Friday, June 13, 2014

Evolution of an Icon: Nine Fridays

  Freddy, Michael, Chucky, Pinhead... I'm familiar with those guys. I'd set aside time to watch those franchises in the past. (Well, I saw the first Halloween at least...) Yet, I'd never ever saw a Friday the 13th. Being a fan of 80's horror- many of my friends told me this was a grievous error I needed to rectify. Immediately. I was not convinced I'd like these movies. Jason seemed like the type of slasher villain I wouldn't like. From what I knew about him, he just seemed so damn basic. Freddy came after you in your dreams, Chucky was a possessed doll, Pinhead wanted to take you to another dimension and torture you for all eternity... but Jason and Michael always seemed from afar to just be lumbering knife-wielding... slashers. Basic as hell. Well, I finally got around to seeing Halloween last... Halloween, mainly because I'm a huge John Carpenter fan... and I liked it! But Friday the 13th? Eh... skeptical still, I decided to give em a shot anyways.

  It was an all or nothing deal I made with myself- you watch one, you watch em all. It was the whole franchise... or bust. I quickly realized though, that Jason X stood for Jason 10, and I said to myself... "Oh." Ten movies is daunting, and then you have Freddy vs. Jason too. So... eleven movies total? No way. Since fans derided both Jason X and Freddy vs. Jason (neither of which seem wholly canonical) I decided to politely excuse them from my "all" ultimatum. I'm not quite sure what prompted this whole thing, but I've been at it for about two weeks (including a hiatus) and just now finished. I had to sit through a few trailers just to jog my memory about which is which. They tend to blur together when you watch em back to back. It's been a really fun experience though and I can safely say I respect the franchise now. Jason himself is a pretty neat antagonist, especially when you have the whole franchise in perspective.

  But without further ado...

  Spoiler alert? I didn't know going into the first movie that Jason wasn't the main antagonist. Despite plenty of shots which made the mostly unseen killer look incredibly masculine, it turned out to be Jason's mom in the end. A decent twist I didn't really expect. Actress Betsy Palmer, despite purportedly thinking the script was "a piece of shit" turned in a great performance. Pamela Voorhees came off as a true psychotic woman, one you didn't want to cross under any circumstances. It'd be easy for me to dismiss this movie though if I hadn't watched it in the right mindset. I've seen countless slasher films. I can't even remember how many, but I had to remember- this was one of the trendsetters. Things we take for granted now were being innovated in movies like this.

  With that in mind, it was easier to enjoy the movie. It's a well crafted suspenseful slasher flick which has a couple classic kills and jump scares. On it's OWN merits, I'd say it's aged very well. Yet, when the movie itself is a hollow excuse for 90 minutes of scares, nudity, and blood... you wonder objectively what makes it so special when there's similar, scarier, movies with way more nudity and boatloads more gore. So many movies came after it and improved on it's formula. Thus, it's hard to feel impressed by the original. Having said that, I do respect this movie, and appreciate it. I think it's a genre movie to be revered for it's innovations. Yet on the whole, it's not one I'd return to anytime soon, simply because there are so many "better" slasher flicks around.

  Yes! Okay, part two, Jason is the main antagonist this time! Yet, never ceasing to surprise me... his trademark hockey mask is nowhere to be found. Shows how little I actually knew about these movies going into this whole thing.  Instead, he looks like the villain from the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Which is not a bad look in all honesty. Jason looks scary. No lie. The sackcloth is effective, and we see a cultural icon of horror emerging here. The movie itself is a close follow up to the first one in tone. Teens getting killed at a camp in the woods near Crystal Lake. I found the characters marginally more relatable this time around. There's a neat scene not too far into the movie, before the first kill I think- where all the camp counsellors huddle around a campfire at night to tell spooky stories. The movie utilizes this scene as an exposition drop to explain why and how Jason is now the antagonist- when his mother was avenging his death in the first movie.

  It's pretty much a blurry hour from that point on with your run-of-the-mill stalking and killing until the climax. The climax in each movie is always the best. Jason has killed everyone else and there's usually only one or two people left and it's a good 20-30 minutes of non-stop scares and straight-up tension. This movie does the climax well, I was really on the edge of my seat. As the hooded Jason chased around the pair of survivors until they stumbled across a shrine built around the decapitated head of his mother. The heroine has to get really creative at the end here to save not only her own life, but her friend's life too. It's a really cool scene, if not a bit kooky. Yet, it was handled well and is quite memorable. Kudos to this one.

