Film Review: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

Manhattan
Another cool poster. Let’s hope it delivers on the conceptual premise (Jason Voorhees with a machete over Manhattan) and its tagline, “New York has a new problem.”

Okay, I have to admit, when I knew I would eventually dig deep into the Friday the 13th franchise, this was the film I was most looking forward to revisiting. Yes, I’m a masochist to a lot of people considering I’m talking about 1989’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. But as a kid and teenager, this was easily my favorite Friday the 13th film! I’ve always been a fan of taking something out of its usual element and plugging it in somewhere else. For example, as pro wrestling fan, I always loved when the wrestlers would fight somewhere other than in the ring. It was exciting! So the idea here of seeing Jason Voorhees in Manhattan, and out of the woods, was exciting. I don’t know if it’ll hold up as well in my imagination once I actually get down to watching it (the previous installment fell a bit short in that regard), but for now, I’m excited.

So, we’re back to short turnarounds: We’re only 14 months removed from the Jason vs. Carrie movie, as I’m going to keep calling it now. This also marks the last film in the franchise to come out in the 1980s, and also the last to be distributed by Paramount Pictures until the 2009 remake.

Once again, the conceit is that this would be the “final film” in the franchise. I don’t know why they keep trying to end it; why bother!

Sitting in the director’s chair and behind the typewriter (I assume they’re still using those in the late 1980s, at least) is Robert Hedden. This was his first feature film. That blows my mind. I wonder what the studio thinking is there? It’s an eighth film in a franchise, so let’s get any cheap Joe Schmo or am I being cynical, and it’s more like, let’s get some “new blood” (puns) and see how they can re-imagine this franchise? Well, Hedden certainly did. At least one critic, Leonard Maltin, called it the best film in the series, “imaginatively directed and written.”

Otherwise, all I know Hedden from is that he also helped to write 2007’s The Condemned, starring one of my favorite professional wrestlers, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Randy Cheveldave is credited as the producer. Producers won’t get notable again until the next film, spoiler alert.

“The biggest thing we could do with Jason is to get him out of that stupid lake where he’s been hanging out.” Hedden said.

I’m not sure I like Hedden anymore. I don’t think a fan of the franchise would call it a “stupid lake.” That seems too dismissive for my tastes. That said, the two concepts he had of wanting to do a claustrophobic movie with Jason Voorhees confined to a cruise ship of some sort, and then also taking a big city (and eventually combining both ideas), is, again, something I find appealing.

At the time it was produced, Wikipedia says this was the most expensive film in the franchise with a $5 million budget, which makes sense given they did filming in New York City’s Times Square and in Los Angeles. That’s a double-whammy of expensive. Because of that expensiveness, I’m not sure they are going to be able to deliver too much on the premise of the film in terms of “taking Manhattan.”

The other crazy thing to go back and watch (and I had never seen this until tonight) is Kane Hodder, as Jason Voorhees again, going on the Arsenio Hall Show to promote the film. This is similar to what Robert Englund, as Freddy Krueger, was doing around this time, too. The talk show was only seven-months-old at that point.

The 1980s, man. Obviously, it’s played for laughs because Jason Voorhees doesn’t talk. It’s so awkward, weird and surreal.

In front of the camera, apparently Jensen Daggett, who plays the “final girl” Rennie Wickham, beat out Elizabeth Berkley and Pamela Anderson, both of whom auditioned for the role. It’s hard to imagine either of those two in a Friday the 13th film, admittedly. Interestingly, Lisa Willcox, who played Alice in two Nightmare films, including 1989’s Dream Child, which came out about a month after this, turned down the role.

The only other thing I know Daggett from is that she played Nancy Taylor, the sister-in-law of Tim Taylor, on one of my favorite 1990s sitcoms, Home Improvement.

For once, we do have someone making their film debut on the cast who would go on to actually be well-known in Hollywood: Kelly Hu, who plays Eva Watanabe. She’s done way too many movies and TV shows for me to list, but I probably liked her on CSI: NY in the mid-2000s because I loved that show.

