VHS Revival chronicles the evolution of the Friday franchise and the NYC instalment that never was
It could have been epic; should have been epic, but in the end all Paramount craved were epic returns.
Few figured that the irrepressible Mr Voorhees would make it this far, but the man is nothing if not resourceful. By the time the 8th instalment of the Friday the 13th Franchise rolled around it was close to a decade in the making. During that time, the series had been given to 7 different directors, with 6 different actors adorning the mask—or peephole sack in the case of Part 2’s Warrington Gillette. During his almost relentless tenure, our hulking brute would clock up an incredible 88 kills—105 if you include dubious Jason impostor, Roy Burns, but I’ll leave that one for you to decide.
Jason’s journey hadn’t been easy. In fact, there was almost no Jason at all as Friday the 13th Part 2 was initially planned as something else entirely. Paramount wanted a sequel thanks to the success of a movie that original director Sean S. Cunningham wasn’t particularly proud of. He knew that blood and guts was the best way to attract teenagers caught up in the then anarchic slasher craze, but instead of bringing back Jason an anthology series of unrelated horror tales under the Friday the 13th title were considered as Paramount—who had purchased the worldwide distribution rights after the success of the original—looked to make the potential franchise an annual event. In the end, producers insisted that Jason be involved. How he had risen from the dead, where he had been hiding or how he had fended for himself for a quarter of a century was of little importance, and associate producer of the first film, Steve Miner, would take the directorial reins.
Although its US gross was almost half of that generated by the original instalment, Friday the 13th part 2 did astronomical numbers for such a low-budget horror flick, raking in almost twenty times its outlay ($21,722,776), but with such a limited concept Paramount knew that something fresh was needed in order to keep those numbers from plummeting further, and so began Friday the 13th’s love affair with the annual gimmick.
Charles McCulloch: Walking corpses are not real.
Julius: Oh, yeah? Yeah, well, these dead bodies are sure enough real, all right.
The first of those came quite naturally. By 1983, the Reagan era 3-D fad was in full swing, and very soon a trailer would announce that “you can’t fight him. You can’t stop him. And now, you can’t even keep him on the screen!” The 3-D elements of Friday the 13th Part 3 were laughably bad—most of them inane sequences featuring rakes, yo-yos and even bales of hay coming through the screen—but the movie was a turning point in the series. Not only did it veer away from the stale POV killer synonymous with the slasher sub-genre, it gave us Jason’s iconic mask, without which the series may not have survived. It also brought Jason out of the shadows, marking his gradual turn from horror antagonist to stalk-and-slash antihero. If the censors were horrified by the sub-genre’s cynical modus of mindless slaughter, then how would they react to the mindless killer as antihero?
Thanks in large part to its shoddy 3-D gimmick, Friday the 13th Part 3 did phenomenal numbers almost on a par with the original, but by now the series had run into another problem entirely. By the end of 1983, the ‘video nasty‘ scandal was well underway in the UK, and with Silent Night, Deadly Night just around the corner in the US, both the MPAA and BBFC would reach for the censorship guillotine as moral outrage and political subterfuge ran amok. By 1984, the Video Recordings Act was on the verge of becoming a reality, and the explicit violence of previous years would soon be a thing of the past. Fittingly—and quite admirably, it seemed, since proposed cuts would make the ‘Friday’ formula outmoded—Paramount named their latest instalment The Final Chapter. Jason’s number, it seemed, was finally up.
Reviewing The Final Chapter on an episode of Siskel and Ebert, impassioned film critic and infamous condemner of the series Roger Ebert would say of the movie, “The Final Chapter is 90 minutes of teenagers being strangled, stabbed, impaled, chopped up and mutilated; that’s all this movie is…and the sickest thing is, this isn’t the final chapter, that’s just an advertising gimmick, the ending clearly sets up a sequel and what I want to know is, I wonder if they’re going to be heartless and cynical enough to make that sequel.”
Ebert obviously wasn’t aware of the figures. With a US gross of $36,690,067 from a $2,300,000 outlay, the question wasn’t would they, but how would they? Friday the 13th: A New Beginning features arguably the cheapest gimmick of them all. Something akin to a Scooby Doo episode, the movie was an absurd whodunnit that replaced Jason with a copycat killer, which was enough to infuriate even the most ardent Voorhees follower. In hindsight, the movie is a lot of fun, but upon first viewing I felt as cheated as the next fan. It was clearly a different actor under the iconic hockey mask than the one who was finally revealed as the true killer, and until the movie’s reveal it is no different from any other instalment, but as silly as it sounds it wasn’t Jason in storyline terms, and if nothing else the film proved just how low Paramount would stoop to squeeze blood from the proverbial stone.