  Finally! The hockey mask! At this point, I was legitimately smiling when it showed up. Seeing him finally don the iconic hockey mask was like seeing Clark Kent finally rip open his shirt, and you get to see the Superman logo for the first time. Part 3 was the beginning of the Jason that's so embedded in pop culture. The film was made for a 3D presentation. So naturally you have yo-yo's in your face, and the like. Yet, I feel like it would've been neat in 3D. This was the first turning point for the franchise. This is when it started embracing the fact it's become a formulaic series and all you can do is try to outdo the previous one. Which means more nudity, more gore. Not really high brow cinema. That whole mentality goes hand in hand with the kitschiness of 3D. It's a hollow, somewhat effective, gimmick that feeds on hype and nostalgia. It's now married to a movie that's a hollow, somewhat effective scare machine, that produces tons of blood and death to cater to hype and a teenage crowd. Fitting... and, I'll admit (albeit begrudgingly) it sounds like it'd be fun.

  Part 3 has Jason killing more stupid teens who return to Crystal Lake. Either I'm used to 2-dimensional archetypical characters in these movies, or they're actually getting to be more sympathetic. Granted, everything still boils down to smoking weed and having sex, but some of these characters... I really didn't want to see die. Yet on the other hand, I know they're just Jason-fodder. Interestingly enough, the whole camp situation provides the viewer with plenty of plucky would-be heroines to choose from. Which one will survive? Sometimes it's not so obvious. When it's a surprise, I like it. I don't think it was much of a surprise here, but overall the movie was handled deftly. The movie ends up as an iconic exercise in crafting scares out of a formulaic concept. The kills this time are very crazy and exceptionally bloody. Including a series favorite of mine involving a harpoon gun. Bullseye...

  I think this one is the pinnacle of the franchise. Certainly the best one. Yet... had the series ended here, I think Jason would be little more than a footnote in the annals of horror. It's the overexposure to the public that cemented him as a cultural icon. The very fact there's so damn many of them allow us by contrast to appreciate the really good ones. Like this one. It's a by-the-numbers killer thriller that somehow manages to be more than the sum of it's parts. Dare I say it's... charming? It has an old fashioned (from a modern perspective) sensibility to it that's very refreshing in the face of a current trend of obnoxiously gritty horror movies. Part 3 is more than just effective, it's a go-to film for how to make a classic slasher movie fun. This marks the beginning of the escalating creativity with the murders, yet none of the following films would quite strike the balance that this one did. Really fun movie.

  This time, Jason's going to die for good. Obviously right? It's titled the FINAL chapter! Psh. Of course it's not. It made more money than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Obviously there will be more, but lets appreciate this one first. While not as iconic as Part 3, The Final Chapter has it's own appeal. It continues the more trend in this franchise, but it does so with gusto. Not to mention a decent story, decent acting, and some humor. Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman steal the show, completely independent of each other. If you're an 80's freak like me, you're thinking "Aw snap, that's George McFly and Mouth". They both add some levity to an otherwise brutal and grim entry (aren't they all?) into the franchise. Whilst Glover's character is just a victim, waiting in line basically, Feldman's character, Tommy, edges out as a clear cut protagonist. 

  It's kinda jarring seeing a young kid in a horror movie. Very few movies have the balls to kill off a kid, but I felt like Friday the 13th, as a franchise wasn't 'above' pulling a move like that. That dynamic alone added some genuine tension to the movie which could've very easily been very formulaic. Also new is the fact that this time, Jason is killing just a bunch of teens. They're not camp counsellors and they're not campers. They're just teens holed up in a house for the weekend. I didn't really like any of them, and beyond their basic intrinsic function of being meat for the grinder, it's hard to care whether they live or not. Especially since their characters only exist to be killed. Speaking of which, The Final Chapter has some really great kills in it, showcasing a lot of creativity this time around, and it's fun. 

  There's a character in here who's hunting Jason if I remember right- or something, but in the end he kinda just... gets killed anyways. Big surprise who the actual hero turns out to be, only it's not really a surprise at all. Yet, it's nice. It gave this movie something unique, and a climax that definitely stands apart from previous entries. In both Part 2 and Part 3, it was plausible that Jason survived. In this movie? Not so much. The fantastic practical effects work of the great Tom Savini are a definite highlight. He returned to this movie (having also done the first film) to "kill the creature he created", and he did so with gusto. The Final Chapter and Part 3 stand out to me as two of the best in the franchise. I can easily recommend them both.

