Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Urban legend


FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN

The Eighth (oh God) Annual Great October Switcheroo!  Once again, we're crossing over with the wonderful Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and sometimes Alternate Ending, and I'm doing some of the 80s slashers he's catalogued as part of his Census Bloodbath project, while he's doing some of the old-timey sci-fi I've been hoarding as part of my own Cardboard Science archive.  This year, he finally gave me three pieces of the slasher genre's major arcana, such as I've been very subtly and surreptitiously hinting that I'd like to do this whole time; in return, I accidentally gave him three pieces of indecent crap.  Oops!  (But, seriously, apologies.)

1989
Written and directed by Rob Hedden

Spoiler alert: moderate


Brennan, for many years, has remained resistant to assigning me anything from the big franchises for these Census Bloodbath crossovers, and while that's changed this year, of course Brennan wouldn't make it easy.  I don't know his motivations for sending me all the way to the end with the last Friday the 13th of the 1980s, the "conclusion" (a conclusion, anyway) of a franchise that I'd barely seen.  Perhaps he conceived it as an experiment, to see what I would make of a seventh sequel after failing to watch the preceding six.  And perhaps he laughed, knowing that, in fact, he'd checkmated me into watching the whole series up through Part VIII.  God knows, where would my credibility be without that?

But the joke's on B, for it turns out I liked them.  (Loveliest Saturday in recent memory, frankly.)  This was something of a surprise, as the Fridays are typically smirked-at: they're legendary, but only as trash.  They are trash, but slashers are supposed to be trash, and, taken as a unit, the Paramount Canonthat is, the frist eight (I cannot presently speak to New Line et al's attempts to resuscitate the brand)might make for the best original continuity of any slasher franchise, whether Jason Goes to Hell is good or not.  Halloween keeps its crown as the marquee series overall, thanks to alternate realities; both it and the Nightmares peak higher, too.  But as a collective, maybe no other franchise gets so perfectly right the two things that occasionally make slasher films meaningful and artistic as well as fun.  (If you think that's dumb, I'm being totally sarcastic; if not, I genuinely mean it.)

The first thing is that, like any good slasher, they're legitimate horror.  Sure, they're rarely scary, or even startling.  But as a collection of blood-soaked memento moris (I want to say "mementos mori," but I'm no ignoramus), they could not be better, and despite there plainly never being any conscious thought behind the decision to cast twenty-five year olds as frequently-disrobed teens, beyond the basic exploitative appeal of their hot bods (and, in fairness, the ease with which dippy sex comedy could be turned into filler), I'm not really sure I hold with the common idea that slut punishing is the name of Friday's game after the first film.  It's always still there, I guess, because they're always made by and for Johnny Slasherfans as horny as they are morbid.  But it's not that insisted upon; Jason Voorhees rains on the sexually just and unjust alike.  (Heck, the Final Girl isn't even female a quarter of the time.)  Ultimately what I think the films are about, if you wanted to get something out of them that wasn't entirely superficial, is the absurdityand inevitabilityof death, altogether serving as a reminder that the moment you stop being young (this so often being the moment that Jason cuts your head off, or shish kebabs you with your sexual partner) is the moment you start to die, and Jason's just getting it over with, sparing you a longer wait.  The second thing, and this exists mostly just in the space between the films, is that they are slasherdom's most perfect representation of a spooky campfire tale, not just because they're usually set in the woods but also because they change with every telling, and in every case the films sort-of never really "happened," at least not in the usual sense of a literal, objective narrative.  The core phase of the franchise"the Jason Trilogy," I'd call it, as I'm not sure it has a name, Part 2 through The Final Chapterultimately makes this an explicit aspect of its text, like it was almost intelligent or something.


But all good things come to an end, and the very simplest explanation for why Brennan would give me Part VIII is probably the correct one, and so it's my dark suspicion that it was only ever the result of a decision-making process of one step, "give Hunter the shitty one."  Part VIII was the one, after all, that failed, a seeming impossibility for a popular film series with budgets in the low seven figures, shaking Paramount so badly that they wound up selling it like the worn-out hand-me-down it had suddenly become.

