VHS Revival pitches a flag for a celestial oddity
So, they finally did it: they sent Jason to outer space. As preposterous as that may sound, it was only a matter of time before horror’s most unlikely hero went celestial. The Friday the 13th series had been guilty of some pretty preposterous gimmicks over the years, and after a budget-struck Jason failed to take Manhattan, something drastic was needed to revive a long-waning franchise. New Line Cinema would take that mantle after purchasing the rights from Paramount with a view to eventually pitting Freddy vs Jason, and their first attempt, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, would prove an unmitigated disaster.
This didn’t bode well for the growing company’s latest venture, particularly since what they were dealing with was the kind of pop culture juggernaut that made zealots out of fans. Whenever a franchise achieves such status, advocates have a tendency to become rather precious, picky to the extent where even the most minute of variations is enough to spark outrage. In spite of its often desperate array of colourful gimmicks, the original series would stick to a pretty rigid formula, one that instead of tiring fans somehow made them eager for more of the same. This in spite of an increasingly censored product which served little more purpose than to fill Paramount’s unscrupulously deep pockets.
Of course, hindsight is a potent healer, and Jason’s near ten-year absence was enough to wash away the negatives like so much Camp Crystal blood. Any Jason fan worth their salt will find plenty to admire in every instalment, no matter how lazy and predictable, but there was also much to deride throughout the years. In fact, the series had been growing moribund by the year. I mean, a money-spinning franchise like this doesn’t just up and vanish for no reason, and Paramount had squeezed every drop of commercial blood out of its marquee attraction before abandoning ship, washing ashore the kind of limpid carcass the vultures could no longer pick at.
For anyone familiar with the ins-and-outs of the franchise, Friday the 13th was a long and cynical saga of commercial sorcery. But long before the series explored the zany realms of A New Beginning and beyond, the series was almost stopped dead in its tracks, or so history would have you believe. Back in 1985, with the MPAA breathing down their necks, producers at Paramount would name their third Jason-led instalment The Final Chapter, but in spite of their proposed send-off, you just knew they weren’t finished with their marquee attraction, his first two outings offering huge returns from relatively minuscule financial outlays. If Friday the 13th Part III gave us the most obvious gimmick of the lot in the Reagan-era 3-D fad, then its immediate successor made us believe that this was the end for the madman in the hockey mask, an event that millions would inevitably pay to see.
With such a tenuous gimmick providing similar box office returns, Paramount realised that what they had in their hands was cinematic fool’s gold. Only a year later they would renege on their promise quicker than a pro-wrestling retirement match, giving us an impostor killer who left a rather bad taste in the mouths of many. But like lambs to the Voorhees slaughter, we fell for it time and time again: absurd regeneration, Carrie clone crossovers and laborious boat rides without a New York monument in sight — you name it we bought it, and by the time The Final Friday gave us its Necronomicon tie-in, we were just about ready to close the book on the franchise for good.
Fat Lou: Kids and their goddamn field trips. Let’s bring the psycho on board. Yeah, sure. I just know I’m gonna get blamed for this shit.
And for almost ten years New Line did, but when the idea was proposed for a low-budget instalment that promised us Jason in space, guess who came crawling back for more? The majority of fans had admonished New Line’s first effort for Jason’s sparse screen time and a plethora of other sacrilegious deviations, and it was almost painful to feel yourself drawn to what would surely prove a worthless cash-in. But what choice did you have? As much as producers had tricked us throughout the years, Jason had carved out a rather painful place in our hearts, and we weren’t about to miss his long overdue return.
Many fans dislike Jason X rather deeply, and it’s easy to see why. For a start, New Line are more synonymous with Fred Krueger than his hulking peer, and the thought of a much cherished franchise falling into the hands of a brand new roundtable of executives was enough to make your skin crawl. Back in the late ’90s, a post-Scream Dimension Films would disfigure the Halloween franchise beyond recognition with Halloween H20, shedding the Myers ethos with a slickly produced meta clone that placed a huge emphasis on celebrity, a formula that killed any and all attempts at authenticity. New Line’s first foray at reigniting a franchise was guilty of a similarly divergent approach, so it was only inevitable that fans would fear a repeat performance.
