Freddy vs. Jason (2003) **˝
It’s been a subject for contentious lunchroom debate among twelve-year-old boys since 1984— who would win in a fight between Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees? For many years, this was merely a topic for idle speculation, which honestly was probably the way it should have remained. But in 1993, New Line Cinema gave us all reason to expect that they might someday present us with a film purporting to offer a definitive answer, for that year Freddy’s glove made a cameo appearance at the end of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. But for all the gossip that immediately began circling around that cameo, year after year went by without any apparent progress being made on a movie matching the two slashers up. Again, this was probably as it should be. Even when New Line blew the dust off of one of the franchises in 2002, it was Jason alone who returned to the screen, under circumstances about as far removed from the allegedly much-anticipated psycho showdown (or from anything else that had much to do with any self-respecting slasher flick) as could be imagined. But no sooner had Jason X sunk into the dollar-theater tar pits than the studio made the fateful announcement that Freddy vs. Jason was for real, and that it was scheduled for release the following summer. I first learned of this from a blurb on the cover of Fangoria, and while I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone else on the subject, I can tell you that my own personal reaction was rather at variance from the excited eagerness the article to which that blurb was attached assured me I was feeling. For the record, my response to the news was exactly as follows: “Fuck.” Now mind you, I also knew full well that I would end up seeing the movie anyway, even against my better judgement. I’m sick that way. So given that twist in my personality, it’s a damn good thing for me that, against all odds, Freddy vs. Jason turns out to be not half bad. The flipside of that, of course, is that it’s only a little more than half good, but after Jason X, I’ll be perfectly happy to take what I can get.
The first hurdle confronting anyone trying to make a movie about Freddy Krueger in 2003 is the fact that the last Nightmare on Elm Street film came out nine years ago, while it’s been more than twice that long since the series kicked off. The ubiquity of home video today makes this less likely than it would have been in previous decades, but it’s still possible that a fair proportion of this movie’s potential target audience has only the vaguest notion who Freddy is. Jason Voorhees is a relatively easy character for the uninitiated to get a handle on (he kills people with garden tools for no good reason, and for no good reason is more or less immune to being killed himself), but Freddy has a complex back-story that has only become more elaborate with each passing sequel. First-time screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift opt for efficiency rather than elegance in circumventing this difficulty, beginning Freddy vs. Jason with a recap montage narrated by Freddy himself (the irreplaceable Robert Englund). Just how much of what came before is to be accepted as canon for present purposes is a little unclear, but we can safely disregard Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (which had always been outside the main series timeline), and evidently the ill-starred Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare as well. As we now learn, what finally took Freddy out of the world of the living for good had nothing to do with demonic sock puppets, but was instead something much more prosaic. Eventually, the people of Springwood, Ohio, mostly forgot about him, and stopped telling the story of his mid-70’s murder spree when their kids were within earshot. A generation raised with no knowledge of his crimes meant a generation that would never have nightmares about them, and with no dreams to inhabit, Freddy’s soul was confined to Hell where it belongs. But Krueger is nothing if not resourceful, and in another part of the Abyss, he has found somebody who just might be able to help put him back in the public eye— Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger, who had briefly been on the other end of the machete in Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan). Don’t ask me how Freddy brings Jason back to life (I don’t think the screenwriters quite know the answer to that, either); suffice it to say that he does, and by posing as the other killer’s beloved mother (Paula Shaw, of Savage Streets, who makes for a pretty good counterfeit Betsy Palmer), Krueger is able to steer him toward Springwood to wreak havoc in his name.
That havoc begins at a house party, where Kia (Kelly Rowland, one of the Destiny's Child girls), Gibb (Katharine Isabelle, from Ginger Snaps and Disturbing Behavior), and Gibb’s asshole boyfriend Trey (Jesse Hutch— and I ask you: in the entire history of life on Earth, has there ever been a teenage boy named Trey who was not a thoroughgoing cock-bugler?) are attempting to reintegrate their pal, Lori (Monica Keena, from Snow White: A Tale of Terror and The Devil’s Advocate), into single society. Her longtime boyfriend, Will, disappeared without a trace some months ago, and the other kids all think it’s high time Lori put the AWOL guy behind her and lived a little. Thus the party, and thus Dipshit Bobby (Zack Ward), with whom Kia and Gibb hope to set Lori up. Unfortunately, the party is being held at Lori's house— 1428 Elm Street, which is naturally the first place Jason goes upon his arrival in Springwood. Jason kills Trey in an especially messy manner (even for him), but either kids today are smarter than they were in the 80’s, or Voorhees has gotten a little rusty down in the Netherworld, because the other teens all escape once Gibb finds the dead boy’s body.
