Friday, November 13, 2015

Happy Friday the 13th: Jason X (2002)

How time flies! Another Friday the 13th is now upon us. 

Last month I gazed at Friday the 13th Part VII: A New Blood (1988), as well as the landmark 1980 original.

Today, I want to look at the only Friday the 13th film (other than Freddy vs. Jason [2004], I suppose), not to actually carry the Friday the 13th brand name: Jason X (2002).

Jason X is a huge departure for the slasher series because it is set in the distant future…and in outer space. The film is also one of the lowest-grossing entries in the sturdy franchise, which means, perhaps, that audiences didn’t take too well to its many departures from the norm.

But I’ll tell you right now, straight-up: I love Jason X.

It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that tosses Friday the 13th, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) and Aliens (1986) into a blender and comes up with one weird -- but also highly inventive -- horror film. The movie possesses a sense of joy about itself, and its own ridiculousness. The vibe is pure, anarchic glee.

While it’s true that the film is never overtly scary or suspenseful, Jason X is undeniably fun, gross, and ingenious. A few of the kills are downright inspired in conception and execution, especially the one involving a giant corkscrew, and another involving a doctor’s face dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Yet one particular moment in the film strides above all the rest, and deserves absolute, adoring respect.  

Late in the film, a cyborg version of Jason stumbles into a holodeck version of Camp Crystal Lake, and encounters two nubile young women (actually computer-generated distractions...) who proclaim -- loudly -- their love for premarital sex.  

Reverting to form, Jason stops to kill them, but the trick is that the avatars are designed just for that purpose, to appeal to his draconian (or perhaps Victorian...) sense of vice-precedes slice-or-dice morality.

I could watch this scene in Jason X a dozen times and not get tired of it. In part, this is so because the sleeping bag kill (my favorite in the series) is resurrected, and in part because the Friday the 13th franchise finally acknowledges on screen -- in true post-modern fashion -- its enduring subtext.  

You pay.  You fuck…you’re out of luck. 

Lest we forget, the original franchise came about as the Reagan Revolution unfolded in our nation, and a tide of conservatism swept the country.  These films -- though despised by conservatives -- are very much about that draconian, black-and-white world view. If you engage in premarital sex or smoke weed...Jason's going to kill you.  

So be good for goodness sake!

But back to Jason X. Any film that is willing to wink at the the entire saga's central conceit is seriously deserving of some love and respect.  

Accordingly, I bow down before Jason X. It may not be good in any tangible artistic sense, but it sure is knowing, nasty and entertaining as hell.

“I’ve seen worse.”

In 2010, at the Crystal Lake Research Facility, Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) escapes captivity. A resourceful scientist, Rowan (Lexa Doig) manages to freeze him in a cryogenic unit, but not before being wounded and succumbing to the cryo-gases as well.

Four hundred years later, in 2455, a class of students explores the now abandoned, environmentally-ravaged planet Earth.  There, students uncover Jason and Rowan at the ancient facility, and bring back the frozen life-forms to their ship.  

Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts), their teacher, sees an opportunity to make a profit.

When Rowan is awakened, she expresses concern about Jason, but Dr. Lowe assures her he is very dead. 

But Jason has never stayed dead for long, and this time is no exception...

“He just wants his machete back!”

Despite their charms, the Friday the 13th movies are repetitive in the extreme. Most of the films involve a lumbering killer (either Jason or his Mom) knocking off camp counselors under cover of approaching storm at scenic Camp Crystal Lake.  You get the scene involving pre-marital sex...and death.  Of smoking weed...and death.  Of skinny-dipping..and death. 

And then you get the tour of the dead, in which Jason has propped up all the bodies, so the Final Girl can run through them all like a fun house carnival. Then you get the coup de grace in which Jason apparently dies, and some twist-in-the-tail/tale that promises yet another sequel.  

Later movies throw in variations of the format, like adding a Carrie knock-off, or visiting Manhattan, but Jason X, perhaps, is the first of the franchise to turn its eyes towards wholesale assimilation of science fiction tropes.

Not surprisingly, Star Trek is a major inspiration, particularly The Next Generation. A major character, for instance, is a sentient android named Key-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), who adapts to different environments, likes to role-play and is, apparently, fully-functional just like our old friend Mr. Data (Brent Spiner).  

