A Storytelling Autopsy: Friday The 13th Part 8 - Jason Takes Manhattan

What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII:JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this Metrocard-swiping entry in the franchise still haunts us.

(warning: spoilers (and toxic waste cannisters) follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)

Viewed from a distance of twenty-three years, JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is best viewed as an excavated time capsule from a long-lost civilization. The late '80s culture on display- haircuts and fashions, slang and John Hughesque teen angst- is so central to the movie that the entire affair often seems like a prolonged bumper-ad for a block of pre-reality show MTV programming. Even the title city is an alien landscape to today's New Yorker. Vancouver back alleys aside, the scenes of filthy streets, graffiti-lined subway cars, and rough neighborhoods is strongly at odds with today's post-Giuliani gotham.

The decision to remove Jason from Crystal Lake must have seemed like a genuinely exciting way for the producers to offer something different to the shrinking core audience. Unfortunately, the problems with placing the series' central character in a new environment, especially the one they chose, undermines not just the established plot elements of the previous installments (Crystal Lake connects to the ocean?) but the internal logic of the entire concept. The story of Jason is rooted in campfire stories, the rural incarnation of “urban” legends. Rural folklore works on a symbolic level, espousing traditional morality tales in the grimmest way possible, but fail to pass basic tests of logic. The “Man with the Hook”, probably the most famous American verbal folktale, operates on the assumption that the listener not probe the story for inconsistencies but react to it on a more basic, primordial level. On its own, the events in “Hook” would barely raise a goose-bump in the world of hard news- a field now exemplified by terrorist attacks, school shootings, and movie theater massacres (the real kind). The listener choses to suspend disbelief in a very specific way, turning off the critical part of his mind in order to facilitate the effect of the story. One thing a good campfire storyteller should never do is try to provide proof of the events he describes. No wonder that these things usually begin something like, “This happened to a friend of my brother. His roommate told him that...”

Or, for that matter, “If you listen to the old timers in town, they'll tell ya...”

How then can JASON TAKES MANHATTAN hope to achieve any sort of reaction- other than derision- from a plot that drops the maniac in a city where, in 1989, there were 2,246 murders; 5,242 rapes; 91,571 assaults. [These are real numbers: see www.disastercenter.com]. Jason's rampage, frankly, wouldn't even prove the deadliest day of the year. Crystal Lake is a fantasy setting, an idyllic summer camp in rural New Jersey, a place where college aged kids enjoy one last summer of playful hijacks before surrendering themselves to lives punching time cards. Ironically, violent fantasy works best set against innocuous backdrops. The film itself all but acknowledges this, blissfully ignorant that portraying the city as a sprawling necropolis of drug gangs and knife-wielding punks circumvents any chance of building dramatic tension.

When Rennie, this chapter's super-bland final girl, is drugged and nearly raped by a couple of apparently homeless heroine addicts, it becomes difficult not to see Jason transformed into a hero of sorts. Jason just intends to behead the brunette- God only knows what those two scumbags had planned. Unfortunately, the dramatic structure of the film demands that we root for the whitebread Final Couple to survive, which is daunting considering that Kane Hodder's Jason has far more character on display- and is ultimately far more likable.

Since there's no chance that this chapter will evoke any sort of fright, there's a half-hearted attempt to make each of the deaths ironic. A drug addict is killed with his syringe. The self-absorbed beauty is stabbed with shards of a mirror. A boxer is decapitated by a punch. A schoolteacher who forced his daughter to sink-or-swim in Crystal Lake is drowned in a barrel on dry land. It must have looked clever on paper. The effect, however, is counter-productive: the plot bends over backward to allow for each set-piece murder, often at the expense of pace and logic. The problem isn't that Jason seems to be everywhere, no, the problem is that he's always exactly where he needs to be to enable the screenplay to off characters in “clever” ways. It's tiring.

Along the way, certainly in response to the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, which was at that moment at its peak, nonsensical hallucination sequences worm their way into the narrative. They never add anything to the proceedings, not even the intended cheap scares, because each is staged with obnoxious neon colors and overwrought orchestra hits. Curiously, the only time Rennie doesn't hallucinate is when she's high on black tar heroin. For the sake of the viewer, she should have remained medicated, if only to avoid each new nightmare sequence, the most notable aspect of which is Jason's progressive childhood baldness.

The film really goes off the rails, though, at its climax. Without warning, a sewer worker who bears an uncomfortably strong resemblance to John Carpenter, notes that the city's entire sewer system floods with toxic waste each night. Where the toxic waste goes during the daytime is anyone's guess. This audacious plot deviation isn't merely a head-scratching, eye-rolling, enigma-wrapped riddle, it's a raised middle finger to the core audience. Who expects his audience to accept this? And what must he think of that audience?

Anyway, the sewers flood with enough toxic waste to further mutate the Ninja Turtles into C.H.U.D.s and Jason drowns, and dissolves, in the firewater. It's unclear whether Renny's vision of a “pure” child version of Jason is meant literally or as hallucination. Has the toxic waste burned away Jason's evil? Is Rennie's fears of the young Jason from her childhood finally put to rest by the vision of him truly drowned? It doesn't really matter, since neither choice makes any sense, and the viewers at that point don't care.

It's understandable that JASON TAKES MANHATTAN failed to generate enough excitement, or box office cash, for Paramount to continue the series. This film, like the fifth, is an insult to the fans. Jason, it seemed, was down for the count. To paraphrase the end of KING KONG, a terrific film about a monster in New York, “T'wasn't the toxic waste that killed 'em, bad writing killed the beast.”

But the thing about rural folklore... stories of spider eggs in beehive hairdos, of babysitters and telephones, of escaped lunatics with hooks for hands... the thing about these stories is that they never stay untold for long. There's always a new twist waiting to be told...

Jason Voorhees, you ask? My cousin's roommate from college told me about him. Don't believe me? Well, you can go to hell.
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