First, some notes. I am constitutionally adverse to reviewing good films. Personally, I like seeing a film while knowing as little about it as possible.* Given this, I have a perhaps inordinate fear of diminishing a good viewing experience for somebody else. Therefore let me plead; don’t read this review unless a) you have already seen the movie, or b) have absolutely no intention of ever doing so. I’m going to go into detail about what I found to be Freddy vs. Jason‘s fairly unique charms, and again, would not want to blow what I got out of the film for anyone else.[*In other words, I’m the dead opposite of the guy who listens fervently as his friend painstakingly details some film’s awesomeness, only to respond wistfully, “Man, I’ve got to see that!”]
Second, a quick thanks to Liz over at And You Call Yourself a Scientist! Over the years I’ve played Salieri to her Mozart, although I’ve been entirely more content in that role than F. Murray Abraham’s character was. However, while I’ve never felt the urge to destroy Liz, I have mercilessly preyed upon her good nature again and again. If she claimed a film for a roundtable that I wanted to review, a wee bit of whining on my part would inevitably see her agreeably relinquishing it.
Similarly, when she said she’d eventually be reviewing Freddy vs. Jason, a film which holds several points of interest for me, I again boorishly stuck my nose in uninvited. I immediately asked if I could post a concurrent piece. Since it is against her nature to simply tell me to screw off (how matter how justified that response would have been), she graciously acceded.
Finally, a head’s up on where I’m coming from. I’m a fan of Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger movies, and I mean exactly that. The three films Craven was directly connected with—A Nightmare on Elm Street (writer/director), A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (writer), and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (writer/director)—are sadly rare examples of horror films with sizable artistic and intellectual ambitions. Rarer still is that Craven achieves most of them.
Even saddled with the most appalling ‘shock ending’ I’ve ever seen in my life*, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was an absolutely terrific horror film. Most notably, it brought to the public perhaps the single most evil villain in movie history. Indeed, Freddy Krueger is a literally satanic, or at least demonic, character. He killed, but then trapped the souls of his victims. I wouldn’t want to be slaughtered by Jason, but at least you’d just be dead.[*I was still a kid back then (actually-yikes!-I was 20, now that I think about it…damn, I’m old), and with my crowd of friends actually got out to the movies a lot. Although not at the time a huge fan of (then) contemporary horror films, mostly because of the ascendancy of the slasher movie, I thus went to see A Nightmare on Elm Street on its opening night.
I was simply mesmerized by the film, in a manner I rarely have ever been. By the time it reached its incredibly satisfying climax, I was all but sated with bliss.
Then…the ‘shock’ ending. Upon witnessing this, I quite literally jumped out of my then-traditional front row theater seat, swearing up a storm and, I swear, shaking my fist at the screen.
There’s one other thing I remember, though.The auditorium was packed, and nearly everyone there, unsurprisingly, was a teenager. However, they were largely, unlike my eminently nerdy friends and me, the normal sort of kids who were most definitely not prone to analyzing a film to death. What I remember like it was yesterday, however, is the mass booing that issued even from this usually blasé demographic. They might not have been steeping themselves in the dizzying heights the film offered to the extent I did, but even so they were completely and vocally pissed.]
Regarding that purportedly ‘surprise’ ‘shock’ ending, I can’t describe how ruinous it was. (Also, a special note to filmmakers: When every friggin’ horror movie has a ‘shock ending,’ they eventually stop shocking.) Not only had I never seen a villain whose comeuppance I craved as fervently, but for the first time ever, I saw a movie that IN CONTEXT set up an entirely valid ending where all the evil the villain did would be undone.
Freddy wasn’t just stopped, or even just punished. His deprivations were literally erased and his victims restored to life. Watching Freddy’s rage at realizing this was one of the sweetest, most satisfying movie moments I have ever had. Then all this was completely fucked over because Robert Fuckin’ Shane, the head of New Line Cinema, demanded the shock ending.
As one would suspect, Craven detested the studio-mandated coda even more than I did. His response was to turn his back on a prospective sequel and go work on other films. Once Nightmare’s box office success became apparent, though, there was no way New Line was going to forgo another go-around. The Craven-less result was the widely-panned A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.
(One question: What the hell do characters like Freddy and Michael Myers need ‘revenge’ for?)
The commercial response was good, but the critical feedback was not what New Line wished. Realizing that they might have screwed the potentially very lucrative pooch, Craven was convinced to at least write the script for a third film. Notably, this ignores the first film’s ‘twist’ ending altogether (not to mention the events of the second picture), and assumes that the earlier movie ended as Craven had wished. Thus the first film’s main character, Nancy Thompson, as played by Heather Langenkamp, returns alive and still ready to fight the good fight.
One ongoing issue with the series as a whole, particularly when Craven wasn’t directly involved, was that continuity kept getting tossed out the window. Part of the problem was that Freddy’s initial defeat (when ignoring, as I do, the shock ending) was so total that it left little room for the endless, sausage-like sequels New Line wanted. As with Hammer’s Dracula movies, each subsequent demise diminished Freddy as an object of fear and awe. This is pretty common. Initially awe-inspiring characters ranging from the comic book character Galactus to Star Trek’s The Borg were similarly ill-served by repeated returns to the stage.
That said, Craven unsurprisingly came up with another pretty good ‘final’ defeat for Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, as well as a very workable explanation for why his apparent first destruction didn’t take. However, the nature of the beast dictated that this new ending also be undone in time for the next movie. And the next. And the one after that. Predictably, as a result the methods of ‘beating’ Freddy continued to grow more contrived, repetitious and unsatisfying.
Even so, audiences ate the stuff up, at least for a while. A stream of Freddy movies was rushed into production while the rushing was good, and they began coming out on an almost yearly basis. Indeed, Krueger eventually even hosted his own (predictably dismal) syndicated TV program, Freddy’s Nightmares. Although you might think Freddy’s idea of a nightmare would involve people being extremely nice to one another, or perhaps involve his being stuck in a village full of unharmable smurfs, this was in fact a rather stock horror anthology show.
