Friday, February 27, 2009

Waiting For The Watchmen

As the release date for Watchmen sits just a week away, I just realized why my anticipation for this landmark adaptation has been just a little muted - I can't quite believe that a Watchmen film actually exists. Sure I've been following its progress with a mix of curiosity and anxiousness but it still seems unreal that Watchmen has finally been made into a feature film - much less one that looks to have such fidelity to the source material.

It's been well over a decade since I last re-read Watchmen so unless I get a chance to read it again before next week, I'm sure there'll be plenty of details Synder left out that won't even register with me as missing. And that's fine with me - although I expect if this movie is as faithful as it's reported to be, every frame will bring back a flood of memories, jarring my recollections of the book as it goes along.

I first read Watchmen in monthly installments when it was released in '86. Even though I was a high school senior then, I still think the series was just a little over my head at times - or maybe it was just such a different experience than anything else I had found in comics up to that point. Even the way it was packaged was dramatically different in which each cover was a detail from within the issue (a trophy, a Rorschach blot, etc.) and not the traditional style of comic book cover that emphasized action or character.

When I finished reading issue #12, I didn't think of the series in terms of it being a masterpiece or a classic - I just knew that I had loved the story and that it had gripped me straight through the year-plus change that it took to be released. I certainly didn't expect that nothing else in comics would ever come close to it - which is probably the saddest part of Watchmen's legacy, that it stands alone in the history of the medium. Many wonderful comics have come along since, some of them classics in their own right (everything from Sandman to Y: The Last Man to Alias to Preacher), but none of them have been the singular achievement that Watchmen is.

Even though I'm extremely excited to see the film, I agree with writer Alan Moore's unhappy assertion that Watchmen is so specific to the comic book form (thanks to such artistic choices as reserving the use of splash pages until the final issue to reveal the dramatic destruction of Manhattan) that to take it out of its home medium is taking a large part of its impact with it. On the other hand, as director Zack Synder has pointed out, mainstream movie audiences have become fluent in the tropes of superhero fiction in a way they weren't twenty years ago thanks to the popularity of superhero movies so that a Watchmen film can more readily comment on the genre in a way now that it couldn't when Watchmen the book was first released. Had this been made in the late '80s, as initially planned, with Sam Hamm writing and Terry Gilliam directing, it would've been a nightmare. There would have no confidence that audiences would be able to keep up with the material without making drastic changes to get mainstream viewers up to speed.

Speaking to Comics Interview in issue #70 about the then pending release of Batman, Sam Hamm discussed the challenges of adapting Watchmen, saying "...I couldn't see how anyone could turn it into a movie because 1) there's too much sprawl in the story, too much time shifting and flashbacks, and 2) there's too much expositional material to get across." Hamm also said of his resulting screenplay (which jettisoned the beginning of the book, its ending and the entire history of the Minutemen, keeping only the present-day characters) that "I feel like what I came in to do was essentially the writerly equivalent of what Kodak used to do, take elegant technology and dumb it down for mass consumption." I've never read Hamm's screenplay (or if I have, I've long since forgotten it) but remarks like that illuminate how much things have opened up in mainstream culture for even the most geek-centric material. To make Watchmen the way that Synder has approached it would've been an impossible sell twenty years ago - it would've been unpalatable for a wider audience - now it seems inevitable that this is the way it had to be made, if it were to be made at all.

I've only skimmed a few reviews so far and at this point I'll hold off on looking any further into other's opinions until I've seen the film for myself. Even if I walk away feeling that Synder got Watchmen 90% right, I'll consider it to be some kind of triumph. It doesn't have to be 100%. In the end it really can't be - that's what the comic is for.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Friday the 13th: The Final Blog

Judging by the historic box office plummet of the Friday the 13th reboot (just a week after it's historic box office debut), it looks like America has already moved past Jason until the inevitable next installment of his exploits. For myself, I'm still lingering around Crystal Lake for a last look. After watching the entire series again for my Crystal Lake Countdown and after all the excitement and build-up for the new movie, it's hard for me to move on from the world of Friday the 13th. Having watched the reboot a second time now, my feelings are still on par with my initial viewing. If nothing else, this feels like a real Friday the 13th film more than Jason X, Jason Goes To Hell, or Jason Takes Manhattan did and that counts as a step in the right direction to me.

Clearly plenty of people were disappointed by Platinum Dunes' take on the franchise, though, but I'm not entirely sure how PD should've brought Jason back to the screen differently. I understand the complaints about the kills not being up to the series' standards (although I don't quite agree - I thought Friday '09 was ok in that regard) and I understand how older fans might've felt burned by a film that was more interested in going after a new audience rather than respecting the original fanbase. But I continue to be dumbfounded by the criticisms that the characters weren't interesting or sympathetic, that the plot was horrible, or that the film lacked suspense. Directed towards a Friday the 13th film, I find those complaints to be laughable. They're all totally true, of course, but they've been true of all the Fridays (save for arguably the first two) so how is it suddenly cause for concern? Reviewing 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter for Cinefantastique (Vol. 14, No. 4), CFQ critic Steve Dimeo wrote "this installment, like the others, wouldn't be caught dead probing anything as meaningful as character in its story of six sex-starved teens who visit Crystal Lake."

Dimeo's dismissive review of twenty-five years ago might just as well be directed towards the new Friday with comments like "this...installment assaults the senses as it's supposed to - but it ultimately just insults the viewer's sensibilities. Quite frankly, today's teenagers deserve better." That was true in 1984 and it's true today. But these films have always needed to be graded on a curve. Should the new film have striven to improve on the previous installments? Well, I guess so. But I think expecting that of the twelfth Friday the 13th is bound to lead to disappointment. Although to be honest, I do think that's what Platinum Dunes was trying to do in some respects in regards to keeping Jason more grounded in reality and in giving Jared Padalecki's character a more altruistic reason to be at Crystal Lake other than just getting stoned and laid.

Should Friday '09 have modeled itself after the original film more? Maybe. But in the minds of most people, that first film isn't what Friday the 13th is about anymore. It's not just that people expect to see Jason in action rather than his mother, it's that they expect a much rowdier film than the original. Even by the time Part 2 was made back in '81 it was already impossible to make another Friday paced like the first film was (already they were including more characters, more potential victims) and the series has only gotten farther away from the slow burn of Cunningham's original since then so I can't fault Platinum Dunes too much for taking the approach they did.

One problem with rebooting the franchise is that the legend of Jason makes no sense but yet that's what anyone who wants to make a Friday the 13th film is stuck with. In the old movies, it was all just glossed over and no one gave it much thought but Jason's story needs a little work. You have to have the tragedy of his drowning so that his mother develops a vendetta against the teens of Crystal Lake. But yet is Jason supposed to be at the bottom of the lake all this time? Or is he supposed to have survived his drowning and been living in the woods? I'm guessing the later is what we're supposed to believe but wouldn't his mother have found Jason during this time? If his body wasn't recovered in the lake, a search of the surrounding woods would've been in order - especially with a mother as devoted as Mrs. Voorhees.

My thought would've been to have Jason drown, but no body be found. Have Mrs. Voorhees raise a riot with the camp owners and town officials about the negligence of the counselors but the matter is brushed aside. After all, what's the life of a mongoloid compared to that of the promising futures of clean cut, All-American kids? And why's a kid with a giant head trying to swim anyhow? The lack of any concern for Jason or his memory causes Mrs. Voorhees to lose it. She kills the kids responsible and is apprehended and put in a mental institution before any further harm is done. During that time, "Camp Blood" is shut down and stories circulate about the story of Jason, how his body was never recovered from the lake and that some say he still survives in the woods, waiting for his mother to find him. Years later, as the camp is due to be reopened, Mrs. Voorhees escapes, makes her way back to Crystal Lake and slaughters as many counselors as she can before one chops her head off (perhaps the last counselor gets that famous killing blow in because Mrs. Voorhees is distracted by the unexpected sight of Jason silently emerging from the woods). Jason sees his mother's death and that night his mission of vengeance is born.