Part V would prove a turning point in the series, and not just in terms of censorship. Jason fans tend to split the series into two parts: 1 through 4 being the classic conception, with 6 through 8 representing Jason’s self-reflexive incarnation. The post A New Beginning Jason is a different entity entirely—a supernatural figure who is both omnipotent and impermeable, wiping out flocks of teens with the flip irony of Roger Moore‘s James Bond. Tom McLoughlin was the first to fully embrace the concept, his meta-instalment Jason Lives! setting the tone for the lawless canvas of indestructibility that would flood the late 1980s. For many, Part 6 is one of the better instalments. It was fresh, ballsy and savvy enough to sidestep the censorship guillotine, but with stagnant returns Paramount were still looking for a way to freshen their faltering cash cow.
Although a shadow of the glory days financially, Jason Lives! was still a huge success for a low-budget slasher, bringing in $19,472,057 from a budget of approximately $3,000,000, but by 1987 competitors New Line Cinema had taken stalk-and-slash filmmaking to a whole new stratosphere. Three years after director Wes Craven had redefined the genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street, marquee attraction Fred Krueger would become horror’s first MTV superstar. Embracing the tongue-in-cheek formula of the ‘Friday’ series, Krueger would overshadow humour of the implied variety with a sadistic wit that was heard around the world, transforming Robert Englund into a bona fide horror icon.
Charles McCulloch: Facing your fear doesn’t always conquer it.
Looking to tap into Krueger’s popularity, Paramount would approach New Line with the idea of a Freddy vs Jason crossover, one that had fans of the genre licking their teeth with anticipation. Unsurprisingly, it never materialised. New Line had grossed an incredible $44,793,222 with A Nightmare of Elm Street 3:The Dream Warriors, more than nine times its budget, while Friday the 13th had skipped a year for the first time since its conception. Why would they help to revitalise their nearest competitor at a time when Krueger mania was set to peak? Would Paramount have returned the favour had the roles been reversed? Of course not; capitalism just doesn’t work that way.
Paramount’s answer was to devise a quasi-crossover that would pit a girl with telekinetic powers against the returning Jason, who this time only had to free himself from the bottom of a lake to return to his old hunting ground—a far site easier than returning from the grave as he famously had in Jason Lives! In Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, what we got was essentially Carrie vs Jason, a movie so heavily edited and devoid of tension that it barely resembled a horror movie at all. Jason’s sixth outing had a great finale, and his make-up has perhaps never looked better, but gimmicks aside, the series had never been so by-the-numbers. Jason’s near decade-long legacy was finally stumbling to an end it seemed.
Financially, the movie made roughly the same as its predecessor, but the popularity of the series was waning. Released the same year, A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master did astronomical numbers, managing an astonishing return of $49,369,899, which was the biggest for the franchise to date thanks to a series of mind-blowing practical effects set-pieces that explored the realms of Freddy’s ethereal dreamworld like never before. It didn’t matter that the movie was mostly lousy, losing sight of the horror elements that allowed its predecessor to achieve such a winning formula. Jason was becoming yesterday’s news, while Krueger was the new commercial king.
Something was needed; a promise had to be delivered, and in the cynical world of sequel making bigger is better—at least in principal. With returns that were well under half of what The Dream Master had forged, there was no way Paramount would pony up the cash to compete with Nightmare’s visual extravagances, and as a character Voorhees was a completely different animal—a no frills brute who had presumably never slept a wink in his life. Another merry-go-round at Camp Crystal Lake was decidedly low-key and just a little old hat. Instead, Paramount would look for a new location for Jason to explore, and what grander stage for his latest massacre than The Big Apple?
It was an audacious idea with endless possibilities, but with a budget of roughly $5,000,000, it didn’t leave much to go around, particularly in a city such as New York City, which is and always has been notoriously expensive to shoot in. The original ideas for the Jason Takes Manhattan screenplay were very promising. The movie would involve a school trip—a boat ride to Manhattan that Jason would somehow smuggle himself aboard, leading to a deadly game of cat and mouse in ‘the city that never sleeps’. As director Rob Hedden would himself explain, “The way I envisioned it, for the first third of the movie we’d be on the boat, then we’d get to New York at the end of Act I. Everything about New York was going to be completely exploited and milked. There was going to be a tremendous scene on the Brooklyn Bridge, a boxing match in Madison Square Garden, Jason would go through department stores, Broadway plays. He’d even crawl onto the top of the Statue of Liberty and dive off.”
Quite the conception, but one that would never come to pass. In fact, regardless of what a deftly edited trailer would imply, hardly any of the movie takes place in our titular city. Most of Jason Takes Manhattan sees our paper-thin cast confined to a boat, the majority of the city scenes instead filmed in Vancouver, Canada. For a sub-genre that was built on violence, the eighth instalment in the franchise was also the tamest—quite the achievement since The New Blood had already taken the series to new censorship lows. Even worse, the movie’s original promotional poster (see above) was nixed due to complaints made by the New York Tourism Committee. Once again Jason would have to rely on humour to get his latest entry across the finishing line, but by now it was all wearing just a little thin. Of all the gimmicks Paramount had dreamed up in their quest to squeeze their marquee attraction further and further through the commercial wringer, this was the biggest insult of all.
