If you believe in serendipity, you can do whatever you want. For Ari Lehman, playing the original Jason Vorhees in the first Friday The 13th movie has enabled him to cut his way – so to speak – across the cultural scene as an actor and musician for more than 30 years.
Lehman played the machete-slinging killer as a young boy in the first film – which has become one of America's longest-running franchises since its 1980 release.
He landed the role through his previous work on a comedy with director Sean Cunningham – whose offices happened to be in Westport, Connecticut, where Lehman had grown up.
However, when he first got the script, “the little boy in the lake just drowned – there was no scene of Jason Vorhees having his revenge,” said Lehman. “But Sean saw Carrie, and said, 'I want a surprise ending.' So they wrote that ending where Jason comes back out of the water, and they called me back to film again.”
Today, Lehman is paying homage to the Vorhees legacy as the keytar-wielding frontman of First Jason – whose musical weapon comes with a giant machete blade stuck on the end, with drummer Derek Macabre supplying the only other musical reinforcement.
“It's (the keytar) a blast to play,” said Lehman. “It's an analog snyth going through guitar effects, and a bass amp. It's loud as a guitar, as low as a bass, and has the range of the keyboard. There's a lot of pyrotechnics. The lyrics, though, are all Jason-focused.”
Current highlights include “Jason Never Dies,” “Jason Is Watching,” and “Machete Is My Friend,” among others. Many can be heard on Jason Is Watching (2009), and its newly-released followup, Heed My Warning, for which downloads are available on his website.
“We don't take ourselves too seriously. We do take the music seriously. We're probably the world's only heavy metal duo,” he said.
Getting back to his horror roots took time, however, because Lehman preferred the immediacy of music to the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere that often prevails on film sets.
“Even on the (Friday The 13th) set, they knew I was studying jazz piano,” recalled Lehman. “As time progressed, I just got more into being a musician. I just consciously made that choice.”
Having made that choice, Lehman moved to New York City, where he became a 'first call” keyboardist for reggae and world music artists coming to town. However, his focus changed again when he got an e-mail, asking him to confirm whether he'd autographed a photo of himself.
“I said, 'I never autographed a photo,' and the guy's like, 'I bought this photo for 50 bucks off eBay,'” said Lehman, laughing. “That began a whole other chapter, and I started going to horror conventions – I realized that there was a whole other market there.”
Plenty of ink has been devoted to explaining the appeal of slasher films, but Lehman believes that the answers are far more straightforward than most critics realize.
First, “it gives people the chance to go through this terrifying thrill from the safety of their La-Z-Boy,” he said. “That was already there in horror, but the slasher films definitely stepped it up.”
The other reason, from Lehman's perspective, is the fan support that he observes at the rock clubs, haunted houses and horror conventions where he's taken the First Jason concept.
“They're so dedicated – it's really become a lifestyle for people,” said Lehman. “First Jason has really benefited from people's open-mindedness on that scene. We've taken time to develop our sound, and they've been very giving during that time period. I think now, we really do have our own sound – and we get out there, and kick some butt, as Jason Vorhees would do.”