Planting a flag for a celestial oddity with irony to burn
So they finally went and did it: they sent Jason into 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 has been guilty of some pretty ludicrous gimmicks throughout 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 both commercially and creatively.
This didn’t bode well for the company’s latest venture, particularly since they were dealing with the kind of pop culture juggernaut that made zealots out of fans. Whenever a franchise achieves such cult status, advocates have a tendency to become rather precious, picky to the extent that even the most minute of variations is enough to spark outrage. Despite 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. For diehard Jason fanatics, it didn’t matter that each instalment, barring the exceedingly gory, KNB EFX led Final Friday, had been committed to cutting room ignominy, or that Paramount had showed open disdain for a low-risk venture that they refused to relinquish for financial reasons ― any Jason, in any form was a bonus, particularly as the character approached an almost decade-long absence, the longest since we first heard his name whispered around the crackling campfires of Crystal Lake way back in 1980.
Worse for Jason fans was the fact that the long-mooted Freddy vs Jason crossover was still toiling in development hell at the turn of the millennium ― the very reason why Jason X became a reality. It also didn’t help that New Line Cinema, now owned by the Turner Broadcasting System, were knee-deep in what would later become the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a $2.9 billion franchise that consumed them almost completely. Producer Robert Shaye had certainly come a long way since the bargain-basement days of Underground U.S.A., which was both a blessing and a curse for Jason X commercially. It’s hard to care too much about a long-abandoned franchise when you have such a colossal and potentially game-changing property to contend with.
When Paramount first pitched the idea of a money-spinning face-off prior to the release of 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, respectively, the Friday the 13th series was already slipping slowly into obsolescence, the dizzying box office highs of the slasher’s golden age waning and levelling off at approximately $14,000,000 per instalment. Such figures were still worthwhile for Paramount considering typical budgets for the series, but creatively they were low on ideas, and since they didn’t particularly care about the product, catching a ride on the Fred Krueger gravy train was an absolute no-brainer.
Ultimately, the two companies couldn’t come to an agreement, egos relating to their prized assets conquering all. This was devastating news for Paramount but neither here nor there for New Line Cinema, an indie company which was growing at such a rate it was later dubbed ‘the house that Freddy built’. While Paramount’s latest instalment, an unlicensed Carrie crossover that pitted Jason against Lar Park Lincoln’s telekinetic angel of fury, Tina Shepard, floundered with the lowest returns for the series yet ($19,100,000), a figure that would continue to fall until series high Freddy vs Jason ($114,576,403), Renny Harlin’s pop culture splurge The Dream Master posted all time highs for the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, with a worldwide box office gross of $49,369,899. A year later, the initially ambitious Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, a movie so hindered by budget that the entire first act was restricted to a long, laborious boat ride, was mostly filmed in Vancouver, Canada, scenes involving iconic New York landmarks scrapped entirely. Even the original promotional poster had to be altered at the last minute thanks to the threat of legal action from the New York City Counsel’s Board Of Tourism. For Jason’s Paramount run, the writing wasn’t just on the wall, it was in the post with a severed finger.
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.Fat Lou
Worse for Jason’s latest re-emergence was the evolution of the genre at large. During the character’s absence the slasher movie had been altered beyond recognition thanks in large part to original A Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven’s genre-reviving meta classic Scream. Not only was the dead-eyed golden age an afterthought, even Jason and Freddy’s self-aware period was severely dated. The latter had experienced something of a credibility-reaffirming resurgence thanks to Scream blueprint New Nightmare, an instalment which, while hardly a commercial juggernaut ($18,090,181), seemed to put the character to rest in the right way creatively. While Voorhees blueprint Michael Myers was already attached to the meta-revolution, heading the hugely successful Halloween: H20, a movie co-penned by uncredited Scream writer Kevin Williamson, Jason had gone out with a relative whimper. There were probably kids out there, new to the heady delights of the slasher genre, who hadn’t heard of Jason Voorhees. Talk about a fall from grace.