So how does the movie hold up after all the production hoo-ha? The answer is not very well. I’m not blaming those involved in the making of the movie —I mean, just look what they had to work with—but for me this is the blandest of all entries, with a mostly forgettable cast and easily the least memorable final girl the series has to offer in Jensen Daggett’s Rennie, who was initially set to be played by Saved By the Bell‘s Elizabeth Berkley of Showgirls fame. For a start, Jason Takes Manhattan doesn’t feel like a Friday movie in the traditional sense. It feels cheap and rushed; haphazardly conceived as if pieced together at the last minute, something you would expect from such a doomed production. Ironically, it is the absence of Camp Crystal Lake that makes it appear so cheapskate. The series was always low-budget, Jason Takes Manhattan actually proving the most expensive, but a relatable, low-key setting enabled us to overlook such financial shortcomings, while Jason’s venture into the big city only serves to highlight it. Legendary composer Harry Manfredini is also notable by his absence.
Of course, everything is subjective. Many fans love the eighth instalment, and it’s easy to see why. For the majority of Friday fans, Jason is a larger-than-life character, and Hedden shoots his antihero with a voyeuristic relish, fetishizing his every move with infinitesimal detail. Admittedly, this leads to some iconic shots of our quasi-protagonist, the kind you would struggle to find in any other instalment, but such an emphasis is placed on Jason that the movie suffers in other ways. Perhaps as a way to sidestep such stringent censorship barriers, we hardly see our victims. Instead of focusing on our cast’s struggles to evade their hulking pursuer, we instead follow Jason to the extent that it sometimes feels like you’re playing a first-person video game, and because of this there is an almost complete lack of tension. This is less an exercise in horror, more a doomed attempt to create the kind of mainstream pop culture buzz electrifying the ‘Nightmare’ franchise.
Julius: Go ahead. Take your best shot, motherfucker.
[Jason punches off head]
Don’t get me wrong, there are some memorable moments here—for better and for worse. Character-wise, it’s pretty slim pickings beyond Jason himself, who hogs the majority of the movie’s screen time, although Vincent Craig Dupree is tons of fun as spunky young pugilist Julius, his rooftop bout of fisticuffs having predictably dire consequences. Still, anyone with the balls to pick a bare knuckle fight with a masked Jason is alright with me, even if it makes him perhaps the most vacuous of all of Jason’s victims. Veteran actor Peter Mark Richman is also rather memorable as the wonderfully anal and typically dismissive Charles McCulloch, who soon becomes Jason’s 84th victim after taking the plunge in a dubiously placed barrel of toxic waste. Jason also has his moments, a scene in which he kicks a boombox from under a gang of punks leading to the movie’s most hilarious wink-wink moment.
But Friday the 13th wouldn’t be Friday the 13th without a good-sized portion of silliness, and Jason Takes Manhattan has some of the most nonsensical moments in the entire series. First of all, this it the instalment when our supernatural killer acquired the power of teleportation, which is cute and rather fitting for a character already seeped in omnipresence and a thinly veiled attempt at emulating Krueger’s dreamworld dominance. On the other hand, it makes a total mockery of the horror formula, laying waste to any and all attempts at dramatic tension. Just imagine Halloween if Michael Myers had the power to be everywhere at once! In a sense he is, but never so literally. There is also the movie’s infamous ending, which sees Jason melt beneath a deluge of toxic waste, an event that somehow sees him transformed from a cutesy miracle of rotting make-up into a perfectly formed child without a burn to his name. I mean, what on Earth were they thinking?!
Okay, so Jason Takes Manhattan, for all of its faults, does benefit from an absurd comedy factor, both intentional and (seemingly) otherwise, but this is less about what Paramount delivered, more about what they failed to, and none of this should be layed in the lap of our unfortunate director. The movie would be the least successful in the entire series, and Paramount would quickly pull the plug on a character they had kept on creative life support for a number of years. Ironically, the A Nightmare On Elm Street series would soon go the same way, The Dream Master‘s money-spinning decadence all but killing the franchise for the long haul, and New Line would later purchase the rights to the Friday the 13th series with the hope of resuscitating it, pulling a Roy Burns of their own by sending Jason to space and finally forging the long-anticipated Freddy vs Jason crossover, all with mixed and highly contentious results.
During his Paramount tenure, Jason had been stabbed, hung, sliced, chopped, impaled, shot, drowned, buried alive, set on fire, melted, and had even had his neck snapped by a boat propeller, but in the end it was a trip to The Big Apple that proved his ultimate demise — according to the movie’s title anyway.