Maybe that would've worked or maybe it would've sucked ass but fans can speculate endlessly about what they would do if someone handed them the keys to the franchise. For good or bad, it's never the fans who call the shots. The best you can hope for with these movies is that they come within shouting distance of your expectations and give fans a modicum of respect. I felt the new film dropped the ball in some ways (among other things, I wish that the series would bring the camp counselor angle back - how long has it been since a Friday has actually been about Camp Crystal Lake?) and succeeded in others (Jason is a movie monster to be reckoned with again, rather than just a relic from the '80s).

One thing's for certain - Jason will be back before long. If this latest entry was a disappointment to some, it's far from the first time that's been the case. But as I've found from revisiting the series, even the Fridays that were once met with derision have their own appeal and their own admirers.

Maybe time does heal all wounds - even when they're inflicted with a machete.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Premio Dardo Awards

I'm late in addressing this but I wanted to give a wholehearted thanks to my pals at Kindertrauma for picking my modest blogspot as deserving of a Premio Dardo Award. As I understand it, this online accolade is meant to spotlight blogs that are considered exemplary (or perhaps simply non-sucky) and as Kindertrauma itself is as exemplary and non-sucky as they come, I'm gratified by their support.

As part of the conditions of receiving a Premio Dardo Award, one is supposed to in turn nominate five blogspots they feel deserve the same attention. Unfortunately, on my 'to do' list is to find more time to explore the blogosphere at large. I remain woefully ignorant of the many fine blogs out there and the few that I have found are already recipients (probably several times over) of Dardos. That said, here's four blogs I frequent enough to mention, plus one that seems to have stopped posting but is well worth visiting.

In no particular order:

Best known to many as a celebrated Swamp Thing artist along with John Totleben during much of writer Alan Moore's tenure on the title, Bissette is peerless when it comes to film criticism and his vast knowledge of horror, sci-fi and cult cinema is guaranteed to make even the most hardcore fan feel like they've only scratched the surface of what's out there. There's much more to his blog than movies, though, so check it out.

I keep forgetting to add this excellent blog from Marty McKee, moderator at Mobius Home Video Forum, to my Side Menu so I'll take this as the occasion to finally do so. McKee's opinions on films are informative and unpretentious and that kind of straight shooting style is always welcome with me.

True to its title, many a mad movie is discussed here by exploitation enthusiasts The Vicar of VHS and The Duke of DVD.

Self-described as offering "reviews and commentary on the horror genre with an emphasis on slasher films", the folks at Evil On Two Legs write about the kind of stuff I like and they do it well.

I guess this blogspot is on permanent hiatus seeing as it hasn't been updated since November of last year but I hope it gets going again as a site that promises "uncynical opinions on film and media" and delivers on that is something worth keeping around. Loved Jeff Kuykendall's thoughtful review of the last X-Files movie.

Thanks again to Kindertrauma for the generous props!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Friday the 13th (2009)

I've been waiting a long time to see Jason go on a proper rampage again and thankfully, the new reboot of Friday the 13th courtesy of Platinum Dunes and director Marcus Nispel did not disappoint. By the time the title Friday the 13th came on screen after a lengthy opening and an already robust body count, I felt satisfied that I had seen everything I had come to see - the rest of the film after that was just gravy. Call me a satisfied customer.

Of course, because this is a remake there's inevitably been a few gripes over the internet concerning the inherent wrongness of this film and the many ways in which it's ruined lives. Reading some of the online criticism, I wish that these complaints were meant to be tongue-in-cheek but clearly some people are upset. Maybe if these people were more familiar with the Friday the 13th series, they would calm down. I know they claim to be fans, but I wonder how that's possible.

For instance, would a fan try to complain about the one-dimensional characters in this movie? I'd think they'd know better than that. To slam Friday '09 on the grounds that its characters were ciphers who didn't really engender the proper amount of interest or sympathy is a curious thing to bitch about. Are the kids in this new movie so much less riveting than the likes of Paul Krata, Lawrence Monoson or Tiffany Helm? To my eyes, no. In fact, I think this sports a more winning cast than most of the films in the series. I particularly liked Travis Van Winkle as the movie's major asshole, Trent (at one point he gives a bitch scream for the ages). I also liked Aaron Yoo as Chewie, who fills his obligatory minority spot in the film with humorous aplomb. And Jared Padalecki (already an old hand at genre fare thanks to roles in Cry_Wolf, House of Wax and TV's Supernatural) makes an appealing lead as the concerned character of Clay. In a Friday first, I actually felt a glimmer of wanting Clay to succeed against Jason, which I count as an accomplishment on Padalecki's part. As for the ladies here, they're fine. I wish there'd been an actress as vivid as Part 2's Amy Steel here but I've been waiting twenty-eight years to be as taken with a Final Girl in a Friday movie as I was with Steel so I can't hold that against this film.

Something else I can't hold against it is the fact that its story isn't all that profound. To my surprise, I've read complaints that the story concocted by writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (of Freddy vs. Jason fame) is 'nonsensical'. I wouldn't think that anyone familiar with the previous eleven films (ten, if you don't count Freddy vs. Jason) would consider it an issue that a Friday the 13th was nonsensical but apparently I'd be wrong. Personally, I thought it was understood that Friday the 13th has never made sense (something that hasn't stopped it from being enjoyable). Tom Savini opted not to do Part 2 because he rightfully thought it was stupid that Jason, a figure that was only supposed to be a figment of Alice's nightmare, was now the main killer. So to single out this reboot as being 'nonsensical' is laughable - as though no one's intelligence had ever been insulted by a Friday the 13th film until the folks at Platinum Dunes got a hold of the property! Seriously, Jason is killing kids in the woods here. Like the other movies where Jason is killing kids in the woods. And just slightly different than the ones where he kills them on a cruise ship, in Manhattan, and in space. Sorry to anyone who's let themselves be misled as to what to expect. In fairness to the filmmakers, the title Friday the 13th was a pretty fair heads-up. No one's ever acted confused about this shit until now.

I'm also stunned that anyone would bitch that the new kills aren't up to Friday standards. Is every single one an iconic Friday kill? No, but going back to the first movie, in every Friday there's always a couple of kills that are outstanding (the arrow-through-the-neck, the decapitation of Mrs. Voorhees) and the rest are just all right (Ned, Brenda, Steve Christy and Bill all die off-camera). I mean, Mark getting the machete to the face and then having his wheelchair tumble backwards down a flight of stairs in Part 2 was classic but then in the same film there's the hot skinny-dipper who just sees a dude hanging upside down with his throat slit, then turns to the camera and screams. End of scene. If the remake pulled a punk move like that, everyone would be crying foul about how the filmmakers had botched an opportunity. And what about the last we see of Tommy and Trish's mother in The Final Chapter? She gasps at something off-camera and that's it. I could go down the line through every Friday and point to examples of where the filmmakers didn't go the extra mile but if I did, I worry that it might make me look at little nutty. Suffice it to say, anyone who complains about the kills in this movie is suffering from false memories about what the other films are actually like. At least every character dies on camera here, which is a rarity in the series (possibly a historic first).

With kills that run the gamut from shockingly sadistic, to morbidly funny, to kills that are more hands-on (where Derek Mears' ferocious portrayal of Jason really stands out - this guy's already a front-runner as Best Jason Ever), Friday the 13th '09 acquits itself just fine in the mayhem department.

Further down the line of complaints, some say that Jason's iconic hockey mask is given too casual of an introduction. But as one of my fears for this movie was that the producers would feel they had to come up with some dipshit backstory to 'explain' the mask, I feel relieved at how they handled it. I was dreading we'd have to learn about how hockey was Jason's favorite sport and that he used to skate on Crystal Lake in the winter or some epic lameness like that. I mean, unless you're going to go that route (and thank God that didn't happen here), the only other way to bring the hockey mask in is just to do it. In Part 3 he gets it with no special fanfare so why look for something bigger here? At least the remake has him come across it in a barn, which is a nod to the fact that he originally got the mask after killing Shelly in a barn so for what it's worth there's some acknowledgement of the series' history there.

