If you think about it in terms of a screen-time-to-audience-impact ratio, Ari Lehman is one of the greatest film actors of all time. If you don’t count his first role, in “a movie about orphans playing soccer,” you’re left with all of two seconds of acting–but millions have seen those two seconds, and none of them can forget it. Lehman is the last thing you see in the original Friday the 13th, as the algae-and-rot-mottled Jason flinging himself out of Crystal Lake at the last surviving camper. It’s still one of the most genuinely scary moments in horror history.
“People tell me, ‘I remember the moment when you first jumped out of the water.’ It’s like the Apollo landing,” says Lehman. Effects man Tom Savini “used to pay sometimes to go into the theaters during the last five minutes and watch backwards to see the reaction of people.” If you’ve ever watched Friday the 13th in a theater, you know what Savini usually saw: a few dozen people simultaneously jumping out of their seats high enough for them to start folding up.
Lehman basically lucked into the part. He says he sneaked into the audition for the soccer movie–Manny’s Orphans, also directed by Sean Cunningham–and that he got cast as Jason in Friday the 13th partly because Cunningham’s wife objected to seeing their son in the unseemly role. He quit the biz just as easily. After Friday the 13th he dedicated himself to studying and playing music, and in 2002 he moved to Chicago from New York City to further his career. “Nine-eleven punched a hole in the music scene,” he says, “especially if you’re playing Middle Eastern music,” which he was, along with backing up touring African musicians and reggae bands as a keyboardist for hire. He thought of his horror-movie past as just a bit of personal trivia until 2003, when he got an e-mail from Erik Lee Nash, who runs a horror-merch business and the Friday the 13th fan site Camp Crystal Lake Online. “He said, ‘Is this your autograph?’ I said, ‘No. Who’d want my autograph?'” It was a fake for sale on eBay, where it was going for $65.
Within months Nash had persuaded Lehman that he should hit the convention circuit, signing glossies next to aliens and cyborgs and other horror pinups–even other Jasons. Except for the occasional appearance fee, he gets paid one autograph at a time–photos run $20 a pop, and he might sign a couple hundred at a weekend-long con. And of course there are other perks, like the free hotel room and the occasional surreal after-party. At one gig, Lehman says, “after eating dinner with Jaws from the James Bond series, we were playing the piano and having some drinks with two orcs, two Jedi knights, the kid from Lassie, the soup Nazi from Seinfeld, Darth Maul, and the guy who played the uruk-hai.” When the party got too “exuberant” for the hotel bar they took it out into the parking lot, where the Lord of the Rings vets shared stage-fighting tips. “The guy who played Sauron got me in kind of a headlock. The soup Nazi was laughing the whole time.”
Lehman, now 40, doesn’t look like the mass-murderer type. He’s smallish and he has long, curly hair and a handlebar mustache, which give his promotional photos a Vlad/Drac vibe but in real life come off as a little goofy. Plus he says “Dude, no way” a lot. He’s been fronting a Jewish-themed reggae group called the Ari Ben Moses Band since he’s been in Chicago, and when he started doing conventions he’d take his CDs to sell, which made him seem even more harmless. “They were digging my record, but I sensed this apprehension,” he says. “I thought, Why don’t we just do a Jason-related band?”
Now fans in line for Lehman’s autograph can also buy the debut CD by Lehman’s horror-metal project, FirstJason. With Ari Ben Moses Band drummer Fernando Medina, Mike Dangeroux on guitar, and bassist Jason Sneed, who joined after approaching Lehman at the Chicago Horror Film Festival, he’s making what he sees as the musical equivalent of a hockey-masked stalker. On the horror-metal scale, it’s far below the ugly brutality of Slipknot but more frightening than Rob Zombie’s solo records. On songs with titles like “You’d Better Run!” Lehman does some burly growling and dancehall toasting over metal riffs, synth stabs, and scary delay effects. “I definitely sat down and listened to some Pantera before figuring out what to do with it,” Lehman says, though the believe-in-yourself jam “Nobody Is a Nobody” betrays his hippie tendencies.
Lehman says FirstJason will be getting some national exposure in an upcoming issue of Blender (in “Weird Band Alert”), but chances for mainstream success seem slim: the group has a very specific target audience. Booking their own shows, they’ve opened for Elvira and played dusk-till-dawn movie marathons, and Lehman was even hired to tickle the ivories at a conventioneer’s wedding. “Doug Bradley, Pinhead, was the minister, and Bill Moseley, aka Chop Top [from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2], was the best man.”
And of course FirstJason plays conventions. This Sunday they’ll be at Rosemont’s Wyndham O’Hare hotel to close out Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors. Lehman says he’s planning an opera-inspired multimedia theater piece for the stage show, though it hasn’t quite come together yet. “You take a look at opera, which is full of all sorts of violence,” he says, “and that’s considered one of the highest forms of art.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.