Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) ½
Nobody would argue with me if I said that the heyday of the 80’s slasher movie was the period between 1980 and 1983, nor would I hear many dissenting voices if I asserted that the subgenre was just about on its last legs by 1989. And yet 1989 was the only year that produced entries in all four of the top-flight slasher franchises: Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is intelligible only as a symptom of desperation, of those series’ owners realizing the game was almost up and scrambling to squeeze every remaining dollar out of their ailing and decrepit cash cows. A look at the subsequent history of the four franchises bears this hypothesis out. Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did indeed give up the ghost after 1989, at least until they were briefly resurrected to face a grim and stony dismissal some five years later (although Halloween rallied a second time to greater success in the wake of Scream). A Nightmare on Elm Street fared slightly better. Freddy Krueger was given a high-profile (if also lousy) sendoff in 1991, and then brought back again to die with a bit more dignity in 1994. The case of Friday the 13th is the most interesting of all. There would indeed be more Friday the 13th movies after Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, but they would not be made by Paramount. That studio washed its hands of the series with the coming of the new decade, eventually selling the rights to New Line Cinema, the outfit responsible for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Believe me, after watching Jason Takes Manhattan, it isn’t hard to imagine why.
Friday the 13th, Part VIII continues the struggle begun by its immediate predecessor— how to keep making sequel after sequel to a movie that offered hardly any room for further story development in the first place, and do so in a sufficiently interesting manner that anybody who doesn't subscribe to Fangoria might possibly be lured into the theater to see them. This time, as the movie’s subtitle suggests, the plan is to revitalize the series by moving it away from its traditional setting. Nevertheless, the title is misleading, for Jason doesn’t actually arrive in New York until more than an hour of running time has already passed. But then how many people do you think would have gone to see this sack of shit if it had instead been called Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes a Cruise?
The first order of business, as always, is to bring Jason (Kane Hodder, returning from Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood) back to life once again. This time, it is accomplished in a manner so contrived that even the writers of Scars of Dracula would have scoffed. A couple of Expendable Meat teenagers (what— you expect me to remember their names?) are screwing merrily aboard a cabin cruiser anchored in Crystal Lake. The anchor in question is within easy drifting distance (evidently somebody doesn’t understand how anchors are supposed to work...) of an electrical power line that traverses the bottom of the lake. And that power line just happens to be lying right across Jason’s lifeless body. Sure enough, the current carries that anchor straight into the power line and severs it, the resulting electrical discharge shocking Jason’s nervous system back into action— and right after the boy on the boat got through telling his apparently out-of-town girlfriend an abbreviated version of the killer’s legend, too! (I’d like to pause here for a moment to discuss something that has been bugging me more and more with each Friday the 13th sequel I see. When he’s telling the story, Boat Boy says that Jason Voorhees drowned “about 30 years ago,” and that is indeed the amount of time that separates the date of this movie’s release from the date given for the boy’s death in the original Friday the 13th. But... Jason drowned [or appeared to] in 1957. His mother got Camp Crystal Lake closed down a year later, when she killed the two counselors whose negligence she blamed for her son’s accident. The date on Pamela Voorhees’s headstone— as seen in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter— is 1979, meaning that that was the year of Steve Christy’s ill-fated attempt to reopen the camp. Paul Holtz then tells his camp counselors that the second Camp Blood Massacre occurred five years ago, meaning that the action of Friday the 13th, Parts 2-4 takes place in 1984. The delay between The Final Chapter and A New Beginning is something on the order of six years [enough time for twelve-year-old Tommy Jarvis to grow into his late teens], dating the events of the latter movie to somewhere around 1990. Add another two to four years between A New Beginning and Jason Lives, and we're inching up on the mid-90’s. Then we need another year or two before the start of the next sequel, and then ten more for Tina Shepard to grow up between the prologue and the main action of The New Blood. Nobody says just how much time is supposed to have elapsed between that movie and this one, but the implication is that it’s at least another couple of years. In other words, although nobody involved in its creation has picked up on this, by the time we get around to Jason Takes Manhattan, we’ve reached at least the year 2005!!!!) Jason climbs up the anchor chain and boards the boat. He allows Boat Boy a chance to scare Boat Girl by jumping out of the shadows with a hockey mask and a toy knife, and then kills both of them after appropriating the mask for himself. (At least they remembered that his old mask got destroyed last time around. Of course, that raises the question of why his new mask should have a notch cut out of it to match the axe-wound in his forehead from five movies back...)