As for the other controversies this film has incurred among fans - like why did they make Jason into a pot farmer, how can Jason be an expert marksman with a bow and arrow, why does he utilize a network of tunnels, and since when does he keeps prisoners in his basement - all of that seems pretty easy to deal with. First, Jason isn't a pot farmer. There's just weed growing on his land. And he likes to kill anyone who trespasses. I like to think of the weed as nature's way of bringing a certain type into Jason's domain. Jason's handiness with a bow and arrow isn't an issue, either. After all, someone who lives off the land and hunts for their food would have to be accomplished as a marksman (as Ginny said in Part 2: "Let's think beyond the legend and put it in real terms.") and it's not as though Jason hasn't always shown an aptitude for weapons. Jason having tunnels to travel through is also fine with me. It doesn't seem any more outrageous than other elements the series has asked us to go along with. I mean, really. If he had installed some kind of subway system or rocket sled, that'd be worth calling bullshit over but tunnels on their own is acceptable. And while keeping a girl alive in his basement may not be something we've seen Jason do before, as this girl reminds him of his mother I don't feel like it violates his character to not kill her. Jason has always shown a weakness for his mother. The slightest hint of her image is the one thing that can transfix him. And ultimately, we have to keep in mind that this is a reboot of Jason rather than a continuation of the original series so if he handles things a little differently, that's why.

I'd never try to call this a great film but I'd be a hypocrite if I called it out for having the same flaws as every other Friday. From the beginning, these films have always been aimed at a crowd who is largely undiscriminating when it comes to horror. Like many Gen-Xers, I love the series because I started watching it at the right age but as I've gotten older and my tastes have broadened, I still appreciate the Friday the 13th movies for what they are and for having encouraged my interest in the genre. To criticize this as representing a 'dumbing down' of horror is to ignore the fact that the original films were accused of the exact same crime. Friday the 13th '09 isn't a work that'll elevate the Art of Horror like, say, Let The Right One In. It's about watching Jason bury his machete in a few skulls - but that's a valid part of the genre experience, too.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 11: Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Friday the 13th fans tend to favor the movie that they started off with no matter what. For me, that means loving Friday the 13th is always going to come back to Friday the 13th Part 2. Luckily, this first sequel really is the best of the series. Some view Part 2 as an odd-man-out entry because Jason is sporting his Elephant Man sack here (a look also reminiscent of the hooded killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown) rather than the iconic hockey mask but that sack has always worked for me. Sack head Jason forever! With Part 2, Steve Miner took over as director from Sean Cunningham after serving as associate producer on the original and in his first feature directing gig he brought his A-game and turned the surprise success of Friday the 13th into a series to be reckoned with.

Well before I saw Part 2, I saw the cover of FANGORIA issue #12 that featured a pic of Mrs. Voorhees' severed head in the refrigerator (this was back when FANGORIA was proudly sold at my local Jane Alden convenience store - those were the days!). That cover blew me away and I couldn't wait to see the movie. At the time I hadn't even seen the first Friday yet but my best friend had just gotten cable installed in his neighborhood and so our day was coming.

Shortly after Part 2 made its pay cable premeire, we chose a weekend to do a sleepover when we knew Part 2 would be airing. Because his parents would know we were up watching something we shouldn't be if we watched the earliest scheduled show of the night, we had to wait till the 1:00 am showing. Around 12:20 or so, our curiosity got the best of us and we decided that we had to take a peek at the ending of the movie. We were paranoid about being heard so we got right up on top of the TV with the volume low. It was the scene towards the end where Ginny and Paul are back in their cabin and they hear a scratching at the door. Ginny holds a pitchfork in front of her, braced for whatever may burst in as Paul whips open the door to reveal an adorable little puppy. Just then Jason explodes through the window behind Ginny. My friend and I leaped back at least ten feet in the air, then scrambled back to the TV to shut it off. It was then that my friend and I started to have serious second thoughts about watching the rest of the movie.

When 1:00 am came and we put the TV back on, we were a little less sure about our decision then we had been earlier in the night. And the opening sequence did nothing to put us at ease. Even knowing ahead of time that Mrs. Voorhees' head would be in the refrigerator, the pre-title sequence had me cowering. I even jumped at the cheap scare of a cat jumping through the window. And the clips from the original Friday were terrifying, too, as we hadn't seen any of that movie yet. By the time the titles came up, we were convinced that if the movie began like this and ended with the scene we saw earlier, then this had to be the scariest movie either of us had ever seen.

By 2:30 or so, as the credits rolled over a freeze frame of Mrs. Voorhees' head, I don't know if we still thought we had seen the scariest movie ever - as it turns out, save for the wheelchair death of Mark, the beginning and the end were by far the best parts of the movie - but we sure as shit had enjoyed ourselves. From that night on, I was a diehard Friday the 13th fan. As much as the series has had its ups and downs over the years, I can't shed my affection for it. As for how Part 2 holds up today, I think that in almost every way, it's an improvement over the original (even though it's impossible to best the climatic decapitation of Mrs. Voorhees and Jason's leap from the lake). Working in Part 2's favor is the fact that Miner's a sharper director than Cunningham, the cast is a little more polished (without being overly slick) and the pace is quicker than that of the original without being as rushed as the later entries of the series would become. Miner also avoids the more overt corniness of the original (no Strip Monopoly here) and his lead actress, Amy Steel, is hands-down the best of the Friday girls. I love Adrienne King as Alice but Steel's Ginny really has it all. She has such a natural appeal - she's tough, beautiful, resourceful, and athletic. Had Steel stuck with the series for another outing (or had done another horror film that was stronger than 1986's April Fool's Day), I think she'd be more widely appreciated as a classic Scream Queen.

While I think Ted White's Jason from The Final Chapter takes the golden machete for Best Jason, I love Steve Dash's Jason too (with his signature lopping run) and Part 2's overall depiction of Jason as a resourceful - but not indestructible - backwoods psycho is my favorite handling of the character. The concept of Jason keeping his mother's head on a candle-lit shrine (surrounded by the bodies of the victims he claimed in her name - including Alice's decayed corpse with the ice pick still in her skull) was perfect and it said all that ever needed to be said about him. I also think that make-up man Carl Fullerton's design for Jason (as worn by Warrington Gillette) remains the best that's been done, looking grotesque without going over the top. Truly a face only a mother could love.

The final chase between Jason and Ginny is still the best in the series. Miner squeezes a lot of excitement out of this long sequence (that begins when Ginny detects the crouched figure of Jason moving towards them in the dark of the main cabin - "Paul, there's someone in this fucking room!"). And Ginny's stand-off with Jason as she uses her child psychology training to get into Jason's head is a classic moment, giving Dash a chance to deliver more of real performance than other Jasons as he bows before the image of his approving 'mother'.

In a perfect world, the MPAA wouldn't have forced Miner to excise the now-legendary FX footage of Sandra and Bill's shish-ka-bob demise but that's just the breaks (and in a slightly more just world, Paramount would've reinstated the footage by now). Part 2 is still solid without it, though, and whatever it's faults Part 2 earns the distinction of being the film that turned Friday the 13th into a successful franchise. Had Miner and co. made different choices with this film - had they not gone with the idea of introducing Jason as the killer, had they abandoned the formula of the first film instead of striving to refine it, then we wouldn't still be going back to Camp Crystal Lake all these years later.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 10: Friday the 13th (1980)

Sometimes you just catch lightening in a bottle and that's what the original Friday the 13th was. The simple story crafted by Victor Miller and Sean Cunningham, with its natural qualities of a campfire tale, was the perfect showcase for Tom Savini's groundbreaking FX work. Savini's own work in 1978's Dawn of the Dead was a benchmark in splatter (in fact, his work in that film led Romero to coin the phrase "splatter movie") but it was more of a midnight movie, rather than a mainstream hit. But Friday the 13th was different. For this grotty little independent film, with its grainy look and grisly FX to be picked up by a major studio like Paramount was a significant deal. It meant that Friday the 13th would receive the kind of wide distribution that a low budget exploitation film normally wouldn't have. And unlike Dawn of the Dead, it was rated R so it would automatically play more venues and be more accessible to a wider range of moviegoers. So while some had already had the pleasure of seeing the top of a zombie's head sliced off by a helicopter blade, for many viewers Friday the 13th was really the start of something new.

