Summer of Blood: Slash of the titans
"We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded," said Merry.Here are some facts about the summer of 2003:
Not to me," said Frodo. "To me, it feels more like falling asleep again."
-Twenty-three years had passed since Friday the 13th.
-Nineteen years had passed since A Nightmare on Elm Street.
-Ten years had passed since the gag at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, in which Freddy Krueger's glove grabs Jason Voorhees's mask.
-Nine years had passed since the last film starring Krueger, Wes Craven's New Nightmare.
-Seventeen months had passed since Jason X darted in and out of theaters on its way to losing money on a $13 million budget.
It doesn't take much to argue that the time wasn't really right for the long-gestating Freddy vs. Jason, if the time for that project had ever truly been "right" outside of the feverish sugar-inflected minds of tween boys in the late-'80s. But it would be un-Hollywood to let matters both narrative and practical stop you from making a high-concept sack of crap. At any rate, it turns out that I know less about such things than Robert Shaye and his team of elves at New Line, because Freddy vs. Jason turned out to be the highest-grossing film in both the Nightmare and F13 series, even adjusting for inflation, and the first film to break the $100 million mark worldwide.
Not too bad for a project with such horribly small reason to exist.
There was one and only one moment in the entire running time of Freddy vs. Jason where I thought that it might function as a decent entertainment, even for a moment, and it comes awfully early; in fact, it comes during the studio logo, when the four-note tone that pops up throughout the Nightmare films shades into the beloved ch-ch-ch that signifies Our Man Jason. Intriguingly, or more accurately, not, the "Freddy Theme" will never come back, whereas the "Jason Theme" crops up in every place you'd expect it to if this were a run-of-the-mill F13 entry. This despite a pervasive emphasis on Freddy, which I assume can be blamed on Bob Shaye's historical attachment to that character. Also because his narrative is a bit more interesting than "big dude hacks people up with tools."
On the other hand, the indelicate treatment of Freddy's elaborate backstory is most assuredly not the work of people who had word from on high to treat the Killer That Built New Line with anything like care or respect. Here's an important thing to recall: the target audience for these movies is largely made up of teenage males, 14-18 years old. When the last Freddy Krueger film came out, those boys were 5-9 years old, and by that point in the franchise, nobody cared (indeed, Wes Craven's New Nightmare was the lowest-grossing film in that franchise, despite being the second-best). If we stretch back a bit to the last time that Freddy Krueger was popular, we have to go to 1989, the year of The Dream Child, when those kids were newborns and preschoolers. (I was seven when that film hit theaters, and I just vaguely remember Freddy being a scary guy with claws; I was nine at the time of Freddy's Dead and I distinctly remember that film being a joke).
In other words, most of the people who'd be shelling out for Freddy vs. Jason weren't really alive when Freddy vs. Jason was a living, breathing debate, and it's not so easy to assume that most of them would have decided to e.g. spend every weekend over one summer watching the 17 films in the two franchises just to prepare for the new one. Which means that the legend of Freddy Krueger needed to be presented quickly and dirtily, and it needed to show up fast.
Now, while Bob Shaye's pro-Freddy stance is undeniable, Freddy vs. Jason always feels a lot like Friday the 13th, Part XI: With Fabulous Special Guest Freddy Krueger, and never more than in the horribly clumsy beginning when Freddy (as always, Robert Englund) gives us the bare-bones of his legacy in one of those "sit down and I'll tell you a story" opening sequences that felt so brutally unimaginative in your Friday the 13th, Part 2 and your Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Here, Freddy reminds us that he is a ghost who kills teens in their dreams (none of that Faustian bargain with the dream demons of Freddy's Dead here, thank-you-very-much, nor any of the "Every teen in Springwood is dead"), and that as the kids of Springwood forgot he existed, his power to scare grew weak. Which is kind of a neat reminder of how many years it's been since the last Nightmare and also a pointed reversal of the situation in New Nightmare, and also the first moment that I feel the need to call "bullshit." We're less than one minute into the film, by the way.
See, the whole point of the first Nightmare is that the parents of Springwood had done such a damn fine job of destroying every last trace of Krueger and his crimes that their children had no idea what was going on with this creepy burned man. It's close to the midway point of the film that "Fred Krueger" is first said out loud, if I recall correctly. That's about as far as you can get from "his power comes only when kids fear him," and given that A Nightmare on Elm Street is several orders of magnitude better than Freddy vs. Jason, I'm not prepared to accept this new order of things.