  Well having killed off Jason in the FINAL chapter... the inevitable next movie tried to hold true to that, and is titled A New Beginning. Pound for pound it's not a bad slasher flick, though technically... Jason's not the villain. It's just a copycat killer. Some of the characters seem worth investing your time in, but not enough. Largely, the cast of characters is just full of jerks and weirdos. The formula of the slasher flick feels actually tired in this movie. Probably for the first time in the franchise, an entry truly feels ho-hum. There are some great scenes, but it's hard to care in the end. Partly because the actor who picked up the role Corey Feldman was playing in part IV is totally unlikeable. He has only a few modes. Blank, scary blank, and freaked out. There is no pleasant moment with him, unlike the pot smoking, bed hopping teens of the prior films. 

  The victims in the other movies usually had at least something about them that made you wanna see them live. Even if they were ignorant for the most part, it was an innocent ignorance. Most everyone in this movie is either a prick, selfish, annoying, or just... blank. I found myself not caring who died or not. I mean, I know the characters aren't usually the strong suit of these movies, but they're exceptionally vapid in this entry. The most personality, comes again, from a little kid. They should just pit Jason against a bunch of kids at this point. It might actually be a lot of fun. A New Beginning's climax is no slouch though, it's really exciting if only on a very basic level. There's lots of running and chasing, and the final showdown is in a barn, which is always interesting seeing how they make use of their surroundings. Beyond that though, the ending is kinda silly and the movie isn't really all that memorable. It's not bad enough to loathe, but it doesn't exactly achieve anything higher than mediocrity either.

  Realizing that for better or worse, fans only want the real mccoy I'm sure you can guess that in this one... Jason Lives.  This movie is self aware. It realizes how silly it's premise is, and rather than fumble around with it, it embraces the entire concept. They're resurrecting a classic movie villain from the dead. Thus the movie isn't as serious as previous installments, yet they really put effort into making this as creepy as possible. For once, Camp Crystal Lake has kids at it, and while you're aware that Jason probably won't be the movie monster to break that inviolable rule of 'no killing kids', it's still a really tense dynamic. He's also super strong this time around, punching people's heads in and such. They've basically accepted his status as film icon, and by infusing his ongoing mythos with some supernatural elements, they're essentially saying... he's here to stay.

  Also returning is series (semi-)mainstay Tommy. Of course he's yet again being played by another actor. Yet I'd say this guy is way more likeable than the last actor. No complaints there. Actor Thom Matthews, along with co-star Jennifer Cooke manage to carry the one-liners and humor in the movie really well. It certainly lends a different tone to the movie, but since they're not skimping on the scares or gore, it didn't bother me too much and didn't stick out like a sore thumb. Alas,you realize that this is another turning point for the franchise. You could kill him in each subsequent movie, and they'll find a way to bring him back each time a sequel seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, this was the last really strong effort in the franchise and the last one I thoroughly enjoyed. Jason is as iconic here as he ever will be.

  This is where the franchise really really lost me. The New Blood is so middle of the road as far as slashers go, I could barely keep myself awake during it. It broke my stride and I ended up putting a week between this one and the next one, which ended up taking me a week to watch itself. Part VII is pretty standard. Jason kills a bunch of unlikeable teens having a house party near Crystal Lake. The fact that the heroine has telekinetic powers is so random and left field, AND underdeveloped that we don't really give a shit. OR see her as a formidable opponent for Jason. It's just a movie full of characters I didn't really like, and a story that was super uninteresting. It lacked the kinetic pacing and enjoyable feeling of the last one, and ended up being super mediocre.  

  This movie just seemed so un-memorable stacked up next to the others. I had some good effects, and great gore as always, but I never found myself really engaged or interesting. I think a likeable lead is essential. This movie didn't really have one. The actress does well, but not well enough. She pales in comparison to the secondary character Jennifer Cooke played in the previous movie. That girl had so much charm and charisma, she could've carried the movie by herself and I wouldn't have minded. This girl does a serviceable job as the main character, but little else. Disappointing at best. I would elaborate even more, but what can I say? This movie fell so flat for me, it hit the ground harder than one of Jason's victims. This one is pretty much on par with A New Beginning. For me? Those are the two worst of the franchise thus far.

  Quickly coming up on the end of my mega-review, we're down to the second from last: Jason Takes Manhattan. Honestly, the title is misleading. Jason doesn't really take Manhattan at all. The title should be Jason Takes a Long-ass Boat Ride. Because 3/4ths of the movie is set on a boat headed for New York. If I wasn't expecting so much New York, this might be fine, but... alas. Surprisingly, all that aside, this one wasn't awful. If anything it was a decent change of pace from the previous movie and it has a cool new setting. The boat is as creative as anything we've seen so far, so I can't complain that much. Granted, it's either shitty writing, or shitty marketing, but at least this one is different? It also has some really cool kills. Jason shoves a huge flaming sauna rock into this dude's stomach, and then crack's this other chick's head open with an electric guitar. Fun stuff.

