24 June 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE BATTERY'S DOWN

The first wave of American slashers began quite distinctly in 1979, when Friday the 13th was released, spawning dozens upon dozens of imitators; it peaked around 1983 and should have been dead by the end of 1984. However, then as now, there was an unaccountable amount of money to be made from a very small investment in stage blood and terrible actors, and so the damn things just kept coming and coming.

None can make the definitive argument for when this first wave ended; obviously before 1996, when Scream ignited the second wave, but how long before? I would argue in favor of the relative elegance of picking 1989, for the reason that it was the year in which the three greatest slasher franchises released the film that, in some way or another, killed that series financially. After 1989, not even the fanboys could be arsed to pretend that the movies were worth seeing.

Halloween 5 turned a profit, but not nearly enough (it barely doubled the $5 million budget), and the next entry would not come out for all of six years. A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child was met with screaming derision (although it made money), and rather than try to fix the series, the producers simple declared that the next film would be the last. We could perhaps even count Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which was originally planned for a 1989 release before getting dropped in January; its profit, after marketing, could be measured in six digits, and the next film, five years later, was a massive restart on the series continuity that was an immediate failure.

The splashiest disaster of these films, of course (for what film am I reviewing, after all?) was the notorious Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, the most expensive slasher film ever made by some counts, and the worst-performing film in the series even as of this writing (not adjusted for inflation). So dire was the film's box-office fate, and so loud the fan hatred, that it forced Paramount to take the rather extreme step of selling the entire franchise, rather than continue its association with such a sinkhole.

It's a sad thing: prior to beginning this summer project, Jason Takes Manhattan was the only Friday the 13th film I'd ever seen, and I was convinced, both from the words of others and the experience of my own eyes, that it had to be the series nadir. No way a franchise that has so far produced ten entries could possibly survive a film even worse than this one, right?

Unfortunately not. Now that I am wiser, sadder and more scarred, I know the bitter truth: Jason Takes Manhattan in all its excruciating mediocrity, is right in the middle of the series in terms of quality. I think we could break the existing seven films into two camps: the first, Part 2, The Final Chapter and The New Blood all do something at least a little bit interesting, and are all somewhat watchable (though The Final Chapter tries hard not to be). Meanwhile, Part 3, A New Beginning and Jason Lives are punishing exercises in audience abuse, stupid in those rare moments that they are not dangerously stupid. Jason Takes Manhattan is in a third category: it is quite awful, but nothing will rot your brain with its insipidity. It is the first flat-out boring Friday the 13th movie.

Are we surprised? Well we shouldn't be. By the fourth film, there was not one single idea left to throw at the formula, and the subsequent three entries were increasingly baroque attempts to twist that formula into something remotely interesting. So when we get to 1989 - as I argued up top, the final year of the Slasher Era - there's nothing but flop sweat and a title that wears its desperation like a scarlet letter. Sure, Part VIII changes the formula: and it leaves behind an inscrutable narrative that pukes its way across an unforgivably long 100 minutes.

Jason won't start taking Manhattan for a hell of a long time, but the film teases us some with some random shots of New York scored with a truly evil bit of synthpop (the music in general will be pretty bad; Fred Mollin even screws up the "ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha" motif). This ends and we find ourselves on a party boat on Crystal Lake, helmed by two very horny teens, Jim (Todd Shaffer) and Suzi (Tiffany Paulsen), listening to a New York radio station. For no reason at all, Jim is telling Suzi about Jason Voorhees, this version suggesting that Jason came back to life to avenge his mother's death, and he caps his story by jumping out at her with a fake knife and a hockey mask that just happens to have a notch in the forehead where Jason's mask always had a notch (from the axe wound in Part 3), and there's no reason for that, either. In the real world, Jim would probably get pushed overboard for this, but writer-director Rob Hedden decides instead that this just makes Suzi all the hotter for Jim's bod, and they hop in bed (giving us a glimpse of Paulsen's breast, in the only moment in this tedious film that could possibly be thought of as exploitation), right after Jim tosses the anchor overboard.

In addition to understanding nothing about women, Hedden understands nothing about seamanship, for we are treated to numerous shots of the anchor drifting across the lake bed, until it snags on an electrical cable which it drags over to the ruined pier from The New Blood, breaking the cable open and electrocuting Jason back to life. I'm sorry for the glut of italics there, but it's hard to stress how fucking stupid this is without them.

