Has it really been 22 years since the saga of Jason Voorhees began? I was ten years old in the summer of 1980, when the original Friday the 13th promptly became the gotta-see-it movie among teens and preteens. Never mind that the killer in the original text was not Jason but his grief-maddened mother; a campfire legend was born, and Jason would return in eight subsequent movies (well, seven, if you don’t count 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, wherein the killer turned out to be a psychotic copycat) to slice and dice sexually active teenagers.
If you detect a bit of fondness in my tone, you’re not mistaken. Yes, the Friday the 13th movies are lower-common-denominator slasher entries whose only nod to variety from film to film is the method of murder. Yes, Jason is a cheeseball recap of Michael Myers — Friday the 13th was neither the first nor last rip-off of Halloween, simply the most lucrative. And yes, while Halloween may have popularized the slasher-film “fuck and die” motif, the Friday the 13th series patented it. I know all this, and yet my affection for all things lame and bad about the ’80s inevitably extends to Jason Voorhees and his escapades at Camp Crystal Lake. Like it or not, Jason is part of my (and maybe your) youth, and part of horror-movie history. Earlier generations had Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Frankenstein monster; we Gen-Xers had Michael, Freddy … and Jason.
So it’s with a mixture of exasperation (“You gotta be kidding me,” says a character in the film, and most in the audience would echo her) and gladness that I greet Jason again, after a nine-year hiatus, in Jason X, which has been gathering shelf dust for a couple of years now. Is the movie good? Well, no: have any of the movies in this series been “good”? You judge these films by a special set of criteria:
– Is it scary? (Occasionally.)
– Is it funny? (Sometimes quite funny, and even intentionally so.)
– Any gratuitous sex/nudity? (Yes.)
– Are the murders imaginative? (There are a couple of good ones.)
So on those terms, Jason X succeeds, but no one will likely mistake it for the latest Merchant-Ivory opus. The premise occupies the borderline between clever and cretinous: In the near future, Jason (Kane Hodder, returning as the hockey-masked brute for the fourth time) has been cryogenically preserved after numerous attempts to kill him have failed. Some suicidally stupid scientists, led by David Cronenberg in an amusing cameo, thaw Jason out to study him and see exactly why he’s so unkillable. (The reason: Paramount wanted to make lots of money back in the ’80s.) Predictably, Jason breaks loose and kills pretty much everyone within reach. He’s about to finish off his last prey — Rowan (Lexa Doig), a scientist who opposed thawing him out — when both he and Rowan are frozen. And there they stay until 2455, when a space crew happens across them. They bring Rowan, who can be brought back to life, and Jason, whom they believe to be dead, onto their spaceship.
Bad move. Most of Jason X plays like a geek’s conflation of Friday the 13th and Aliens remixed as a videogame. Jason makes swift work of the soldiers on board; another suicidally stupid scientist (Jonathan Potts, in the Paul Reiser role) looks at Jason and sees dollar signs, and orders him to be taken alive; many people die. Director Jim Isaacs (who has worked on a few Cronenberg movies — hence the drop-ins by that director plus Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman) and writer Todd Farmer concoct some brutally creative ways for Jason’s victims to meet their maker: one poor woman gets her head dunked in a vat of liquid nitrogen, whereupon Jason smashes her frozen, brittle skull against a counter; a soldier falls onto a large screw (never mind what it’s doing there) and revolves slowly down as it impales him; a couple of guys get to die make-believe deaths in a battle simulation, then die again for real at Jason’s hands.
Some of this is exuberantly crappy bad fun. When the ship’s android, the babelicious Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), brings out a mega-gun in each hand and puts zillions of bullets in Jason, we’re in Tomb Raider territory (the game, not the sorry-ass movie). When a crew member gets his arm hacked off by accident, it gets reattached with futuristic ease (oddly, not much comes of this new-fangled healing technology; when Jason sets out to dismember people, they stay dismembered). For longtime students of the series, there’s a legitimately fine comic sequence in which the surviving crew members, in an attempt to distract Jason, put him in a virtual-reality sim of Camp Crystal Lake. For a brief moment, new-school splatterpunk steps aside for old-school slash, and the sequence, prankish as it is (the sim comes complete with a couple of giggling, topless girls in sleeping bags), points up what’s fundamentally wrong with Jason X: It just isn’t the same when Jason stalks the sterile halls of a spaceship. The Halloween movies need to unfold in placid suburbia, and the Friday the 13th movies need a rural lakeside setting; you need to almost smell the pine and hear the waves lapping the shore. (No lake, no gratuitous skinny-dipping.) It might have been clever to have the VR Camp Crystal Lake sequence go on longer, pitting the futuristic crew members against Jason on his familiar turf. Not that Jason loses any advantage no matter where he finds himself; he skulks his way around a 25th-century spacecraft as if he’s been in a dozen of them.
Those who feel the way I do about the Friday the 13th series — those who break into a small, guilty grin when recalling the hours wasted in front of these things on cable or video as a teenager — might get about as much out of Jason X as I did. Which is to say, a mildly amusing ride down memory lane. By the time Jason stomps out in full metal CyberJason mode — looking like a geek’s conflation of Jason and the Terminator (did James Cameron get any royalties?) — the loving cheese tribute to the ’80s is complete. The soundtrack could’ve used some New Wave tunes to match, but that’s okay. All we need — all we ever needed in these movies — is the ominously silly chh-chh-chh-kaa-kaa-kaa on the soundtrack as stupid young people prepare to have sex while Jason lurks nearby with a machete. And, say what you will, I’d forgotten how much a part of me (the eternally teenage part, probably) missed that.