As the film series passed through different hands, all rushing to get the next chapter into theaters before audience interest waned, Freddy’s origin in particular kept getting reworked. Probably the most infamous example of this was the sudden declaration that Krueger was the “bastard son of a thousand maniacs,” the result of a nun being mass raped by the inmates of a mental institution.
As it happened, this (admittedly humorously baroque) origin was immediately massaged again in the very next film. The rape still occurs, but this time one of the inmates is clearly played by a spotlighted Robert Englund, indicating that Freddy was this particular fellow’s son.
In the end, Freddy became the James Bond of the horror movies, and sadly I mean the Roger Moore James Bond. His trademark became the awful puns he’d give forth upon murdering yet another generic teen. Eventually this trend got so bad that Englund himself disdainfully dubbed the result “Shecky Green with claws.” (One can understand his alarm; Freddy was the only thing that would ever make him a star.)
Sure enough, in 1991 the series staggered to a painful wet fart of a conclusion with the sixth Freddy movie, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. (Hey, didn’t Jason have a “final” movie too?) How bad was it?Let me put it this way: it featured a cameo by Tom and Rosanne Arnold.
New Line mourned their dead cash cow, and wisely sought to bring back Wes Craven to oversee a revamp three years later. Craven acceded, but only if he was given, for the first time, complete artistic control. The result remains one of the trippiest and most intellectually provocative horror films ever. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare brings back much of the original film’s cast, as well as Craven and even New Line head Robert Shayne, all playing fictional versions of themselves.*[*Craven didn’t bother asking back Johnny Depp, who had gone on to become a big star. They later bumped into each other, however, and Depp said he would have gladly appeared in the film. Given what we know of Depp, I believe him. Too bad Craven didn’t buck up the necessary courage.]
New Nightmare posits that a real dream demon was bottled up, as it were, by being captured in the public’s mind and thus contained in the movie character of Freddy Krueger. With the film series having faltered, and the public’s interest in Freddy having waned, the demon is close to be loosed upon the world again.
Craven, playing ‘himself,’ figures this out and seeks to write another movie, one meant to safely re-bind the demon in his Freddy guise. (This makes it sound like ‘Wes Craven’ is the film’s main character, but he actually has a small amount of screen time. Heather Langenkamp as ‘Heather Lagenkamp’ is fittingly the movie’s central protagonist.)
It’s really a most wonderful flick, and the best and most satisfying piece of metafiction I’ve yet seen. Special kudos, by the way, to Robert Englund for gamely playing ‘himself’ as a coward. When a threatened ‘Heather Langenkamp’ comes to ‘Englund’ for aid in fighting this real-life Freddy, he assures her she has it. However, she soon learns that he has instead snuck out of town. It’s hard to blame him, though.Who other than Freddy’s portrayer would have a better idea of just how evil and terrifying Krueger really was?
Sadly, all this was rather more than audiences were looking for. The film received generally positive reviews, but sank at the box office. Indeed, it made less than even the awful Freddy’s Dead. As a result, the series was finally put to rest. Craven, meanwhile, went on to work the postmodernism angle a bit less eggheadedly, and the result was the massively popular Scream trilogy.
As for Jason (and his mum, and that guy who took Jason’s place for one movie)…well, I’ve never seen any of the Friday the 13th movies. At the risk of seeming effete, they represent everything I disdain about ’80s horror movies. In the superior documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and the Fall of the Slasher Movie, somebody—fittingly, I think it was either Wes Craven or Sean Cunningham—notes, “some people consider them one step up from porn films.
Actually, to me they are porn films. The thing that really defines a porn film isn’t so much the sex, but that in a larger sense it isn’t really a film at all. It’s merely a series of cinematic connective tissue stringing together a bunch of sex scenes. At their worst, and there was a lot of that, slasher films functioned the same way. Only the audience didn’t impatiently sit through the connective tissue to see people screwing (although they tended to see lots of that, too), but to see people horribly murdered. Indeed, again like porn movies, their respective core audiences might have been happier had the filmmakers just skipped the connective stuff altogether.
That said, people like what they like, and I’m not going to beat on somebody for enjoying slasher movies. I have enough dubious tastes myself, thank you very much. In sum, though, I’ve never enjoyed slasher movies and have avoided them whenever possible.In particular, I have never sat through more than a short stretch of any Friday the 13th movie.
Then word started circulating about an upcoming Freddy vs. Jason movie. (This after New Line acquired the rights to Jason, and decided there was still gold in them there thrills.) I discussed the notion with Andrew Muchoney, an old friend and fellow horror buff. We agreed that such a project was massively unlikely to work, given especially the markedly different levels of sophistication represented by the two characters.
Imagine a character from a Gossip Girls book engaging in a battle of wits with somebody from an Oscar Wilde novel; or a battle of the bands between Slayer and Beethoven. You couldn’t even see how it would work. Let me put it this way: despite taking two stabs at it, they haven’t yet managed (or so is the general consensus) to make a good Alien vs. Predator movie. And those characters are a lot more simpatico than Freddy and Jason.
More depressingly, Andrew and I agreed that Jason would inevitably win the fight, for all the superior heft of Freddy as a character. Indeed, to our minds, Freddy’s sophistication as a fictional construct was what ensured he would lose. Jason’s very one-notedness seemed an overwhelming advantage. Being unstoppable was pretty much literally all he was; if you took that away, there wasn’t anything left.*[*Our supposition bears out in the film, by the way.]
Anyway, that’s where I was coming from when I originally went to see Freddy vs. Jason.
Freddy Krueger is stuck in Hell, and he’s a bit tetchy about it. He derives his supernatural power from the terror he inspires in the mortal world. Yet somehow knowledge of his existence has been blocked. So drained is he that he can’t break into the dream realm and stalk the prey whose deaths further energize him.