First Jason kills Jim (I mean, first he climbs on board, but I'm cutting to the chase) by harpooning him - yes, there is a spear gun on the party boat - and then showing the camera the spear which for some reason has beige rubber tubing dangling from it.

Apparently, this is all that remains of the film's show-stopping gore effect, in which Jim's intestines were to get slopped all over everything, but you know something? Armed with that knowledge, I rewatched the shot three or four times, and every single time I came up with the same thing: beige rubber tubes with a bit of red tempera paint.

Anyway, Jason kills Suzi in one of those "stalk the women, shock the men" dichotomies that makes the series so damn classy.

The next morning, we are in what appears to be a shipping port on Crystal Lake, which is apparently somewhere in size between Lakes Erie and Huron. The good ship Lazarus (Oh, Jesus), out of Panama - seriously? - is docking, and we meet Colleen Van Deusen (Barbara Bingham), a high school English teacher and Rennie (Jensen Daggett), who is such a Final Girl that it makes you hurt, both because of her androgynous name, and the wealth of tepid character details that get thrown at her all at once, including Colleen's gift of a pen that Stephen King allegedly used in high school. Yes, that Stephen King. No, I don't believe it either. Yes, complete bullshit. Anyway, I got a bit of a lesbian vibe off of Colleen, but I think that's only because I desperately wanted to film to be remotely interesting.

Up comes Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman), Rennie's uncle, legal guardian, and principal. "I'm a dick-faced douchebag," he says when he gets out of the car, "you can't wait to see me die." I might be paraphrasing a little bit.

The Lazarus turns out to be a sort of cruise freighter, and it is the site of a graduation cruise from Crystal Lake to New York. We'll learn shortly that Crystal Lake, surrounded by beautiful 800 foot mountains, connects to the ocean via a river, and it's not at all clear whether this port is on the lake, the river, or the Atlantic, and it's even less clear what route they take to New York (it helps if Crystal Lake is in Maine, not New Jersey), it's not clear whose idea this cruise was, and it's clear least of all why you'd take a cruise on something that is so obviously a cargo ship. What is clear is that the party boat from earlier drifts up and Jason clambers on board. And that, at least, makes sense: Jason kills teens, and there are teens on the boat. QED.

The next forty minutes are the cinematic equivalent of that grinding noise a car makes when the starter is busted. We've got some 9 teens to keep track of, plus McCulloch and Van Deusen, three crew members, Rennie's dog Toby that looks exactly like the border collie/Labrador mix that I had growing up, and a random dude that I can't quite place. I shall list them by trait and manner of death:

-Rennie we have met, survives the boat, after seeing many visions of Child Jason
-Her kind-of boyfriend Sean (Scott Reeves) survives the boat
-The black kid Julius (V.C. Dupree) who is given a characterisation beyond being "the black kid if you can believe it, survives the boat
-J.J. (Saffron Henderson), a Joan Jett wannabe (get it?), smashed in the face with a guitar in rather unusual "Victim's POV" death (red goo splashed on the camera lens)
-Pointless jock who boxes with Julius (David Jacox), chest caved in with a sauna rock
-Tamara (Sharlene Martin), horrible coke-head rich bitch who has been constantly vicious towards Rennie, tries to sexually blackmail McCulloch, and in all ways hurts your soul by existing, stabbed with a broken mirror in the bathroom where we very much do not see her breasts
-Mr. Carlson (Fred Henderson), the only engineer, harpoon'd
-Admiral (!) Robertson (Warren Munson), the captain, Sean's overbearing father, cut with a fucking godfucking goddamn machete; the machete is clearly never close than two inches to his throat and the subsequent wound is quite tiny and boring
-Eva (Kelly Hu), the Asian girl, Tamara's only friend, trapped in the ship's discotheque and stalked in the weirdest scene ever: Jason seems to teleport around the room just to fuck with her. Then he strangles her. Strangles! In a slasher film!

Interlude: they figure out something is going on, and they arm themselves

-Random crew member or student, it's hard to tell which, shot accidentally by...
-Wayne (Martin Cummins), horribly annoying wannabe filmmaker who carries his damn video camera everywhere, thrown against a control panel that thereupon explodes. For some reason, Jason triggers the fire alarm, and people start trying to abandon ship.
-Miles (Gordon Currie), who is a high school student, Caucasian, um...male; impaled on a post of some kind
-Crazy deck hand (Alex Diakun), who kept warning everyone cryptically, axed in the back.

