Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
Medium: film
Year: 1989
Director: Rob Hedden
Writer: Rob Hedden
Keywords: horror, slasher
Country: USA
Actor: Kane Hodder, Todd Caldecott, Tiffany Paulsen, Tim Mirkovich, Jensen Daggett, Barbara Bingham, Alex Diakun, Peter Mark Richman, Warren Munson, Fred Henderson, Scott Reeves, Gordon Currie, Saffron Henderson, Martin Cummins, Vincent Craig Dupree, Sharlene Martin, Kelly Hu, Sam Sarkar, Michael Benyaer, Roger Barnes, Amber Pawlick, Vince Cupone, Peggy Hedden, David Longworth, Jasper Cole, David Jacox, Ken Kirzinger
Format: 100 minutes
Series: << Friday the 13th >>
Website category: Horror 1970/80s
Review date: 6 January 2010
There's a film critic called Leonard Maltin who's called this the highlight of the series, but everyone else seems to think it's the worst ever. Well, this and Part 5. Clearly the world is crazy, because I thought this was significantly above average for the series and in some ways even good.
Of course we're talking "Friday the 13th good" rather than actually good, i.e. it's a polished turd. It's got the same story as all the rest of them (Jason kills teenagers) and the young leads merely have character traits rather than actually being characters. Nevertheless within the context of this series, that's praise. I could imagine someone getting upset if they'd mistaken this for Sense and Sensibility, but I can't believe anyone would be seriously complaining about stuff like that in Friday the 13th. A problem for my thesis is the film's relative failure at the box-office, but I wouldn't have been in a hurry to buy tickets either after Part 7. Why's it unpopular, then? The popular theory, believe it or not, is that its title is Jason Takes Manhattan and yet it doesn't reach New York until the hour mark. That's a great title, but unfortunately it sets up audience expectations on which the movie doesn't deliver. The writer-director Rob Hedden is a cheerleader for this criticism, by the way, since he'd wanted to do scenes in Madison Square Garden, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. However Paramount reckoned that would cost too much money, so they got him to: (a) rewrite the film to put most of it on a cruise ship en route, and (b) shoot in Vancouver rather than, y'know, New York.
If anyone's thinking of watching this film, I suggest sticking a label on the front of the DVD case saying "Friday the 13th Parts VIIIa and VIIIb: Jason spends a little time in Manhattan as a mini-sequel to what might as well be another movie on a ship that ends up in enough trouble to remind me slightly of James Cameron's Titanic". This should solve all artistic problems and let you enjoy your viewing experience.
Well, mostly. You'll have to squint a bit during the New York scenes, in which the embarrassingly 1980s back alleys are full of fake-looking punks and the odd barrel of toxic waste. I've seen scarier punks in Adventures in Babysitting. However if you think back to Part 3, you'll remember that this is the expected level of gritty verisimilitude for this series. Furthermore...
1. It feels like a real movie. The magic ingredient is that we have a writer-director, which is a good sign since it suggests a better grasp than usual of the art of movie-making. The same was true of Part 6. The next thing Rob Hedden wrote after this was Knight Rider 2000, but we won't hold that against him. I was pleasantly surprised with Hedden's work here. He understands the concept of a story beat, he's trying to give his characters motivation and his scenes feel as if they have a dramatic point instead of just being people talking near a camera.
2. I like the visuals. By this I don't mean make-up, gore or nudity, but instead the fact that this is a director who can direct. Occasionally he's almost artistic. I admired the scene of Jason in the disco, for instance, but of particular note in the context of this series is what Hedden's doing with Jason's kills. I'm sure some fanboys were turned off, but I thought it was great. These deaths aren't just quickie throwaways. On the contrary Hedden turns them into little suspense sequences, making me feel for the characters and sometimes even making me cringe a little. I was curling up in my chair at the sauna, the red-hot coals and the man with a towel on his face who can't see Jason and doesn't know what's going to happen to him. I felt these murders. The cast includes a bitch who deserves to die... but when she finally gets hers, there's no pleasure in it at all. Instead I jumped when Jason's fist went through the door, then shortly afterwards was wincing when he smashed the mirror and picked out the biggest piece.
In other words, we've got horror again in Friday the 13th! As an example of how Hedden's going for suspense rather than laughs, note that one character gets attacked... and survives! They fight back successfully against Jason! This is the middle of the film we're talking about, by the way, not Last Survivor territory. Spielberg did with the same trick with Jaws, remember? This kind of thing is what made this film for me one of the strongest of the series for "ew" factor, despite the fact that as usual it's been butchered by the MPAA and there's not actually much blood. One simply doesn't notice, except of course with the film's mistake of a throat-slitting. Those never work. You can see that the blade's not going in.
3. Hedden's putting in the effort with his characterisation. Our heroes both have controlling father figures, one of whom (Peter Mark Richman) has a gigantic stick up his arse and yet turns out to be one of the most sympathetic cast members. Male Teenage Lead (Scott Reeves) suffers certain expectations simply because he's the son of the captain, whereas Female Teenage Lead (Jensen Daggett) can't swim and is frightened of water because of a childhood incident we learn about in a flashback towards the end. The problem with these character traits is that they're passive, defining the leads by what they can't do rather than by their choices, but that's a more sophisticated criticism than I've been able to make for any other film in this series.