Meanwhile, Jason Voorhees, following the events of Jason Goes to Hell, has been similarly banished from the mortal world. (That film ended with Jason being literally pulled down into Hell.One of the hands grasping him was Freddy’s, identifiable from his razor blade glove.) To keep so powerful a being safely contained in the netherworld, Jason has been cast into an endless slumber. In this, he dreams he is still slaughtering people in the environs around Camp Crystal Lake.It’s sort of like The Matrix, really.
Since Jason is also in Hell, Freddy can enter his dream state. He appears to Jason in the guise of his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Pamela Shaw very adequately replacing actress Betsy Palmer) and awakens Jason’s spirit. Thus Jason is again loosed on the human world. Following instructions from his ‘mother,’ Jason makes his way to Elm Street in Freddy’s hometown of Springwood.*[*One thing many critics laughed about was the convenient proximity of Camp Crystal Lake to Springwood. It is without doubt a clunky conceit, but it’s also a necessary one. The film bends over backwards to balance the attention it pays to both Freddy and Jason, and thus it’s essential to be able to place parts of the action at either locale. It’s one of the very few obvious band aids used to hold the plot together, and if you can’t get past that, you’re never going to enjoy a film like this.
And if Jason still seems to get to Springwood entirely too quickly, it must be remembered that he is, after all, the all-time Offscreen Teleportation™ champion in cinema history.]
Just around the time Jason arrives, a party of horny teens is gathering at the currently parent-free house of teenager Lori Campbell. Inopportunely for everyone involved, this happens to be the same house Nancy Thompson lived in.Best friend Kia brings a boy over, hoping to get Lori laid. Lori has kept herself off the market since Will, her First Love, disappeared without a trace when she was 14. Her general reservations aside, Lori is markedly unimpressed with Kia’s offering.
Meanwhile, Lori’s other friend Gibb, an alcoholic with self-esteem issues, heads upstairs to have sex with her loutish boyfriend. Afterward, while she showers, Jason enters the bedroom and goes to work on her beau. After Gibb emerges to find the result, she and everyone else runs screaming from the house.
As the police examine the crime scene, one horrified deputy drops the name Freddy Krueger. The sheriff hurriedly upbraids him, but Lori has overheard. Meanwhile, the stalwart, new-in-town Deputy Stubbs grows increasingly frustrated over the way the veteran officers seem to be locking him out of the case.
At the police station, Lori falls asleep and experiences a particular vivid nightmare. In this, a young girl with her eyes cut out (this is the same little girl we see Freddy about to kill in the beginning of the movie) informs her that Freddy Krueger is coming back. Lori is invited to spread the word to her friends, and naturally hears Freddy’s trademark nursery rhyme as recited by the traditional skip-roping little girls in white.As Freddy knows, nothing fosters market awareness like a good jingle.
Freddy is back in people’s dreams, but not yet capable of affecting reality. However, his power is growing, and Jason is still around to inspire the terror that will further energize him.
Meanwhile, we learn what happened to Will.He’s been stuck in a mental institution since the time of his apparent disappearance, along with his friend Mark. They’ve been kept there all these years, medicated with a drug called Hynocil. However, Will sees a news report about the murder at Lori’s house. Worried about her, he convinces Mark to break out and they both head back to Springwood.
Freddy finally gathers enough power to murder someone in the Dreamworld. However, just as he’s about to consummate this first death, Jason kills the woman in the real world. Freddy is denied his victim, and doesn’t take it well. He eventually gets Jason himself back in the Dreamworld, where even Voorhees is helpless before his power.
Meanwhile, Lori and her friends (an ever diminishing demographic) piece together what is going on. Various kids in Springwood have been the victims of a conspiracy. The town elders, including the Sheriff and Lori’s own father, Dr. Campbell, have covertly institutionalized any Springwood citizen with knowledge of Freddy as a form of quarantine. Meanwhile, they’ve been slipping to others in town Hypnocil, which is a dream-suppressant, as necessary. These measures are what have kept Freddy imprisoned in Hell.
Now, however, Freddy is out, and Jason is also marauding through the local teen population. With the conspiracy shattered, Lori and the gang deduce that their only chance of survival is to pit Jason and Freddy against one another. That, however, requires them to pull Freddy into the real world, where he is vulnerable….
When I saw this film during its theatrical release, I considered it a minor miracle. Against all my expectations, it actually proved to be really quite good. Don’t get me wrong, it is nobody’s idea of a classic. Indeed, it’s not even the high point for a Freddy Krueger movie. I’d rank both the original Elm Street as well as New Nightmare over it. (Although I have to assume I personally would easily rank it the best movie to feature Jason. However, I expect Liz will offer a more knowledgeable opinion take on that subject.)
Caveats aside, the picture easily surpassed any hopes I may have had for it. It’s actually a pretty decent horror movie, which is more than you can say for most of them these days. Most impressively, it indeed manages to pay proper homage to two wildly disparate inspirations. That remains its signature achievement.
I remember once reviewing a film, although I can’t remember what it was, that I snarked at failing to offer the gratuitous female nudity I thought it was obligated to provide. I noted that I could take or leave nudity, but that it was the sort of film that really promised that sort of thing, and thus annoyed me for not coming across with the goods. In short, it was the principle of the thing. (Liz later referenced this incident in one of her own reviews, and did me the honor of taking me at my word about why this particular lack of nudity irked me.)
Thus, although I personally consider the gratuitous boobs and gore of the Jason films somewhat vulgar and unappealing, I went into the theater feeling the makers of Freddy vs. Jason were similarly obligated to provide them. This left me in a bit of a quandary, however. If the film didn’t provide these qualities, I would be irked. On the other hand, if it too accurately emulated a typical Friday the 13th movie, I would dislike the picture on those grounds.
