13 Fridays is a 13-week look at the entirety of Friday the 13th series, starting on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, and running through Halloween 2021. It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week features an essay about one of the Friday the 13th films in chronological order, written by new and regular Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts.
“It’s like this. We live in claustrophobia. A land of steel and concrete. Trapped by dark waters. There is no escape. Nor do we want it. We’ve come to thrive on it … and each other. You can’t get the adrenaline pumpin’ without the terror, good people. I love this town.”
These are the first words of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, spoken by a disembodied voice amid images of New York in a wind-up to Metropolis’s “The Darkest Side of the Night” over the credits. It’s a bit like hearing Allen Ginsberg weave in and out of the Clash’s “Ghetto Defendant” if it were a goofy D.A.R.E. ballad encouraging kids to not abuse drugs.
Who’s saying those words? Beats me. Who wrote them? Presumably writer-director Rob Hedden, although that’s hardly a given considering the rest of this script. To whom are the words being said? Who knows.
Let’s speculate. It’s a radio transmission from a Big Apple booth several years ago in the dead of night. A clear night. One so free of cloud cover that this sinewy snippet slinked its way all the way through the skies to a small shack somewhere at Camp Crystal Lake where Jason Voorhees was sitting in front of a radio. Let’s say it’s sometime before Friday the 13th Part 2 and Friday the 13th Part III, when Jason didn’t always end his movies at the bottom of the lake.
At that point, Jason’s homicidal impulses were still exciting and undiscovered. He didn’t even have his burlap sack yet let alone his hockey mask. But as my colleague Andrew Kimmel suggested, all that evisceration and exsanguination can really drain a guy. Perhaps that slice of seductive big-city solicitation stuck in Jason’s brain, its appeal supernaturally resurrected right along with his nigh-crustacean body in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
Manhattan. The Muppets took that joint. It’s got to be relaxing. Ah, but there are always so many dumb teenagers and useless adults to kill. What is true for you and me is also true for supernaturally endowed murderers: The workload is always largest before you take time off.
As the last of its original run, Jason Takes Manhattan represents a unique turning point for the franchise before it fell into various states of canonical discontinuity, including a cockfight novelty and a confident remake from which nothing further came. It’s pretty boring for a slasher movie. Case in point: Jason sinks a scalding sauna stone into someone’s solar plexus and you will not care one whit. As a movie about the terrifying rites of passage that revolve around what happens to you after high school, well … it’s not bad.
In that opening montage, what is supposed to resemble a spooky place for all milquetoast whitebreads (like the majority of Voorhees victims) could instead become Jason’s playground. That title song plays out over images of a businessman robbed in an alley, his wallet tossed into a fat barrel of sludgy waste in which a rat emerges from near-drowning. One heroin junkie shoots up WITH ANOTHER NEEDLE STILL INJECTED while his friend liquefies his hit with a symbolic candle. Even the natural phenomenon of steam emerging from a manhole is supposed to be scary … to us, that is. This feels like Jason lovingly thumbing the brochure. Of course, he’ll have to get there first. So he hitches a ride on the Lazarus, which is not at all a stupid name for a leisure luxury vessel. It’s ferrying a bunch of idiotic high-school graduates from Lakeview High School on a celebratory cruise to New York. “This voyage is doomed!” screams the deckhand (Alex Diakun), echoing Crazy Ralph from the earlier films. You don’t say.
The Lazarus has shuffleboard and skeet shooting to enjoy amid the, uh, majestic mountains of New Jersey; it’s always fun to watch a movie that makes you feel better about your geographical knowledge. There’s also no small amount of juicy-stupid melodrama onboard. Props to Warren Munson, who plays Admiral Robertson. He plays so very straight a moment of paternal disappointment when his “captain” son Sean (Scott Reeves, resembling a Haim-haired Ryan Reynolds) rejects his birthright of nautical leadership. Who wouldn’t want to captain a ship where drunks will throw shrimp at you for the rest of your life?
Rennie (Jensen Daggett) is the orphaned aquaphobic niece of blowhard Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman), a biology teacher and class chaperone who resembles a Columbo murderer and / or 700 Club host and who will take no guff from these kids. When Rennie catches Tamara (Sharlene Martin) and Eva (Kelly Hu) bumping a line of cocaine, Tamara concocts a plot to push Rennie overboard and sexually blackmail Mr. McCulloch as a way of avoiding trouble. Caught up in all of this is would-be music video director Wayne (Martin Cummins), who has an unrequited crush on Tamara; he even gets his own Scotty J. moment a la Boogie Nights.
