Robert Englund dazzles in New Line Cinema’s long-awaited franchise crossover
This past Friday the 13th, I went for something a bit left-field. It was still a movie starring Jason Voorhees, but not the traditional Camp Crystal slaughter I typically opt for. Every time this infamous date rolls around I am confronted with the same old question: which instalment of the hit franchise should I reach for this time? And with so many sequels, spin-offs and reboots, it is never an easy choice. On the whole, Friday the 13th II-VI are the instalments I gravitate towards — though I do have a soft spot for 1988‘s hacked-to-pieces Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, which despite its setbacks does feature one of the most irresistible finales in the series, Kane Hodder’s marauding ‘Zombie Jason’ going full-on Universal monster mode against Lar Park Lincoln’s tepid Carrie clone, Tina Shepard. You’d think we’d get bored of such mindless trash, watching the same old nonsense time and time again, but if you’re feeling lowbrow, what better series to indulge in than Friday the 13th? It made mindlessness an art form during its irrepressible 80s run.
I don’t know why I suddenly felt the urge to go against tradition. The fact that September 13th played host to a full moon may have had something to do with it — if you believe in all that stuff — but sometimes you just have to put the usual suspects to one side and give something else a whirl. I tend to abandon certain instalments for a reason, but time is a great healer, and every once in a while I reach for those abandoned hit franchise sequels with a renewed hope. After all, they belong to the same series, have some of the same themes and characters, how bad could they really be?
Of all those sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one I continue to revisit despite myself. Though I’m not its biggest fan, the movie has some truly stand-out moments. It also has arguably the most interesting protagonist in the series in Mark Patton’s final boy, Jesse Walsh, and a Krueger variant who is hands-down the scariest of the bunch. Every so often I reach for Freddy’s Revenge with renewed hope but always leave underwhelmed. It’s still a fun nostalgia trip, but there are just too many silly moments in a movie that sets out to, and often succeeds in, being very dark indeed. It is a far sight better than those camp later instalments, but for those who prefer Krueger’s plethora of cheap one-liners, that humour (as lousy as it was) was at least purposeful. Crazed budgies and child-faced demon dogs were actually supposed to be scary.
Ironically, Freddy’s Revenge is also much better than the majority of Friday the 13th instalments, but with Friday the 13th, trash is exactly what audiences pay to see. For this reason, I am a firm believer that the franchise has no place in the current horror climate. You can’t recreate that silly, gimmick-laden formula for modern audiences. I mean, you could, but they’d likely just reject it. Today, everything is a sophisticated update or well-rounded origins story. Michael Myers is more than suited to that formula, but not so much Jason, a character who very much belongs to the 80s. I thought James Isaac did a fine job with 2001’s Jason X. He understood that the series was little more than fast food thrills and topped it off with a tasty dollop of tacky self-awareness. It had the production values of a Sci-fi channel space drama, and many fans struggled to swallow its celestial digression, but on the whole it got the franchise and everything it stood for. Fans of the original series were mostly unimpressed. In their heart of hearts, they wanted yet another 80s Paramount outing — great in theory, impossible in reality (though a period piece could be very welcome for a nostalgia-hungry generation fed on a flashback diet of Cobra Kai and Stranger Things).
Freddy Krueger: Being dead wasn’t a problem, but being forgotten, now that’s a bitch. I can’t come back if nobody remembers me. I can’t come back if nobody’s afraid.
In 2009, filmmaker Marcus Nispel would attempt to do for Jason Voorhees what Christopher Nolan did for Batman, ditching the cartoon tyranny for a highly-skilled hunter who had sharpened his skills in the Camp Crystal shadows. It was worth a punt. If a person was elusive enough to avoid detection for decades before taking vengeance on the demographic that had proven such a scourge to the Voorhees name, then surely he would have adapted to his habitat in ways that are alien to the modern teen slacker. Nispel’s Jason was fresh, believable and brutal, and in a post-Nolan era it was the next logical step, but the character had gone through too much silliness to come out serious on the other side. It just wasn’t Jason. Even those earlier, Golden Age instalments, though sparking the ire of a generation for their cynical violence, are pretty kitsch in hindsight.
