Friday, April 03, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Well, this is my “versus” or “vs.” week on the blog, I guess you could say. In the past few days I’ve reviewed both Alien vs. Predator films, and today I turn my attention to another slug-fest, 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason

Globally speaking, the overriding creative impulse behind such cinematic monster meet-ups seems to be the pent-up fan-desire or built-in coolness factor associated with such clashes.

These films answer, first and foremost, the question…wouldn’t it be cool to see (fill in the blank) fight (fill in the blank)?

As I noted in terms of AVP (2004), those aren’t the most artistic or dramatic motives underlining a work of art, or even a popular entertainment. 

And because “versus” movies tend to feature two separate continuities, the screenplay writers involved also have to pack in a lot of supporting material, and make certain that each monster or participant is given a moment of glory.

One thing I observed, having watched AVP and Freddy vs. Jason this week is that these match-ups or contests do tend, at the very least, to reveal a new shade of the characters. 

In both versus films, one “villain” unexpectedly becomes the hero or champion, while the other is dismissed as irredeemable or evil.  

For example, in AVP, the Predator, Scar, joins up with Alexa (Sanaa Lathan), working with a human to defeat the real bad guys: aliens. And Jason adopts a similar role in Freddy vs. Jason, proving to be the slasher/monster that humans can -- if not work with -- then at least manipulate towards their own end. 

Indeed, Freddy vs. Jason is the first film in the Friday the 13th continuity to attempt to drive the audience’s empathy towards the hockey-masked slasher and not away from him. Here, we get a dream sequence revealing Jason to be a bullied, neglected, ostracized child.

Freddy, by contrast (and like the aliens) is sinister and unrepentant. He’s the “real” monster, the true evil that must be defeated.

As you may recall, I was pretty ambivalent about AVP.  

I feel that it shines in comparison to AVPR, and that it possesses some qualities that make it worthwhile, notably the imagination of the flashback sequences, and Lance Henriksen’s very human performance.

By contrast, Freddy vs. Jason doesn’t even have that much going for it.

The human characters here are paper-thin, even though it is always nice to see the remarkable Katharine Isabelle (and I’ve been enjoying her performances as Margo in Hannibal).  

Also, Jason Mewes should probably sue the makers of the film for appropriating without permission his silver screen persona in a few key scenes.

Beyond the fact that the human characters are either dull or derivative, Freddy vs. Jason genuinely lacks scares too. The final battle at Crystal Lake is shot well, and it's really bloody, but it isn’t scary.  

An unexpected side-effect of these monster-on-monster smack-downs, then, seems to be that terror dissipates, and two franchises are actually compromised rather than improved.

When a studio green-lights a project like Freddy vs. Jason, it no doubt expects to revitalize two franchises for the price of one.  

Funny how that is almost never the real-world result...

Even the attempt to be faithful to Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th lore is only partially successful in Freddy vs. Jason.  There’s quite a bit of rewriting (or ret-conning) going on here to get the two monsters into the same world (either dreams or reality), and the ret-cons don’t always fit with the established canon.

Most disturbingly, Freddy vs. Jason doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of fun about this clash of the titans. A lot of the Elm Street sequels got by on a wing and a prayer, action set-pieces and a wicked sense of humor.  

But Freddy vs. Jason doesn’t express any sort of joy in Freddy’s return. We get lame one liners and all, but there's a sense that the filmmakers don't really love or fully understand the appeal of the material.

Freddy vs. Jason ends, finally, with no real winners.

“Welcome to my nightmare.”

In Hell, mass murderer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) laments his inability to impact the children of the real world.  The people of Springwood have forgotten his reign of terror, so he needs someone  to revive his fearsome legend.

He finds that someone in mad-dog killer Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger), the slasher of Crystal Lake. Imitating Jason’s Mother, Freddy convinces Jason to travel to Springwood and begin a killing spree; one designed to revive the memory of Freddy.

On Elm Street in Springwood, teenage Lori (Monica Keena) and her friend Kia (Kelly Rowland) soon realize that the town is being stalked by not one boogeyman, but two.  

Lori’s old boyfriend, Will (Jason Ritter) joins them, after escaping Westin Hills Sanitarium, to help bury Freddy and Jason permanently.

“It’s time to put this bad dog to sleep for good.”

Freddy vs. Jason opens and closes strong, I’ll give it that.  

The film commences with the words of the most unreliable of all narrators, Freddy Krueger, and in broad but effective strokes, re-tells the origin stories of Freddy and Jason.  The film squeezes a lot of information into this colorful montage, and it works surprisingly well.  It’s an interesting device to have Freddy talking to us directly, telling us his (warped) side of his own story, and it opens the film on a high note.  It feels like a fresh take.

But after that ingenious opener, we meet our lead (teen) characters, and they are all as milquetoast as humanly possible. Lori is our standard feisty final girlTm and Will is the “outsider” (but always loyal...) boyfriend.  There’s also your obligatory co-culture “best friend,” in this case African-American Kia.  These characters are so dull and so uninteresting, in part, because they don’t honor the tradition of either supporting franchise.

Actresses such as Heather Langenkamp, Amy Steel, Patricia Arquette, and Lisa Wilcox …all demonstrated how a solid, thoughtful performer could take a lead character in a slasher film and imbue that character with life, energy and individuality.  That lesson has been forgotten here.  Lori's most memorable trait is, alas, physical: her porn star (collagen?) lips. 

