01 July 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HERE AT THE END OF THINGS

A quick recap: the year 1989 managed to pretty much kill the slasher subgenre, and Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan in particular was such a vicious black eye upon the studio that produced it that they sold the franchise lock, stock and barrel to those saucy upstarts at New Line, still a decade away from producing multi-hundred-million dollar prestige epics, and still regarded as "the house that Freddy built."

The result, four years later and well into the slasher film's dormant period, was Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, and quite a weird, cumbersome title it is. Strictly speaking, it had been better that the film were named Friday the 13th, Part IX: Jason Goes to Hell, or best of all that the clunky "Jason Goes to Hell" construction be left behind entirely, in favor of e.g. Friday the 13th, Part IX: Oh Fuck Me, Another One.

When all is said and done, though, the odd title change would be the least of the film's breaks from tradition. Jason Goes to Hell is a strange little movie: barely recognizable as a Friday the 13th film, only superficially a slasher at all. Yes sir, an odd duck, this one is: a supernatural thriller in slasher clothes, the F13 chapter with simultaneously the highest production values, the best performances, and the most inexplicable and incoherently Lovecraftian plot of the series to this point.

You wouldn't know that from the start: in the woods there is a cabin, and in the cabin there is a buxom young blonde (Julie Michaels), and because it is dark and she is alone and there are weird creepy noises, she naturally elects to take a shower, giving us what I believe to be the fastest nudity of any film in the series (before the five-minute mark). After a handful of unexceptional false scares, she pokes her head outside, to find herself facing down none other than Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder, for the third and final time).

Clad only in a towel that heroically, even supernaturally, refuses to shift or fall off, the woman runs through the woods and into a clearing, chased all the way by our favorite psycho killer (whose exposed flesh, it is worth mentioning, is looking particularly gangrenous and oozy), where all of a sudden, klieg lights are turned on, and tens of FBI agents burst out of the surrounding woods, dousing Jason in a storm of bullets - so many, in fact, that the customarily voiceless killer grunts and groans - and at long last a mortar of all damn things is launched at Jason, blowing him into small pieces all over the field.

Besides the fact that it comes not at all close to answering the question of "how did Jason cease to be a ten-year-old boy in swimming trunks in the New York sewers," this opening is - I hesitate to say it - pretty clever, as both text and subtext. For one, there's the acknowledgment that the 13-year-old tropes of the Friday the 13th series are so well-worn that even the characters in the movie are aware of how clichéd they are (given the way that Agent Marcus - the blonde - is able to bait Jason by her manipulation of those clichés). And I do think it's quite interesting that this film, which will ultimately serve to undercut and alter just about everything that makes the franchise what it is, opens with a scene that pokes fun at the formula of the franchise, just before killing the unkillable killer at its heart.

But with this scene, we must say good-bye to the hoary traditions of the Friday the 13th films, for despite being aimless, overlong, confusing, and in possession of plot holes large enough to land a fighter plane on, this film finally manages to address the longest-standing of all complaints about the series: it is absolutely, 100% nothing at all like the eight movies that preceded it.

To cut to the chase, not that the film doesn't get there pretty quickly itself, this is the film where we learn that "Jason Voorhees" doesn't exist. Jason was possessed by some kind of hideous worm creature that controls its host, turning it into a deadly killer; this creature is somehow tied to the Voorhees bloodline, and every time it inhabits a Voorhees, it takes the form of the hypertrophic masked madman with the odd propensity for finding machetes in the heart of the New Jersey woods. Moreover, it's very strongly implied that this creature first entered the world when Pamela Voorhees, now revealed to be a powerful necromancer, raised her dead son Jason from his watery grave, by means of a powerful book of fell magic (played by the Necronomicon Exmortis of the Evil Dead trilogy, in a prop cross-pollination that I hope makes Sam Raimi very embarrassed). MOREOVER, Pamela and her husband Elias now are revealed to have birthed a younger sister to Jason, Diana, despite the fact that Pamela clearly called Jason her "only child" way the hell back in Friday the 13th. Really, the size and number of the leaps of faith required to make the insane Mrs. Voorhees of that film into a powerful wielder of ancient death magicks would make even the most uncritical fanboy furrow his brow in dismay.