Director Ronny Yu and screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift found the perfect compromise, I think. The introduction part of the film, in which Jason and Freddy engage in their own separate murder sprees—Freddy is initially seen in his boiler room, Jason at Camp Crystal Lake—provides the requisite nudity.In the early going, both fittingly during Jason set-pieces, two different girls doff their shirts (and it’s a bit of a wink, I think, that both of them sport such obviously augmented bosoms).
In each case, the camera pauses to give us a good look at what have been aptly called “the cheapest special effect.” Having thus paid due honor to Jason’s aesthetic, however, nudity is foregone for the rest of the picture. The proper nod has been given, and the film moves on. I think that was the right call.*[*Likewise, the film early on captures the flavor of Craven’s often humorous but always situation-appropriate profanity. When Lori and her friends flee her house in a panic following the first murder, they fortuitously come across Deputy Stubbs, passing by in his squad car. He rolls down his window and calmly inquires, “You kids require some assistance?” Gibb shoves forward her hands, caked with her boyfriend’s gore, and shrieks, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU THINK?“]
Yu and his writers also display a deft touch in sticking to as much of the titular characters’ mythos they he can without messing up the film they wish to make. In other words, they don’t change things for entirely arbitrary reasons. Conversely, they aren’t afraid to make such alterations as are necessary. This in itself is a notable achievement. (Even if, perhaps, it shouldn’t be.)
Undoubtedly the most bizarre aspect of the film is that, even as he massacres people by the dozen, the film promotes Jason as the hero in his struggle against Freddy. The basis for this rather remarkable touch is that Jason’s evil was inspired by his being victimized himself as a child.
Freddy, in contrast, was evil even in his mortal life, being a notorious child murderer.Jason seems more a vessel for evil than evil himself, in marked contrast to Freddy. This strikes me as a bizarrely thin reed upon which to champion Jason in the title bout, and indeed, I’m not sure it’s entirely convincing.It is a unique idea, however.*[*On the other hand, is it fundamentally different from our intuitive reaction to the scene where Jason spits both an unconscious girl and the guy trying to date rape her, whereupon we experience more visceral satisfaction over his ‘punishment’ than horror over her double victimhood?]
Meanwhile, the filmmakers neatly extrapolate upon such traditional Jason elements as his relationship with his equally homicidal (if rather more mortal) mother, Mrs. Voorhees, and the fact that water has never really seemed to be Jason’s friend. The idea that there remains in Jason enough of the innocent child he once was to fear the water strikes me as unlikely. Still, the film posits it, and uses the idea to effect. By giving Jason even so minor a vulnerability, they invite the audience to emphasize with him.
At the same time, drawing Jason as still, in whatever tatters of his soul remain, the child he once was, naturally makes him a fitting figure of vengeance against Freddy. In the end, Jason can be read as the shade of all the children Krueger has preyed upon over the years. (Again, given Jason’s own handiwork in this area, I find the idea sort of hard to take seriously. Still, it’s a novel direction to take the characters, to be sure.)
Yu also unabashedly makes this film more of a comic book sort of entertainment, of the type suggested by the very question—”Who would win, Jason or Freddy?”—that presumably inspired the movie. (Actually, the picture was more likely inspired by the answer to the question, “Who would make more money, Jason or Freddy?”, which was, “Both of them together!”) Again, the early portion of the film seems dedicated to presenting the characters in situations representative of their earlier pictures. After that, though, the gloves are off and the film takes them where it wishes.
Of the two, Yu has more fun with Jason. This is clearest in a rather beautiful set-piece which finds Jason stumbling across a big teen hootenanny in a cornfield. Contrary to his normal propensity to work from the margins and pick people off in ones and twos, here Jason wades in with abandon, cutting kids down like so much, well, corn. (Of course, he does in fact ‘stalk’ some of them. Thank you, ladies and germs.)
Adding to the gloriousness of the sequence, somebody tries to stop Jason by soaking him in grain alcohol and setting him alight. Instead, a blazing Jason just continues his work, his trademark overlong machete now a flaming sword. Yu’s overhead shot of Jason weaving a trail of flames through the rows of corn he passes through is just brilliant stuff.
Whereas the film plays up Jason’s Terminator-like qualities, it likewise amps up Freddy’s evilness. When Freddy is introduced with a quick reprise of his origins, he is, for the first time, really a child murderer. Craven’s first set of victims in A Nightmare on Elm Street were also atypically young. I remember my friends and I being surprised when one sexually active victim was revealed to purportedly be but 15 years of age. This aspect of things was undercut, however, in the traditional fashion; by casting actors as much as eight years older than the characters they were playing.
Here, however, we open on the then still human serial killer Freddy slaying—off-camera, thankfully—a child actually played by a ten year-old. We then see Freddy’s scrapbook, and it is filled with pictures of similarly young victims. The same is true of the subjects of several ‘MISSING’ posters we later see, and as well as of the apparition of a young girl, her eyes bloodily hewn from her face, who visits Lori during her first nightmare.
Following this, Freddy falls back to bedeviling the much more typical older ‘teens,’ as portrayed by actors in their early to mid twenties. And you can see why. Having Freddy (and presumably Jason, although I don’t think kids are his bag) run around torturing and killing ten year-olds would be unbearable to watch. Yu gets his point across, and is more daring in doing so than even Craven was in his day, but even he must bow to convention. After all, he did ultimately mean this film as an entertainment.*[*Even so, I wonder if ten or fifteen or twenty years from now A Nightmare on Elm Street remake might go all the way with this. Back during the slasher cycle of the ’80s, as a veritable deluge of films sought nothing more than to deliver the most disgustingly gruesome and lovingly detailed deaths and mutilations possible, I thought horror movies couldn’t possibly become any more degraded.
As the recent torture porn wave has demonstrated, however, I was woefully naïve. With gore really having been taken about as far as it can possible go, perhaps the next stage of transgression will involve serving such fates upon little kids. It really does seem like just a matter of time.]