4. Most astoundingly of all, Jason has characterisation! I can't believe no one's noticed this. It's an extraordinary departure for the franchise, since the big lunk had never projected an ounce of personality even during the big mad turning points of the early films (e.g. someone dressing up as mummy). He was a pet rock, basically. You wouldn't have bet that he was sentient. Here though he has clear goals, not simply killing at random but single-mindedly pursuing his chosen quarry even when they've escaped into New York and are surrounded by other potential prey. The most startling example of this is when he walks along a crowded subway train, ignoring everyone but his targets. He's also developed an attitude which we might call "give it your best shot", which isn't unreasonable for someone who's bulletproof. Look at how he stands there and lets that boxer come at him, or later on even a car.
On top of that, he has recognisably human reactions to things. See him check out Times Square. Notice the scene where he scares away punks by lifting his mask to reveal his face, which if nothing else shows a level of self-awareness. He even gets a comic reaction on seeing a gigantic poster of a hockey player in a mask. Furthermore you've got...
5. The mythology. This film feels like the work of a man who's studied the rest of the franchise, or even the entire slasher genre. Occasionally this feels like an A Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, with rubber reality sequences and ironic deaths that tie into the victim's character. The big mythological hook is that Hedden's bringing back Drowned Kiddie Jason and making a motif out of drowning and water. That's something Jason has in common with Daggett's character, incidentally, and throughout the film she keeps seeing (or even being grabbed by) hallucinations of a deformed drowning boy. Meanwhile Jason is born from water (since that's where he was left at the end of Part 7), spends the film's first hour on a boat and even in New York manages to murder someone by drowning them. (Toxic waste. Ew.) Then the finale takes this to a startling conclusion and is open to multiple interpretations, only one of which is the literal one. That's something to alienate the low-IQ crowd. Personally I like to think that what we're seeing might be what really had happened, since there's evidence to suggest that Adult Killer Jason, Zombie Alien-Possessed Jason and/or Ghost Drowned Kiddie Jason might have been leading independent existences and I rather like the idea of the original tortured child at last getting some peace. It has to be admitted though that this franchise has a minor tradition of rubber reality endings.
Personally I found that fascinating. It's not an exciting finale, but if you can bring yourself to take this film seriously then you'll find it's giving you something to think about. More contentious though is the theory I'm about to put forward that this film's more obvious stupidities are deliberate homages to the past, e.g. a character runs into Jason despite the fact that they'd been running away from him. If he can rise from the dead and repel bullets, then why shouldn't he have magical powers? Similarly the Crazy Ralph character doesn't make much sense, but I find it remarkable that a Part 8 should be doing a Crazy Ralph homage in the first place. One might even call the entire plot another example of this. Personally I think the film tips its hand when the first line of spoken dialogue is "let's have sex" followed by a girl taking her clothes off, since by the franchise's standards this movie's actually quite chaste when it comes to nudity.
For me, the film's weak point was its casting. The 1980s New York punks are obviously ludicrous, but there are a few other performers as well dragging this down to normal Friday the 13th levels. It's watchable, but not everyone is good. I did however notice that Hedden had clearly written the two ethnic minority characters as such, since the actors in question are clearly the two weakest in the film and that's the kind of thing that tends to happen when you restrict yourself to a narrower pool of casting choices. However he's also cast two absolutely beautiful performers, one male (Scott Reeves) and one female (Sharlene Martin), so it's possible that Hedden simply had a very clear sense of the visual look he was going for.. Reeves is prettier than his girlfriend Daggett, incidentally.
Kane Hodder's also back as Jason and as crazy as ever. Apparently his vomiting in the final scene wasn't a special effect. He drank several pitchers of water, then threw up on cue. I love that guy. Curiously enough though there's another Jason in this film, Ken Kirzinger from Freddy vs. Jason (2003). He's the man Hodder throws into a mirror in the diner.
At the end of the day, I simply can't see why people should have a beef against this one. Most of its crimes are common to the entire series, e.g. a nearly worthless story in which potentially interesting plot threads are cut short by Jason killing everyone, or extremely 1980s hair. Maybe some of its elements don't look cool, such as the ludicrous punks or the least impressive make-up job on Jason's face under the mask to date. However there's so much more than usual here to see and think about, such as the way the prologue foreshadows everywhere Jason will chase our heroes in the final act, or the way both the bitch and the punks force someone to take drugs. That was a bit creepy, although I had to laugh at the way the bitch says "I'll make sure we don't get caught" only for them to be immediately interrupted by: (a) Daggett, and then (b) their little Hitler of a teacher. I also liked the scene in which Camera Guy loses his glasses and can suddenly only see through his camera. This strikes me as the kind of film whose job is to be stupid, but whose secret mission is to sneak in clever stuff and interesting wrinkles. I liked it a good deal, actually. It even has a few laughs, which always helps.
Note the scene in which Jason suddenly turns all public-spirited and sets off the fire alarm, by the way. You can't not tell people about a burning corpse, after all.