The cops who respond to the attack, led by the town sheriff (The Fly II’s Gary Chalk), deal with the situation— and with Jason’s subsequent murder of Dipshit Bobby and his father— in a most suspicious manner. The questions they ask of the surviving witnesses have less to do with the incident per se than with Lori’s, Gibb’s, and Kia’s dreams, and though Lori overhears the sheriff claiming that he knows who the killer is, none of the policemen will say a single thing, either to the teens in the interrogation rooms or to the newly arrived Deputy Stubbs (Lochlyn Munro, of Dracula 2000 and Needful Things), a recent transplant from what we may reasonably conclude is rural New Jersey on the basis of what we will hear from him later on. Stubbs likes being left out of the loop even less than the kids do, but the sheriff lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is expected to sit this one out and leave it to the natives. Lori, however, gets herself a little more clued in than Stubbs, because she happens to catch the sheriff identifying his suspect as somebody named “Freddy.” That night, Lori is tormented by nightmares about a spectral child with gouged-out eyes, who tells her that this Freddy will soon be coming for her and the rest of her friends.
Meanwhile, in the next town over, two more teenagers from Springwood are chaffing against a very different sort of authority. Will (Swimfan’s Jason Ritter) and Mark (Brendan Fletcher, of Trucks) are inmates at the Westin Psychiatric Hospital, which looks for all the world to be run by Hellbound: Hellraiser II’s Dr. Chennard. Both boys have been locked up for months with no contact with the outside world, and both are adamant that they don’t even belong there in the first place. Those of you who have noticed that Will has the same name as Lori’s vanished boyfriend get gold stars for the day. What finally galvanizes Will and Mark into making an escape attempt is a briefly glimpsed TV news report on the killings in Springwood, which identifies 1428 Elm Street as the scene of the first crime. Frantic to learn whether Lori is alright, the boys manage to steal the keys to a staff vehicle, which they then drive home to Springwood. Will and Mark catch up with Lori at school the next day, and when Mark hears the girl describe her dreams from the night before, he goes a little haywire. Apparently the reason Mark and Will were in Westin in the first place is that they both believed that a man in their dreams was trying to kill them, and Mark, like Nancy Thompson and Jesse Walsh before him, figured out the dream killer’s identity. He goes off on a long, heated tirade about Freddy Krueger, and when he does so, he has a good-sized audience in the high school corridor. Mark and Will are then chased off of the premises.
Now considering that Freddy’s entire game plan is to make the youth of Springwood know and fear him again, do you think Mark’s little outburst might be playing right into the killer’s hands? As it happens, there’s a very good reason for all the secrecy surrounding the investigation of Trey’s murder and the treatment program at Westin. At some point, the adults of Springwood got wise to Krueger, and reasoning that the dream killer kept himself in circulation like a kind of psychic virus (gee, I wonder if Shannon and Swift saw The Ring last year...), the town’s leaders essentially started putting all affected adolescents under quarantine. Anyone who dreamed about Freddy got sent to Westin, was put on the experimental dream-suppressant Hypnocil, and was prevented from passing the killer’s story on to any of their acquaintances. The result of this admittedly extreme response was four years without an outbreak of Krueger murders. And now Mark himself may have gone and fucked up everything, acting as a PR representative for Freddy even more effective than the other slasher running around town killing on his behalf.
But let us remember that this is supposed to be Freddy vs. Jason here. That “versus” element starts to creep in when Jason crashes another party, this one the huge rave that resident stoner Freeburg (Kyle Libine, who played— what do you know?— a stoner in Halloween: Resurrection) organizes in a cornfield on the outskirts of town. Freddy, whose reputation has by now been sufficiently reestablished for him to start killing again, makes his move on Gibb after the girl drinks herself into a stupor, but is prevented from claiming his prize when Jason gets to her corporeal self first. The spectacle of a six-and-a-half-foot man in an obsolete goalie’s mask dicing kids by the dozen in the midst of a rave gets enough attention from the survivors that word eventually works its way back to the police. Deputy Stubbs, who had once worked in the jurisdiction that included Crystal Lake, knows the Jason Voorhees MO when he sees it, but his colleagues on the force are so fixated on the idea that Freddy is their man that they refuse to countenance any other hypothesis. Faced with this roadblock across the official channels, Stubbs turns to Lori and her friends for assistance, and the lot of them eventually come to the conclusion that both legendary killers are at large in Springwood. It’s Lori who arrives at the insight that the relationship between the two slashers is changing from one of cooperation to one of rivalry, and it’s her plan to encourage them to fight it out. Actually, they don’t really need much encouragement; when Jason trails our heroes to Westin (where they hope to score enough Hypnocil to keep them safe from Krueger for the foreseeable future), Freddy gets his hooks into the perpetually stoned Freeburg, and makes him inject the other killer with enough tranquilizers to put a horse into a coma. Slasher Smackdown, Round One, plays out in Freddy’s dream dimension, where the advantage is entirely with him. Recognizing that Krueger is ultimately far more dangerous than Voorhees, Lori and company pack the unconscious Jason up in Mark’s van and hit the road for Crystal Lake with a desperately risky strategy in mind. Having learned from Stubbs that Jason is supposedly vulnerable to re-drowning in the lake’s waters, and making the reasonable assumption that a corporeal Krueger would stand little chance against a virtually invulnerable opponent almost twice his size, Lori intends to take tranquilizers herself and rescue Jason by pulling Freddy into the real world like so many Final Girls before her have done. Then, when Jason’s own tranquilizers wear off, Slasher Smackdown, Round Two, can begin, leading (with any luck) to the destruction of Freddy and the sufficient weakening of Jason for the rest of Team Lori to toss him into the lake and be done with him, too.