Th easy thing, of course, would have been to give the long-dormant Jason the Ghostface treatment ― not the same old ‘movie within a movie’ makeover, since Scream had already lampooned horror’s late-20th century icons, but certainly stylistically. Halloween: H20, helmed by Friday the 13th Parts 2 and 3 director Steve Miner, had certainly gone the Dimension Films route, giving the once-grungy Michael Myers a glossy makeover in a slick and seamless picture that, while a vast improvement on much of those later sequels, robbed the genre’s most infamous creation of his identity, giving us a film that felt much closer to a Scream sequel than an instalment of the Halloween franchise. Budget was no issue either. Though you wouldn’t know it considering H20’s relatively star-studded cast and production pedigree, the two shared similar financial aspirations, only $3,000,000 separating the two. I guess acting talent and directorial experience go a long way.
New Line Cinema didn’t go the Dimension Films route, but for those whose first experience with Jason happened to be Jason X, they were in some ways faced with an entirely different prospect. He was the same, nigh-on invincible (by this point surely invincible) beast, once again portrayed by fan favourite Kane Hodder in his final franchise appearance, but asides from a cute in-joke involving a virtual reality programme, the character was pretty far-detached from his Camp Crystal lineage ― 445 years to be exact. Jason X sees our eponymous villain captured by the government and held at the Crystal Lake Facility (and no, that’s not a nearby cabin). Several attempts at finally offing Jason prove futile, so those in charge decide to place him in cryogenic stasis where he’ll at least remain catatonic. Unfortunately, government meddling, in this instance an attempt to replicate Jason’s freakish cellular regeneration capacities, leads to the marauding beast’s temporary escape. That’s until government scientist Rowan LaFontaine (Lexa Doig) lures him back into the pod, the two plunged into stasis following a melee that leaves her fatally injured. Well, potentially.
Flash-forward half a millennium and we’re entering speculative fiction territory ― an audacious move for a series in dire need of freshening. The Earth, long-since rendered uninhabitable, has since been abandoned for a brand new planet, a sequel of sorts christened Earth 2. During a research expedition, Professor Brandon Lowe (Jonathan Potts), his android companion Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder) and a crew of students discover Jason and Rowan and decide to bring them onboard. In the future, regenerative technology has the capacity to bring Rowan back to life. Jason, on the other hand, is believed to be dead (please!), but that doesn’t stop them from dissecting his corpse, despite Rowan’s explicit warnings of his otherworldly powers. Naturally, her attempts at rationality fall on dead ears. Having learned nothing from the destruction of Earth, greed is still rife among the habitants of Earth 2, and Jason’s legend has transcended generations, collectors almost certainly willing to pay top dollar for such a infamous artefact.
Despite the film’s obvious limitations, it’s a cute set-up for yet another Jason led-abattoir and the continued, if short-lived evolution of the character as a whole. For those who had witnessed Jason evolve from a facially disfigured neglectee to a sack-wearing purveyor of vengeance to a relentless stalk-and-slash killer in the Universal Monsters mode, screenwriter Todd Farmer’s idea to transform Jason into a space-bound cyborg was a giant leap too far, a gimmick that stretched the already implausible to newly implausible levels, but at this point, what was the harm? The only other way to go would have been a complete reset, making Jason a realistic killer, something New Line Cinema and director Marcus Nispel would do with their survivalist reimagining in 2009.
Not only was 2001’s Jason a far cry from the original character aesthetically, he’d lost all sense of belonging, the voice of his dear, departed mother a distant memory, and with it his true sense of purpose. Interestingly, Pamela was initially intended to appear in Jason X as part of the aforementioned holographic projection sequence, which in a delicious moment instead sees two skimpily-clad teens enticing Jason into a programmed trap, informing him of their love for pot, beer and premarital sex, a transparent representation that has our perplexed antihero swiftly reverting to classic sleeping bag mode. “Originally, Mrs. Voorhees was in that scene,” Farmer would reveal. “I’d asked early on if we could get her because I loved the idea of bringing her back to reprise her role and the moment I felt would have been strongly plot-driven. However, later, when the deal between Betsy Palmer and the producers could not be resolved, I had no choice but to rewrite the scene.”