It is easy to hate what is arguably the worst instalment in the entire Voorhees canon, but the fact is, Jason Goes to Hell had to try something different, a necessity that comes with its own set of problems. There is something about those gimmicky Paramount instalments that transcends traditional cinema. Those original movies offer very little variation beyond superficial marketing ploys, but we know what we came to see. This was understood by producers to such an extent that the trailer for Friday the 13th Part III boldly announced the movie’s body count with a countdown that gave us a tantalising glimpse of each death, displaying in no uncertain terms just how many vacuous teens were primed for Jason’s latest annual chop. Like it or not, the original Friday the 13th series is a phenomenon, so much so that it is able to play by its own inimitable set of rules.
At the same time fans have rules of their own, a fact punctuated by the backlash that Jason X still receives from some quarters, but I for one was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. Granted, the movie may lack the unique charm of Paramount’s contributions, but in many ways it is respectful to the original formula, and there is absolutely no denying that Jason X is a unique entry in its own right. Yes, the set design looks like a laser tag arena, and yes its celestial background is cheaper than a sci-fi channel mid-afternoon rerun, but the movie would right many of the wrongs committed by its audacious predecessor, not only by returning to the basics, but by boldly going where no instalment had ever gone before.
Jason X is one giant leap for the series. It wasn’t enough to spawn another sequel (yet) but in all likelihood it doesn’t need one. With more kills than any other instalment in the series, this is Mr Voorhees at his most relentless, presumably pissed having been frozen for centuries after one last ninja-esque rampage on an underestimating pack of medical vultures. So eager to return to the killing fields is Jason that his frozen body hacks off a slack-jawed gawker’s arm as soon as his cryogenic chamber is opened, the first of many knowing winks that makes the movie such a cheapo treat. Jason X also features a very welcome cameo from one David Cronenberg, who is swiftly dispatched of during Jason’s initial slaughterthon. Cronenberg clearly got it, and for the most part so does Jason X.
Later, when our killer threatens the lives of our remaining cast, a virtual reality simulation is used to try and fool him, recreating the trite backdrop of the original Camp Crystal setting with a couple of skimpily-clad teens who inform our perplexed quasi-antagonist of their love for pot, beer and premarital sex, a transparent representation that has Jason swiftly return to sleeping bag smash mode. Not only clever, Jason X can be downright charming. It is also savage, a corpse corkscrew and a cryogenic face-smash two of the most impressive kills not accredited to Tom Savini, acts of brutality that are more than enough to get the nostalgia juices flowing.
But the original Friday series isn’t the only inspiration for Jason X. Equally transparent is the screenplay’s decision to ape the most recognisable space-bound horror this side of the fake moon landing. In terms of characters, there is the archetypal corporate shill, this time in the guise of a power-hungry professor, whose expositional oversight allows Jason to regenerate for the benefit of scientific research. There is also a bad ass android who gives Voorhees the pasting of his life, and presumably puts him out to pasture before a colony of regenerative ants brings him back from the depths of mutilation. You think that’s absurd? You ain’t heard nothing yet!
VR teen girl #1: Hey, do you want a beer?
VR teen girl #2: Or do you wanna smoke some pot?
VR teen girl #1: Or we can have premarital sex?
[both remove their tops]
VR teen girl #1, VR teen girl #2: We love premarital sex!
Not only is Jason able to regenerate, his cellular structure is altered to invincible levels, and when I use the word Invincible, I don’t mean returning from the grave, teleportation, melting in the sewers invincible, I mean absolutely foolproof, and so marks the birth of an entity that has become fondly known as uber-Jason, transforming franchise legend Kane Hodder’s latest incarnation into one of the best character designs in the entire series. Much like the irresistible xenomorph, deep space is the only thing that can incapacitate our bloodshot killing machine, but even then he comes hurtling back, immune to the vast, weightlessness of the universe like an undying planet.
The movie is a joyful plethora of kills and tongue-in-cheek gestures—everything that makes the series so special, and if you are able to adjust from the original setting you’ll find that the formula is not so different, with a cast of vacuous faux-scientists who would be just as at home in the skimpily-clad bikinis of yore, (some of those futuristic costumes leave little to desire!). This is fun, creative fayre, with a delicious sense of wit and a preposterous finale to die for. No, this isn’t Paramount, and in a sense this isn’t even Friday the 13th, but it is Jason, both in body and in spirit.
If, like me, you were put off by a celestial concept almost a decade in the making, take my advice and wait no longer, because any movie that features Earth 2 lovers gazing at a Jason-shaped shooting star as it careens towards the painfully inevitable is a more-than-worthy addition to the Voorhees legacy.
Fate can be so cruel!