Jason at Sea: In Defense of Friday the 13th Part VIII

Ah, the late 1980s, when as far as the eye could see there was steam rising from every sewer grate, manhole cover and uncapped pipe a city could provide. At least that’s what movies would tell you, from Tim Burton’s Batman to Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners. And the fictional city in question here is the city that never sleeps, the Big Apple, New York F***ing City. And the movie in question is Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.

 

Now, if you’re steeped in your Friday knowledge you’ll know that Part VIII is one of the most maligned of the franchise, right alongside Part V and Jason Goes to Hell. Now, chances are if you’re not a Jason-head, you’re not going to marathon all twelve movies this coming Friday the 13th (yes, only twelve, ironically enough). Even if you have a passing interest in the series, like as not you’re only going to be able to squeeze in one Jason outing before you do what you normally do on Friday evenings, say, socialize. And chances are, whichever one you do catch is going to be whichever is currently playing on AMC in the early afternoon when they’d normally be showing The Shawshank Redemption, censored version. Now, assuming you have access to all twelve films or just have an ancillary two dollars and seventy five cents in your wallet and just so happen to live down the street from a video store – an article on what those used to be, coming soon – here’s my piece on why you should pick Friday the 13thPart VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan as your perfunctory, go-to, semi-festal slasher flick.

 

First of all, I know what you’re thinking. Why wouldn’t I just watch the original, the classic, where Pamela Voorhees cemented herself as one of the all-times, the definitive sick and sickly-sweet slasher villainess? And you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. Provided you’ve never seen a Friday and you’re a stickler from starting at the beginning. Then sure, by all means, pop in the original, and count how many degrees of separation there are between Kevin Bacon and himself. But like as not, when you think Friday the 13th, you think of two things: Jason Voorhees and that iconic hockey mask of his. So, discounting the first that lacks them both and the second that lacks the latter, that leaves you with entries three through twelve. And because you want to remain in the eighties like the franchise should have, that’ll leave you with entries three through eight. Even so, those familiar with the trajectory of the franchise will cite Part IV as being the strongest, narratively speaking, as it was the first to purport to be the final chapter in the series – Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday would continue this trend – and perhaps most notably it introduced the closest thing Jason has to a Samuel Loomis or Captain Ahab in Tommy Jarvis, played by perhaps the definitive poster-child of the 1980s, the one and only Corey Feldman. So yeah, if this article were about cinematic quality in slasher flicks, if there is such a thing, I’d pick parts I and IV to represent the franchise. However, as it stands, Friday the 13thPart VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is the quintessential, barebones Friday film that perfectly encapsulates where the series goes right, where it goes wrong, and how deliciously entertaining and bloodily schadenfreude-esque these movies were meant to be.

 

Previously on Friday the 13th, Jason has found himself incapacitated at the bottom of Crystal Lake for the second consecutive excursion. However, plot convenience can only keep a good killer down for so long, before the next deus ex machina arrives in the form two teenagers trysting aboard a houseboat the night before they and their graduating class embark on their senior trip to the Big Apple. However, Jason has other plans, as the ship’s anchor lodges itself next to some conveniently placed underwater cables – you know the ones – and sparks a chain reaction that leads to electrifying the sleeping giant. Now, I’m sure you can surmise what happens next, but Jason doesn’t stop there. No. This time Jason is thinking expansion, as he hops from one ship to the next, stowing away onto the SS Lazarus; subtle, I know. Lucky for him he finds himself amidst the remainder of the graduating class of Lakeview High, with oodles of young blood to be had. And this time there’s nowhere to escape for them, save for a watery grave.

 

Yes, I am aware that the subtitle for this film is Jason Takes Manhattan. And a large portion of the flak towards this movie is aimed at the final product only taking place on the titular island for the last forty minutes, with the previous sixty on the Lazarus. Now you can go ahead and chalk that one up to misleading marketing, or the fact that budgetary restraints kept the filmmakers from shooting it entirely on location in New York City as intended, and that adjustments to the story were then made. But however you slice it, it’s the time spent on the ship that makes the film so iconic in the pantheon of Friday films. It does away with the campground and surrounding lake setting for the first time and instead provides a whole new playing ground that’s wonderfully claustrophobic and more dynamic a setting than any of the previous films.