It’s easy to see how long-time fans could be offended by Jason’s celestial digression. To label the Friday the 13th series an innovator is a bit rich, especially when you consider that the original Friday the 13th was a transparent cash-in on the hugely successful Halloween, which while not the first slasher to wind up on American shores was certainly the film to popularise the sub-genre, leading to an oversaturation of like-for-like vehicles that looked to tap into the burgeoning home video market. Friday the 13th did popularise the summer camp setting later utilised for cult films such as The Burning and Sleepaway Camp, it’s POV approach and excessive brand of bloodshed becoming almost ubiquitous in the years that followed, but for all its popularity, the series was never critically acclaimed; it was mediocre at best. Still, those Paramount instalments possess a certain charm for people of a certain age. It’s silly, anarchic cinema, Jason arguably the first marquee killer to achieve antihero status. Because of Jason, kids began cheering on the killer rather than rooting for the film’s traditional protagonist. For this reason he became the poster boy for censorship, the symbol of a morally corrupt generation, which depending on your predilection was either a negative or a positive.
Many fans gave up on Jason as early as A New Beginning, which quickly reneged on the series-ending declaration of The Final Chapter, for many the finest entry in the canon, by introducing an imposter killer straight out of a Scooby Doo mystery. Beyond that, the series became a gimmick-laden wink that was mired in silliness, the kind that turned many golden age fanatics off the beaten track. But for those who appreciated the dissonant madness of A New Beginning, the unusually smart meta shenanigans of Jason Lives, the daytime soap opera indulgences of The New Blood, the half-assed banality of Jason Takes Manhattan, and yes, even the body-swapping treachery of Jason Goes to Hell, the thought of exactly how bizarre the series would become was enough of a draw to keep us coming back.
I must admit, the idea of Jason hurtling through outer space was even too much for me ― so much that I neglected to watch it for almost a decade after its 2001 release. By that time I was a college cooz hound too interested in partying to take comfort in a once-cherished series. When news of a intergalactic Jason instalment finally reached me I barely flinched. Later, I stared at the VHS cover with a mixture of suspicion and concern; horror wasn’t the same as it was in the olden days; that much I was sure of. Based on the film’s paltry $17,100,000 worldwide box office, a new nadir for the series domestically ($13,121,555), it’s clear that I wasn’t alone in my cynical presumptions, but a film that respected horror critic Kim Newman described as “Wittily scripted, smartly directed and well-played,” has a lot more charm than I was willing to give it credit for.
Jason X may lack the era-specific charm of those cherished Paramount instalments, the popularity of Friday the 13th movies more about nostalgia than anything else, but the film is in many ways respectful to the original formula in the sense that, aesthetics and narrative lineage aside, it totally gets what makes Jason such an endearing character. The movie’s set design may resemble a sterile laser tag arena, its stellar backdrop cheaper than a mid-afternoon, sci-fi channel rerun, but the movie would right many of the wrongs committed by its equally audacious predecessor, not only by returning to the seek-and-destroy basics of those earlier instalments, but by boldly going where no instalment had ever been before.
Jason X may have been one small step for the series from a commercial standpoint, but it was one giant leap for a character who excels in balls-to-the-wall brutality. With more kills than any other instalment in the series, this is Voorhees at his most relentless. So wired to murder is our masked purveyor of death that his frozen, machete-wielding body hacks off a slack-jawed gawkers arm as soon as his cryogenic chamber is opened, the first of many knowing winks that makes the movie such a cheapo treat. In a movie that isn’t interested in punitive half-measures, we’re also treated to a ninja-esque rampage on a fully deserving pack of medical vultures ― one that immediately puts us in the big galoot’s corner ― a grisly corpse corkscrew, and an absolutely inspired liquid-nitrogen face smash which has to go down as one of the most fun and creative kills in the entire series. We’re even treated to a welcome cameo from THE David Cronenberg, who’s dispatched with early on, a swift and bloody reminder of exactly who we’re dealing with. Cronenberg clearly got it, and for the most part so does Jason X.