  Then there's also this scene where Jason chokes a girl to death on an empty dancefloor while hip 80's pop music plays in the background. I kinda feel like that scene is emblematic of the state of the franchise at this point. Jason is so much of a cultural icon as well as a horror icon that in a weird way, he's become sort of like a protagonist in his own movies. He's in the public consciousness on par with their favorite pop song or favorite music video. He's like a rock star of horror movies. Granted, he's no Freddy Krueger, but he has his own standing. Anyways, the movie might feel like it drags a bit if you're constantly waiting for New York, but because the leads are at least sorta fun to be with I didn't mind as much. However when we finally get there, it's so worth it.

  Seeing Jason out of his element is so much fun. From a little visual gag about Hockey Masks, to a great scene in a typical NYC diner. "Help! There's a maniac trying to kill us!" the lead heroine says. "Welcome to New York, honey." the waitress retorts. Of course, as if on cue, Jason bursts through the diner doors with the grace of a bull in a china shop. He slowly struts past everyone who just stares on in shock, and you see his fractured reflection in the mirror. It's a great looking scene, both semi-funny and really haunting as well. No matter where he goes, he's a force to be reckoned with. Even in front of jaded New Yorkers. The ending is weird and all, and you can tell this was really meant to be the last one because of how it ends but... you know Jason. You can't keep him down. This one wasn't really a good one, but it gets plenty of points for creativity. Despite that, it's one of the poorer films in the franchise, and not one I'd be eager to return to. Still better than A New Beginning and The New Blood though.

  Here we are at the final movie I intend to review. Jason Goes to Hell. Well, apparently Jason is no longer a legend. He's a nationally acknowledged serial killer who has a whole police task force dedicated to killing him. The beginning has Jason falling into a trap, and getting blown apart by said task force. Which is a hell of an opening. Starting the movie by killing the villain was a pretty interesting move, and this movie succeeds in being creative without screwing with the slasher format. I liked that.  Jason's spirit or what-have-you can now possess other people and use them to go on killing sprees as he tries to make his way back to Crystal Lake. Okay... I'm on board so far. I really liked the lead hero. He started off as a major dork, but he ended up being REALLY likeable. This was very unexpected. There's also tons of scenery chewing characters in this one which is so much more fun than blank and unremarkable machete-fodder.

  I felt a more emotional connection to the leads this time. They're well written and well acted. Arguably some of the best characters in a franchise known for having weak characters. The plot meanders too much though and has to go out of it's way to find people for Jason to slaughter on his way to find his only living relatives. Because... apparently, they're the only ones who can kill him for good? I guess? This one bounty hunter guy seems to have all the answers, and we never know how he knows all this stuff either. He just... does. He's a fun character though, if a bit out of the blue. Some parts of the movie dragged, but it was interesting enough, and with plenty of unexpected moments to keep me engaged. Which is something the past few movies have had serious trouble doing.

  It's the most ridiculous movie in the franchise, and while creative, feels like a world apart from the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the original three. They were more grounded and this one is full on science fiction. I mean, the next Jason movie they made is essentially Jason in Space! So take that for what you will. Possession, resurrection, soul creatures, sacrifices? This movie is so far removed from a conventional Friday, that it's almost off-putting. You either embrace it or hate it. Fans who prefer a more grounded and brooding Jason will be turned off by this flashy and sci-fi-ish entry. On the other hand, people who embrace a wilder Friday, in vein of Jason Lives, you probably won't have too much of an issue with this one. I commend them for going out with a bang, especially since it was a rather risky story to take on. I enjoyed it. I'd put it firmly in the middle of the good/bad scale. It has enough good elements to warrant a viewing, yet enough weird crap and nonsensical happenings to keep it from being one of the better ones.

All in all, pound for pound (of flesh?) this franchise earns it's place in the pantheon of horror movies, and with gusto. Jason Voorhees is one of the most memorable horror movie icons ever, and it's not hard to see why. Some of these movies are fantastic scare fests, and some are just silly mindless entertainment, but where they really succeed is blending both attributes into a few really special films. I enjoyed this experience, and I'm eyeing more franchises to binge watch in the future. Bring it on! Ch ch ch... ha ha ha...

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