I couldn’t remember much about a movie I had seen only once more than a decade prior. My first thought when reaching for Nispel’s reboot a second time was: a decade, really? I still see Freddy vs Jason, released in 2003, as a relatively new movie, but for someone born in 1982 anything released after the year 2000 seems relatively new. That’s what happens when you live to see the passing of a millennium. An almost total absence of memory regarding the reboot meant one of two things: a) it was too generic and poorly executed to be worthy of recalling in any detail or b) I hadn’t given it the proper attention. With this in mind I reached for it with renewed hope. What I discovered was a joyless outing that bore the same old emptiness but none of the humour. I barely made it past the half-hour mark.
By the process of elimination, the only movie that could save an evening quickly dying under the weight of indecision was Freddy vs Jason. This was a film I didn’t particularly take to upon release and one I have heard plenty of bad things about in the interim. Celebrity actors, Punch and Judy silliness, mind-blowingly second-rate instances of CGI — I’d heard it all, but silliness seemed like something of a godsend following the reboot’s straight-as-a-die shenanigans. If ever there was a chance for me to appreciate Freddy vs Jason this was indeed it. By now, the movie is almost a quarter of a century old itself. A quarter of a century! Time has not been kind to some of those earlier Friday the 13th instalments. The question was, had time been kind to a movie that many fans had been unkind to from the very outset?
Freddy vs Jason promised horror fans a battle for the ages, the very same that a whole army of genre geeks had played out in their heads a thousand times over, but the box office figures would indicate that such a fantasy confrontation had a much broader appeal. By 1988, Friday the 13th was on its last legs commercially. Such a low-cost series was still worth an annual punt thanks to a loyal section of Voorhees zealots, but with returns continuing to fall with each instalment, Paramount put the series out to pasture following 1989‘s New York City debacle Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, something New Line Cinema and Robert Shaye would later look to capitalise on by purchasing the rights with a view to making a Freddy vs Jason crossover, and who could blame them? Both franchises would take a hiatus during the early 90s thanks to the kind of commercial overexposure that transformed two of horror’s most unique creations into crashing bores with nothing left to give, but the two had never met face-to-face — a mouthwatering prospect for any horror fan. The only surprise was that it took so long to come to fruition.
Ironically, it was Paramount who had first proposed the idea back in 1987. While the ‘Friday’ franchise had already grown moribund, the A Nightmare on Elm Street series was thriving like never before. With the hugely successful A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, Robert Englund’s ‘bastard child of 100 maniacs’ took his first steps toward commercial superstardom, a once-feared, fictional child killer becoming the morally questionable poster boy for kids the world over. This was thanks to an emphasis on camp humour and mesmerising practical effects set-pieces, but also because of savvy pop culture tie-ins with the likes of American hair band Dokken, the first of many a-list acts to oil the Freddy bandwagon. After an incredible box office return of approximately $44,800,000, more than ten times its outlay, New Line shunned the cheekily ambitious Paramount’s pitch for a crossover, and it proved a smart choice. A year later, about the same time quasi-crossover The New Blood posted record lows for the series, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master boasted highs of $49,400,000. As well as Crystal Lake’s queerly moreish slayer had been received over the years, Krueger was the new commercial king.
But what comes up must come down, and boy did Krueger’s stock plummet, the series micromanaging itself into nonexistence less than three years later. Thanks to the mythos-crushing escapades of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and the desperate 3-D cash-in that was Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, Freddy had finally outstayed his welcome. Two years later, having finally purchased the rights to the ‘Elm Street’ franchise, New Line would take its first pop at Jason-led immortality with the hugely disappointing Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, giving the movie to a fresh-out-of-film-school rookie named Adam Marcus, who though a known admirer of the series and a huge horror buff, approached the material with the reckless abandon of a juvenile confronted with a new chest of toys. Marcus disfigured the series beyond recognition, his most notable creative liberty coming in the form of ‘Hellbaby’, a parasitic manifestation of Jason’s demonic soul that was transferred from victim-to-victim, which meant that we didn’t get very much Voorhees at all. The movie was also loaded with ‘easter eggs’, cute genre nods to horror classics such as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It also gave us a sequel-setting climax, Fred Krueger’s claw dragging Jason’s infamous hockey mask into the realms of hell. Did this mean we would finally get to see two of horror’s most enduring icons duke it out for real? Of course not. So poorly received was Jason Goes to Hell that one of the genre’s most mooted crossovers was put on the back-burner for another decade. By then, New Line Cinema were probably wishing they could travel back to 1987 and accept Paramount’s offer.