Freddy continues to say that he has searched the bowels of Hell for a dark avenger to kill in his name and bring terror to the Springwood teens once more, and he found that avenger in the form of a mouldering zombie corpse in a hockey mask, a killer whose only goal was to defend his camp from the horny pot-smoking teens that he thinks killed his mother. Now I must call bullshit again. Personally, I've always enjoyed the argument that "Jason is a psycho-killer and psycho-killers kill." And there are only two movies in the whole goddamn series that could be reasonably described as "Jason defends his camp against interlopers." Anyway, that's what gets us to the typically incoherent resurrection scene: apparently Jason wanders around Hell killing teens, one of whom turns into his mother (Paula Shaw, sounding a bit like Betsy Palmer and looking very little like her), who urges him to rise and kill. It's Freddy of course, and apparently by saying "Jason, rise and kill," he just kind of zaps Jason back to life. I don't know. It lacks the outrage of a fire-pissing dog, but so too does it lack the whimsy of Tommy Jarvis going all Frankenstein on Jason. Also, we have no sense of where Jason's body has been laid to rest, or how any of this fits in with Jason X, although not fitting in with Jason X is actually a positive thing.
But let that rest for a moment, it is time to Meet the Meat. I swear, every beat of this story feels so much like a Friday the 13th movie. I suspect that's the fault of producer Sean S. Cunningham, who presumably had more on-set influence than Shaye did. Anyway, we're in the parent-free home of Lori Campbell (Monica Keena) with her friends Gibb (Katherine Isabelle) and Kia (Kelly Rowland, another acting Destiny's Child vet, who isn't really any worse here than Beyoncé was in Dreamgirls), as well as Gibb's emotionally abusive date-raping boyfriend Trey (Jesse Hutch) and the dull fellow that Gibb and Kia want Lori to hook-up with, Blake (David Kopp). You know what I really missed about the F13 movies? Transparently obvious Final Girls. In this case, we have a young woman who won't have sex because she still pines after her Twu Wuv, a boy named Will who vanished some months ago after they'd been dating (chastely!) for almost four years. In contrast, one of her friends is a pimp and one is a slut. The boys are such obvious cannon fodder that it almost makes one want to laugh.
So we're wasting time on these yahoos when Jason shows up (played here by the frightfully large Ken Kirzinger, without any of the anything that Kane Hodder brought to the role, and this is apparently specifically because director Ronny Yu wanted Jason to be more sympathetic than threatening. What the holy fuck is that about?). He very quickly dispatches the post-coital Trey in a particularly bloody stabbing scene, as the other four teens run screaming. You know what is kind of nice about Freddy vs. Jason? Coming as it does in the early-to-mid '00s, its slasher and horror competition is made up largely of sterile anti-exploitation PG-13 shit. There is much gore in this film, and much naked female flesh, and these two things are customarily the only remotely entertaining diversions in any slasher picture. Which is why, for all its faults, this movie is at least better than most of its contemporaries.
At this point, the movie kind of shuts down. I remember complaining of Jason Goes to Hell that I remembered every single death in the film, but not the plot connecting them; it wasn't really a "movie" so much as a clip reel of death scenes and unscary shock scenes. Freddy vs. Jason is pretty much exactly like that. The kids go to the cops, find a bunch of dicks and one deputy, Scott (Lochyln Munro), who recognises the earmarks of a Voorhees killing even while the rest of the department frets about Freddy Krueger coming back despite their program of institutionalising any teen who exhibited Freddy-esque nightmares. Two such teens including Twu Wuv Will (Jason Ritter) and his podgy friend Mark (Brendan Fletcher). There are deaths both amusing (Blake's reminds one of both Kill Bill and Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving" trailer from Grindhouse) and irritating (lots, for many reasons). Jason interrupts a rave in a cornfield (...) and Freddy gets pissy that Jason is an unstoppable killing machine, taking down all of the prospective victims in sight. Well, NO SHIT. There's a good reason that Jason's body counts are about five times the size of Freddy's. If you've got two killers, and one of them feels the need to put each of his victims through a ten-minute sitcom routine, and one cuts people down in twos and threes with a machete, it's pretty easy to decide who is using his time more efficiently.
It's a sign of...well, of how badly I've wasted the last four months of my life, I guess, that Freddy vs. Jason is both a pretty awful Nightmare film but only a mediocre F13 film. Since I like everything to be Sean Cunningham's fault, let's go ahead and blame him. Although honestly, it's not something that could ever have been avoided, I suspect; both series are noted for the rigidity of their story structure, and damn me if screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (and a whole boatload of uncredited doctors) didn't try their level best to meld those conflicting impulses, sometimes with great success, insofar as "success" means, "both franchises are clearly recognisable." If "success" means, "it feels like a complete story is told without any strain or contrivance," well, that kind of success was never, ever going to happen. Frankly, it's the very best any sane person would have expected that the film be coherent enough to follow, and it is. So let us not ask Freddy vs. Jason to be of all things clever.