The boat drifts all the way across the lake, which is apparently much larger than had been hitherto postulated, winding up eventually at a full-on port. At one of the wharfs is a ship called the Lazarus (oh please...), under the command of one Admiral Robertson (Warren Munson, from Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell and Amityville: The Evil Escapes). It is aboard the Lazarus that the graduating class of whatever high school is nearby will be traveling for their field trip to New York City, chaperoned by two teachers named Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman) and Colleen Van Deusen (Barbara Bingham, of Beyond Darkness). Mrs. Van Deusen is an English teacher, and she has brought along her ace student, Rennie Wickham (Asteroid’s Jensen Daggett)— much to the annoyance of Mr. McCulloch, who is the girl’s uncle and legal guardian. Evidently Rennie has a morbid fear of the water, and McCulloch believes that she’ll cause some sort of trouble once the ship is out beyond sight of land. While the two teachers are arguing, the boat from the opening scene floats by, and Jason jumps off to board the Lazarus instead. I’d rather not waste the energy trying to figure out why.
Rennie has “Final Girl” written all over her, so let’s turn our attention now to the kids who have “Expendable Meat” written all over them. The least expendable of the lot is Sean Robertson (Scott Reeves), son of the admiral and a major disappointment to his old man. Julius (Vincent Craig Dupree) is the token black kid and an accomplished amateur boxer. Tamara (Shariene Martin) is basically Melissa from the last movie, brought back to life and set loose upon us once again; we’ll all be very happy to see her go. Wayne (Martin Cummins of Omen IV: The Awakening) is our new Eddie; he’s always running around recording shit with his video camera and he sorely wishes he could find his way into Tamara’s pants just once. Wayne’s friend JJ (Saffron Henderson, who impersonated Geena Davis for the opening scene of The Fly II) rightly recognizes the boy’s quest as both fruitless and stupid, and encourages him instead to spend the trip filming her while she plays cock-rock guitar solos on her Flying V all over the ship. Eva Watanabe (Kelly Hu, who went on to appear in Strange Days and The Scorpion King) is the good girl whose corruption is apparently Tamara’s big summer project this year. There are a couple more kids, too, but we needn’t really concern ourselves with them. The only other character who is of any real importance is the creepy and seemingly insane deckhand (Alex Daikun, of Valentine and Firebird 2015 A.D.), who’ll spend the whole rest of the movie telling anyone who’ll listen that the Lazarus sails under the curse of Jason Voorhees. Great. Just what we needed— Crazy Ralph Mk III.
JJ is the first to die. She goes down below decks with her guitar to take advantage of the unique acoustics of the boiler room, and gets brained with her own Gibson. Then Jason comes for Tamara (What, already? Fuckin’ ay!), carving her up with the shards of her bathroom mirror right after she finishes trying to blackmail Mr. McCulloch into forgetting about that coke mirror he saw her and Eva with a little while ago (don’t ask...). Somewhat surprisingly, Admiral Robertson himself is next on the menu, along with the ship’s engineer, leaving the Lazarus with no one qualified to operate it (who the hell ever heard of a cruise ship with a crew of two?!?!) just as it’s entering a severe storm. Sean takes command when he finds his father’s body, and he and Julius organize the boys onboard into a posse to hunt down the killer who is obviously stalking the ship. The boys arm themselves with axes, gaffs, and boathooks, and... oh, who cares? Look— just about all of them die, okay? You knew that already, right? Alright then. Suffice it to say that Jason manages to sink the damn ship, too, and that only Rennie, Sean, Julius, and the two teachers make it aboard one of the life boats, which they then sail— more by luck than by skill— to Manhattan, where they had originally been headed all along.