 

And as far as characters go, or should I say machete fodder, it’s true that the more iconic adversaries to Jason Voorhees do appear in other entries, such as the previously mentioned Tommy Jarvis and even bounty hunter Creighton Duke from Jason Goes to Hell, who might be getting a spinoff of his own in the coming years if recent rumors are to be believed. Nevertheless, as far as the teens go, the ones we root for to be butchered in a multitude of creative and grisly ways film in and film out, Friday the 13thPart VIII boasts the greatest crop of kids in the franchise. Now, I’ll admit that’s a hot take, as the cast of Part IV comes in a close second with an up-and-coming Crispin Glover as the dweeby virgin who pops his cherry only for Jason to pop his face with a meat cleaver minutes later. Regardless, it’s the Part VIII cast that remains the most diverse and recognizable in regard to the slasher subgenre. You’ve got punk rocker J.J., film geek and Matt Damon lookalike Wayne, spoiled rich girl Tamara, bookworm Eva played by Kelly Hu, who most nerds know as Lady Deathstrike in X2, cocky jock Julius, heartthrob Sean, and resident final-girl Rennie, who of course has a personal history with Jason and whose confrontation with him will prove appropriately cathartic moving on. Not to mention Rennie was the favorite final-girl for this slasher geek to crush on growing up.

 

Of course, these stock characters are only as good as they die, and boy do they die good. And featuring THE GREATEST DEATH DEATH IN A FRIDAY THE 13th MOVIE. I repeat: THE GREATEST DEATH IN A FRIDAY THE 13th MOVIE. Oh, and by the way, SPOILERS for the remainder of this article.

 

First, you have J.J., who while rocking out with her guitar in the mechanical section of the ship gets axed with her own axe. You have Wayne, who loses his glasses in classic Velma Dinkly fashion and gets thrown onto a control panel and electrocuted for his misstep. There’s Unnamed Boxer #2, everybody’s favorite character, clearly, whose chest is concaved with a hot rock while trying to find solace in the sauna. And though not the most brutal death, Lady Deathstrike – that’s what we’re calling her now – gets to witness Jason’s evident teleportation abilities firsthand as he makes like a shark and circles her around the dance floor before choking her out and tossing her aside like a ragdoll; kudos to the stunt double not flinching an inch. And finally we have Julius, who undergoes THE GREATEST DEATH DEATH IN A FRIDAY THE 13th MOVIE. I repeat: THE GREATEST DEATH IN AFRIDAY THE 13th MOVIE. But not only is the death superb, it’s the entire sequence that solidifies its status. Finding himself stranded on a NYC rooftop after being pursued by Jason, Julius finds himself cornered and with nowhere left to run. So, naturally, as we’ve seen in his bout with Unnamed Boxer #2, he gets the big guns ready. He lands three consecutive left hooks across Jason’s mask, then a right, then another left, and so on and so forth, pushing Jason from one end of the rooftop to the other. When that proves ineffective, he gets to work on the body, landing quick jab after quick jab. Jason, meanwhile, ever the humorist, allows Julius every single free shot, up until the point where the poor boy is too winded to continue, now missing completely from close range. Still patient, Jason does not strike, not until Julius has completely conceded doing any real damage, and like the sporting competitor that he is, tells Jason to hit him with his best shot. Jason, happy to oblige, grabs Julius by the collar and knocks his head clean off with a hook to the right, sending it flying down into the alley below and directly into an open dumpster, nothing but net. Well, technically it rolls its way down and bounces off the lid, slapping it shut, but still. NOW IF THAT’S NOT A PRIME FRIDAY THE 13th KILL THEN I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS. And at the center of all these fine confrontations is the one and only, Mr. Kane Hodder, whose easy movements, large build and perfect timing easily make him the finest performer to ever wear the iconic hockey mask in any Friday film. Cheers, Mr. Hodder.