Of course, there’s always that multibillion-dollar incentive known as nostalgia, and by 2003 horror fans were more than ready for another large helping of slasherdom’s most popular creations. The A Nightmare on Elm Street series had also been laid to rest following 1994‘s Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a meta blueprint for the much more favourably received Scream two years later. Despite such an underwhelming reception, New Nightmare was a breath of fresh air for the series. It was Craven’s chance to resuscitate a franchise that had been poorly treated out of his hands and he absolutely nailed it, offering a healthy dose of self-reflexive satire and a Krueger who stepped away from the silliness and once again embraced the darkness. Unfortunately, audiences just weren’t ready, and it was left to the much more marketable Scream to do for the 90s what Halloween did for the 80s, inspiring a slew of copycat productions that ran the resurgence dry.
Freddy vs Jason is redolent of Scream‘s legacy, featuring a box-fresh cast of teenage fodder, a crowd-pleasing pop star, a wuss-rock soundtrack and the kind of slick production that made the crudely edited, open-canvas horror of the 80s a thing of the past. Suddenly everything was regimented, acutely calculated, sprinkled with studio stardust and celebrity. At the time I’m sure this grated on me, but compared with the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street reboots it was very much welcome this time around. The inclusion of Englund alone was enough to overshadow those efforts, and with a welcome cameo from Pamela Voorhees herself, Betsy Palmer, I actually felt like I was watching something dear to me. Friday the 13th was finally underway.
Mark Davis: Do you want some free advice? Coffee. Make friends with it.
Though the question of how Jason manages to get all the way from Camp Crystal Lake (Cunningham County, New Jersey) to Elm Street (Springwood, Ohio) without being noticed puzzled me deeply, the first act of Freddy vs Jason felt kind of like a Friday the 13th movie, as Jason begins picking off victims with a typical seek-and-destroy relish. This is thanks to a long-forgotten Krueger, who impersonates Jason’s maternal figure and manipulates him into yet another killing spree, the idea being that his threat will return fear to the kids of Springwood, the very same that gives Ol’ Pizza Face his power. Krueger, usually smart as a whip, obviously didn’t understand quite who he was dealing with on this occasion. Jason’s semi-autonomic bloodlust knows no boundaries, and pretty soon Krueger is struggling to have his wicked way in the unconscious realms of slumber, his potential victims hacked down before he can even get a semi-on. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with a sadistic deviant who thrives on the foreplay of it all, and when Jason sharpens his skills on a crowd of douchebag ravers, Krueger has no choice but to step in.
So, does our star actor have the same enthusiasm he once did for his most famous role? This is Robert Englund, what do you think? In fact, his performance is central to everything that is good about this movie. I’m sure he was a little worn-out with it all by the time Freddy’s Dead reared its ugliness, and with New Nightmare failing to resuscitate the popularity of his most notable character, asides from the money he would have missed out on, going from overstaturation to near extinction must have been a startling change of pace. Even if Englund was tired with it all, there must have been a part of him that wanted to reach for the razor-fingered glove during a near decade-long hiatus. Having been played by several actors, Jason’s portrayer was somewhat irrelevant ― we all have our favourites in that regard ― but Englund is Krueger. He poured his heart and soul into the character, bringing him to life in ways that screenwriters could never have imagined. He may have been hidden behind a mask of sorts, but there was simply no mistaking him.
Unsurprisingly, Freddy is the star of the show here too. I may prefer the Friday series overall, but Englund is a game changer. The best thing about Freddy vs Jason is watching Krueger bitch and squirm while he tries to regain his relevance. His opening monologue, brisking through a recap of past events, is executed superbly, all gravelly sadism and veiny-eyed close-ups. It feels like a Tales From the Crypt introduction segment without the humour but with all the cartoon pzazz, and Englund is a hoot as the film’s host. He’s so theatrical, a kind of quasi-narrator for an exceedingly flamboyant production. The staging is pure fantasy whenever Krueger is involved, pushing the character towards fanciful realms never before achieved. Kudos. Freddy looks great too. He lacks the shadowed mystique of the original Krueger or the feral menace of the Freddy’s Revenge variation, but Freddy vs Jason is a completely different animal, and though humour is the overriding element here, he doesn’t look as silly as he did in the likes of The Dream Child. In fact, he often looks like a demon, a twisted fiend in the Grimm Fairy Tales mode. This is cartoon supervillainy, but you won’t see him playing video games with a Nintendo Power Glove — or at least its generic brand, non-suable equivalent.