We're somewhat spoilt for choice when it comes to reasons why this happened, but I'll go with the overarching one: it's the most unrepresentative Friday the 13th to date, yet somehow also the culmination of all the series' most decadent trends.  Now, one of those trends wasn't the film's fault, but rather the MPAA's.  Their clampdown on gore led to some pretty dispiriting slashers, and the Fridays had begun to try compensating for the absence of viscera with a surplus of victims, apparently under the misapprehension that quality of death could be approximated with quantity of death.  It never worked: besides the modal death of a late-Friday being comparatively drab in its own right, it also had the side-effect of warping the series's storytelling out of shape in order to bring in each film's increasingly-unwieldy tonnage of meat.  By Part V the series had already begun to mutate from "middling teen sex comedies with murders" into "comedy variety shows with murders"not the trifling distinction it sounds like.  Part VIII has unique problems, however, being the longest of all Fridaysthe difference between "~90 minutes" and "100 minutes" shouldn't be profound, but when every other Friday operates exclusively in the Perfect Runtime Zone, you feel it keenly.  Worse, and making those 100 minutes downright oppressive, Part VIII is where the Friday formula entirely collapses.  In the "variety show" phase of the franchise, it had at least made attempts to try to rein in the sprawl of its casts, but Part VIII is where the plot just completely disintegrates into a balkanized collection of mini-stories, so that while every other Friday gave us some feeling of a semi-coherent community, eventually embodied in the vengeance of a Final Girl, Part VIII is the one where it barely feels like its participants have even met before they start to die.


Principally, that's because it lazily assumes that "classmate" (or, unbelievably, "teacher," because this is the Friday with omnipresent authority figures!) is a meaningful relationship, but as I've spent a lot of space already outgassing, I shall summarize the plot as briefly as possible.  Jason Takes Manhattan can be boiled down, essentially, to this: "Jason (Kane Hodder) gets on one boat, which leads him to another boat, and he kills most of the people on that boat, and the ones he misses make it ashore to New York City, where they enjoy the city's famous hospitality, but Jason follows them, and setpieces occur and eventually they wrap things up in an astoundingly silly way."  Infamously, Part VIII is a whole lot more Jason vs. the SS Poseidon than it is anything involving the Taking of Manhattan, and this is a result of several things, but mostly writer-director Rob Hedden presenting Paramount with two ideasJason on a boat, Jason in a parody version of New Yorkwhich both got the studio's approval, so he up and decided to do both simultaneously, even though Paramount probably wouldn't have properly funded either in the best case, and sure as shit weren't going to properly fund both at the same time.  You know, Rob Hedden might not be almost intelligent.

Well, to add to that slightly, our cast is mostly comprised of students and teachers from Crystal Lake's Lakeview High, and for Lakeview's students' senior trip, the school's sprung for a holiday cruise to NYC.  The whole class is here, but the one who "matters" is our Final Girl, Rennie (Jensen Daggett), a big friendless nerd so lame she has to be dragged out to party by a teacher, Ms. Van Neusen (Barbara Bingham), and it's a pity they wasted the "looks like her mother dresses her" quip on the previous Friday's Final Girl, where it wasn't nearly as apropos.  Rennie's reticence, however, is not solely due to awkwardness, but because she's afraid of the water, a character backstory that irritatingly slowly comes to into focus, though the main thing is that she's being haunted by the ghost of Jason Voorhees in the form of the child who, going by the franchise's always-dubious timeline, drowned in Crystal Lake most of a century ago, while Jason Voorheesthe adult revenantstalks her in the (undead) flesh.


That's
a big hole in the center of the screenplay but not actually any special reason to dislike it: between this and some other, even weirder crap, Hedden clearly had some desire to bring mysticism into Jason's saga, and if that's not necessarily admirable in principle, it isn't an unfair thing to attempt; the Fridays had always been loosey-goosey with "reality," and the overt supernatural had been front-and-center for three movies now.  But even by Friday standards, it's reckless; it's only even intriguing by the skin of its very teeth, and Hedden's film certainly has no ability to digest whatever ideas it thinks it's playing with, let alone make them important.