So it comes as no real surprise that this film is treated like a filthy thing among the F13 faithful, and with good reason: it takes the mythos of the eight Paramount films (like the Marx Bros, Jason can be divided into two phases based on his studio; although even Love Happy is like Proust compared to the best of Friday the 13th) and pisses on it. Then it sets the mythos on fire, and jerks off over the ashes, and then pisses on the ashey-cummy mixture that remains.

Then insults the pissy-ash-cum slurry's momma.

Then farts in its face.

I'm of torn mind. I mean, if ever a mythos deserved to be treated like a radioactive dead thing, it is surely the Friday the 13th legendarium. But in these last few weeks, I have developed...well, I guess we could call it a certain "affection" for the films. Obviously, if I were that disgusted by the films, I could stop watching them. But something deep inside me kind of likes the continuing adventures of Jason Voorhees, for all that they are idiotic, insulting and immoral (and many other things, but I ran out of i- words). I hold no regrets, believe it or not. By now these films are like family to me; the ill-mannered, vulgar, wingnut family that ruin your whole November just from the knowledge that you have to see them at Thanksgiving, to be certain: but family anyway. So no, on balance, I'm not happy to see a film that takes the carefully (read: sloppily) established Historie of the Dred Killre, Js Voorhees and craps on it for 89-91 minutes (based on which cut you're watching; clearly, I went for the longer, more violent version).

On the other hand, if you can pretend that Jason Goes to Hell isn't really a Friday the 13th movie, it's kind of actually a somewhat okay experience. First and above all, this is because there are actual, recognizable human beings in the damn thing: Steve (John D. LeMay), our hero, and a very confused, often assholey, hero he is. And that's great. The strong suit of this series has never been its moral greyness (no, the morality of killing teens for smoking pot and having sex is pretty straightforward), but Steve is a right antihero: we learn not so far into the film that he got his ex-girlfriend Jessica Kimble (Kari Keegan) pregnant, and subsequently freaked out and left her. Then, for the entire narrative, he tries to reconnect with her (admittedly, this is no small part because she turns out the be The Last Of The Voorheeses, and he alone can protect her from the various worm-infected humans who try to kill her: for the other part of the new Jason legend is that only a Voorhees, armed with the Magical Knife of Cheap Early-90s Video Effects, can end the evil thing's reign of destruction). Steve is perhaps the most human figure in nine films, and I hope I don't have to point out, that's not nothing. That's a hell of a lot. I might go so far as to say that the scene where Steve meets his infant daughter for the first time might be the one truly great scene in the film. Except that LeMay can't quite act.

The other truly memorable character, thanks to a man who can act, is Creighton Duke, the mysterious bounty hunter who for no reason ever given knows every detail of the Voorhees family; and he is played by Stephen Williams, smack in the middle of the gap between 21 Jump Street and The X-Files. Now, Williams is nobody's idea of a great actor, but by the standards of this particular franchise, he's surely behind only Crispin Glover as the finest thespian they ever got their hands on. Thus Duke - who makes no sense on paper - turns into a memorably threatening and amusing character, weirdly modelled after Quint from Jaws ("$500,000. For that you get the mask, the machete...the whole damn thing." I shit you not).

And, not that it's a character, but I'd be remiss in ignoring the shockingly increased role of Crystal Lake, NJ, itself. For the first time ever, or at least since the first film, this feels like a community. Everybody seems to know everybody, which makes Steve's behavior that much more difficult to take; and the response of the local teens and business owners to Jason's apparent demise are recognizable and genuinely hilarious (2-for-1 hockey-mask-shaped burgers).

Now, that's what makes Jason Goes to Hell fairly watchable. You'll not be surprised to learn that this is much outweighed by everything that makes the film all but unendurable.

The biggest problem with the film is that it's not at all a slasher, but it feels the need to mimic one. Consider: there are really no teens, there is no spam-in-a-cabin, there are only two prominently gory deaths (your mileage may vary, based on your tolerance towards gore). Frankly, it feels more like a Witchcraft movie without so much soft-core sex (that is: no Witchcraft movie at all). It would probably be okay for a Friday the 13th movie to give up entirely on slashing; but perhaps fearing audience abandonment, the filmmakers forced a slasher-style body count upon us, even though the plot cannot remotely support it. The crazy thing about Jason Goes to Hell is that despite containing the highest ratio of deaths per minute in the series, it really feels like nothing happens for the entire film. Looking at the cast list, I can remember each and every single death; but thinking over the film itself, I can hardly remember what was going on when they died.