And as I mentioned, Hodder is back as Jason Voorhees.

Rennie

The Amazon synopsis reads, “The Big Apple’s in big trouble, as indestructible psycho-fiend Jason Voorhees hits the road to New York City – and paints the town “red.”

Whoever is writing these needs a raise, but they’re seemingly wrong that Jason Voorhees “hits the road” since he gets to New York City on a ship.

One other item notable about the film before I start watching: It’s about 100 minutes, which is 10 to 15 minutes longer than any other film in the franchise up to this point. What’s wild is that the original cut of the film was about two hours. Whoa. They shot a lot of footage.

They set the tone right away that this is going to be a different Friday the 13th film: We open on New York City (with a rather dull opening title sequence), and this is the seedy, underbelly version of New York City, which given it was 1989, probably wasn’t too far off. The city wasn’t exactly what it is today quite yet. There’s even a mugging shown to really establish the crime element. And even though it’s still 1989, this is the first film of the series that doesn’t feel like the 1980s anymore: This feels distinctly … ’90s. Which, I suppose makes sense, given that the timeline of the series puts us somewhere in the late 1990s.

Remember in the last film review how I was razzing the film for having kids continue to come back to Camp Crystal Lake despite all the murdering going on? Jim Miller, played by Todd Caldecott, at least acknowledges that, “Hey, uh, we’re in a boat on the water where those murders happened,” to paraphrase. So that’s good, even if he relents at the end and says they’re “just stories.” They use Jim as a plot device to give us the usual flashback on Jason Voorhees drowning as a boy, which seems like it’s going to be an image we return back to again and again.

I think it makes some sense, to be fair, to relegate the murders to “just stories.” Treating Jason Voorhees as Frankenstein means that his deeds have become more myth than reality in people’s heads.

Now, even though he’s Frankenstein-esque, I love that after Jason Voorhees is resurrected again, he comes across like a total swamp creature. It’s a great, squishy effect and visual. The swamp creature is able to find his way to the SS Lazarus, which is setting sail for New York City with the graduating senior class from Lakeview High School. We even get a deckhand who is the new “Crazy Ralph,” warning everyone of Jason Voorhees (in so many words), “This voyage is doomed.” Perhaps they wouldn’t come across so “crazy” if they were less vague! Then again, even being specific, people think of those stories as … just stories.

Jason in Manhattan

Too bad J.J. Jarrett, played by Saffron Henderson, was one of the first to get killed. She was a fun character, as a rock ‘n roll chick with a leather jacket and bangs that shielded her eyes. She just wants to rock out and make an MTV music video. Come on, Jason Voorhees! He even kills her with her own guitar adding insult to injury.

I also love that they continue the theme of dogs getting the heck out of dodge when Jason Voorhees is around. First, Gordon in the fourth film, and now Toby (played by Ace), Rennie’s dog, runs away, too. Good dog.

The thing with Rennie in this one, aside from not being able to find her dog and I assume being a writer (she’s gifted a Stephen King pen in the beginning of the film!), is that she’s afraid of the water and having visions of Jason Voorhees as a kid drowning. That gets tested when Tamara Mason, played by Sharlene Martin, erroneously thinking Rennie had ratted her and Eva out for doing drugs, pushes Rennie off the ship and into the water. While under water, Rennie sees young Jason Voorhees tugging on her leg, trying to hold her down. The chivalrous Sean Robertson, played by Scott Reeves, jumps overboard to save her.

Afterward, she goes to clean up in the bathroom, and the water turns to blood, and young Jason Voorhees lunges through the mirror to get her. It’s almost like you can see the Nightmare influence on the Friday the 13th franchise! (I’m being sarcastic, I can’t imagine that hasn’t influenced the series.)

A sad sap only listed as Other Boxer, played by David Jacox, gets a sauna hot stone to the stomach in a rather brutal scene.