Anyway, Rennie catches the eye of Sean (Scott Reeves), the son of the boat's captain.  He's got his own little drama going on, and they hit it off well enough to cling to one another once Jason's murder-spree goes from chronic to acute.  However, Rennie's presence aboard the boat is opposed by her uncle, Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman), also the vice-principal or somethinghe's the ranking, or at least the loudest, chaperoneand Hedden's screenplay pits McCulloch against one of the very few other characters who "matter," Tamara (Sharlene Martin), not just for the title of vilest character in the series not surnamed Voorhees, but also the most supremely obnoxious.  Surprisingly, Tamara wins "vilest," for her subplot involves sexually assaulting McCulloch while filming it for blackmail purposes, and that's the kind of teen noir shit that probably shouldn't be broached outside of its own movie, yet somehow Tamara's sex crime caper doesn't hold the record for the series' "most reprehensible act short of murder" even as long as this film.  We're not invited to sympathize with McCulloch's predicament, however, partly because we know it won't make any difference, but also because he easily wins "most obnoxious," somehow making you more eager for him to die than the most aggravating prankster stereotype in any earlier Friday.  Maybe that's because he's a grown-up.  Maybe it's because even as the ship is literally exploding underneath him, he keeps barking about how Jason is baloney invented to frighten childrenin other words, turning one of my favorite things about the Fridays, Jason's perpetual retrenchment into folklore, into something intolerableor maybe it's just because he survives so long.  In any event, there's also Julius (V.C. Dupree), a tertiary character who's had almost no interaction with any of these people, but graduates to lead because he lives long enough, and I almost like the arbitrary disaster movie-ness of that.  Julius is a boxer who thinks going head-to-head with Jason is a good idea, making him arguably the dumbest human in the whole franchise, but absolutely the most likeable "core victim" character in this one.

Oh right, it's not possible to briefly summarize slasher movies.

Otherwise, it's a small army of chaff characters drawn from various teen stereotypes, or not even stereotypesthere's a whole group of anonymous survivors who blow up and/or get drowned entirely off-camera, so we're back to "funding."  I'm not going to judge Hedden for passing off a freighter as a party boat, or pretending that his soundstage scenes line up with his brief NYC location shooting; but he doesn't even understand that a vessel the size of the SS Lazarus (oh-ho! ha-ha) would probably have a crew slightly larger than three.  Even "three" is counting the salty deck hand (Alex Diakund), who, as with McCulloch's disbelief, drives his character function into the ground, turning the Coot Cassandra who always shows up into a permanent fixture here, seeming to pop up every third fucking shot to offer up one more unheeded warning about Jason.  Which is a mite redundant by the time we've seen Jason kill a dozen people.

Well, "seen," in scare-quotes, as a lot of these people die without good gore effects or, in many cases, any gore effects.  Sometimes, this is actually effective: I somewhat like the victim-POV shot where a girl rocker gets brained with her own guitar and blood spatters the camera.  Sometimes, it's just pathetic, and Part VIII seems to want to get out ahead of it, sheepishly offering the lousiest gore effect in the series, and arguably one of the most disappointing gore effects in the entire genre, as its very first kill; this involves Jason gutting the operator of the first boat offscreen, while pulling his intestines out onscreen, which would probably be perfectly okay if it hadn't been bring-your-kid-to-work day, and a middle schooler hadn't designed the effect.  I mean, that's my guess, as it's a rubber tube covered in hot sauce.  Nothing's that bad again, but consider: McCulloch's death gets a PG-rated drowning; we don't see a burning body burn after it gets thrown at an exploding console from Star Trek; and an overburdened Jason neglects to do much corpse decoration to scare core characters later; hell, they make a big slow-motion show of the captain's neck opening up after a machete slice, and cut away before it bleeds.

And that's a pity, because Part VIII does some nice things, besides shaking up the series formula in terms of setting (which is not necessarily nice, but it is novel).  This includes arguably the best camerawork since Part 2not the best cinematography, as that title belongs to Part VI, or the best-composed shotsbut muscular nonetheless, and devilishly fast.  Hedden offers the occasional visual drollery, like Hodder looking back at us to share Jason's bemusement at a billboard advertisement for hockey, or (in a less like-it-or-lump-it way) a subway car that reflects his mask's red-and-white color scheme.  Plus, as much as I complain about its bloodlessness, this one does have two of my favorite Friday kills.  One of those finds Hedden sidestepping his constraints, with a nauseatingly long and brutal strangling (which ends, in conformity with Friday style guide, with seeing if Hodder can throw a prop body clean across the frame even in a medium-long shot; he can)and this also comes with one of the most remarkable stalking sequences in the franchise, in which Jason's chased a victim into the party boat's empty disco room, still full of disorienting lights and sounds, where he proceeds to teleport via editing across the room from exit to exit, getting across his victim's subjective terror and the bleakness of her plight.  The other is an all-time great, giving us a uniquely character-driven death with Julius, earning the right to play itself out for almost two straight minutes in mostly long-shots as our amateur boxer exhausts himself attempting to pummel the unpummelable.  It's a perfect Friday death, capturing both the sincerely-presented heroism of a hopeless struggle, while also being goofy and played for mordant laughs.  In either case, it ends with Jason punching my dude's head off.


