Monday, 8 November 2010

JASON IN SPAAAAAAAAACE!



There will be spoilers and there will be blood!

The days are long at the Famous Monsters Retirement Home, but it’s the evenings that stretch on forever as the assorted ghouls and creatures cluster around the TV, all harbouring in their rotten hearts the forlorn hope that some obscure channel may rerun of one of their movies in the dim watches of the night, and maybe, just maybe new fans will be created and one day, one glorious day, there will be enough demand for a return to the silver screen…

And Jason wasn’t happy. He’d been here for years, freaking years now; so long in fact that now the Old Boys, even that stuck up Count, who had been so hostile when he’d first washed up here were looking upon him with sympathetic eyes. And while he’d been delighted that his great rival, Krueger had wound up here too, the warm fuzzy glow of schadenfeude had long since paled, as now if was ever to escape this genteel hell it would be for their long promised, but never materialising Freddy Vs. Jason. Their fates were now bound together and furthermore they were both united in their anger that that Shatner faced goon Myers kept on getting released time and time again. It just wasn’t fair dammit, and there’s only so many times an undead psychopath can visit the Giant Radioactive Monster petting zoo…

Then after nearly nine years since the disastrous Jason Goes To Hell, the call at last came. There was a new script in the offing and much to his pointy fingered friend’s chagrin it wasn’t a treatment for their epic clash. A young writer called Todd Farmer had pitched a concept to New Line, a fresh film that would bring Jason back to the movie goers’ attention while Freddy Vs. Jason writhed on Development Hell…

Now hang on, had he heard this one before? Jason was sceptical and made sure he asked all the right questions this time… Would there be young scantily clad fools to slay? Yes? Ok, but did he actually get to do the slaying? Yes? Great! What? It’s set in space? Well as long as he wasn’t demoted to a demonic slug again, what the hell!

So then in 2002, just shy of a decade since his last taste of freedom, Jason X rocketed onto our screens. Well actually ‘rocketed’ is going a bit far – meandered onto them briefly and quickly off again is nearer the mark judging by the dismal box office takings. This movie saw the lowest takings of any of the Friday 13th series, just managing to claw a meagre couple of million in profits worldwide.

So what went wrong? Now the obvious answer is that the film was ghastly beyond belief, and it is true that Jason X was panned by the critics. However this is largely par for the course for a Friday 13th flick – indeed given the outsider status of horror films, a bad review from a mainstream critic is almost a badge of honour. However the movie wasn’t exactly keenly embraced by the Friday faithful.

Essentially before anyone had even seen Jason X, the film had three big hurdles in its path. Firstly the name – although the committed horror fans would know that this was the latest instalment of the Friday 13th series, New Line didn’t actually have the rights to that title and be able to label it clearly as “part 10”. There had been the same problem with the last movie but at least they got “The Final Friday” in the title. Now as we all know branding is important, and although they couldn’t use the franchise’s name I think a better title could have been found. The problem is that by 2002, an X in your title would not make the causal movie goer think of roman numeral but the recent box office smash X- Men (2000) or The X Files TV series. And with a poster design featuring a fairly unrecognisable Jason – seriously just look at him, he looks more like a lump of coal than sporting the iconic hockey mask - and looking very sci-fi flavoured you can understand why people may well have assumed that this was some knock-off cash-in rather than the latest adventures of Mrs Voorhees’ little boy.

Secondly I can quite understand that having suffered through the somewhat lacklustre Part VII – The New Blood, the appalling Jason Takes Manhattan and the misbegotten Jason Goes To Hell, even hardcore fans of the series were reluctant to spend their hard earned on a ticket for this movie; I imagine “I’ll catch it on cable or maybe rent it” was the battle cry of the all but the most committed fans. And if the last two flicks in the franchise hadn’t kicked all expectations into the gutter, our final third factor was guaranteed to plunge them into the sewers…

Basically setting the movie in the future was widely received as a sign that the movie would be awful and that it was time to unplug the life support systems on the series. Back in 1996, Hellraiser: Bloodline took the Pinhead and the Cenobites into the starry void, and this fourth entry was such a mess that Alan Smithee ended up directing and was the last film in the series to receive a theatrical release. Similarly a year later, the already gone straight to video series Leprechaun squeezed out a further helping of Oirish slashings by sending the wee fellow into space with the imaginatively titled Leprechaun 4: In Space. You see, in the world of horror, space isn’t the place where no can hear you scream, it’s where franchises go to die; a portent that all the ideas are exhausted and somehow pairing your villain up against spacemen and robots is going to get the creative juices flowing again… And if you really believe that, may I interest you in some magic beans?