Jeez, that’s the first “jump scare” (and this franchise doesn’t use a whole lot of them) to get me, when Jason Voorhees smashes his arm through the door to get at Tamara. I jumped! In that moment, Martin actually plays the fright and terror of Jason Voorhees coming at her with a shard of glass so well to where you feel bad for Tamara despite all the underhanded things she’s been doing prior to that moment. Well-done.

All I hear from Jason Voorhees (if he could speak that is) during third of this film on the ship is (at about the one minute, 20 second mark):

One thing I will criticize is that when you’re on a ship and come upon dead bodies, the best thing for everyone onboard the ship to do is TO NOT GO OFF ON THEIR OWN. What are you people thinking?! Even if it was a “normal” killer and not supernatural and superhuman Jason Voorhees, that would be the smart play. Stay together in one room. When all the boys get gung-ho about going after the killer and collect weapons, they also split up! It’s maddening. Later, when they are in New York City, Charles McCulloch (played by Peter Mark Richman), Rennie’s uncle and the chaperone of the trip, even explicitly says, “I think we’ll be more productive if we split up.” No! No, you won’t. Stop that.

Stephen King to the rescue! Rennie gets attacked by Jason Voorhees, and to fend him off, she grabs her trusty Stephen King pen and stabs him through the eye with it.

So I get it. A lot of people were frustrated with what they felt was a misleading title for the film (Jason Takes Manhattan) because in a 100-minute movie, we don’t see the Statue of Liberty and New York City until nearly 64 minutes in. But again, budget constraints, and I personally enjoyed seeing a different environment with Jason Voorhees on a ship. They should have titled the film: Jason Takes Titanic … Some of Manhattan.

And to be honest, Hedden’s ideas, if he had the budget to film more in New York City, are awful. He basically was going to have Jason Voorhees interacting with every possible famous landmark in the area. No. The idea of thrusting Jason Voorhees into New York City is great, and enough. You don’t need to literally put him up against the backdrop of every landmark. That’s way too on-the-nose and would’ve been silly.

(Also, they don’t explain how Jason Voorhees also made it to Manhattan. They did all that setup, which was necessary, to show how he got to Manhattan via a ship, but then the actual jaunt from the ship to Manhattan, it’s just, “Oh, well, the dude swam 20 miles.”

Still, the 30-some minutes we do get to spend in New York City are some of my favorite scenes of the entire franchise! Yes, I said it.

In the third film, I complained about the look of the gang bangers. Sad to report, the gang bangers in this film also look silly and non-threatening. But at least we get chivalrous … Jason Voorhees? Saving Rennie from the gang bangers.

One of my all-time favorite scenes and “kills” in the franchise occurs when Julius Gaw (played by Vincent Craig Dupree), a champion boxer at the high school, tries to go toe-to-toe with Jason Voorhees … in a bit of fisticuffs. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of this franchise and other franchises, I always love the visual of someone gutsy (and honestly, stupid) enough to go toe-to-toe with one of these slasher icons. To be fair to Julius, in the prior scene, Jason Voorhees was shot like nine times by a gang banger and barely flinched. When Julius starts throwing haymakers, Jason Voorhees is flinching! He packs a punch! Exhausted, Julius stops punching and tells Jason Voorhees, “Take your best shot, motherf*cker!” So, Jason Voorhees grabs him by the collar, and with one punch, PUNCHES JULIUS’ HEAD CLEAN OFF. It’s insane and silly because there’s no realistic way that’s possible, no matter how powerful your punch is, but it’s one of my favorite scenes and “kills” in the franchise.

Even just seeing Jason Voorhees interact with New York City police (even though the officer was a bumbling fool) was fun.

We get a flashback to Crystal Lake (which is sure to please those already annoyed with how short the New York City part of the film is) where we learn why Rennie is afraid of the water. It’s because Charles, who has been a jerk the entire film, is unsurprisingly also a jerk back in the day. He tells Rennie that she doesn’t want to be like Jason Voorhees, unable to swim and drowning, and that, in fact, he’s still at the bottom of the lake. He then throws her into the lake like the monster that he is. No wonder she’s not only scared of the water, but having nightmare flashes of seeing Jason Voorhees as a boy. That’s good characterization for her character though.