These high points are precious, but few.  The film decisively shifts into almost-uniformly-terrible once it arrives in "New York," a hellscape patterned on the jokes they make about New York in Alaska or perhaps, in Hedden's dreams, The Warriors.  It almost works, in its stale 80s stand-up comedy sort of waysomehow it's not stressed, and is therefore slightly funny, that a masked giant who is pretty clearly an animate corpse draws no reaction from jaded Manhattanitesbut it isn't persistently adept at this.  I can grudgingly accept that "a joke" about Rennie being immediately abducted and almost raped by street toughs who are, I guess, just waiting around for shipwreck victims to wash up, all so we can have "the irony" of Jason being the one to preserve her virtue, "makes sense" given the tenor of the film's parody of urban life; but there's surely no excuse for it to occupy a full reel, so that the single most inapt sequence in the franchise to date takes, like, ten minutes to grind out.  The movie's often gross in the wrong ways, but this Friday commits a worse sin: it's dull.

Killer: Jason Voorhees, plus one negligent homicide apiece for Rennie Wickham and Wayne
Final Girl: Rennie Wikcham ft. her new boyfriend
Best Kill: Julius's last stand
Sign of the Times: The heroin the street toughs use to incapitate Rennie in preparation for her rape isn't full of fentanyl
Scariest Moment: When Jason becomes untethered to physical reality in the disco room
Weirdest Moment: I always endeavor to make this the sex joke section, and also not to duplicate Brennan, but it is entirely unreasonable to pretend that the film's objectively weirdest moment is not when [after dissolving in a deluge of toxic waste beneath the streets of New York, Jason is returned to his original state, that of the ten year boy who drowned], because that's this movie's arc or something
Champion Dialogue: "You can forget about getting into any film school."
Body Count: Lordy, 20, counting Jason, and not counting the ancillary disaster-related deaths referred to in dialogue
1. Jim, the operator of the original boat, a lake yacht, has his "intestines" "pulled" "out" "of" "his" "body" after being stabbed with the speargun he keeps on his lake yacht
2. Suzi, Jim's yacht girlfriend, is likewise stabbed with Jim's speargun
3. J.J., the girl rocker, is brained with her own guitar; axe is an axe, I guess
4. Julius's sparring partner gets the hot rock treatment (I didn't mention it, but this is also "bloodless but effective," as it just sort of liquefies its way through his chest, it's gnarly)
5. Tamara meets the man in the mirror (I know I've done this joke)
6. Carlson, the ship's first mate, is harpooned
7. Self-styled "Admiral" Robertson, Sean's dad, has his throat slit by machete
8. Eva, Tamara's buddy, is strangled in the disco room
9. A previously-unseen fourth crew member is accidentally shot by Wayne, the audiovisual nerd
10. Wayne is thrown onto a control panel the exact instant Klingons begin pelting the Lazarus with photon torpedoes
11. Miles is dropped from a mast onto a radio antenna
12. The tedious deck hand is stabbed in the back
13. Street tough no. 1 is stabbed with his own syringe
14. Street tough no. 2 gets some steam heat
15. Julius has his block knocked off
16. A visitor from the Canadian Policeman Exchange is killed offscreen
17. Rennie crashes and blows up a cop car while Ms. Van Neusen is still inside, oops
18. McCulloch is drowned in a barrel filled with what looks like green ooze, does not return as a CHUD
19. The sewer worker's killed with a wrench
20. Jason is de-aged by toxic slop, I don't know, don't ask
TL;DR: Surrendering many of its franchise's strengths (setting, blood, Manfredini music, even rapport between victims) in a bid for revitalizing novelty, Jason Takes Manhattan isn't even a good "big dude kills folks" movie, let alone a good Friday.
Score: 4/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)
2021: Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)

2 comments:

  1. I can't say I intended SPECIFICALLY to punish you, because I do have a soft spot for this movie, as I do for all the 80's Jason run. I thought if there was anyone who could find something redeemable about it, it could be you, and I was curious what your take on it might be.

    I particularly like the Day-Glo Vancouver nightmare vision of New York. It's the cinematic evocation of the city everyone's mother has warned them about.

    The "Hunter has seen the 7 preceding movies" is just a silver lining to it all!

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    Replies
    1. I kind of like the colorful urban landscape, oddly reminding me of (though prefiguring) Dick Tracy and especially Predator 2. There must've just been something about those couple of years.

      The seething is of course mainly rhetorical. I'm glad I finally had the opportunity to sit down with the series! And even Part VIII is not *as bad* as some people make out I'll have to follow up with Jason Goes to Hell and the rest at some point.

      I'm pretty convinced the franchise peaks with Part 2, though. (I realize I'm not supposed to like Part 3, but I do.)

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