Also appropriated from the Next Generation is the conceit of the holodeck, a kind of virtual reality chamber where reality can be re-molded to different settings based on user input.  As is the case on the Enterprise D, the space crew we meet in Jason X uses the holodeck for training and recreational purposes.

The Alien film series is also a major influence here. In particular, Rowan (Lexa Doig), plays basically the same role in Jason X as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) does in Aliens (1986). Consider the specifics: She is awakened from a long cryo-sleep to contend with a threat that only she has direct, first-person information about. In Aliens, that threat is the xenomorph from LV-426. In Jason X, of course, it is Mr. Voorhees. 

Similarly, both Rowan and Ripley continually act as a brand of Cassandra figure. They warn all those around them about what will happen once the threat is encountered, but they are ignored until it is too late.

Similarly, Rowan is surrounded by other figures you may recognize from Aliens.  That film also had an android, named Bishop (Lance Henriksen), of course.  But there’s Sgt. Brodski (Peter Mensah) in Jason X, a dedicated fighter and protector who makes a good stand-in for Michael Biehn’s Hicks.  And then there’s the Carter Burke surrogate, an avaricious teacher more interested in profit than safety: greedy Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts).

These qualities and characters might be decried as cheap or obvious shots at more popular film/TV franchises, and yet I can’t really quibble with how Jason X utilizes them. It’s not a movie’s subject matter that counts, remember, but the ways in which a movie explores that subject matter. In this case, the futuristic trappings provide two great moments in Friday the 13th history.

The first such moment involves sick bay Nanites or nano-bots (another idea familiar to us from the Trek-verse) that re-build Jason as a half-flesh/half-metal juggernaut. I loved the idea of Jason getting a dramatic visual and technological upgrade so late in his cinematic life. There’s a great moment of Frankenstein-like portentousness here as the Nanites swarm down on Jason’s corpse and bring it back to life in this new, flesh-and-steel form.

Secondly, there’s that holodeck moment I mentioned in my introduction above. The survivors of the spaceship realize that Jason can’t resist temptation. He sees gorgeous, nubile camp counselors…and…must…kill them.  The urge is too strong for him to overcome. Frankly, this is a perfect movie moment, an inspiration that could emerge, finally, only from synthesizing so many disparate creative sources, and from accurate recognition of Friday the 13th's symbolic legacy and "meaning."

I also appreciate the film’s ending, which finds Jason careening to Earth Two like a falling star, and landing in the proximity of a body of water.  This is New Crystal Lake, a perfect place for him to take up old (murderous) habits, and so one can view the whole movie as a kind of origin story that gets Jason Voorhees -- urban legend -- from Point A to Point B.

I realize fully that outer space tends not to be a fertile terrain for established horror franchises. Hellraiser and Leprechaun have both gone to the stars, only to experience severe orbital decay. I would argue that Jason X doesn’t suffer the same inglorious fate. Instead, the film gets better, moment to moment, one cribbed inspiration to the next, until it reaches that moment of bliss with the holographic camp counselors.

Was it a mistake sending Jason to space? The Friday the 13th  saga has made worse mistakes, frankly. Going to 3-D in 1982 didn’t make for great entertainment in my book. Tossing out a Jason impostor in A New Beginning (1985) is also a low-point. And of course, Jason in Manhattan (taking the city alongside the Muppets, presumably), is an historic misstep. Especially since the Big Apple looks more like Toronto in that eighth Friday film. 

None of those films, I would suggest, showcase the audacity to go big, to go weird with such apparent confidence. You might laugh a lot during Jason X, but you're laughing with the film, not at it.

Jason X captures well the idea that I expressed here a few weeks ago, and which I often attempt to explain to my son. That idea is simply that horror movies don’t always need to be serious and grim if they can have fun with their ideas, and move the ball a few yards down the field.  

Jason X features some cool special effects, a well-developed sense of humor, and a worthy upgrade for a durable movie monster. Throw in a fun cameo by genre great David Cronenberg and an utterly ridiculous scene involving Jason just wanting “his machete back,” and you have all the ingredients for a good time at the movies.

Soon after Jason X, the 2009 re-boot came along, and started the whole damn cycle over again, eliminating humor and silliness from Jason's DNA, and taking the scatter shot world of Friday the 13th very seriously. 

Over-seriously, if you ask me. 

To this day, I prefer the crazy ingenuity of Jason X.

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