There's an odd thing about this particular storyline: it's given that Jason is doing most of the killing, but according to Bob Shaye's (alleged) dictat, Freddy gets more screentime. This is what I spoke of before, in claiming that the film was undeniably pro-Freddy while it was also very F13 in feel. For Jason to do his killing, there needs to be teen sex; there needs to be teen partying; there need to be teens wandering around in needlessly dark corridors and corners. But those things aren't part of Freddy's world, and so the frequent cuts back to his increasing frustration at Jason's mindless rampage have the discordant feel of watching the American footage crudely spliced into one of the lesser Godzilla imports, or Bela Lugosi's turn as the non-diegetic mad scientist in Glen or Glenda.
Of all the 18 films I've seen in this godless summer, this was the one with the most arbitrary middle; not in the sense that what happens is pointless and serves only to increase the running time and body count (for then are not all ten Fridays the 13th arbitrary?), but because what happens is so palpably not part of the movie. It's Freddy versus Jason, after all, and there's hardly a moment during Jason's completely uninteresting kill spree where it doesn't feel like everyone down to the characters isn't just tapping their feet and waiting for that Battle Royale to start, which happens at the 60-minute mark, more or less, in a 98-minute film.
First, I must confess to finding this slightly clever: the fight is in two parts, each part on one of the killers' home turf. Maybe that's not slightly clever, and I'm just desperate. Anyway, they play mostly fair in how they get Jason to sleep - being that he's a zombie and all - and they play absolutely fair in pulling Freddy into the real world, using the same mechanic that's been part of the series since the first Nightmare.
Sadly, what they do when they get Jason and Freddy standing in one place is not very nice at all. Ronny Yu, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do with the finalé (including pick the winner), chose to draw upon his two decades of experience working in Hong Kong action cinema to stage the fight as something much less than wire-fu, and much more than two psycho killers pounding the holy hell out of each other. Whatever it is, it's fuck-all distracting and completely alien to the spirit of the slasher genre. The particularly annoying bit is when Freddy and Jason square off in the construction zone where Camp Crystal Lake is being developed into a residential subdivision (which, you wouldn't think that suburbanites would want to settle on land once known to be a murderer's slashing grounds, but hey, it's New Jersey), and things get lit on fire in an oh-so-Hong-Kong way, and Jason kicks Freddy in the chest and he goes flying twenty feet; and Freddy swings a crane at Jason and he goes flying thirty feet. I mean, I guess I didn't know what to expect: twenty minutes of Jason hackin' with the machete and Freddy clawin' with the razor glove would have been indescribably dull, but this Matrix crap is so bizarrely out of character!
Eventually they stop fighting, and it looks like they are dead, and the survivors who we could predict with arrow-like accuracy from the instant that Lori first whined about missing her boyfriend stagger off. Then comes the twist ending, and it is not at all surprising; indeed, it is so unsurprising that you would never think they'd go for it, but they do, and the movie ends on a wink that manages to say all of the following in a fraction of a second: "see kids, we're never going to die, not as long as sequels are on the table! I mean, come on, it's not like one franchise was actually going to win out - there are partisans for both killers, and half of the audience would be pissed no matter what. So instead, here's this floppy loose-end bullshit that proves that nobody was ever serious about this project in the first place. Not that the project deserved it."
And then it ends. And instead of belaboring this any longer, I am too going to end, and I am not sad that it ends; but nor am I sad that I started. It's been a long, strange trip, and I want to thank you all for making it with me. Did we learn anything? Maybe, maybe not. But it was kind of fun, and it's finally over.
Except, if there's one thing we have learned, it's that it's never over.
See you next summer.
Body Count: A typically Cunninghamian 19; only one of which was committed by Freddy Krueger. Way to bring your "A"-game, kid.
The F13/Nightmare/Why Do I Bother Timeline Controversy: Timeline issues were never a bother with Freddy's adventures until now, of course. Fuck you Jason. Anyway, here's the evidence: the new houses at Crystal Lake are supposed to be ready in summer 2004, so it's earlier than that year. The sheriff says they've had "four years" of peace, which could mean four years since Freddy's Dead, which would make it 2005; or maybe there was just a decade of crazy shit we weren't privy to.
My (I think) reasonable F13 timeline sets Jason Goes to Hell in 2004, but I'm sure I can massage a year out of it someplace to make this film take place just about exactly when it was released: August or September, 2003.
Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (Sholder, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Harlin, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Hopkins, 1989)
Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Talalay, 1991)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Craven, 1994)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Bayer, 2010)