So then with all this against the movie before a soul had seen a single frame, it’s hardly surprising the film fared so poorly. Now of course some would say that there is a fourth factor to consider; that Jason as a character had simply lost his appeal. However considering that little over a two years later Freddy Vs Jason made profits in the hundreds of millions, it’s clear there was still an big appetite for everyone’s favourite psychopathic slaphead.

Admittedly Freddy Vs Jason was a better flick but although Jason X is still something of a divider of fan opinion, it’s fair to say that his interstellar antics are a dramatic improvement on the previous few entries in the franchise. And weirdly enough, it appears Jason X plays very well to non Friday 13th fans – I’ve met numerous people who in general have no time for slasher films but thought this entry in the series was a hoot.

And I’d have to agree - Jason X is marvellously silly fun. While it never quite exploits the knowing ironic humour as well as Scream, or ever be held up against An American Werewolf in London or Shaun of the Dead in the bestest horror comedy ever stakes, this movie is very entertaining. It doesn’t quite capture the mix of horror and laughs that Part 6 – Jason Lives does but it comes very close.

The premise actually works quite well here – in the then future year 2008, Jason is captured, later cryogenically frozen and subsequently awoken in 2455 where he finds himself on board a starship bound for a distant Earth colony and surrounded by his favourite prey, teenagers! In this case, the teens are students who have been on field trip back to Mother Earth to salvage artefacts from the smoking ruins. However just ensure maximum mayhem there’s also a compliment of space marines and the ship’s cyborg to contend with.

Now although the plot plays exactly like every other Friday 13th i.e. Jason slaughters every one bar a couple of survivors, the fact that the action takes place on space ship does actually freshen up the format. As all the victims are actually crew members gives the cast more character and depth than usual, admittedly not a lot more, this is still a Friday 13th film after all, but they do have roles to fulfil and duties to perform which spares us the typical filler scenes of characters clowning around in the woods. And also as some of the crew are military types, we have characters who can fight back – and as we saw in Part 6, Jason seems all the more menacing when we see him taking down tough cases with guns as well as the usual screaming airheads.

Setting the majority of the movie on a ship in deep space also brings back a theme that has been mostly missing from the preceding two entries – isolation. As you may remember from the earlier entries this mammoth retrospective, original screen writer Victor Miller has always said that the key element in Friday 13th is that the characters are cut off from the rest of society. And Jason X plays this card rather well; rather than have our anti-hero just picking off the cast one by one, the plot gets great mileage out of the complications of having Jason Voorhees running amok on your ship and makes its characters smart enough to realise that the sensible thing is to try and contain him until they get to Earth 2. Plus the sci-fi setting introduces the opportunities for some original and fun kills, such as death by liquid nitrogen.

Now I do understand why this film leaves some fans cold, as sometimes the humour is very broad, with characters uttering blatant one-liners. However there are not quite enough of these gags throughout the running time to properly qualify as a horror comedy. Similarly although Jason X plays the irony card much like Scream did, and has a lot of fun with some of the clichés of modern science fiction, there isn’t really enough of it either.

And this is where Jason X falls down – the humour and irony stop it working as a straight horror film, but there’s not enough laughs to qualify as a spoof, nor enough post modern toying with the clichés to do for sci-fi horror/action what Scream did for slashers. It’s not just falling between two stools but three as it were.

However director James Isaacs and Todd Farmer’s script has the action solidly romping along none the less. OK it’s not a brilliant picture, but it works well enough; it’s undemanding fun and while it may be cheesy it is still competent despite the stumbling with the overall tone and the comedy not being quite smoothly integrated. As I remarked earlier it does go down well outside the Friday 13th faithfully, who largely aren’t upset by the inclusion of humour and are often surprised by what a good fun flick it is.