This time Jason is played by stuntman Ken Kirzinger, and he takes more than a leaf out of Kane Hodder’s marauding handbook, which begs the question, why not bring back Hodder himself? Director Ronny Yu decided that he wanted someone taller who could tower over Krueger, but Hodder is a huge fan favourite and would have been just as keen to return to the role. I’m no Hodder zealot. I much prefer the bumbling naivety of a Warrington Gillette or the lumbering menace of a Richard Brooker. I even prefer The Final Chapter‘s Ted White over Hodder, who gives us a similarly brutish killer in the ‘take no prisoners’ mode. But with four appearances under his belt by the time Freddy vs Jason was set for production, Hodder was technically more qualified for the role than anyone else. Having said that, in bringing the brawn to Freddy’s brains, Kirzinger does a bang-up job. I mean, this guy is huge, and when casting for a movie such as this you have to play to the character’s strengths. Again, kudos. What does let the character down, at least in my opinion, is Jason’s look. It’s difficult to mess-up a look that consists of a hockey mask and a boiler suit but something seems off. His scraggly hair, his googly eyes, he’s just not ominous enough.
One thing I was rather impressed with — particularly having seen the money-grabbing debacle that was 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street — was Freddy vs Jason‘s dreamworld delineations. It doesn’t have the craft and imagination of the original but at least they explored new avenues instead of rehashing past moments with a CGI upgrade (word of warning: CGI dates horribly. It isn’t something that allows you to abandon creativity. If that’s all you have to offer audiences, one day soon you’ll be found out). Saying that, the CGI on offer here is as lousy as some of our readers had previously suggested. Particularly bad is a seemingly pot-induced Freddy- worm thingy, which is kind of like the Hell Baby From Jason Goes to Hell only much cuter. On these occasions the film really suffers. I’d usually be eager to tell you that the movie suffers from celebrity inclusion too, but this isn’t Halloween: H20 or Halloween: Resurrection, this is an all-too-knowing character crossover with zero horror pretences, so it is forgivable, even necessary, and this movie was carefully manufactured for the MTV crowd. Back in 2003, the casting of Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland was probably the reason why millions bought a ticket.
To be fair, Rowland is surprisingly good as insecure cheerleader bitch, Kia Waterson, who sees the light after a brutal tearing-down from geeky counterpart Charlie Linderman. In fact, she is the most memorable character in the entire film outside of our marquee attractions, particularly when she turns that aggression towards Krueger himself in a no-nonsense assault that leaves our killer feeling rather small in the trouser department. Ultimately, she outshines most of her acting brethren, which is as much an indictment of the sideshow status of our remaining cast. About that brutal tearing down: did Kia really deserve everything Linderman threw at her? She may be a bitch but nobody deserves that kind of onslaught, regardless of social status. It’s always bothered me the way pretty people are persecuted in this kind of movie. It’s not like every pretty person is fundamentally wicked. I understand the need to turn the tables on America’s competitive high school culture, but there’s a fine line between equality and a reversal in prejudice. It’s so hypocritical. I can only assume screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift had some rather large teenage demons to expel.
Kia Waterson: Linderman, you know, I always pictured you as a straight-up bed-wetter.
Charlie Linderman: You know what, Kia? I used to think you hated me because you thought I wasn’t good enough for Lori, but that’s not it. You tear me down to make yourself feel better, because you really hate yourself, which is kind of pathetic when you actually stop and think about it. Assuming, of course, you *can* think, with all that make-up weighing down your head.