The filmmakers also seem bound and determined to feature elements or call-backs to previous franchise entries including 1428 Elm Street, Westin Hills Sanitarium, Hypnocil, the Freddy Worm, Jason’s mother, and Camp Blood, but they would have been wiser to focus on creating human characters that we can care about, or can invest our energy in. 

I will readily admit that the Elm Street sequels are of variable quality, but they are -- oddly -- enlivened by pro-social portrayals of insightful and courageous young women.  Alice, the Dream Master, fights Freddy, it's true, but also goes through the process of self-actualization. Nancy Thompson, similarly, gets cast as horror's Prince of Denmark (or Princess), Hamlet, tasked with going through the lies of her morally questionable parents. 

These characters had weight and individuality, and made the films more than mere "dead teenager" movies.

I would be hard-pressed to find teens less interesting than those featured in Freddy vs. Jason.

For example, let's go back to the horrid Jason Mewes knock-off. That’s what he is, and there's no way to deny it. He’s a lookalike/sound-alike doing the Mewes’ shtick. Since that’s all he is, why didn’t the filmmakers actually just hire Jason Mewes himself? 

Because we know that persona from the New Jersey Cycle (six films and counting), we would at least register him as an authentic human being and not a cipher. Instead, I can't ever see Freddy vs. Jason's stoner as a human being or person, just as a rip-off, a derivative clone.  I'm taken out of the movie's narrative every time I look at him in his stolen clothes.

And, let's face it, love or hate the Mewes persona, the actor would have added a clear sense of fun to the proceedings. Imagine watching Mewes go up against Jason. It's impossible not to smile at the thought.

In another creative area all together, the movie's screenplay hems and haws. The movie wants to studiously avoid giving us a clear winner in the fight.  Freddy gets his moment in the sun, turning Jason into a human pinball in the dream world.  Then Jason gets his glorious moment, decapitating Freddy and emerging from the water in (a beautifully-shot, beautifully-visualized) epilogue.  

But Freddy winks at the camera, just so we don’t draw too strong a conclusion about the victor. 

Did Freddy and Jason have it in their contracts that neither one could win? What's the fun of setting up a fight like this if no one can be crowned the winner?

Again, what I found most intriguing about Freddy vs. Jason -- and it may not have even been intentional -- is that when these characters are thrown together, we, as viewers, make judgment calls about the true villainy of our two starring monsters.  

Jason seems compelled to maim and murder, but it feels instinctual…like it is part of his wiring.  

Freddy, by contrast, relishes in his badness. He intellectualizes it, seeks out ways to increase his range, and manipulates others.  

So Jason is the shark in Jaws, and Freddy is Hannibal Lecter.  Fact to face, I judge Freddy the more evil of these two monsters, and almost (at least in this film...) can’t blame Jason for what he does. The sympathetic flashbacks make it clear that his vengeance is righteous, or at least justified.

So if you get in Jason’s way, yes, he will kill you (as Kia learns).  But Freddy will seek you out, and find ways to get you, regardless of where you are, what you are doing, or why you are there. He's a puppet master and a schemer.

Again, this comparison would not exist if we didn’t have the monsters sharing the same story.

Still, some of the ret-conning doesn’t work.  

I know the filmmakers want each monster to have “Kryptonite,” the thing/element that stops him.  Freddy’s kryptonite is fire, and I get that.  He died in fire.  But now, suddenly, Jason is afraid of water?  I know he drowned in Crystal Lake in 1980, but many previous films have revealed him emerging from the lake, or attacking skinny dippers in the water (Part VII is one example of the latter).  But now he can’t even approach water without paralyzing terror?   

That just doesn’t pass the smell test.

I enjoyed the battles in AVP and similarly I enjoy the fight between Freddy vs. Jason here.  At least in this case, gore is not shorted.  The wide-ranging final fight -- from cabin to construction site to the lake -- lives up to expectations in terms of violence and bloody depiction of violence.

My problem is -- again like AVP -- that the whole movie is constructed around a fifteen minute fight. The rest of the movie is just filler.  Dumb filler at that.  There should be a TV series called “Versus” where all great movie monsters can fight one another with glorious special effects and extreme destruction, sparing us the necessity of seeing whole movies built for a single serving purpose.

Bottom line: Freddy vs. Jason isn’t fun enough or scary enough to honor its parent franchises.

But it is bloody enough.

Some days, that will do, I suppose.  

And I should note, I’ve watched Freddy vs. Jason probably five times over the years, always thinking that on the next re-visit I’ll see something new or change my mind about its overall quality.

And I always come out feeling disappointed.  

Yep, it’s time to put this bad dog to sleep for good.

1 comment:

  1. Went in with low expectations and had those expectations met. Not really a fan of either series, but go more for Friday. As soon as I saw they weren't casting Kane Hodder, I knew they were setting up Jason to be the fall guy. And the fear of water? What? Why wasn't he freaking out as he emerged from the lake at the end then? And that wink at the camera by Freddy was the final pisser for me. But again, the ultimate problem for me is the same with the AVP films. Too much reliance on the human characters, human characters who are some of the worst written ever. Jason vs. Freddy? No, it was Teenage Girl vs. Jason vs. Freddy. They lied to me!