Thoughts on ‘Freddy vs. Jason’

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a habit of referencing Freddy vs. Jason as a go-to example of solid writing. So, for Halloween, I figured I’d delve a bit into why.

2003’s Freddy vs. Jason was the final film for both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, at least before the reboots began (though really, who’s counting those?). It also came after a fairly long hiatus for both of them: Friday had ended in 1993 with Jason Goes to Hell, then went through a failed revival effort with 2001’s Jason X (widely regarded as the single stupidest film of the series, and that’s saying a lot).Meanwhile Nightmare had ended in 1991 with Freddy’s Dead, then had a very strange and unsuccessful (though well-regarded) post-script with the meta-fiction New Nightmare in 1994.

Freddy vs. Jason very cleverly plays off this for its premise: both Freddy and Jason, in this film, are figures out of the past: Freddy’s stuck in Hell (the low-security wing for horror villains) and Jason’s body is rotting away in the woods. You see, Freddy has been forgotten by the children of Springwood (thanks to the quarantine-like efforts of the town elders), which means he can no longer haunt their dreams. No memory, no fear, no dreams, no Freddy.

But Freddy, being Freddy, figures out a weak point in their plan; Springwood is so vigilant against Freddy’s return that they will assume at any strange murders might be his handiwork. And if so, their response might just let him out for real. All he needs is another supernatural serial killer. Someone he can easily manipulate. Someone like Jason Voorhees.

Okay, so what makes me say the writing in this film is so solid?

In the first place, set up is pretty clever; it depends on both Freddy and the Springwood authorities being smart, but both their plans being flawed in a way that is obvious in hindsight, but reasonably overlooked. For Springwood, the problem is that they naturally didn’t consider the possibility of a second killer (and why should they?). And Freddy, of course, is too arrogant to consider the possibility that Jason might be harder to put down than he was to call up (we’ll come back to it, but Freddy’s slow realization that he’s drastically underestimated Jason is one of the film’s most satisfying aspects).

Moreover, this premise allows the film to neatly cover a few potential plot holes: the fact that the town authorities have engaged in a massive conspiracy to cover up Freddy’s existence, to the point of drugging and imprisoning those kids who are aware of his existence, means that when things start getting dangerous, the kids have a reason not to go to the police: they may not quite know what’s going on, but they do know the adults aren’t acting normally and that they can’t trust them.

There’s a scene partway through where the heroine, Lori, learns that her father had been lying to her about how her mother died (she’d been one of Freddy’s last victims), and that he was the one who committed her boyfriend, Will, to an insane asylum (because Will had seen the event and thus potentially knew of Freddy). Thus, when he tries to get her to stay home and take a drug he offers, she understandably refuses and runs away to try to deal with the problem herself. It’s a mistake, but one that makes absolute sense given what she knows.

The drug in question is hypnocil, a dream-suppressor that was introduced back in Nightmare on Elm Street III. The kids sent to the asylum have been getting nightly doses of it to help keep Freddy at bay, despite the fact that the film shows it to be dangerous in high doses (we see a ward full of patients who were overdosed into comas). The kids only figure out what it does after they’ve decided they can’t trust the adults, which leads them to make a deadly run to the asylum to try to get it, thus putting them into both Freddy and Jason’s paths once more.

So, the premise of the film is not only solid in itself (given the somewhat flexible rules of this universe), but also provides a solid reason why the kids can’t go to the authorities for help and a motivation to put themselves into harm’s way.

The use of hypnocil points to just how much respect the writers show to these franchises. The return of Jason’s mother Pamela (actress Paula Shaw gracefully replacing Betsy Palmer) is another example; Mrs. Voorhees hasn’t been seen since way back in Part 2. Moreover, this isn’t just fan service; it all serves the plot. How does Freddy control Jason? By impersonating the one person Jason loves and is obedient to. This not only works to move the story along, but actually helps to develop Jason’s character, from the rapt way he listens to ‘her’ to his wide-eyed fury when he realizes that Freddy’s tricked him (that her trademark blue sweater is now a Freddy-appropriate red is another mark of the filmmakers’ attention to detail).

As this indicates, the writers clearly took the time to sit down and work out just who these characters were before writing the film. This results in some really pretty startling scenes, such as the horrifying prologue where we see a pre-death Freddy slaying one of his child victims (off screen, thankfully), or the unexpected conclusion to their first fight in the dream world. Ultimately, the film is credibly driven by the contrasting personalities of its two stars, and they both consistently act in character throughout.

Again, it kind of amazes me that Jason, of all people, actually gets something like character development in this film. We get to see something of his relationship with his mother, a hint at how he views his murderous actions, and even a glimpse of him as a child (which, if I’m not mistaken, is the only depiction of his actual drowning in the whole series. Granted, it’s obviously a twisted, nightmare version, but still it’s interesting to finally see such a pivotal moment in the Friday the 13th ‘lore’). Actor Ken Kirzinger gives a really quite excellent performance using only his eyes and body language, so much so that I would even rank him above Kane Hodder as the best Jason portrayal. I also really like how, when we visit his shack in a dream, there’s a toy ukulele on his bed, pointing to his childlike nature (attention to detail again).