Most of these folks die before anyone gets to Manhattan. After a while, the nail-filing indifference to Jason’s kills starts to feel intentional. Admiral Robertson dies in the most depressingly bloodless throat-slitting you’ll ever see. Wayne gets thrown onto a live-voltage bed of electricity. It will make you look, but they did that sort of thing in The Lost Boys a couple of years earlier.
Jason is tired of this shit, man. And it’s got him thinking.
His mom, Pamela, messed him up by attaching him to a lifelong legacy of murdering ignorant teenagers. Admiral Robertson messed up Sean by insisting that he become a legend of the seas rather than pursue his own dreams. Charles messed up Rennie by pushing her into the water to face her aquaphobia and establishing a psychic connection between her and Jason that is now manifesting in weird visions aboard the Lazarus that even Rennie’s dog, Toby, can see. It’s a tangled web. The Greatest Generation really screwed up a lot of their kids, didn’t they?
If they can survive this voyage of the Lazarus, to what can the 1989 Class of Lakeview High School look forward? A lifetime of workplace drudgery. It’s certainly made Jason anxious about the future. At one point, he can’t even perform. It takes a lot of work to off Suzi (Tiffany Paulsen), a topless girl whom he initially misses with a harpoon. Once he does, the whispering soundtrack says “You did it!” like a malevolent middle-manager pushing Jason back to productivity.
Maybe Jason just wants to quit. Maybe he just wants to commandeer the boat and disappear forever up the Eastern Seaboard. Anyway, it’s a very slow boat to New York, friends. It’s 64 minutes before anyone sets foot in Manhattan. Because this is the franchise’s only installment with a triple-digit runtime, there are still plenty of moments to spend on mean streets that, like the waters to get there, aren’t actually in New York. (Thank you, Canada, for your comparatively cheaper docks and back alleys.)
Once there, the movie presents Jason Voorhees’ Punch-Out, truly one of the series’ best kills and, to boot, its finest bit of extended comic timing — made even better by Jason actor Kane Hodder’s insistence that actor V.C. Dupree actually strike him in such flailing futility. There’s also the neocon nightmare of a hapless young white woman abducted for a session of forced drug ingestion and potential sexual assault. And in one of few actual scenes in Times Square, well … I’d like to think the guy exiting the subway station without pants was not a paid extra.
Look, if Paramount Pictures really wanted Jason Takes Manhattan to be some kind of goopy and gory gonzo epic in which Jason slaughters everyone in the borough, they would’ve hired William Lustig and everybody would love this one the way they love Jason Lives. Instead, they hired whoever Rob Hedden was. It’s an enjoyably nutty and overblown embodiment of youthful fear and anxiety … that also reveals Jason’s face to resemble a PG-13 version of Boo Berry.
One admirable aspect of the Friday franchise was its understanding that 80% — if not more — of each new installment’s respective audience was seeing a Jason movie for the first time. There were always newly minted 17-year-olds able to buy a ticket on their own or industrious pre-teens able to sneak in undetected. The Friday films feature plenty of “previously on” moments. Jason Takes Manhattan focuses a bit more on the coming attraction, as it were.
When Jason drowns mean Mr. McCulloch in a barrel of toxic sludge, you notice: That rat from the opening credits is dead now. The rat didn’t make it. Statistically speaking, you won’t, either. You can only live it up with garish dance parties and below-deck fight clubs for so long, kids.
In its own way, Jason Takes Manhattan represents graduation, too, from the glory days of Jason’s low-budget reign to some randomized revivals of IP whenever the accountants thought it made sense. The film doesn’t say much, but think of what it does say as the sobering graduation speech. Not the one from the valedictorian, salutatorian or even the class president. But from Jason. The slasher who somehow made it out of the 1980s with eight movies, none of which is entirely terrible. The kid with perfect attendance. The one who showed up every day to school and who’s gonna keep showing up every day to work. The one seduced by the promise of time away who wound up having to answer messages from his day job anyway.
That’s life. That’s death. That’s Jason Voorhees. How’s that for your rite of passage?