Yu doesn’t exploit our disgust over the victimization of children for cheap thrills, however. Explicitly portraying Freddy as a murderer of such patently helpless victims is meant to convey the quality that makes him so completely and thoroughly loathsome; he’s a bully in the very vilest sense. The more helpless his victims, the more pleasure Freddy receives from preying upon them.
As a mortal, Freddy sought out those victims least able to provide resistance. However, it is as a demon that he is truly in his element.Freddy stalks the human world like he’s playing a video game, one in which he has jacked up his avatar to god-like status by using every cheat code he could lay his hands on. And even then, Freddy still targets children. Freddy isn’t seeking a challenge; he has always reacted with rage on those rare occasions in which his will is even temporarily stymied.
This is the key difference between Freddy and Jason, and the most persuasive argument for positing Jason as even a slightly more benign character. Jason is an impersonal engine of retribution. For this reason, even Jason (as far as I know…Liz?) has never targeted little children.* I do recall one film where Jason was in a room surrounded by screaming little kids, but I don’t recall him actually menacing any of them.[*Ironically, however, at least in this movie, Jason as a kid drowns because he is hounded into Crystal Lake by a cruel swarm of his young peers. Even so, he and his mum turned their vindictive rage primarily upon surrogates for the horny teenage camp counselors who were too busy copulating to come to Jason’s aid.]
Unlike Jason, Freddy doesn’t kill and torture because he is compelled to. Quite simply, he enjoys it; and the bigger the edge he has on his victim, the greater his satisfaction.
All this sets up what is one of the greatest “Oh, shit!” moments in cinema history.When Lori succeeds in dragging Freddy into the real world, and Freddy realizes where he is—Camp Crystal Lake—and that he is now facing Jason sans the utter control he maintains over the Dreamworld, he nearly craps his pants. This isn’t because Jason can actually destroy him, even in the real world.(As we see in the end, he can’t.) Rather, it’s because the very last thing Freddy wants is to face someone who can actually put up an equal fight.
This is another interesting aspect of the movie. Although it isn’t commented upon, even in their respective realms of power neither Freddy nor Jason prove able to slay the other. This is first hinted at when Freddy at one juncture gets Jason into the Dreamworld by injecting him with a massive dose of tranquilizers.*[*Some will undoubtedly cry foul here, given Jason’s much demonstrated imperviousness to harm. There is a venerable tradition in monster movies, however, that beings otherwise physically invulnerable, such as the Frankenstein Monster, can still be at least temporarily brought down by drugs. Yes, this smacks of contrivance, but what are you going to do?]
Even while tossing the atypically powerless Jason around, however, Freddy reacts with characteristically enraged frustration at the fact that he can’t actually kill Jason, even here. “Why won’t you DIE?!!” he spleens. Although his session is interrupted by the arrival of Lori in the Dreamworld, it seems entirely possible that Freddy never would have been able to actually kill Jason, who eventually would have escaped back into the real world once the drugs wore off.
Similarly, even in the real world Freddy has much the better of it for the bulk of their final battle. (Credit Yu for this; he really delivers what the film’s title promises. The climatic fight scene is just about everything one could hope for.)
Freddy wreaks upon Jason devastation upon devastation. The problem is, it doesn’t matter. No matter what you do to Jason, you can’t kill him. And since this is the real world, Jason can actually issue punishment back. No matter how many times Freddy gets the upper claw, sooner or later Jason will return the favor.
Meanwhile, for all his still incredible power, the fact is that here in the real world Freddy isn’t a god. The film is smart enough to portray his essential clumsiness when fighting under conditions he doesn’t dictate. He’s so used to having everything set up to go his way that he makes mistakes just by dint of the fact that he’s now subject to the laws of cause and effect. Again, this is a fairly minor point, but like a lot of stuff, it’s something the film gets right.
Finally, let me congratulate the writers for having the chops to write Freddy effectively. Freddy is really meant to be a sort of perverse genius, with a supreme facility for getting into his victim’s heads. In this way, he’s a lot like Hannibal Lector; if you write him correctly, he genuinely seems terrifying. If you don’t, you end up just asking us to accept the idea of how dangerous he is, rather than making us believe it. (And kudos also to Robert Englund, who throughout the years has sold this a lot more capably than many another actor would.)
The dream sequences are filled with lots of the little details that Freddy, when written well, paints them with. Simultaneously, these touches function as fun little clues for those viewers playing the “When exactly are they dreaming?” game. For instance, when Kia starts dreaming in the hospital, you can figure it out a moment earlier than the rest of the audience if you spot the little sign at the nurse’s station reading, “SORRY The Nurse can’t help YOU.”
Indeed, the entire plot is predicated on the idea that Freddy is a thinker. That’s what allows him to formulate a working escape plan from Hell (while at the same time his hubris means the plan is ultimately flawed). Indeed, the warped subtext in which Freddy the Snooty Intellectual gets his ass kicked by blue collar jock Jason is remarkably amusing, even to a nerd like me. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing some prissy egghead take one in the kisser from Joe Average now and again?
On a similar note, praise also for the scriptwriters providing at least marginally credible and likeable teens, even if due to time constraints there are several stock types among them. These kids hardly represent the acme of teenage characters in the NOES movies (notably Craven’s, of course), but I’m sure they are heads and shoulders above most or all of the ones from the FTF series. Here when characters are killed, you actually care.*[*By the way, although I didn’t consider it when I horned in on Liz’s plans to review this movie, there is a pleasing and entirely apt symmetry in the fact that she basically came at this from the perspective of a Jason fan (albeit a critical one), whereas I approached it as a Freddy partisan. This schism of perspectives is one big reason I can’t wait to read her piece.]