It's almost impossible now, almost thirty years later to even remember, much less convey to those who weren't around then, how genuinely shocking the original Friday the 13th was at the time. We weren't such a jaded culture back then. In 1980, just to see a throat slashed on screen was really something. It was horrifying. And Kevin Bacon's arrow through the neck murder was astonishing, jaw-dropping stuff. We weren't blase yet about sights like this. We didn't yet live in world of Re-Animator, or The Evil Dead, or Dead-Alive where seeing gore by the gallons became commonplace. And in the days before most households had VCR's, if you hadn't seen Dawn of the Dead in a theater, you had no other way to see it (and for those few who had VCR's in 1980, I don't even think Dawn of the Dead was on cassette yet).

Given the extremes to which popular culture in general - and horror filmmaking in particular - have gone in the years since Friday the 13th, the original film now carries an old-fashioned appeal to it. Savini's state-of-the-art special effects (which only constitute about a minute or two of screentime in the film) forever changed the expectations of horror fans - and made horror movies a renewed target for moral watchdogs as well. The outrage this film incurred seems hard to believe now, as today what was once considered to be a notorious bloodbath seems positively Hitchcockian.

Although Friday the 13th has long since lost its shock value, I think it still plays very well. And that's because Cunningham didn't set out to make a gore film. This isn't out to hammer the viewer with kill after kill. Cunningham actually expects the audience to stick with the movie when not much appears to be happening. And in tandem with cinematographer Barry Abrams, Cunningham makes Camp Crystal Lake a truly scary place to be. More than with any other film in the series, you really feel that these kids are alone in the middle of the woods. There's a sense of isolation that pervades the film and when night falls on Crystal Lake, it really feels like night - not movie-style night time where everything is still somehow illuminated but real, honest-to-God night. Outside the the limited light of a lantern or a flashlight, you're just looking at blackness. The only other film since that created that same feeling that I can readily think of is The Blair Witch Project.

Some may feel otherwise but for me, Betsy Palmer's performance as Mrs. Voorhees falls on the right side of campiness. Her peformance doesn't hold back and it really gives the third act a boost. Palmer handles the necessary exposition well without letting it stop the film in its tracks and when she has to pursue Alice, she's a convincing threat. You can believe that she was able to take down all these people and that she would be a relentless adversary. And as the first Final Girl of the Friday series, Adrienne King's Alice will always exist in a class by herself. Maybe because I've never seen King in any other film besides this, but she's easily the most wholly believable girl-next-door of any of the Friday actresses. There's a cherub-faced sweetness about her that's been abolished from the world of movies, apparently, because I've never seen another horror heroine quite like her.

Even though Friday the 13th was far from an original creation - preceded by the likes of Twitch of the Death Nerve, Black Christmas, and Halloween - it still feels like a one of a kind movie to me, like a last summer of innocence before horror films had to constantly up the ante on each other and squeeze more slaughter in. It feels like a product of more carefree times and that's always a welcome place to return to.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 9: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

The prospect of the Friday the 13th series coming to an end was a shocking notion in 1984. At least it was for the legions of fans who had come to depend on a yearly fix of summer camp slaughter. Then again, maybe four films that were practically the same should be considered enough. Yeah, I didn’t buy that then or now but regardless, at the time it looked like the final curtain was really falling on Jason’s reign of terror.

Director Joe Zito, of The Prowler fame, was hired to direct and his proven skill at making great slasher cinema would be an asset to The Final Chapter. Along with scripter Barney Cohen and creative input from Boston-based money man Phil Scuderi, Jason’s endgame was mapped out. One thing I admire about The Final Chapter is that there’s no importance placed on explaining whatever lingering mysteries the series offered. This wasn't taken an opportunity to give fans any answers. In fact, it doesn't even seem to have been made by people who were aware that there might have been any questions to begin with. Jason himself is still as inexplicable and implacable as ever. He’s apparently dead when the movie begins – at least dead enough to be taken to the morgue – and then after awhile he gets up and starts killing again. That’s it. And that’s how it should be, damn it. We know Jason’s not really dead and it’s unimportant to the movie how he manages to overcome his final slumber. We don’t need any lightening bolts, we don’t need any occult rituals, we don’t even need any fucking words said about it. If this movie were made today, of course, the screenwriters would be compelled to come up with some mystic, supernatural horseshit or some kind of backstory about the Voorhees bloodline. Thankfully, The Final Chapter was made before fans started demanding that kind of crap and it was made by people who had no patience for nonsense, either. This was the last chance for Jason to do what he did best. Why waste time on anything else?

The only bone The Final Chapter throws towards stoking the larger legend of Jason is with the character of Rob (Erich Anderson), the amateur hunter who thinks that he can kill Jason on his home turf. I always liked this character as it played up Jason’s aura as some kind of modern myth. Given the time line of Friday Parts 2-4, however, Rob’s status as a Jason Hunter Extraordinaire doesn’t make much sense. It’s the murder of his sister Sandra (the bottom half of the shish-a-bob kill in Part 2) that put him on a path of vengeance but while it seems like Rob’s been hunting Jason for years, chronologically his sister died just two weeks ago at best. Sure, in the real world, we’d been watching Jason wasting teens for four years but in the movie world, the events of Parts 2-4 happened virtually on top of each other. But whatever, Rob’s still a helluva guy and I'm glad he's in The Final Chapter.

What’s really great about this character, though, is how utterly useless he ends up being. Here’s a guy who’s whole self-appointed purpose in life is to put Jason down for good. He’s young, he’s fit, he’s armed for big game. Shit, this guy’s prepared. But yet he suffers one of the most epic fails of any character in the series. I’d like to be able to say Rob gave Jason a run for his money, but that’s just not true. Jason butchers him without even breaking a sweat. Rob’s death scene is one of the best of the series – not because of any splatter FX but because it’s just so harsh. Some might find Rob’s cries of “He’s killing me!” as Jason flays him to death with a gardening tool to be corny but I’ve always thought it was one of the most chilling moments in the series. It’s the most human, the most real, reaction of any Friday victim. If only Rob was half the hunter he thought he was, he would've played things a little bit smarter (here's a life-saving tip for future Jason Hunters: dark basements are Jason's friend).

To add insult to (terminal) injury, where macho Rob failed, a lame kid succeeded. Back in the day, when I heard that a kid was going to be the one to kill Jason, I was a little skeptical on how that would play out. It just didn’t sound so cool to me. But Corey Feldman’s Tommy won me over. The obvious homage to Tom Savini was appreciated and from the beginning, Tommy was more bent than he was precocious. I love his attempt to psych out Jason by making himself look like Jason as a kid (a move that echoed back to Ginny’s similar maneuver in Part 2 - apparently Jason’s Achilles’ Heel is mind games). It was a risky stunt but lucky for Tommy, Jason is genius at killing people but incredibly dense in every other way. He’ll catch on to your game eventually but being able to stop Jason just for a few seconds is an accomplishment few can boast about. Take a bow, Tommy!

Jason’s actual death (however temporary it may have been) was depicted by returning FX hero Tom Savini and boy, did he deliver. The slide down the machete as Jason's face twitches is just awesome. This was the first Friday I saw in the theaters and that moment got an enormous reaction that I'll never forget. Savini originally had lobbied to have Jason die by a microwave device of Tommy’s invention that would’ve melted Jason’s head but I think the producers were right in feeling that would’ve been too 'sci-fi' for Friday the 13th. I think in the Final Chapter it had to be shown that those who live by the machete, die by the machete.

As much as I remember the cheers that greeted Jason’s glorious end, I also remember the round of groans and knowing chuckles that met the final scene of Tommy and Trish in the hospital. As soon as the film froze on Tommy’s intense stare, the whole theater knew they’d been had by this "Final Chapter". Not that anyone was complaining about it, though. After all, who ever wants to see a good time end? As good times go, The Final Chapter remains one of the best. Savini’s work here isn’t always exemplary (some effects reflect a rushed effort - Savini was hired late in the production) but it still has his signature touch. And while the previous three films hadn’t been known for letting their characters off easy, The Final Chapter was nothing short of brutal.

But I don't think it's because the kids in this film die in any more sadistic ways than the victims in past Fridays did but it's just the presence Ted White has as Jason that sells these moments so well. When he destroys someone (like when he mashes Peter Barton's face against the back of the shower wall), you really believe it.

Previous Jasons Steve Dash and Richard Brooker were both excellent in their own right but White’s Jason is the one you really don’t want to fuck with. It’s common to hear some people say that the Friday the 13th's were never scary to begin with but I totally disagree. If nothing else, they were a lot scarier in their day then the Saw films are now, that's for sure. Jason may have turned into a more cartoonish figure with Part VI and the subsequent sequels but before that he was menacing to behold and White’s Jason, especially, was a real force to be reckoned with.