Now, it wouldn’t really be a Friday the 13thfilm, nay, a cheap 80s slasher film, if there weren’t some things that flat out didn’t work. And yes, there are absolutely some creative decisions here that lessen the proceedings to some degree, the storytellers’ reach somewhat exceeding their grasp. And upon watching it, you’d be hard-pressed to ignore some of the sequences involving Rennie in regard to giving her character some background and subsequent development. Namely, it’s clear early on she’s brought some serious baggage aboard the Lazarus, which is traced back to a traumatizing incident that occurred on Crystal Lake when she was a child. Late in the film, we are treated to a flashback wherein a young Rennie sits aboard a small rowboat on the lake with her uncle Charles McCulloch, Lakeview High’s biology teacher and a chaperone aboard the Lazarus. McCulloch, eager to teach Rennie how to swim despite her protestations, takes it upon himself to throw her in the lake himself, foisting upon her a sink-or-swim scenario. Of course Rennie panics, and begins to drop beneath the surface, though seemingly not because of her inability to keep herself afloat, but because she’s being dragged under by what appears to be a young, drowned Jason. McCulloch is able to rescue her, naturally, though unaware of the young, undead boy treading the waters, provided he was ever there. However, before Rennie’s aquaphobia is given context, we get snippets into her psyche as she experiences harrowing visions. In them, she spies through various objects like a mirror and a porthole that same young, drowning Jason, who she still fears wishes to pull her down with him as he struggles to find the surface. Now, I’m all for the protagonists having a  personal history with Jason to give their battles a little pathos. That way you get a character like Rob Dier in Part IV seeking vengeance for the murder of his sister in Part II, giving Jason an offensive threat to deal with rather than just another unwitting teen trying to have fun in the sun. However, whenever Rennie’s flashbacks occur, they play themselves off as incredibly hokey and undercut any grisly havoc Jason has brought to the ship and its inhabitants. Not to mention they set up the finale, whereby Jason is vanquished, seemingly forever – but then again, we know better don’t we – when he’s drowned in toxic waste whilst chasing Rennie and Sean through the New York City sewer system. Once the waste is flushed out, Rennie and Sean marvel in astonishment at what was once a lumbering, demasked mutant that looked a little too much like the Toxic Avenger underneath, is now the drowned corpse of a scrawny, young boy, innocent again at last. At least I suppose that’s the implication. As if revealing what your signature killer really looked like underneath wasn’t always a terrible idea, the movie goes one step forward as to try and reverse all the monstrous greatness – at least in our mind – that was ever imposed upon Jason post-mortem, and give him the kind of peaceful conclusion the character never really needed. All this is inevitably retconned four years later with Jason Goes to Hell, because killers gonna kill, surely, despite the fact that Kane Hodder reprised his role in the aforementioned film and the following Jason X. Still, aside from exploring some uncharted waters in dealing with the memory of his mother in some way – not saying they should though – the only kind of catharsis Jason as a character has ever really needed is shamelessly slaughtering some sexy kids, something he’d already been doing in five previous outings; discounting Part V, of course. Ending a Friday film on any other note than implying there’ll be a Friday after next is unnecessary. We as fans of Jason Voorhees expect nothing more, and nothing less.

Still, even with these shortcomings, Friday the 13thPart VIII leaves an impression, something most fail to do, and that’s because it dares to spice up the formula while keeping the primary ingredients intact, and any kind of sour flavoring is to be expected in trying something new. At its core, Jason Takes Manhattan delivers in spades when it comes to gleeful kills and the overall game the archetypes play. It gives an appropriately brief glimpse into each of the characters before making you watch them perish. And though it sometimes challenges your sensibilities to negative effect, it only manages to add to the notion that this is a product of its time. It’s the eighth film in a franchise competing with several more, and though none of the Fridays are apparent masterpieces, they are exactly what they need to be. And Friday the 13thPart VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan is no different.

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