For instance, Kia (and this is a trait we seldom see attributed to girls in movies) makes a sustained effort to get the virginal and ‘uptight’ Lori laid, assuming this is the elixir that will cure what ails her. This is why the guy Kia comes up with is so unappealing to Lori, who is actually the sort to look for a relationship first and physical intimacy later. Kia’s candidate for the job, to be blunt, is ‘cute’ and has a dick, and that’s all Kia can see as being important.
When Lori protests, “He’s not my type,” an annoyed Kia spits back, “Who is?!” Yet Lori has a much more appropriate suitor in the character of Linderman (he is a bit of stock nerd, but the actor playing him fleshes him out nicely). However, whenever Linderman approaches Lori, as he does at several junctures in the movie, a hovering Kia acidly shoos him off.
Seeing the world from only her perspective, she assumes Linderman is just trying to get into Lori’s pants—which, to be fair, is probably part of his motivation—and so disdainfully strives to cockblock him at every turn. To Kia, Linderman isn’t the type of guy you take home for a night to screw your brains out. As this is clearly what Lori ‘needs,’ Kia frankly doesn’t perceive any value in him. Thus Kia believes she is doing Lori a solid by acting as a good ‘wingman’ would.
So, let’s sum up. Kia is right that Lori needs to move on with her life, and cares enough to take action on making that happen, yet remains unperceptive enough not to understand how Lori would wish to go about that. If she did, Kia would see that Linderman is exactly the right sort of guy. Frankly, that mixture of perceptiveness and myopic ignorance is a fairly decent piece of writing. I mean, we’re not talking brilliance here, but it is at least deft.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter.Like a fairy tale, Will returns and Lori jumps right back into his arms. (On another note, Lori’s fixation on staying ‘true’ to both Will and her father, the latter of who she reflexively uses as an excuse not to date because “he needs me,” can be read as an entirely credible response to the emotional damage caused by the death of her mother years earlier.)
Meanwhile, as members of a small group fighting to save each other’s lives, Kia and Linderman start seeing past the labels with which they have pigeonholed the other—the Bitch and the Nerd, respectively—and even seem to start developing romantic feelings for one another.
This is a device that could have easily seemed wearingly rote (and the scene where Linderman calls out Kia and she starts to ‘get’ that there’s something there is a bit too obvious), but on the whole they pull it off. In the end, it’s actually kind of affecting, despite the miniscule amount of time they devote to it. Writers who can pull off narrative shorthand…the lack of them makes me weep.
There are also lots of bite-sized pleasures in the film.I particularly liked the scene where one character ends up holding his father’s decapitated head in his hands. (This being a state of affairs that occurs with some regularity in these things.) He then senses something, and turns to find Jason looming over him.When Jason raises his machete, the kid instinctively attempts to block the coming blow with his dad’s head. Needless to say, this proves ineffective.
More substantively, the film actually provides an entirely credible scenario for how and why Freddy and Jason would become involved in each other’s, uhm, lives. And, as they demonstrate, the filmmakers also understand that the purest moments of gratification provided by the NOES series were those in which Freddy gets his comeuppance. (For a nearly all-powerful dream demon, he’s certainly taken a lot of guff from 15 and 16 year old girls over the years.)
Thus when he finds himself confronting Jason on equal terms, Freddy exhibits sheer panic. In contrast, at least until Freddy discovers his (to me still somewhat unconvincing) fear of water, even in the Dreamworld Jason barely reacts to the punishment Freddy deals out with impunity. At best, Jason seems vaguely befuddled at his inability to destroy the person standing in front of him. Throughout his ordeal, Jason just stolidly absorbs punishment and continues trying to kill Krueger.*
(*It’s kind of interesting, but I don’t think Jason has really enough self-awareness to actually be said to be fighting Freddy. He’s just programmed to kill, and that’s what he keeps attempting to do there. In other words, I don’t think Jason ever has the goal of defeating Krueger, of winning over him. He just keeps trying to murder him. Taking into account both Jason’s literally essential doggedness and Freddy’s invulnerability in the Dreamworld, chances are their battle would go on forever if outside factors didn’t end it.)
Given Jason’s status as a thing rather than a person, Freddy is almost by default the story’s engine. Krueger is so used to exerting godlike control that when he hits upon a way around the Springwood conspiracy, he gloats at his own cleverness and just releases Jason. And indeed, his plan works beautifully.Jason kills at his direction, Freddy’s name again spreads through the populace, and he is restored to his full power.
The problem is Krueger naturally never paused to consider the ramifications of bringing Jason into things.Initially smug in his power, Freddy grows increasingly enraged when Jason refuses to get back into his box. Freddy screamingly calls Jason “a big, stupid dog who can’t stop eating, even though your master said you’ve had enough.” And that’s exactly how Freddy sees him. (At least until he ends up facing Voorhees on equal terms.)
Again, I realize I’m beating this point to death—however appropriate such an act may be under these circumstances—but it’s sadly atypical that the people making this film actually sat down and thought out who these characters were before proceeding. This is something you’d think would be obvious, but sadly history shows it is not so.
Take Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. (PLEASE!) (sorry) Following in the footsteps of James Cameron, the replacement director and writers undoubtedly gave a look at Cameron’s oeuvre, from which they managed to draw exactly the wrong conclusions.
See, all of Cameron’s sci-fi films—Terminator, Terminator II, and Aliens—presented a kick-ass female action heroine. So that obviously is what Terminator III should be about.
Well, guess what? They were morons. Cameron was setting up a story arc with the Terminator movies. In the end this wasn’t meant to be Sarah Connor’s story, it was to be John Connor’s. (From what I can tell, the new TV show, indeed named The Sarah Connor Chronicles, is making the exact same mistake.)
Remember how downright awesome it was when Sarah Connor escaped from that maximum security mental hospital in Terminator 2, starting only with a paperclip? (And boy, if that sequence isn’t a simply terrific example of characterization through action. Just the way Sarah methodically works her way up the weapon food-chain—from bare hands to busted broom handle to police baton and so on—is a veritable seminar in how to tell by showing.)