If this had been the real Final Chapter, it would’ve been a fitting cap to the series and at four films, the producers could still claim a legendary run. I'm glad they didn't quit as hope always spring eternal that the series will recapture its magic. But as a fan, I have to say that although I continue to love and follow the films, everything since Tommy delivered the final blows to Jason - and the screen faded to white for the last time in the series - has felt anticlimactic.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 8: Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985)

This controversial attempt to continue Friday the 13th after 1984's The Final Chapter didn't win many fans at the time of its 1985 release. And in fact, it hasn't won many more in the twenty-four years since then, either. There's a large contingent of Friday fans who are still beside themselves that this wasn't the 'real' Jason. But I love A New Beginning. In the interest of full disclosure, I also love the much-loathed Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which tried to continue the Halloween series without Michael Myers. I guess I must find it interesting when franchises try to break away from what's expected of them. Either that, or I just like being contrary.

In the case of A New Beginning, I believe it was way ahead of its time in its irreverent attitude towards the Friday franchise and towards slasher cinema in general. Whereas Friday the 13th began with a slow burn murder mystery in which a small group of isolated kids were annihilated one by one, A New Beginning is the crackhead version of that. There's a murder mystery here, too, as an unknown assailant is picking off various victims but rather than play up the suspense and atmosphere or invite some involvement with the characters, director Danny Steinmann and writer David Cohen turned A New Beginning into a trashy, hyper-kinetic, coke binge of a slasher film. And before Tom McLoughlin included self-mocking humor in Jason Lives, A New Beginning had already done the same in a much slyer way (such as the inclusion of a Greenpeace poster in one victim's bedroom with the ironic slogan "Stop The Slaughter").

Set in the youth rehabilitation center of Pinehurst, a halfway house for troubled kids, A New Beginning had the largest cast of any Friday film to date. On top of the large cast of kids populating Pinehurst, there's also the home's two head counselors, an eldery cook and his young grandson Reggie. That's more than enough potential victims (and potential red herrings) for any slasher film to handle but then Steinmann and Cohen bring in even more characters to fill out the cast. There's the cigar-chomping sheriff who believes Jason is still alive, the batshit crazy hillbilly bitch along with her wailing man-child of a son, the cokehead van driver who takes patients to and from Pinehurst, a pair of ambulance drivers, and a shady vagrant looking for work. And as if all those characters weren't enough, the first two victims of the film are two young dudes stranded on the side of the road (both inexplicably dressed like Marlon Brando in the The Wild Ones) who have nothing to do with anything else in the film except to be in that single scene to die. With all these people populating the cast of A New Beginning, it's clear that Steinmann and Cohen weren't out to make a moody character piece. This was about saturating the screen with more kills, more nudity, and more humor than any previous Friday.

And whereas the previous Friday's had been all about presenting young characters who were very All-American in their looks, backgrounds, and personality, A New Beginning delivers a much coarser crew. The kids in this film aren't the same wholesome kids (with an innocent taste for pot and sex) coming to camp for the summer or out to party in the woods as we'd seen in other Fridays. These were all damaged kids, with mental and emotional issues. They're either punk-asses, or withdrawn, or dysfunctional in some other way. And outside of the concerned members of the Pinehurst staff, nearly every other character in A New Beginning is portrayed as being either shrill, abrasive, or lewd. Sometimes all of the above. At first glance, it's a jarring approach but it makes A New Beginning stand out. While it's almost impossible to recall the cast members of most of the Friday the 13th's, even characters who have very little screen time in A New Beginning are memorable (my personal favorite being Miguel A. Nunez Jr. as 'Demon', doomed to die after taking an emergency enchilada dump).

Although the previous Friday was The Final Chapter, A New Beginning was a real era-ender as this was the last Friday to be overseen by the late Phil Scuderi, one of the group of Boston theater owners who bankrolled the original Friday and who maintained creative control over the sequels until Part VI when they stepped away from the series. From the testimony of several key players as revealed in Peter M. Bracke's indispensable account of the Friday series, Crystal Lake Memories, Scuderi exercised much more influence over Fridays Parts 2-5 than is widely known. Part 2 screenwriter Ron Kurz gives credit to Scuderi for much of what went into Part 2, such as the wheelchair death of Mark and the famous shish-ka-bob death of Sandra and Jeff (as Kurz told Bracke: "Part 2 was a true collaboration between Phil Scuderi and myself...Phil was a creative force in his own right.") and Final Chapter director Joe Zito discussed how the script that he and Barney Cohen came up with was shaped by Scuderi's input ("Barney and I built the script from the beginning, but it was completely visualized by this guy sitting in Boston.").

With A New Beginning, Scuderi handpicked Steinmann as director and I believe that in making that pick, knowing Steinmann's background in porn and exploitation, Scuderi was out to achieve a more down and dirty, grindhouse vibe from the start. I don't think that was just his commercial instincts talking, I think it was Scuderi's personal taste as well. After Scuderi's departure, the films immediately became weaker and more watered down, leaving A New Beginning to be a swan song for the series' more brutal days. And judging by the grittier style of the early sequels (no supernatural elements, no explanation for Jason's invulnerability) and Scuderi's support of the psychological approach to A New Beginning, I suspect that under his stewardship, Jason would've never become the amped-up super zombie of the later installments. I think Scuderi's instincts were to keep Friday within the real world as much as possible and time has borne this out as being the correct approach to the series. If Jason had to be brought back to life for commercial reasons, I think if Scuderi had stuck around maybe instead of being revived by lightening, the series would've cribbed from the Chuck Norris film Silent Rage (1982) and had Jason be revived by unscrupulous scientists.

Even though the idea of a replacement Jason was roundly hated, I think A New Beginning's attempt to pass the torch to another killer was fine. The resolution here was ridiculous but in theory, it should've worked. Maybe to have Tommy be the killer all along would've been the better way to go. John Shepherd gives an underrated performance with his Tommy coming across as legitimately dangerous and yet sympathetic and tortured. His sudden bursts of violence are 100% kick-ass and if this version of the character ever became the next Jason, it would've been sick. He wouldn't have even had to resort to weapons because he already fucking was a weapon. Somewhere between this film and Jason Lives, though, he must've lost all his skills 'cause if he was still able to do the shit he did here, no cop would've been able to put him in a jail - you would've had a First Blood Rambo situation on your hands. That's a movie I would've loved to have seen - Tommy at war with an outmatched police force. Maybe they could've brought back Shavar Ross as Reggie the Reckless to talk Tommy down. Now that would be a dream Friday the 13th.

As much as it left many followers of the series frustrated, I find A New Beginning to be a work of misunderstood humor (when the severed arm of a hacked up fat kid is laying on top of his own dead body still clutching a chocolate bar, I've got to believe that's intentionally funny) and sleazy charm. It may not be the most favored Friday, but to paraphrase its tagline, if A New Beginning still haunts're not alone.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 7: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

After fandom let out a collective "Nooooo!!" at the notion of a replacement Jason in A New Beginning, the task fell to the filmmakers of Friday the 13th Part VI to restore Jason to the ranks of horror's heavyweights. Writer/director Tom McLoughlin had already established himself as someone with an affinity for fright with his 1983 film One Dark Night, a supernatural shocker about a group of college kids fending off zombies in a mausoleum. But did he have the chops to bring Jason back in style? While the simple answer is "yes", my enthusiasm for this film has always been a little muted. On the one hand, Jason Lives is the slickest, most accomplished film of the original Paramount Fridays (and, really, it outclasses the New Line efforts to date as well - not counting the remake). The pacing is great, with a story that hits the ground running and never pauses for downtime (this was the shortest Friday at the time, clocking in at 86 minutes), the cast is even more attractive than usual (hello, Jennifer Cooke!) and on the whole they show more across the board talent (including an affinity for comedy) than previous Friday thespians. Against all expectations, McLoughlin beat the odds and made the sixth Friday the 13th into a respectable movie.

But honestly, how fun is that?

