07 July 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE ETERNAL RETURN OF THE SAME

On the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy, a small planet covered in water orbited a typical class G star just as it had for billions of years, just as it would for billions of years yet to come. Nothing much of any importance had changed since it started its pattern.

At this time, there were organisms on that planet, not that the planet noticed very much, mind you. They had been there for a bit less time than the planet itself, in one form or another, and there was no particular reason to believe that they wouldn't continue to be there until the planet itself stopped, or at least close to it. Except for some cosmetic changes, the nature of these organisms was pretty much exactly the same as when they first popped into being.

Now, among these organisms, there was a particular species of multi-celled bipeds, that had been there for such a small time that it could hardly be measured. Mostly, these bipeds were pretty much just like they had been at the start - they'd hardly had enough time to change, really - although sometime along the way, they got it in their heads that they were the smartest and most important organisms, and they invented something called "self-awareness" to prove it. The planet was not very interested, and most of the other organisms on the planet were never aware of them; all the bipeds were good for in their eyes was providing a convenient place to breed. These bipeds were probably closer to the end of their existence than the beginning, thanks in no small part to the self-destructive irrationality of that "self-awareness," which really turned out to be an evolutionary whiff, when you come right down to it; but other than that, there wasn't really much that you would notice about these creatures that was all that different from their predecessors some 500,000 generations earlier.

Nothing ever changes. We just think it does because we only think about things in years.

In September 1995, the First Age of slasher films had its final spasm, years after even the most generous observer would have said that the genre actually died, and that last twitch of the dead nerve was Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. But almost before anyone could even say "the slasher is dead," it was already "long live the slasher," as December 1996 witnessed the release of Wes Craven's collaboration with Kevin Williamson, Scream. And thus was born the Second Age of slasher films, in which the grimy soft-core exploitation of one generation gave way to the self-conscious irony and studio-mandated celebrity endorsement of the next. Blood gave way to the promise of blood, boobs gave way to starlets in bras.

And New Line, the owners of the two most important franchises of the First Age, finally prepared to make good on the promise of the final image of Jason Goes to Hell, beginning development on the long-awaited and long-dreaded Freddy vs. Jason.

Then something happened that was pretty much inevitable: that film hit Development Hell, and as the slasher film drifted ever closer to the PG-13, and began to lose most of its charm in the face of this new "J-Horror" that all the Japanophiles were talking about, the meeting of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees kept ticking away the years, waiting for any sort of forward momentum.

The suits, anxious to do something, anything to keep their two franchises alive in the minds of a generation of teenage moviegoers who had been in grammar school when the last entry in those series had been in theaters, announced the tenth film in the Friday the 13th series would be coming out as prelude to the great mash-up that we were all really waiting for; an extraordinary restart that would take the franchise in a direction never before imagined, titled...

Jason X.

No arguing: that is an extremely bad title. I already complained about Jason Goes to Hell, but at least that was descriptive. Jason X is just stupid, like we don't have the attention span to deal with multi-word titles. And for some reason, "____ X" would make anything sound kind of like science fiction-

Oh, God.

Something else that was probably inevitable and also fairly silly happened, and that is that Jason X was delayed a year and a half after its projected release date. So by the time it finally opened in spring, 2002, Freddy vs. Jason was in pre-production, and causing its own excitement, and Jason X did something that no other film in the series had ever done: it lost money.

Frankly, it deserved to. This film manages the extraordinary, almost mythological feat of surpassing all that came before it to stand proud as the worst of all ten Friday the 13th movies.

Not that it really feels very much like Friday the 13th movie, mind you. We get that sense right from the very beginning: for the first time in ten movies, there's not a pre-credits sequence; it just goes straight into the credits, and such dreary credits they are! The camera starts out in someplace that looks like Hell, and pulls back to reveal that we've really just been in Jason's brain. Then it zooms back into his body, into his bloodstream, and all of this very sub-par Fight Club nonsense ends up when we realise that the unstoppable zombie that Jason has become was just drugged. Well, how-de-do.