Well, whatever the once helpless Sarah had molded herself into since the events of the first film, it was nothing compared to what she had been forging her son to become since birth. Her mission was to program John into becoming a veritable survival and war machine (ironically enough), one designed to literally save humanity. Everything that Sarah had made of herself in a small number of years was meant to be dwarfed by what John would become.
All this completely escaped the makers of Terminator III. As noted, Sarah once broke out of a maximum security facility by, as a first step, lifting a paperclip. In contrast, the adult John gets locked in a dog cage while carrying in his pocket the world’s largest Swiss Army knife, and yet proves unable to extricate himself.
Again, the new guys completely missed the point of where Cameron intended things to go, despite the fact that is was, you know, pretty friggin’ obvious. Rather than making the franchise about John as intended, they superseded him with 5’5″ Claire Danes’ veterinarian-turned-instant-Rambo. Rather than letting the story progress, they instead just tossed elements from the first two films in the oven and (half) baked.
This explains the essential appeal Freddy vs. Jason has for me. In a better world, its strengths would be things we’d see in nearly all films. However, that is most definitely not the world we live in. Therefore we must cherish those simple pleasures we are afforded. In a minor sort of way, I therefore cherish this movie.
That said, there remains perhaps my favorite aspect of the film: the Springwood Conspiracy. In horror movies, there are certain rules. One is that conspiracies are always bad. They always do more harm than good, and the people behind them are invariably malign.
I’ve always loved the fact that things aren’t nearly so clean cut here. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t pretty up the conspiracy in the slightest. Will and Matt and seemingly dozens of other innocents have spent years illegally locked up in a mental institution and force fed Hypnocil, an experimental dream-suppressing drug. Hypnocil is, moreover, an explicitly dangerous drug. At one point we see an entire roomful of people who are in permanent comas due to being overdosed with it.
On the other hand, the conspiracy works. It has actually succeeded in keeping Freddy at bay for several years. Even Mark, who has every right to see himself as the victim of a gross injustice, exhibits borderline nausea when he realizes that by finally warning the world about Freddy—and speaking The Truth is nearly never wrong in movies—he has only helped to bring Krueger back into his power. “What if I screwed up the town’s plans?” he moans. And its notable that less than 24 hours after escaping from the institution, the Hypnocil has worn off enough to allow Freddy to dispatch Matt in a typically gruesome fashion.
The fact that the conspiracy works (at least until Freddy finds a way around it) doesn’t necessarily justify it, but it does raise the question of whether it justifies it. Lori’s father keeps a Dark Secret from her, and even tries to drug her with Hypnocil. Yet if he hadn’t, she would have died at Freddy’s hands long ago. Mark might have been leading a truly grim half-life at the Institute, but he was alive. And even the people who went into comas would have otherwise perished at Freddy’s clawed hand, as would many others beside.*[And although this particular film stays quiet on the question of whether Freddy exercises afterlife control over his victim’s souls, assuming he does, then a ‘normal’ death or even being in a coma would indeed be far preferable.]
Nearly every single movie that features a conspiracy forthrightly duns it as both malignant and incompetent. The classic example being that the military secretly orders up some blatantly retarded bioweapon, like flying killer piranha fish, that escapes and rampages through the country. It’s not just that the conspirators shrug off how dangerous their plans are, but that the plan are inherently so stupid that disaster seems inevitable from the start.
That’s how they are typically presented, anyway. Often, though, if you actually stop to think about said conspiracy, you begin to wonder if it might not have made a little sense, or at least proven effective if the filmmakers hadn’t so stacked the deck against it. Often it is the actions of the films’ ‘heroes’ to uncover the truth that directly lead to the ensuing carnage (Piranha, Man’s Best Friend, etc.), and yet usually the films will attach not a dram to blame to the heroes despite this.
In particular, what Freddy vs. Jason does with Lori’s father, Dr. Campbell, is fairly unique. Will’s fears for Lori after learning of the murder in her house actually are more specific than we originally believe. Lori’s mom had died years earlier, officially in a car crash. However, as he eventually reveals, Will had been sneaking up to Lori’s room one night and had seen Campbell killing his wife with a butcher knife.
In an ordinary film, things would have progressed in a straightforward line from there. Campbell would have indeed have killed Lori’s mom, presumably to protect the conspiracy. (And this would have involved making gigantic profits from Hypnocil, or ‘getting into the science books,’ or something of the like.) Will would have been locked up in the Institution solely to protect Campbell from exposure of his crimes. Lori, upon learning the truth, would in fact be in danger from her father, or at least his fellow conspirators, as well as from the villains. Freddy’s reappearance, in fact, would almost surely have been the result of Campbell’s experiments. Makers of modern horror movies apparently feel downright compelled to provide a human villain, no matter how much else is going on.
Astoundingly, none of this bears out here.
Campbell does indeed secretly have Will institutionalized (although it should be noted his room, shared with Mark, is pretty swank for a mental hospital) and kept drugged because the kid witnessed Lori’s mom being killed. However, all is not as it seems. Lori’s mom was actually killed by Freddy, and what Will saw and direly misconstrued was Campbell’s desperate but futile attempt to come to his wife’s aid.
If Will is locked up, it is presumably only because his witnessing all this meant he may have become aware of Freddy, and thus needed to be quarantined. Having lost his wife to Krueger—and given the history of the Elm Street film series, a pretty sizable percentage of everyone in town must have lost loved ones to Krueger over the years—Campbell’s taking such extreme measures seems entirely credible.
Now, one can argue that perhaps Campbell actually quarantined Will so as to silence a witness ready to accuse him of murder. However, that raises the question of what Mark’s parents were doing during all of this. While the film never even establishes that they exist, presumably (for obvious reasons) they do.