Jason X was James Isaac’s second directorial feature after a twelve-year hiatus, his previous movie a charming Krueger rip-off titled The Horror Show. Like The New Blood‘s John Carl Buechler before him, Isaac was mainly a special effects guy who had worked on such 80s classics as Return of the Jedi, Gremlins, Romancing the Stone and The Fly. His knowledge and experience in the field would allow for such a sci-fi reimagining ― essentially a cheapo stop-gap for the series ― to appear more expensive than it actually was. “The fact that Jason X took place in space and in the future meant that everything had to be built,” Isaac would explain. “That’s where most of the money went. That and the FX. The make-up effects look really great in Jason X and that’s because of the talent of Stephen Dupuis and Kelly Lepkowski. I worked with both Stephen and Kelly for years at CWI ― we also just finished working on eXistenZ together, so of course I begged them to help me out on Jason X. That’s why it looks so good. They’re both brilliant.”
It was on the set of techo-horror eXistenZ and surrealist William Burroughs adaptation Naked Lunch before it that Isaac built up a working relationship with Cronenberg. “I didn’t get back into directing for a while, mainly because I found myself involved in some great projects, mostly with David Cronenberg,” Isaac would continue. “After eXistenZ, I decided it was time to get back into the game and direct something. A producer friend of mine, Sean Cunningham, who I directed The Horror Show for and worked with him on a few other films, owned the rights to the Jason character. I basically told him I thought it was time to dust off Jason and make a movie. He was developing Freddy vs. Jason with New Line at the time, which I was helping on a little but it was going slow. Todd Farmer, Noel Cunningham and myself pitched Sean a few different story ideas. He liked Jason X the best, so we started working on it. I worked with Todd on the story and he wrote a killer script in about three weeks. We took it into New Line and they loved it. That’s how Jason X was born.”
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 girls remove their tops]
VR Teen Girl #1, VR Teen Girl #2
VR Teen Girl #1, VR Teen Girl #2: We love premarital sex!
Isaac, who was more than familiar with Jason’s journey up to that point, wanted to stick to the the tongue-in-cheek incarnation of later instalments with the volume turned up. Tired of seeing the same “dark, dirty” horror films, he was also aware of how precious a character Jason was, and was adamant about retaining tropes synonymous with the series and the slasher sub-genre in general. 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: Alien. In terms of characters, there’s 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’s also a bad ass android who gives Voorhees the pasting of his life, seemingly putting him out to pasture before a colony of regenerative ants brings him back from the depths of mutilation. You thought Jason was indestructible back on Earth? You ain’t seen nothing yet!
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 fool-proof, as resistant as a forcefield, post-nuclear cockroaches invincible. And so marks the birth of an entity that has become fondly known as uber-Jason, transforming Hodder’s latest incarnation into one of the most unique (and divisive) 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 for more, immune to the vast weightlessness of the universe like a treacherous, undying planet just waiting to be inhabited.
Ultimately, Jason X is a joyous plethora of kills and self-aware gestures, the kind that set those late-80s instalments apart. If you prefer your Jason cold and calculated, this one probably isn’t for you, but if you have a soft spot for the character’s sillier period, and if you can get over the loss of Paramount convention ― which can be difficult, I know ― you’ll find a formula that isn’t as far-detached as it initially seems. Even the ship’s crew aren’t too dissimilar ― a cast of vacuous, faux-scientists who’d be just at home in the skimpily-clad bikinis of yore (some of those futuristic costumes leave very little to be desired!). And, of course, Friday the 13th wouldn’t be Friday the 13th without the return of long-time composer Harry Manfredini.
This is fun, creative fare, with a delicious sense of wit and a preposterous finale to die for. No, this isn’t the 80s Jason we all know and love, and traditionally speaking Jason X isn’t a Friday the 13th instalment in the purest sense, but it’s Jason in body, mind and spirit ― there’s enough there, old and new, to stir the nostalgia juices ― and any movie that features a couple of 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!