And that's ignoring the plain old stupidity on display here. The Friday the 13th movies were never aimed at a particularly bright or discering crowd, of course, and Jason Goes to Hell is in every way less inane than its immediate predecessor. But that leaves plenty of room for blistering narrative incoherence, from the inexplicable way that Duke knows everything to the way that nobody in Crystal Lake can logic out how the disappearance of the coroner performing Jason's autopsy ties into the subsequent string of murders, despite the fact that this link is spelled out in an episode of the fake TV show American Casefile dedicated to the apparent end of Jason's reign. And then there's the fact that if you actually buy the whole subplot about Pamela and the dark arts, I have a bridge to sell you.

It's de rigeur among those viewers of sufficient discrimination, those who view the series for its metatextual neatness, to suppose that Jason Goes to Hell could have been a really fine film it only it weren't a Friday the 13th film, and I guess I'll have to agree with that. All of the truly bad parts of the movie are those which are most slasherly, and those which try (and fail) most desperately to fit into the F13 universe. As a one-off fantasy horror film, this could have been decently unmemorable; although in that case, it would be unlikely that people would still remember it 14 years on. So I suppose that's the Faustian bargain of it: we still know the film precisely because it took the steps necessary to turn itself into a train wreck.

And I think that's mostly true of the Friday the 13th series as a whole. If there had been only one or two films, they would have been inoffensive and totally forgotten, like most of the dozens of other slashers from the early 1980s. It is only the raw whoredom of the series - the urge to keep making more and more stories about Jason and his increasingly absurd resistance to death and destruction - that made the films infamous. As a poster boy for the desparate and lame extremes that Hollywood producers will reach in the hopes of finding the perpetual money machine (and it pleases me to no end that Sean Cunningham returned to the series for this last entry in the classic era, for the first time since that very first film), this is one of the truly significant film series of all time. But like everything, it had to be put out of its misery, and in 1993 the slasher film was dead beyond death. Friday the 13th passed away as it was born: the soulless pursuit of money. At least in this, its almost-final iteration, it at long last tried to do something to be more than a decade and a half had permitted it to be; the fact that it only succeeded in pissing off the only people who might ever have loved it just amuses me. The series got the death it deserved: strange and stupid.

But as the final image of the film suggests, you can never truly kill a Hollywood moneymaker; just try to scrunch up your eyes and ignore it for as long as possible.

GodDAMNit.

Body Count: Rather tricky in this one. First, there's the whole possession angle, which is a pretty simple "Jason possesses you = you die" equation. Then there's the fact that Jason himself dies twice in the film. Then there's the death of a mostly frivolous character that is neither seen nor implied in the R-rated theatrical cut, and then there are the "five Jason-style murders" that we are told about on American Casefile. I'm going to go with 27 deaths (a new record!): Jason counted twice, and the dude who only dies in the unrated cut also counted, but the five offscreen deaths ignored. 25, by the way, would still be the record.

Fun fact: we are told that Jason has killed 83 people. In fact, he has killed 85. I didn't work that out by myself, thank God.

The F13 Dating Controversy: Lordy. Well, we know now that Jason was 11 in 1957, i.e. 33 in 1979 and 38 in 1984 et cetera ad infinitum. More importantly, how long since Jason Takes Manhattan, and how the holy hell did he get out of that sewer? Apparently, there is a comic explaining just that, and suggesting that the gap between the two films is about one week; but the timeline at Friday the 13th: The Website prefers a 15-month gap. Since that is both extremely desperate to compress things, and the closest to "official" that the world has (despite its seemingly innumerable flaws), I'm not prepared to argue that the time could be any less than that site argues. So: sometime in the summer of 2004.

We're just not even going to try and iron out the many continuity issues this film raises.

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:

Cameron said...

but what of the cinematography? there are maybe two people in the world who have a vested interest in this cinematography of this film, but vested interests we do have.

also, you ought to use the phrase "Faustian bargain" more often.