I suppose what everybody else is really interested in is the Big Fight, so I’ll deal with that first. I myself was mostly unimpressed. Director Ronny Yu hails originally from Hong Kong (where his credits include The Bride with White Hair), and from the moment those syringes sink into Jason’s neck, he never lets you forget it. My tolerance for wire-fu is relatively low, and unless the people doing it are a bunch of skinny little Asians, I have hardly any tolerance for it at all. So I’m sure you can understand why a wire-fu showdown between Freddy and Jason was just about the last thing I wanted to see, not least because such a thing is so totally out of character for both killers. And while I realize that the economics of the situation rule out a decisive result to the battle a priori, I still found the conclusion to the film somewhat annoying. That said, I have to give Damian Shannon and Mark Swift credit for finding a way around what always seemed to me like an insuperable obstacle to setting up a clash between the two characters in the first place. To wit: Freddy is a ghost who exists only in the subconscious minds of his victims, and as such is not subject to attack with farming implements. Jason, meanwhile— at least the zombie Jason we’ve been dealing with since Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives— has offered no indication that he ever sleeps, let alone dreams. That trick with the tranquilizers gets us past this difficulty quite nicely. I was also most gratified to see a modern slasher movie whose creators were not afraid to pile on the gore the way it was in the old days; it’s a rare slasher flick indeed that is worth a damn if you strip away the severed limbs and arterial sprays, and that’s at least part of the reason why the current crop have been such complete wastes of time.
Most of what I enjoyed about Freddy vs. Jason came in the lead-up to the main event, however. For one thing, I was pleased to see some reasonably well thought-out expansions of both killers’ origin stories. Though it was obviously written in as an ill-advised attempt to humanize Jason and make him more sympathetic a character (at least in comparison to Freddy Krueger), the addition of a childhood peer-abuse element to the story of his drowning makes good sense. Anyone who grows up to be as ugly a motherfucker as Jason must have already gotten a head start on deformity in childhood, and I sure as shit wouldn’t want to be the kid with Jason’s face at a summer camp. What works even better (and serves a far more legitimate end) is Shannon and Swift’s deeper delving into Krueger’s early career. At no point had any of the earlier films in the Nightmare on Elm Street series gone into any detail regarding just what the human Krueger was doing with those kids he killed, and the hints we get in Freddy vs. Jason do much to restore the long-lost air of menace that Freddy ought always to have projected.
On the downside, Freddy vs. Jason is nearly as illogical and inattentive to detail as any film in either of its parent series. I’ve already mentioned that no explanation is ever offered for Freddy’s success in raising Jason from the dead, which is an ability that none of the preceding movies had even hinted at. I was also baffled by the way the setting for the final showdown switches seemingly at random between a summer camp (which shouldn’t be standing anymore, anyway) and a construction site. Admittedly, I never went to camp when I was a kid (except for one nearly unendurable week-long field trip to Arlington Echo which was organized for the sixth-graders at Four Seasons Elementary, whether they wanted to go on it or not), but I don’t remember any of my camp-going friends saying anything about fucking rebar being among the standard equipment for such establishments! And can I be the only one who noticed that Lori and her crew somehow made it all the way from Springwood, Ohio, to Crystal Lake, New Jersey, in the space of at most a couple of hours?
In the end, I guess what we’re really looking at here is an unexpectedly good execution of a idea that should probably never have been taken seriously. It came out vastly better than it should have considering the length of time it spent in Development Hell, but I still can’t shake the feeling that Development Hell is where it ought to have stayed. There’s also one thing about Freddy vs. Jason that really scares me. Remember, New Line also owns The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and has a long history of snapping up other studios’ past-their-prime horror franchises— rumor has it they’re in negotiation to buy the sequel rights to Child’s Play right now. If Freddy vs. Jason makes a bunch of money, you can bet it’ll be only the beginning. And while I don’t know about you, I really don’t want to see Ash vs. Chucky or House of Leatherface. That sort of thing can only lead, in the long run, to Kid ‘n’ Play Raise Hell, in which the freshest, flyest, dopest House Party of them all goes horribly awry when a nostalgic Kid mistakes the Box for an old Rubix Cube, forcing everybody’s favorite urban dumb-asses to enlist Ash to save them from Pinhead and his newest crop of Cenobites: Freddy, Chucky, Jason, and Leatherface. And that, my friends, is the point at which I shut myself up in my secret underground lair, and never come out again.