[Linderman leaves; Kia and Lori look impressed]
There’s also something of a nod to The Dream Warriors in Freddy vs Jason, two of Springwood’s kids confined to the Westin Hills Asylum and prescribed dream suppressant hypnocil as a counteraction to Krueger’s unconscious loitering. Supposedly, it was the father of final girl Lori (Monica Keena) who had former beau Will (Jason Ritter) confined to the nuthouse after Will had supposedly witnessed pops kill mom. Pops claims it was a car crash and soon enough he is attempting to ply his daughter with meds in an effort to calm her down. Will they ever learn? It’s a fairly entertaining plot development, as is the gang’s decision to sedate Jason and bundle him into the back of a van for reasons that are too convoluted to get into, though with Jason counting sheep, or more likely the corpses of past victims, you can probably guess who benefits in the battle arena. The whole ordeal reminded me of a Scooby Doo adventure, from the van itself to the wildly contrived detective work, which makes geniuses out of a cast of characters who are anything but. How they are able to figure out that Freddy recruited Jason from beyond the grave is beyond me.
In the end, none of this matters. Fans bought tickets to Freddy vs Jason to see our marquee attractions kick lumps of shit out of each other, and the long-awaited showdown is a joy to behold. For those who recall the bloodless censorship crusade of the late 1980s, this outing rights so many wrongs. It is brutal, but also clever in defining the strengths and weaknesses of our two opponents. Their final tête-à-tête is such a hamfest, but I derived much delight from seeing Krueger feign injury, only for his arms to grow back in one of many mind games implemented by the physically weaker party, and it’s always a joy hearing that sinister Englund cackle. Freddy outmanoeuvres Jason for a good while — and rightly so — using his Achilles heel, water, to his advantage. Krueger was always going to be the brains in the equation. He has a doctorate in mind games and manipulation, but in a fist fight there is simply no contest, and when Krueger crosses back into reality and is robbed of his powers, the tables quickly turn. The cowardly look on Freddy’s face at realising Jason is hovering behind him is priceless, and very much warranted. It’s all rather silly, but they play it to the hilt. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes it’s irresistible. You can put the latter down to nostalgia if you wish.
The fact that the movie pulls no punches in the gore department goes some way to airing out the breezy car freshener production. Their back-and-forth tussle is absolutely gruelling at times, and it had to be if it was ever going to please fans. Their final slice-off on a blood-drenched walkway is ludicrously epic, almost operatic. It all gets a little messy story-wise, Lori’s sub-narrative a little distracting at times, though having Kelly Roland almost deliver mouth-to-mouth on a drowning-in-his-dreams Jason is an inspired touch, and it’s not the only one the film has to offer. I remember the hype surrounding Freddy vs Jason back in 2003 and the same question was on everyone’s lips. Which of our inimitable monsters would ultimately prove triumphant? We all have our favourite, and an even battle was certainly the way to go. Thanks to some inspired, booby trap skulduggery from Krueger and Jason’s towering brutality, the movie managed to placate fans on both sides. Freddy is undoubtedly the star of the show, but Jason has his fair share of moments too. On the whole, it’s a level playing field.
So now for the ultimate question, and the only one that really matters: am I a fan of this movie? Yes and no. It’s all a little shallow, but when shallow is the point it’s hard to criticise. Fans like myself tend to forget that, though Freddy and Jason carved a very special place in our hearts, the majority of their movies weren’t actually very good. I mean, they’re enjoyable on a mindless level, endlessly consumable, Friday the 13th peddling trash the way a rogue employee might flog leftover burgers at the back door of a McDonalds. Ultimately, this is an ode to the glory days, a fanciful cherry for a multi-tiered cake we all remember sharing, and while those days don’t shower themselves in too much glory beyond a handful of classics, they possess a period charm lacking in a slick, cookie cutter production like Freddy vs Jason. That kind of thing belongs to the past.
The film does, however, possess the kind of creative violence lacking in many of those earlier sequels, and though I prefer my Krueger evil, his tongue-in-cheek performance here eclipses his post-Dream Master stand-up act by some margin. By this point, watching Englund is like watching a magician. He has a darkly sadistic, pantomime aura, slipping into his most famous facade like a wily stage veteran fuelled by theatrical flourishes of startling grotesquery. When Englund daubs himself in Krueger he lives and breathes the character, revelling in every last gleeful nuance. As far as I’m concerned, there is simply no one better.