier, but Freddy remains more or less the same throughout; a wise-cracking, malicious monster who takes pleasure in torturing and killing his victims.
And in doing so, while Englund created one of the most iconic and beloved movie characters of all-time, he also interwove himself into it. Much the same can be sad of Karloff and of Pin-Head. So instrumental in the development, the delivery and the presentation of the character were those actors, that they became, in many ways, inseparable from them. Forever linked.
Meanwhile our Jason's and our Michaels and our Dracula's arrived formed but incomplete, with each new version of the character adding and evolving the mythos until we find them today, somehow more than the movies they inhabit,
Anyway, this is something I was thinking about recently while preparing for a great re-watch of the Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street series. I wonder if there are any other characters that this might be the case with, or do you disagree entirely? I don't care either way, I just had to fill the blog up with something this week, and this is what I had.