Probably the most horrific part of the conspiracy is that the kids locked up in the institution are presumably there with the knowledge and acquiescence of their own parents, in the same way parents might have to allow an infected child to be exiled from a plague town. Which, really, is exactly what Springwood is.This again is good writing: Campbell is a doctor, and his response to Freddy’s reign of terror is to establish infectious disease protocols. And guess what, it works.
And so, before everything is revealed, all we know is that the town elders have been guilty of putting into action a dark conspiracy of some sort. (By the way, this thus provides an actual reason for the kids not to go to the police. In a lot of films the lack of seeking aid from the authorities is patently just because the plot demands it. Here, there’s a logical explanation for it.)
The remarkable thing, however, is that the cabal’s seemingly malign efforts to cover up their conspiracy are not, as would normally be the case, aimed at protecting themselves. They are instead protecting as much of the entire town as they can. On a personal level, Campbell isn’t keeping Lori in the dark for his own sake. No, if she ever learned what is doing on, she’d instantly become vulnerable to Freddy. And not only would she surely die, but a potentially limitless number of others would too.*[*Were this still the cynical 1970s, this scenario might play out to its logical end. Lori would strive to learn the truth, she would finally achieve her goal, whereupon she and everybody else would die because of it. Again, though, this film is forthrightly a frothy entertainment—which I’m not by any means knocking—and thus things play more conventionally. The conspiracy works at first, but Freddy gets around it, and moreover brings Jason into play. Meanwhile, Lori stops the carnage for good (unless they make another movie) using the knowledge the conspiracy had attempted to deny her.]
In any case, I love that this movie doesn’t attempt to make your mind up for you. Instead, it presents you with two entirely horrific scenarios, and allows you to decide whether the town’s actions weren’t indeed the lesser of the two evils. That’s just great stuff, if only because the filmmakers extend towards the viewer a trust that we hardly ever receive.
Finally, it’s notable that they don’t kill off either of the known conspirators, Dr. Campbell and the Sheriff, to hamfistedly ‘punish’ them. That’s so rare these days that it is actually kind of mind-boggling. Just as rare is that the filmmakers perhaps understand that they have already been punished by the fact that the conspiracy in the end failed so completely, and resulted in so many deaths.
And aside from the professional ruin facing both men and the quite possible jail terms, Campbell does lose his daughter. Even after she learns the full truth, it’s hard to believe she’s just going to forgive him for all he’s done over the years.
Another thing the film does right is basic plotting. People make mistakes, but only ones that are reasonable based on what they know at the time. There’s a reason the kids don’t go to the cops. There’s a reason Deputy Stubbs comes to the kids with the information he’s gleaned on Jason. There’s a reason later in the film for the kids to break back into the mental hospital. There’s a reason for the kids to head to Camp Crystal Lake.
Once the plot device of Hypnocil is introduced, the film doesn’t simply forget about it. (Sadly, that sort of thing happens a lot.) The drug is a lynchpin for a lot of the backstory, and the film treats it with the importance it merits, rather than as a disposable MacGuffin. Both the kids and Freddy actually try to get to the main supply of drug; one to employ it, the other to destroy it.
Most pertinently, of course, there’s a valid motive for Freddy bringing Jason into the picture. They don’t bump into each other by accident (a girl from Elm Street who Freddy is after becomes a counselor at Camp Crystal Lake; comedy ensues), or something of that nature. Again, the point isn’t that this is some phenomenally brilliant movie. But it is sturdy and well-crafted, and again, that’s a depressingly rare thing these days.
I liked the fact that the kids actually sit down at one point to figure out what is happening, and to strategize how to deal with the situation. (You know, I really am starting to get depressed about how many seemingly elementary things this film does that so many others, including much more expensive movies, don’t.)
They put everything together—the conspiracy, Freddy’s reappearance, why Jason is on the scene—necessarily using suppositions, but the suppositions are entirely credible given what pieces of the puzzle they have. The kids are smart, and smarter in a group, but not too smart. WHY IS STUFF LIKE THIS SO RARE?!
The writers also make interesting and supportable extrapolations on things. They don’t just copy what they’ve seen in the earlier movies, but think out how and why things work and proceed from there. One character becomes vulnerable to Freddy not because he falls asleep and starts dreaming, but because he gets extremely stoned. This struck me as a pretty neat fillip on how Freddy’s access to the Dreamstate works.
Before I wrap this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more, seemingly elementary, thing the filmmakers do right here: this movie moves. Minus the seven-minute end credits, the running time is almost exactly an hour and a half, and the filmmakers use that leanness to their advantage.
Both Freddy’s entire backstory and his current plight are established within a couple of minutes. Following that, Jason is already stalking his first victim (albeit in a dream) before we’re even three minutes into things. Indeed, it’s exactly at the 3:00 mark that we get the first of our two utterly gratuitous breast shots. Now that’s efficiency. And amazingly, although the pace obviously doesn’t stay quite that torrid, there’s little or no wheel-spinning in the film. It’s remarkable (and annoying) how rare that is today, when seemingly every frickin’ movie has to last two hours or more.
Now, narrative speed can cover a multitude of sins. This isn’t the case here, though. Freddy vs. Jason is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s truly impressive how well it stands up to sustained scrutiny. There are a few weak points here and there, but I really worked over this film. I watched it afresh (probably a third or fourth viewing), then ran through it in segments. I wrote about it, which is one way I organize my thoughts on things.
I discussed the film with Liz (via e-mail, I mean), which also got me thinking about the movie from several fresh angles. I then watched it again scene by scene, and even after all that, the picture still pretty much holds up. And let’s admit, neither Liz nor I am novices at this game. I expect her conclusion will basically be the same as mine: considering the handicaps facing the filmmakers due to the very nature of the project, they really did just about as good a job as anyone could hope for.
Hopefully you read this piece before Liz’s, because frankly it’s not in either of our interests for you to have me follow that act. Even so, assuming we haven’t exhausted your patience, feel free to peruse Liz and my post-review discussion of the movie.