The film proper begins in what some very cheesy-looking "Made for Sci-Fi Original Film"-level titles inform us is the Crystal Lake Research Center, somewhere in the indefinite near future. Jason (played for the fourth and final time by Kane Hodder, which was a nice surprise - I thought he checked out after Jason Goes to Hell) is tied up with all sorts of chains and things, much like King Kong, and he is the subject of an intense argument between Rowan (Lexa Doig, whose CV would lead you to expect she'd end up as the star in something like this) and Dr. Wimmer, the Center's boss. I had a nagging idea that I knew the actor playing Dr. Wimmer, and as it turned out, I did - but I'll ask you to be patient, and not look at the IMDb page, and I will tell you who at the end, just like I had to wait.

It seems that Jason can't be killed. WELL NO FUCKING SHIT. Rowan is part of a team that wants to cryogenically freeze him and be done with it, while Wimmer leads the opposing faction that wants to keep him alive for further research, that they might learn what keeps him alive. The answer, of course, is a process of Frankensteinian electric revival and the dark magicks of the powerful necromancer and camp lunchlady, Pamela Voorhees. That probably wouldn't show up on any test, I think.

Not that it matters, of course, for the Stupidest Guards in the Whole Wide World permit Jason to escape (although even their stupidity doesn't actually explain how he shakes himself loose from those chains), and he promptly kills everybody, giving Dr. Wimmer a nice old "pole through the gut" that is the series first good gore effect in a while. He chases Rowan into the cryo-chamber, where she traps him and starts him to freezing; but that wouldn't be much of a movie, now would it, and so he punches a hole through the chamber with his motherfucking machete that they somehow let him keep when he was imprisoned, and the room locks down, freezing Jason and Rowan and all.

Skip forward a few centuries.

A team of students arrives on the now-uninhabited Earth for a reason that we will never be given to understand. While investigating the ruins of the research center, they stumble across Rowan and Jason, determine that Rowan, at least, can be revived, and they find a way to bring the two bodies quickly into their shuttle. After a withering awful bit of comic business involving Azrael (Dov Tiefenbach), the stoned goofball (gawd, even in the future?) getting his arm sliced off by walking into Jason's frozen machete.

Can you guess what happens next? Sure you can, because this is the kind of movie that it is. I'll be fair and say that Jason's first two post-revival killings are fairly good ones: he pushes a lab tech's (Kristi Angus) face into liquid nitrogen and then shatters it against the counter, and the make-up team manages to make it look realistically bloody. A few minutes later, he takes some sort of chrome supermachete and stuffs it through a horny kid's (Yani Gellman) back, and pulls it blade-first out through his stomach. And that is the last moment in the film that will be fairly good, or slightly good, or so bad it's good, or anything involving any combination of an adverb and "good."

The chase that follows is empty-headed even by the standards of the Friday the 13th series, right up to the bit at the end, where Jason is nanited-up into a cyborg of unexceptional design. Many people die - people come up with many different body counts, but by some measures, it holds the record - and almost none of them are in the least memorable. Then it is over, and you breath a sigh of relief.

Here's what works: Hodder is not so good as he was in The New Blood, but he's at least as good as he was in Jason Take Manhattan. Harry Manfredini's score manages to bring the old "ch-ch-ch" into the sci-fi realm with a good deal of panache.

What doesn't work is a question too big for one essay, but I'll get as far as I can before I pass out. Most obviously, science fiction horror movies hardly ever work. The most notorious, and possibly the worst example is Leprechaun 4: In Space, but there are many, many, many, many others, and most of them first premiered on a Saturday night right after a rerun of Stargate SG-1, if you follow my meaning.

There is of course one good example, and it's actually one of the best movies ever made: Ridley Scott's Alien. The Friday the 13th films have always stolen from the very best, save for when they were stealing from themselves, so it's not going to be much of a surprise that the single most obvious influence on Jason X from design to lighting to plot, turns out to be that very same movie.

In all honesty, seeing Alien ripped-off so baldly in a slasher film got me to thinking; Alien itself bears more than a little similarity to that genre, structurally. You start out with a group of people, who for about half of the film's running time have no idea that anything is going wrong. Then they get killed, one at a time, until only a single woman is left. Not that Alien is a slasher, for God's sake. To begin with, everybody knows that the monster is on the ship after the chest-exploder scene, and they spent as much time hunting as being hunted. Not to mention that the first half of the movie plays a lot more like 2001 and a lot less like "Meet the Meat."

Nor does Alien have the same psychosexual neurosis of a typical slasher film. Instead, it is a film of people being killed by a sexual id. If the normal psycho-killer can be thought of as a Puritan castrating avenger, the alien is much more of a rapist.