Rennie, Sean, Julius, McCulloch, Colleen and Toby-the-Dog get on a lifeboat, and drift about in the fog looking for land, for when one is travelling by sea from New Jersey to New York, one ends up in some deep open water. Pure fucking luck brings them to Upper New York Bay, which they realize when they are about 200 yards from the Statue of Liberty.

They land; Jason follows them; and after 65 minutes, the Taking of Manhattan begins.

No it doesn't. Jason stalks the five survivors, kills as many as he can and kills those who get in his way, but he leaves dozens of people entirely unmolested. So much for the "psycho killers kill" argument.

The film's depiction of New York is a very nasty one, although except for three shots in Times Square it's actually Vancouver. Anyway, some of the kind people populating the Big Apple are rapists (in a horribly atonal scene that simply doesn't belong here; but Jason kills them before anything happens, in the closest the film gets to a decent gore effect) and restaurateurs who would rather see you dead than let you call the police. Also, the sewers of New York apparently run with toxic waste. Also, they are full of red plastic barrels that say "DANGER - TOXIC WASTE" on them.

The only thing less interesting than watching Jason kill teens whose names we can barely keep straight on a boat, is watching him chase five people around a stage version of a city. There is less of a sense of urgency than in any prior film, because of some truly awkward editing that basically gives up on trying to establish where anybody is relative to anything. Eventually, Rennie gets a flashback in which we see McCulloch throw her in the lake to force her to learn how to swim, at which point she is grabbed by Jason as a zombie boy, and the last vestige of narrative continuity between these films goes up in a puff of smoke.

Everybody pretty much dies in terribly unimaginative ways (McCulloch particularly has been set up as too much of an asshole to get such a low-key exit), and at last it's Rennie versus Jason in the sewers. Yada yada yada, he gets drowned in the toxic waste that is flushed out every night at midnight, and he turns into a dead 10-year-old boy lying on the floor of the sewer. I hate these movies so much. I don't know why I'm doing this to myself anymore. Oh my god. Then, one very stupid "spring-loaded cat"-style false scare later, the movie ends.

Oh lordy.

Fair's fair, Kane Hodder returns to play Jason, and he does it well. But this is such a ponderous affair overall that I no longer care about the niceties of his performance. There is not one film in the series that feels so absolutely perfunctory as this, so totally uninvested in telling any sort of story or doing anything besides showing us people running and dying, and not even very much of the latter.

As I've mentioned, some of these films have been less exploitative than the others, but the aggressive lack of nudity and blood in Jason Takes Manhattan trumps them all. What the hell is left? Nothing in this film is even a tiny bit diverting, or amusing, or scary (okay, there's one kind of amusing scene, and it's due solely to Hodder's performance). It just happens. It happens all over the screen and I will be honest: I fell asleep, and then I had to rewatch the last 25 minutes, so now I've seen that goddamn "Jason turns into a boy" scene three separate times.

It is my contention that the kind of delightful poster seen above, pulled after the NY tourism board raised a stink, is the only element of Jason Takes Manhattan that contains any sort of entertainment value at all. Small wonder that this after this film, the very title Friday the 13th was retired in shame.

Body Count: 21, one of them an accidental shooting, and one of them a simple matter of being in a car when it a-splodes. This, by the way, is a perfect illustration of the idea that more deaths = more obnoxious movies. Oh, and the Lazarus has a lot more kids on it than we see die, but counting them would be unfair.

The F13 Dating Controversy: It hasn't been so long since The New Blood that the wood trapping Jason on the lakebed has rotted, though there's the usual business where a Crystal Lake resident has never heard of the Camp Blood murders, implying that it's been 20 or 30 years since the last film. Chalking that up, as usual, to desperate writing I'm willing to say that it's been about one year, setting Jason Takes Manhattan in May, 2003.

BUT! Jim tells Suzi that Jason drowned "thirty years ago," i.e. thirty years before the film was released. That sets it in the late '80s, during the gap between The Final Chapter and A New Beginning/Jason Lives, which means-

Fuck that shit. Life is too short.

Oh, if my timeline is right, Rennie meets boy Jason in the water a few months after Jason Lives.

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)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

2 comments:

Rebecca said...

I think you had a random cut and paste error somewhere around sex on the boat...

Tim said...

Aye, Blogger kept screwing with that paragraph for no reason I could ever understand. I fixed it twice during the writing process; apparently I should have done so a third time. It's better now.