Of course for Jason fans, there is another divisive issue other than the humour – Uber Jason – which bring us nicely round to our customary look at how the character is handled. Now before we get to his cybernetic incarnation, let’s check the background continuity levels with our faithful tricorder…

Now this movie was specifically designed to not to mess up the end of Jason Goes To Hell which set up the then forthcoming Freddy Vs Jason. So then according to the plot, Jason was captured in 2008, and given the lack of any other evidence, Freddy Vs Jason takes place in the year it was made (2003). Hence logically Jason X chronologically actually occurs after the then still forthcoming clash of the slashers. However there is an interesting alternate interpretation…

Now when we discover the imprisoned Jason, scientists (including legendary director David Cronenberg in a cameo) are very keen to find out what makes him tick. However at no point do they ever mention that he is a walking corpse… Yes, you guessed it – we have yet another return to the old question of Is Jason Alive or Dead!

From what we see and hear on screen, the boffins only keep referring to his ability for rapid cellular regeneration – which would suggest that this Jason is in fact still alive. There’s no mention of demons slugs, or the general decay he’s been sporting for the latter half of the saga. There’s no sign of any post Part 8 toxic waste burns, the mask though battered is the right size again, but most importantly, Jason has hair again. And in addition to resprouting locks of sparse lank hair, also the tattered jumpsuit he’s been wearing has been replaced with a mountain man jacket and trouser combo.

So then you could read this movie as being an alternate sequel to Part 2. OK I know he got the famous mask in Part 3 but barring that the version we see in Jason X is most similar to his appearance in the first sequel. Certainly if we assume that this is a separate time line, branching off from either Part 2 or Part 3 it certainly would explain his Timex constitution (i.e. he takes a licking and still keeps ticking).

Of course this isn’t the only look he models for us in this film, as after a nanotech make-over he becomes Uber Jason. Now there some who love the new robo-slasher incarnation, and there are those that see his transformation as needlessly messing up an icon. And personally I tend to agree with the latter – the augmented Jason design is good enough but my big problem is that it’s has lost the iconic hockey mask, which strikes me as superfluous tinkering with his trademark look.

But if you take this entry in the series as an alternate timeline story - a What If…/ Elseworlds issue as it were - then we needn’t get too hot under the collar about this cyber redesign. It’s a one off stunt - – after all there were no sequels * – that works well in the film as a surprise twist in the last act. And let’s be honest here, New Line weren’t exactly planning on relaunching the series as a cyber-splatterpunk franchise, this flick was intended as another placeholder entry until they could get Freddy Vs Jason into the theatres.

And although ultimately Jason X failed to find much love at the box office, it did get the character back on track. Despite the shift of setting to deep space in the far future, the movie still delivers a better Jason than either of the previous outings, proving that if you stick with the essentials of the character you can place Jason anywhere and just turn him loose. Admittedly by this stage of the game, there isn’t a great deal of terror to be wrung from the character but Jason X does use our favourite slasher effectively.

While the inclusion of humour freshens up the somewhat stale same old scenario of killing off victims one by one, the movie is smart enough to know not to send up Jason himself. And although by now as a villain he’s too familiar to be terrifying, Jason can still be threatening – you might not be able to generate much fright from a figure that the audiences now love but if take him back to being an imposing physical presence and make him an unstoppable killing machine again – no satanic slugs or random ghostly teleporting – Jason can still conjure up the thrills.

So although Jason X may have failed to ignite the box office, undoubtedly this outing won him some brand new fans and in a small way perhaps did keep the legend alive. Certainly I feel that Jason X, while not hitting the heights of the best in the saga, is still highly entertaining; far better than a premise makes it sounds and definitely far better than a Part 10 of anything should be.

And surprisingly an even better film was yet to come…


* Although there were 5 books from Black Flame and two comics from Avatar Press that continued Uber Jason’s story.

1 comment:

trioxin said...

"ghastly beyond belief" totally sums this movie up. It's probably the worst in the whole series (and that includes pt 5). Sure there are 2 good kills in it (Liquid Hydrogen and Giant Screw) but overall when the best part of a horror film in space is when they're in a 'holodeck' set back on earth you know you're in for a poor ride.

I've now watched this film twice, and will hopefully never watch it again. It only exists now as a bookmark between the bizarre (but still interesting) Pt 9 and the actually quite good Freddy Vs Jason.

And for the record, Leprechaun 4: In Space is the best of that franchise. That's how you do a space episode of a franchise! (Well that and Critters 4).
@ArghZombies