But, and this is very important, Alien is a whole lot better than Jason X, no matter what genre each film belongs to. So for Jason X to steal so many ideas is a sign of colossal, unearned balls.

And that's not all! Jason X steals from The Matrix, in the form of a leather-clad kung-fu android (Lisa Ryder), who is herself present apparently for no reason other than the existence of Alien's Ash and Aliens's Bishop; from The Terminator, in its unstoppable robotic killer; and of course from Halloween, because that is what F13 movies do.

A bigger problem than its unoriginality and its science fiction setting - a much bigger problem, actually, just not so obvious - is its modernity. 1996 was a big year for the horror genre, and the main reason is the sudden and deeply unwanted influx of irony: every post-Scream film had to prove that it knew that it was a crappy horror picture.

The Friday the 13th franchise had already run aground on that, pretty badly, in Jason Lives, but that film's hokey comic sensibility is nothing compared to the wall-to-wall "cleverness" afflicting Jason X. Half of the deaths are not much more than punchlines, and then there's the infamous holodeck scene: the worst single moment in any film in this series of terrible moments, when Rowan programs a holographic representation of Crystal Lake, circa 1980, with nubile holographic teens who proudly exclaim "We love premarital sex!" before stripping down and writhing about in sleeping bags; whereupon Jason grabs one bag and uses it to beat the other. It doesn't help even a tiny bit that this is a carbon-copy of one of the greatest moments in the series, the "sleeping bag against a tree" death of The New Blood, but that's just the icing. This scene encapsulates all that is wrong with modern horror, and it does so in what is nominally an extension of the most '80s of all '80s franchises.

But that's not the only thing I mean by "modernity." The first nine films were all shot on that very specific color film that got used a lot for films, especially low-budget films, from about 1976 to about 1994. I probably should know exactly what stock that is; I don't; I suck. But it has a very distinctive softness to it; the color saturation is good, but the color all bleeds a little bit, and the contrast is simply dreadful (blacks look like charcoal greys, that sort of thing). They looked cheap and crappy and grimy. Jason X looks shiny: it was shot on some weird film/DV hybrid that I don't quite understand, that makes it look very dramatic and sharp and kind of more TV-ready than cinematic.

One of the most significant texts ever written about the art of horror is Stephen King's Danse Macabre, and it is possible that the most well-known passage from that book is his description of the big-budget bad movie: "it has a sparkly look that is still somehow cheesy - it’s like a dead rat in a Lucite block." That line, written in 1981, has never been truer of any movie in history than Jason X, a film made with all the technology of the 21st Century on behalf of the most dubious narrative form of the worst decade in cinema history. It is very much a dead rat in Lucite, and all the flaws that I could forgive when they were married to the gung-ho DIY crappiness of 1980s economic filmmaking, are brought into the sharpest relief by their presence in a CGI-laden, dramatically shadowy, actual attempt at making a proper movie. Nothing makes a Friday the 13th film worse than competence.

And since you've been so patient, I will now tell you that the actor who played the doomed Dr. Wimmer, the one that I had a nagging idea I knew? Well, it turns out that he's not an actor. It turns out that he's a director, and he's even made some horror films in his life, but they're a bit more sensitive and disturbing than Jason X, or any of the nine films that preceded it. Because that man is David Cronenberg, of Scanners and Dead Ringers and A History of Violence, and so many others. I don't know whether I'd rather laugh or cry.

Body Count: Whew, doggies. Jason kills 20 people directly (I think, it's kind of hard to keep track). One character dies by accident, and two deliberately sacrifice themselves to stop Jason. The two holodeck girls. And a whole damn space station gets blown up. And Jason himself dies, putatively. So: 24 deaths, 2 hologram deaths, and about another couple hundred off-screen.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a body count.

The F13 Dating Controversy: Okay, so it's 2455, right? Detail one: the android and the professor both say specifically that she's been out for 455 years, setting the opening in 2000, AKA "the year it was shot and supposed to be released." But Rowan mentions at one point that Jason was sentenced to death in 2008, and she talks about that as though it were quite some time in her relative past. Early on, somebody talks about the cryo set-up as being cutting-edge around 2010. In other words: fuck it. FUCK IT.

And how did Jason get out of Hell, exactly?

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)

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Tim, it's like Pirates. Jason needed a replacement to get out of Hell. That seems to be you :-)