While I concede that there's a lot to admire about Jason Lives, and I do enjoy it, I've always considered it a little too sanitized for my taste - it's almost the Disney version of a Friday the 13th film (no drugs! no nudity! What the fuck?). The humor is less smart than it is 'cute' (like when a young camper is seen reading Sartre's No Exit) and I'm just not the biggest fan of cute - especially when it involves my favorite slaughter series. Everything's kind of a wink and an elbow to the ribs here (like when the cemetery groundskeeper looks into the camera and says "some people sure got a strange idea of entertainment") and that aspect to Jason Lives has always rubbed me the wrong way.

But as far as getting Jason back on his feet, Jason Lives does get the job done. The pre-title sequence here in which Jason is revived by a bolt of lightening is one of the best of the series and it's a scene so good, the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. On the whole, McLoughlin makes a good effort with the film rocketing from scene to scene with Tommy Jarvis on a mission to end Jason's rampage. I really like the use of Tommy here, the fact that he's responsible for bringing Jason back to life and that he has to become this action hero to take on Jason. This film has a momentum to it that no other Friday has (even the dialogue is fast-paced). It's no wonder that many fans regard it as their favorite of the series.

As the film that had to bring Jason back from the dead come hell or high water (the mandate from fans - no more scrubs!), the game changing element of Jason Lives is that it officially turned Jason into a supernatural being. Up until Jason Lives, the series had always kept one foot in the real world. Sure Jason kept coming back from a lot of physical harm but never so much that an explanation was needed - the guy was just a tough fuck to kill. Here, though, Jason is unequivocally dead. He's in the ground with a face full of maggots. Coming back from that isn't as simple as brushing off an axe blow to the head. McLoughlin's solution to give Jason a monster movie-style resurrection is fine, it works, but at the same time the series could never be the same after that. Jason as a murdering backwoods cretin was scary; Jason as a lightening-charged super zombie - not so much.

But as lightening-charged super zombies go, however, Jason makes a pretty good one - getting off to a great start by ripping out the heart of one-time Horshack Ron Palillo. C.J. Graham proves to be one of the better Jasons and his lean and mean style fits right in with McLoughlin's film. His Jason is a lot more hands-on with victims than past Jasons with his approach being less about weapons and power tools and more about applying brute strength (as in the film's best kill, the famous back-breaking death of Sheriff Garris). Very little blood is shed during Jason Lives, though, and this is the most splatter-lite Friday of them all. Clean-cut and eager to please, this was the late '80s pop metal arena rocker version of Jason as opposed to the hardcore headbanger that he used to be. It was kind of like seeing Van Halen become the much more vanilla 'Van Haggar' but for what it was, it worked. It's just a shame that filmmakers with the same skill and the same knack for fun as McLoughlin didn't carry on the franchise after Jason Lives, the last good Friday of the '80s.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 6: Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D (1982)

Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D was the first installment of the series where the formula started to show its limitations. What worked so well in the first two films was already starting to seem too familiar. Even though initial discussions on Part 3 involved the idea of continuing the story of Amy Steel character of Ginny from Part 2 as she dealt with her trauma in a mental institution, that new direction never took hold. Instead, a choice was made to stick to the elements that were proven to be popular with audiences. Part 3 would once again see more kids spending time at Crystal Lake and meeting inventive deaths at the hands of Jason.

With so little to differentiate Part 3 from the previous two installments, though, the Friday producers felt they had to look for a hook to draw audiences back for more of the same old, same old (notice that every subsequent Friday always incorporated some gimmick - whether it be promoted as a "Final Chapter", a "New Beginning", or a change in locale, like Jason Takes Manhattan or Jason X). Luckily for the Friday the 13th crew, 3-D was on the rise again and it seemed like the perfect match for a Friday film. I remember the incredible hoopla around this movie when it came out and in the summer of '82, it was definitely the film all the cool kids wanted to see.

This time around, the new batch of kids heading to the slaughter aren't camp counselors but just a bunch of friends looking for a weekend getaway on the rustic grounds of Higgin's Haven. You'd think that these yahoos would've had second thoughts about partying around Crystal Lake as the grisly events of Part 2 have happened just days earlier. But clearly a little mass murder isn't going to stop a bunch of fun-loving kids like these. So with everyone in the van and committed to getting trashed and/or laid, it's off to the woods with no one troubled by the events of the last film. Little do these chumps know that Jason doesn't just go to work on Friday the 13th. If you thought Friday the 13th was hard to survive, look out for Friday the 20th!

Speaking of survival, we learn an important new "don't'" in the Friday the 13th universe in Part 3. Some might find this unnecessary to be explained but when you survive an encounter with Jason, don't test your luck with a rematch. Case in point is the character of Ali (Nick Savage) - the bad-ass black biker dude who isn't going to be satisfied until Jason fucks him up permanently. I loved it when Ali first took on Jason in the barn and got beat down - sure he lost but this was the first character who really tried to get hardcore on Jason so that was something to see. But the best moment of the whole film for me is when he pops up again towards the end, distracting Jason from his attack on Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell). When Ali reappears ready to throw down with Jason again, it's like - "Shit, he isn't dead?". I guess that was Jason's reaction, too, because he instantly chops off Ali's right hand, like "This is what I get for only half-fucking you up before. Let me fix that." The reaction of Ali as he looks at the stump where his hand used to be is priceless. It might be this moment where Jason became a superhero of slaughter rather than just a slasher.

Of course, this is also the film where Jason found his signature look with his iconic hockey mask making its debut (RIP Shelly!). Even though we take it for granted now, at the time no one knew what a hit this look would be with fans. The Friday series fell ass-backwards into its own mythology over the course those first few films but this is where it all started to get locked down.

This is also the first Friday to establish the tradition of bringing in random victims outside of the core group of characters just to put up bigger numbers for Jason. If you liked the banana-eating hitchhiker in The Final Chapter, or any of the many 'walk-on' victims that have appeared in the films over the years, thank Part 3. It was with this film that the producers realized that it was always better to fill screen time with someone getting killed - no matter who it was or what part they played in the film. Hence, in Part 3 there's Harold, the luckless shop owner (played by the late Steve Susskind) and his nagging wife as well as the biker gang led by Ali who runs afoul of Jason. Screen time that in the previous films might've been spent on moments of character development with the main cast (Strip Monopoly, Marcie's 'shower dream') was now used to deliver more of the moments that audiences expected from Friday the 13th. No more listening to Bill strum his guitar, or sitting at a bar bullshitting about the legend of Jason - Part 3 changed the pace of the series. This practice of shoe-horning in more and more kills reached its apex in A New Beginning with its staggering body count of seventeen (twenty-one, if you count the death of the bogus Jason along with his son's death and two dream deaths in the pre-title sequence).

As with Part 2, director Steve Miner stages another exciting final chase here with Richard Brooker's Jason pursuing Chris over every inch of Higgins' Haven. With Jason still being portrayed as a backwoods psycho in these early films, rather than some kind of zombie, Brooker gets to display some moments of human rage during this chase - as when he throws a fit when it momentarily looks like Chris has eluded him. It's moments like these that suggested another dimension to Jason that didn't need to be realized with glasses or gimmicks.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 5: Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

From the moment that New Line - the home of Freddy Krueger - gained the rights to the Friday the 13th franchise, there was never any question of if Freddy and Jason would meet on film, it was just a matter of when. In 2003, long years of development on the part of New Line paid off with a horror event first teased to audiences at the end of 1993's Jason Goes To Hell.

After Jason Goes To Hell's release, I remember reading in the pages of FANGORIA about the early attempts to get Freddy vs. Jason rolling and feeling that, well, any day now it'll happen. I mean, it's a movie that a whole generation or two of horror fans were crying out for - how long could they hold it up? But as time rolled on, activity would spark on the project then die off. Finding the proper reason to motivate the melee between Elm Street's dream stalker and Crystal Lake's carnage champion was no simple feat. Eventually, after a reported eighteen drafts by screenwriters including Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga (of Star Trek: New Generation fame) and David J. Schow (Leatherface, The Crow), it was writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift who became the duo to make it happen with rewrites courtesy of David Goyer (Blade, Batman Begins).