Jason follows them, of course, and this is where the movie gets really stupid. Now I made my peace about three sequels ago with the idea that Jason kills everybody he meets, for absolutely no fucking reason. He’s a psycho-killer, and psycho-killers kill people, so that’s just what he does. Okay. Fine. So why, then, does Jason ignore virtually everyone he encounters on the streets of New York in favor of hunting down and finishing off the few survivors from his attack on the Lazarus?! He has no more reason to want them dead than he does any of the people he leaves unmolested on the subway, in Times Square, or at the all-night diner he chases Sean and Rennie into, you know! Also, we finally learn the underlying reason for Rennie’s fear of the water, and for her basically adversarial relationship with her uncle. Are you ready for this? Are you seated comfortably? One afternoon, when Rennie was just a little girl, McCulloch took her out for a boat ride on Crystal Lake, and tossed her overboard in a ludicrously ill-considered effort to teach her to swim! What— that’s it?!?! That’s the deep, dark secret from our heroine’s past?! Actually, no— not quite. While she was busy trying not to drown, Rennie had an aquatic run-in with Jason Voorhees, who at that point was still taking the form of an ugly-ass ten-year-old. Fuck. I don’t even want to touch this one... I mean, this is asinine on so many different levels that I don’t even know where to begin. In fact, I think the only thing more asinine is what finally becomes of Jason at the end of the movie. After whittling down the group of Lazarus survivors still farther (killing Julius in a rooftop boxing match and drowning McCulloch in a conveniently located barrel of what I can only assume to be toxic waste— and don’t go getting your hopes up that McCulloch will turn into the Toxic Avenger and save the day, either), Jason eventually pursues Rennie and Sean down into the sewer system, where the two teens meet up with a Department of Public Works employee who advises them that they need to get up above ground as soon as they can— “the sewer system floods out with toxic waste every night at midnight.” Oh... my... God! They weren’t fucking kidding about the toxic waste!!!! So is Jason, like, going to get torn limb from limb by C.H.U.D.s now, or something?! I’m afraid not— like McCulloch’s rebirth as the Toxic Avenger, that might have made the movie too good, I guess. No, what happens is that Jason kills the DPW guy and then chases the kids around the sewers for a while longer. Then Rennie fortuitously notices a big, red bucket marked “toxic waste” (oh, for fuck’s sake...) and tosses its contents in the killer’s face. While Jason is reeling in pain from his melting face (the makeup for which blows, by the way), Rennie and Sean high-tail it up the ladder to a manhole, and watch as their foe is swept down by a flood of opaque, white water. But I haven’t even told you the worst part yet. When melty-face Jason sees the cataract of toxic waste washing towards him, a little kid voice-overs, “No, Mommy— don’t let me drown!” And when the toxic tidal wave subsides, Jason is no longer a 250-pound zombie in moldy coveralls, but a pudgy young boy in a pair of soggy swimming trunks!!!! Do you think there’s an office somewhere in the Paramount studio complex where I can go to lodge a formal complaint?
Once again, I find myself quoting Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. At one point, he mentions what he believes to be “the wave of the future for the bad film that has a big budget; it has a sparkly look that is still somehow cheesy— it’s like a dead rat in a Lucite block.” Yes. Exactly. Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, probably the most expensive slasher movie to date when it was made, is very much like a dead rat in a Lucite block. While, technically speaking, it is nowhere near as tawdry as Friday the 13th, Part 3 or Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, all that professional polish accomplishes nothing beyond drawing attention to how awful it is in every other respect. It starts out dumb, and grows into the kind of movie that makes you wish it were being enacted live on a stage— at least that way, you’d have the satisfaction of being able to pelt the cast and crew with garbage and animal shit...