“Better swim Rennie before Jason pulls you down!” – Charles, a monster

rennie2

The metaphor is strong with Jason Voorhees, as he drowns Charles in a barrel of toxic waste, much to the cheers of everyone watching.

Another one of my favorite scenes is when Jason Voorhees chases Rennie and Sean through the New York City subway because you never see Jason Voorhees in that setting, and more importantly, you never see him around that many people at once. In virtually every other instance in the franchise, Jason Voorhees is coming upon one, maybe two people, at any given time and killing them. To see him in the presence of dozens of people is a great visual.

Speaking of, another great shot is when Sean jumps on Jason Voorhees, sending him into the subway track, and electrocuting him. Also, just that visual of Jason Voorhees in Times Square (legitimately, they shot it there) is fun.

Then when Jason Voorhees kicks over the stereo of a bunch of “street urchins” and they get upset (popping out knives), Jason Voorhees turns around, lifts up his mask and shows off his maggot-face. They run in terror. I always loved that as a kid/teen, too! He didn’t even bother trying to kill them.

I keep saying this, but that’s what I meant when I said some of my favorite scenes of the franchise occur in the last 30 minutes of this film, but … another great scene! Rennie and Sean dash to a diner, Jason Voorhees bursts through, and a New York cook, as Ken Kirzinger is billed, comes steaming-mad out of the kitchen to confront Jason Voorhees, full of piss, vinegar and New York City swagger. He’s a big guy, too. … Jason Voorhees easily disposes of him by tossing him a good 10 feet. Also interestingly enough about this is that Kirzinger would go on to play Jason Voorhees in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason! Jason-on-Jason action here!

Who knew toxic waste was darn near fatal to Jason Voorhees? He’s staggering like a drunk after Rennie hit him in the face with it.

urchins

Right before the sewer tunnel floods, Jason Voorhees vomits water out of his mouth, and apparently, Hodder legitimately vomited water out of his mouth on command. Gross, but I respect that. It’s … wait for … a great visual!

My question now is, how does Jason Voorhees get back to Camp Crystal Lake?

We also get three survivors at the end: Rennie and Sean, of course, but also Toby! Toby stayed out of dodge from Jason Voorhees. Good dog.

As I mentioned at the top, this was the most expensive Friday the 13th film at the time at $5.1 million, but it only brought in $14.3. I mean, again, it’s still making money, but the franchise is nowhere near where it was a few years prior.

This could be it’s own blog post, but 1989 was not just the end of a decade, but something of a nadir for the three horror icons: This film, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, all came out this year, and all disappointed at the box office, among critics (of course), and among fans.

I’m prepared to die on this hill, but this is one of my favorite films of the franchise. No, it’s still not better than the best of the franchise, but for pure fun? Heck yeah. Seeing Jason Voorhees in an urban environment, as opposed to the woods, was a thrill for me as a kid, as a teenager, and now as an adult. And now as an adult, I even love the boat scenes more. My main criticism of the film is that some of the characters are stupid (splitting up), and that it is a tad long. About 85 to 90 minutes is the sweet spot for a Friday the 13th movie; there’s no need to go longer than that. Even though it’s only 10 minutes extra, you can feel those 10 minutes.

Critics also make a good point I didn’t even pick up on in watching the film. There’s a great deadpan humor with the New York City scenes: The diner patrons, the subway riders, and those walking the streets don’t even care about Jason Voorhees. He’s just another weirdo in New York City. That’s amusing and played well.

Overall, if you haven’t checked this out in a while, and you go into it with the right expectations, this is a fun film. I would argue that, compared to the previous installment, this one did hold up in a re-watching to what was in my imagination.

Jason10

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