Given all the years of waiting, after all the aborted treatments, and all the hands this project passed through (I really wish that this could've been Fx master Rob Bottin's directing debut, as it was almost slated to be at one point), Freddy vs. Jason ended up being about as satisfying as anyone could've reasonably hoped. Coming in 2003, however, long after the prime of both series had passed, Freddy vs. Jason can't help but feel out of its element more than it would've in, say, 1988. Ideally, this needed to be made during the height of Freddy and Jason mania (of course, realistically, it's the kind of project that could only be made when both franchises were so down and out that they needed each other). Even if it had been a botched effort back in the '80s, it would've it would've felt of a piece with the Friday and Nightmare films of the time (and undoubtedly would've boasted a righteous heavy metal soundtrack with contributions from every hair band on heavy rotation on MTV). Freddy vs. Jason however, in tone and style, feels like it exists outside of both series (ironically, even though it was made just six years ago, Freddy vs. Jason somehow feels more dated now than any of the '80s Friday or Nightmare sequels - go figure).

That odd-man-out vibe might've been alleviated by bringing back Kane Hodder as Jason to preserve a sense of continuity. Hodder's films weren't my favorites but even though his Friday films were some of the most disappointing of the series, his presence as Jason gave them a unified feel and this should've been his swan song to the character. At least Robert Englund got to reprise Freddy one last time here (it's undeniably strange, though, to see Englund stalking characters played by actors who, in some cases, weren't even born when the first Nightmare was released). Rather than the beginning of a new franchise, this feels like a last hurrah for the classic versions of these characters and Hodder - who spent more time beneath the mask than any other actor and who kept the character alive with fans on the convention circuit even when the film series was lying stagnant - should've been there for it. The new Jason, Ken Kirzinger, did a decent job but he didn't project the same power that Hodder's Jason did - Hodder's body language would've been a far better fit for this film. At the time I didn't think the switch from Hodder to Kirzinger was such a big deal but looking at Freddy vs. Jason again, it does hinder the film. I know there was talk about how the producers and Yu wanted Kirzinger because he could deliver the empathy factor better, that there was more soulfulness in his eyes or some such nonsense but Hodder's 'star power' is what this Jason needed.

That said, director Ronny Yu works hard to make this a blood-soaked battle royal that pops off the screen and the climatic fight is definitely the knockdown, drag-out, Hall of Fame battle that it should've been. Yu stages the lengthy fight as the brawl to end ‘em all and neither combatant pulls their punches. Every stab goes deep - blood spurts out in geysers and limbs fly across the screen. If you didn’t see this with a full theater cheering on each and every blow, then you missed out. It just isn't the same experience at home.

For Friday fans, the biggest criticism to be made here (outside of the absence of Hodder) is that this is much more slated towards a Nightmare picture than a Friday the 13th. From the start, it feels like Jason is a guest in a Freddy film. Perhaps inevitably, due to the demands of getting both characters together (or just because of Yu's sensibilities as a director), this is way more fantasy-orientated with even the kill scenes given a cartoonish spin. On the upside, it's all grandly gory and most importantly, Jason doesn't punk out against Freddy. Their fight mercifully doesn't come down to a disappointing draw and our boy Jason is the last slasher standing. Freddy may have his wisecracks but Jason lets his machete do the talking and that machete can get awfully loud.

Even though Freddy vs. Jason has it's share of faults (among which is some of the worst performances in the history of either franchise - lead actress Monica Keena is especially atrocious), it does a lot right and it gives more respect to the characters than one might've expected. This could've been done as a quick cash-in but the final product shows more care to both franchises than that. Yu has fun incorporating the iconic imagery of both series while adding a few indelible sights of his own (seeing a demonic Freddy leap from Crystal Lake is just awesome). For fans of a certain age, this film was nothing less than horror history (watching it again, I still found it cool to hear the Nightmare theme segue way into the Friday ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma as a blood red version of the New Line logo appears). And in the pantheon of vs. movies, well, this might be the one that best delivers. As the final appearance of Jason before the reboot, Freddy vs. Jason is like watching a last sunset on Crystal Lake before a new bloody day dawns.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 4: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

For horror fans, the decade of the '80s did not end on a proud note. By 1989, the titans of terror - Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers - who had once ruled over the box office had all frittered away their popular appeal along with their street cred. Arguably the most grievous fall of the bunch was with Jason and Friday the 13th as the series disappeared up its own ass with Jason Takes Manhattan. Time heals all wounds, though, and although I never thought I'd say so back when I saw this at a midnight show opening night, I now have something of a soft spot for Friday VIII. Of the four Kane Hodder films, it easily stands as my favorite. Call me cheesy but I can't help but get a rush every time this movie begins and the best lame late '80s rock tune to grace a lame late '80s horror movie - "The Darkest Side of the Night" by 'Metropolis' - kicks in ("Neon shadows that point the way/Never lead you out/It's a game they play").

At the time of its release, I was put out that this was such a softball movie. I mean, come on - where was the horror? Now as the world has become a darker, more dangerous place in the years since, Jason Takes Manhattan's innocuousness is a great part of its appeal. When the film opens in NY with the sight of the Twin Towers occupying their iconic place in the former Manhattan skyline as a radio DJ says "You can't get the adrenaline pumping without the terror, good people", it's hard not to look at Jason Takes Manhattan more fondly than we once did as a keepsake of a simpler, safer era. And with subsequent shots of generic street punks posed around their boom box intended to represent the threatening, 'hardcore' side of NY, Jason Takes Manhattan is a welcome - and sometimes amusing - reminder of what truly mild times we used to live in.

Nostalgia aside, the movie itself holds up slightly better than it should, thanks to some solid directing by Rob Hedden (who had cut his teeth on several episodes of TV's Friday the 13th: The Series). Among the original group of Paramount Friday movies, it's arguably the most visually stylish (particularly in regards to Jensen Daggett's surreal flashbacks). Friday VIII's main fault, as is often cited, is the fact that the title is so bitterly misleading.

The idea of Jason stalking victims among the familiar landmarks of Manhattan is brilliant and had the budget allowed for it, it would've kicked ass (even as it still would've been called out in some quarters for being too mainstream). But what we get instead is Jason stalking kids on board a ship until he gets to the mean streets of Vancouver, with just one amazing 360 shot of Jason standing in the midst of the actual Times Square as a bone tossed to fans waiting for Jason to "take" Manhattan. Had they called this, say, "Death Cruise" and included the Manhattan material as a bonus on top of it, who knows - the film might've played slightly better.

The MPAA was at their most heavy-handed in the late '80s so - as was the trend in the later Fridays - Hedden doesn't spill much blood but he finds inventive ways around it with some of the better "dry" kills in the series. Kelly Hu's dance floor death is staged well, as is Jason's pursuit of Peter Mark Richman's character. Richman plays an arch-weasel who flees from Jason into a building and not a moment later, he's being hurled out of a second floor window by Jason who has somehow already gotten into the building - and onto the second floor, even! - well ahead of him. Hedden has fun with Jason's by-then unquestioned ability to be in all places at once, and it's easier to appreciate that intentionally tongue-in-cheek approach now than it was in '89 when it simply seemed corny.

The crowning kill of the film, of course, is the rooftop boxing match between Jason and V.C. Dupree as 'Julius' that ends with Jason punching Julius' head clean off his shoulders, sending it plummeting into a dumpster many floors below. A lot of fans cite the sleeping bag kill in The New Blood as Hodder's best kill as Jason but for me, the death of Julius beats all comers. Hedden puts us in the POV of Julius' severed head as it falls through the air and when I saw Mel Gibson use the exact same shot in Apocalypto as a sacrifice victim's head tumbles down the steps of the temple, I had to think "Hey man, Rob Hedden was there first!"

Part VIII's big finale in the sewers as Jason is felled by a flood of toxic waste and, in death, reverts to the innocent child he once was is still perplexing. I can appreciate the nod to classic monster movies that Hedden meant this to be - as in the Wolf Man or the Invisible Man films where the monster returns to normal as they die and find peace - but it just doesn't work in the context of the Friday the 13th universe.

