Disqus for Friday The 13th: The Film Franchise




A Storytelling Autopsy: Freddy vs Jason

What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of FREDDY VS. JASON. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this cross-franchise chimeric entry in the franchise still haunts us.

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

New Line's acquisition of the FRIDAY THE 13TH brand was never any more complex of a strategy than this: the media conglomerate knew that a modern day FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN would be a fireproof box-office draw. Arguably (but only modestly), Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees had, since their inceptions in the 1980s, become the most notable horror villains since the original Universal monsters. On their own, each character had become a massive licensing property, inspiring everything from t-shirts, posters, and lunch boxes, to action figures, high price tag resin statues, and perennial Halloween costumes. Killing on screen is big business, and New Line knew that no one did it better than the two leading men of the genre.

But there was a nagging detail standing in the way, one that derailed dozens of story treatments and spec screenplays: how to merge the very different worlds of these characters in a way that wouldn't favor one mythology over the other. Even the most casual horror fan understood the challenge on its most basic level: Kruger's dreamworld was a far cry from Jason's Camp Crystal Lake. To bridge the two in a convincing fashion, the writers would inevitably have to make concessions. Going too far, however, would be an insult to the rapid fan bases of one, or both, of the NIGHTMARE and FRIDAY franchises.

Ultimately, screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift chose a path so simplistic that it almost defies scrutiny. Whereas other writers attempted to introduce gimmicks to blend the worlds-- resurrection cults, end-or-world prophecy, possessed teenagers-- Shannon and Swift simply ignored the problems, choosing instead to ask audiences to accept a purely visual ride. In many ways, FREDDY VS. JASON is told like a four-color, six panel comic book with images, exposition, and dialogue all serving the same single-minded purpose: pushing the story at hand forward.

The audience might wonder how it is that Jason, dead and buried, is still dreaming at the beginning of the film. Or perhaps Freddy has some previously unreported ability to control elements of the afterlife? These concerns are instantly irrelevant, however, the moment Freddy directly addresses the audience, telling us that he's been away from his children (presumably, the viewers) for too long. The set up is necessarily transparent. The filmmakers understood that the audience was paying to see the terror titans battle, not a detailed, plausible plot to bring them together. So, Freddy convinces Jason to return to life, travel to Springwood, and start killing teenagers. It seems a natural fit to his resume anyway, so it really doesn't take all that much convincing.

Blending the DNA of two hugely influential, long-running horror franchises would seem to require that a template be drawn evenly from both sources, otherwise one set of fans or the other would come away disgruntled and unsatisfied. Not so, here. FREDDY VS. JASON follows the established outline of the NIGHTMARE films, centering its drama on the notion of a deep divide between parents and their offspring. The Freddy saga, at its core, is a youthful condemnation of generational hypocrisy. Parents are portrayed as unwilling to embrace even the idea of their children's fears, let alone provide any protection from them, while at the same time ignoring that their own sins have created the looming horror in the first place. This is almost exactly the polar opposite of the original FRIDAY's thematic backbone, wherein the sins of the young cause an overprotective mother to attempt to wipe out the younger generation's lack of immorality and responsibility (and, of course, the adolescents themselves, too.).  While it might have been interesting to see these two concepts put on a collision course, the finished film cannot be bothered; there are pot smoking Alice in Wonderland caterpillars to be had, after all.

For most of the runtime, Jason serves as a mere surrogate for Freddy.  Invariably, a teen falls asleep, dreams of Freddy, and wakes to be murdered by Jason. Reducing the hockey masked psycho to the level of a plot function, the film moves forward at a relentless pace, never allowing the viewer the chance to ask some fundamental questions.  Why, for instance, would the police immediately jump to the conclusion that Freddy must be behind the new murders? Certainly there's nothing in Jason's machete killing spree that even remotely resembles the razor-gloved madman's reign.  We're led to believe that the police department understands and believes in Freddy enough to conspire to keep the dreaming kids in comas at a nearby medical facility, but that they can't conceive of Jason Voorhees?  And if all it takes is fear to allow Freddy to re-enter the dream stalking business, why doesn't he go after the cops, who already believe in him and clearly fear another outbreak?

None of it matters. This isn't that kind of movie. Every screen moment is really just an excuse to build enough of a fragile scaffold of a storyline to justify Jason and Freddy squaring off-- first in Freddy's dreamworld, then on the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake. As it stands, it accomplishes its singular goal, distracting the viewer with the prerequisite breasts, gore, and teen angst to pull attention away from the film's complete lack of governing rules. Why can't Jason die in a dream? How is it that Freddy is capable of taking inhuman punishment in the real world? Irrelevant.

The climax is handled with the proper gusto. All of the necessary visual elements are in place: water and fire, glove and machete, wet shirts and a final girl running in slow motion. It all works, and goes a long way in satisfying the promise that a title like FREDDY VS. JASON must live up to-- but it does not a single thing more. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object head on and the viewer gets his opportunity to rubberneck the carnage.  It all functions at the same level as successful music videos and strip club dance routines. It gets the job done. It's adequate.

A narrative without substance, FREDDY VS. JASON both suffers from and succeeds by ignoring the problems inherent in such a project. It's very possible that attempting to explain away the tangle of contradictions that come naturally when mixing seventeen feature films would have made for a far worse film.  It's easy to envision long passages of exposition, badly staged flashbacks, or the introduction of a magical framing element to sand down the rough edges. It isn't what the audience wants or expects- or, more precisely, demands. By focusing on the nudity, violence, and bloodshed, the filmmakers distract, obfuscate, and obscure the movie's lack of reason and gravity. There's always something shiny on screen to keep us entertained, whether it's death by collapsible mattress, a post-coitus shower scene, or an ocean of glow sticks waving over a cornfield rave.

Where to go once the modern Frankenstein has met his later-day Wolfman? Back to square one.
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