As others have pointed out, the fact that Jason is a kind of ‘child-man’ whose twisted mind remains as it was when he drowned at the age of eight and Freddy is explicitly a child murderer makes their showdown all the more satisfying. Here is one ‘child’ that Freddy can’t kill, and when he tries to bully him it comes back to bite him hard.

Robert Englund, of course, gets to ham it up one last time in his signature role, though his boisterous personality and bad puns are here leavened by his truly horrific actions. Again, almost the moment the film opens it let’s us know just what Freddy is, and it never lets us forget it for long. After being reduced to a clown in his later films, Freddy is back to being the monster he’s supposed to be. They also thought out the implications of his dream manipulation, allowing him to attack one character who, rather than falling asleep, simply gets thoroughly stoned (the scene has Freddy appear as a hooka smoking caterpillar; a nice touch).

On that subject, though the film aims at being pulpy, almost comic-book style entertainment, it also remembers that it’s supposed to be a horror film and makes a genuine effort to scare the audience. There are some great atmospheric shots here, especially whenever we’re around Crystal Lake, and some nicely constructed scares. Jason’s prologue, which is kind of a compression of the Friday the 13th formula, where a girl strips, skinny dips, then runs through the woods and gets killed, is quite exceptionally well-done and reminds us that yes, that formula can be effective. The nightmare sequences, especially one about the middle of the film, are likewise pretty darn frightening and, like in the olden days, capture the feel of a nightmare pretty well (for instance, there’s one where a girl tries to flee, only to find that the door she just entered through has turned into a solid wall).

Horror is a pretty simple effect to create, but it’s also very easy to spoil. Generally speaking, if you try to go too big with it or too over the top, you kill the effect (something Universal apparently failed to understand with its recent ‘Mummy’ remake, with disastrous effect). Halloween II is not three times as scary as Halloween because three times as many people died; quite the reverse. Freddy vs. Jason ups the ante some, but ultimately keeps itself within a reasonable frame; there’s no world or even city-level threat, it’s all a matter of these people and this community, and its most effective scares are the most focused.

Meanwhile, the human characters range from insufferable to excellent (though fortunately most of the insufferable one’s don’t make it out of the first act), but they are pretty much all decently written and at least believable, and you do root for them. Katherine Isabelle gives a particularly good performance, as does Chris Marquette. I also like how the film takes the time to actually let the characters mourn a little when their friends start dying. And how there’s a scene where the kids simply sit down, pool their information, and try to work out a plan for survival. And again, they never really do anything unbelievably stupid (well, the stoner deciding to get high in the middle of the raid on the asylum was monumentally dumb, but not unbelievably so). Again, the actions of the characters all – or at least almost all – make sense given what they know and who they are. They make mistakes, but understandable ones.

I really could go on and on; the running theme of the Past being dug up and brought to light, which is consistent with both franchises. The innumerable references and small details attesting to a knowledge of the franchise (like the sugar sack that one of the bullies pulls over young Jason’s head in his nightmare). The tonally appropriate humor (my favorite being Freddy referring to Jason as “That hockey puck”). And of course the immensely satisfying fight sequences, the last of which is preceded by the wonderful moment where Freddy realizes he’s been pulled into the real world directly in front of an enraged Jason Voorhees. You will never see a finer rendition of the expression “Oh, crap!”

Also, since I just saw Cabin in the Woods, I have to point out that the black humor here is far superior. Black humor, to my mind, is when the absurdity of life suddenly intrudes upon a grim situation. Like, there’s a bit where a kid ends up holding his father’s severed head. Then Jason appears and swings his machete at him, and the kid instinctively (and ineffectually) tries to block the blow with his dad’s head. It’s quick, it’s ridiculous, and it completely fits the scene.

Now, let me be clear: Freddy vs. Jason is no classic. It’s simple, pulpy entertainment, and it has plenty of flaws (among others: the asylum is ridiculously easy to break out of and into, the CG does not hold up well, and several of the actors among the kids are pretty bad). It’s very vulgar, very crude, and definitely not for everyone. And I’m not even that big a fan of the two franchises (for the record, the original Nightmare is one of my favorite horror films, so much so that I don’t really want to see any of the others, and though I’ve seen several Friday films, I don’t think I’d recommend any of them).

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite films simply for how solid the writing is. All the more so because this is exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to have a rushed or incompetently done script. This is the kind of movie where you expect the phrase “who cares?” to have been used a lot during production, the kind that would attract the contempt of those who worked on it.

But it didn’t. The filmmakers took these franchises seriously, treated them with remarkable respect (indeed, far more than they deserved), and put genuine effort into making a good film, one that is not only satisfying in itself, but actually manages to restore some dignity to the long-moribund franchises, just in time for them to end and allowing both to go out on a high note.

It is especially useful in contrast to the recent entries in, say, Star Wars, where the most prestigious film franchise of them all is treated with utter contempt by writers who can’t even muster the most basic level of storytelling competence. When we say we want a well-written film, one that respects what has come before while nevertheless building on it, one that holds together under scrutiny and evinces real care for the material, we’re thinking of something like Freddy vs. Jason.