Jason Takes Manhattan turned out to be an era-ender in many ways. It was the last of the Paramount Friday the 13ths, the last Friday the 13th of the '80s - and in the mind of many fans, the end of the original continuity of the series (I side with those who look at the subsequent New Line films as taking place within their own separate universe) - so it's hard not to favor this flawed curtain call as a souvenir of the original days of Friday fanaticism. The '80s wouldn't have been the same without these movies to look forward to.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 3: Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

When New Line acquired the rights to the Friday the 13th series, I couldn't have been happier. Paramount never seemed comfortable with the franchise, always looking to distance themselves from it and never quite understanding the following that the films had. New Line, however, was The House That Freddy Built. Their history was all about genre films and franchises and if anyone was going to run with the ball on Friday the 13th, surely it was New Line. That wasn't quite how things panned out, though. At least not initially. Right out of the gate, New Line's first Friday was slated to be the last - The Final Friday.

I doubt if anyone ever believed this would be the real end of the series. After all, we had already been down this road before with The Final Chapter in '84 and here we were, four more films later. Calling this "The Final Friday" was just a way to get audiences to show up after the last few entries in the series had seen waning attendance. New Line definitely had a better handle on how to sell this stuff more than Paramount did. The poster for Jason Goes To Hell is one of my favorites - you just can't beat the sight of that metal hockey mask against a background of flames with the drooling demonic worm wriggling in and out of the eye holes. Right off the bat, the poster signaled that this was going to be a very different from the Friday films of the past.

Written by the young crew of Jay Huguely, Adam Marcus, and Dean Lorey with the twenty-three-year-old Marcus himself assigned first-time directing duties, Jason Goes To Hell reflects - for both good and bad - an entirely new take on the franchise. For the first time, this is a Friday film made by people young enough to have been raised on the series. Marcus was a close friend of Sean Cunningham's son Noel and as a kid, he was present on the set of the original movie. Alone in the series, Jason Goes To Hell feels like a work of fan fiction, an alternate reality take on the character that creates an elaborate new mythology for Jason and the Voorhees clan (a host of random Easter Eggs for the horror crowd are also scattered throughout the film, with the Necronomicon from The Evil Dead and the "Antarctic Expedition" crate from "The Crate" episode of Creepshow making cameo appearances). In some ways, this makes Jason Goes To Hell an interesting film with a sensibility that none of the other films share, in other ways, a maddening one.

At the time, it probably seemed like a great idea to really shake things up with the franchise. The series was dying a protracted death at the box office, and no one really seemed to know what to do with Jason anymore (hence the sale to New Line from Paramount). And maybe at the time, it seemed like the audience might crave some answers as to how Jason is able to survive so much trauma (like, for instance, death) in film after film. In hindsight, however, the new abilities and backstory for Jason that Jason Goes To Hell introduces just points to how far astray from its roots the series had gotten. Jason was now some fantastical creature who not only couldn't die but who's body was just a vessel from which he could transfer his evil essence from one host to the next. Marcus has said that he and his co-writers hadn't seen the 1987 sci-fi thriller The Hidden when they wrote Jason Goes To Hell (which had an alien possessing identical body-hopping abilities to the ones they gave Jason) but whether it was an original idea or a rip-off, it doesn't matter much anyway - history has borne out the fact that this just wasn't the right way to go.

Friday the 13th should stick to telling the same story about a psycho in the woods out to protect his turf. The more you get away from that, the more the series loses itself. What saves Jason Goes To Hell is the enthusiasm behind it and the commitment - no matter how wrongheaded - to taking the series someplace different. There's plenty of weird bits here never seen before or since in the Friday universe - like Jason strapping down a naked prospective male host and shaving him with a straight razor before transferring bodies or the sight of Jason in satantic slug form making his way between Erin Gray's legs. I also liked Steven Williams' character of Creighton Duke - a larger than life bounty hunter who knows everything there is to know about Jason. As a director, Marcus went all out with the visuals in a way that no Friday helmer ever had up to that point and with Jason Goes To Hell featuring more shoot-outs and action-style moments than any other entry in the series, Marcus even offers up some John Woo moments (before Woo's style became trendy in the US - Jason Goes To Hell was in fact released the week before Woo's US debut, Hard Target) with characters firing their guns in slow motion as they dive through the air. Honestly, I'm surprised that Marcus hasn't gone on to do much more in the genre, or with directing in general, as this film showed he had some serious chops.

In the end, I can't help but maintain a fondness for Jason Goes To Hell. It's a nutty entry, to be sure, but I appreciate its audacity. If nothing else, it had the most crowd-pleasing final shot in the series. I don't think I've heard a louder reaction from a theater audience than I did from the opening night audience I saw this with when Freddy's glove bursts from the ground to drag Jason's mask beneath the dirt. Total hysteria. For that moment, at least, a theater full of Friday fans were in horror heaven.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Crystal Lake Countdown Day 2: Jason X (2001)

Going into space didn't herald great things for Jason's horror brethren Pinhead or Leprechaun so the idea of sending Jason to slay among the stars didn't seem like a promising next step for the series. The previous Jason entry was the controversial Jason Goes To Hell, which got a mixed response from the fanbase and audiences, so maybe a back-to-basics move might've been more sensible - especially as Jason Goes to Hell was released in 1993, making the gap between that film and Jason X the longest between any Friday entries to date. Maybe audiences were due to be reminded of what originally made the Sultan of Slaughter the brand name that he was. So was it really a prudent move to take him so far from his element - like off the planet altogether?

The answer, as it turns out, is "kind of". From a commercial standpoint, Jason X was a failure, being the smallest earner of the entire Friday series to date. So the 'hook' of putting Jason in space wasn't the draw that the producers might've hoped it to be (although in fairness, due to studio politics, Jason X was held back from release for two years, during which time the movie was widely bootlegged, cutting into potential revenue). But as a film, Jason X exceeded most expectations. Directed by Sean Cunningham protege James Isaac (who also directed the Cunningham-produced The Horror Show) and written by the future scribe of My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Todd Farmer, Jason X is far from the debacle some might've feared it to be. Farmer has stated that he's unhappy with the many rewrites done to his script, and I imagine a better movie was initially in the offing here, but the final product isn't so shabby.

Set for the most part in the far-flung year of 2455, after both Jason and a Final Girl (Lexa Doig as Rowan) frozen in cryogenic suspension back in our time are revived by a team of students on expedition to Earth, Jason X proves that the future offers several new challenges and opportunities for Jason. Challenge-wise, Jason learns that dismemberment isn't as effective with robots as it is with people. He also learns that there's a lot more firepower to contend with in the future. But yet the future science of nanotechnology gives Jason a new, more resilient body. Reborn as a gleaming gladiator of gore, the so-called Uber-Jason is Jason X's lasting claim to fame. I love the look for this costume - it's goofy but in just the right way. It reminds me of specialized action figures where characters like Batman or Spider-Man will be outfitted for some environment that they never actually encounter in the movies or comics, like Scuba Spider-Man or Artic Camouflage Hulk. That's how this Uber-Jason strikes me - like an action figure that they happened to build a movie around.

In his last outing as Jason, Kane Hodder does a great job selling what might've otherwise been been a too-ridiculous alteration to the character. From the start, Hodder always imbued Jason with a little bit of a superhero vibe (it probably helps that his first Friday was a comic book-style thrown down against a telekinetic teen - Hodder's Jason was never from the down n' dirty Friday era, there was always a fantasy element to his installments) so it doesn't seem out of character for his Jason to become an even more exaggerated powerhouse. As for his kills in Jason X, however, they aren't his best. The highlight comes early on when he dunks a victim face first in a sink of liquid nitrogen, then proceeds to shatter their frozen face against a counter. The rest of the movie's body count is more on the lame side of the galaxy. Jason's dispatching of a crew of hardass space troopers (including writer Todd Farmer in a cameo role) is all right (giving Jason a good adversary in the form of Peter Mensah's hard-to-kill Sgt. Brodski) and the virtual reality return to '80s-era Crystal Lake as Hodder reprises his famous sleeping bag kill from Part VII is a funny bit.

By the end of the movie, I believe Jason X has burned through the novelty of its premise to the satisfaction of anyone who might care. I do wish that he claimed a few more victims before the end - the android played by Lisa Ryder really needed to be put down for good and her inventor shouldn't have slipped past Jason, either (you just can't call Jason "Slappy" in a Friday the 13th movie and live) - but it isn't the fiasco some fans feared. Save for The New Blood, I prefer his Earth bound adventures but Jason X wasn't just a case of Jason being lost in space.