September 2003

Clash of the Titans

This is how I cajoled my long-suffering wife into going to see Freddy vs. Jason last weekend. I explained that it actually fit into a grand and noble Hollywood tradition. Long ago, I insisted with authoritative zeal, these movies were called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), or even King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963). Freddy Krueger, terror of Elm Street, and Jason Voorhees, scourge of Camp Crystal Lake, are modern-day equivalents of classic cinematic boogeymen, and their films are modern-day monster-movies. My wife accepted the argument, or perhaps she is merely a tolerant - one might say indulgent, spouse. So, on a bright Sunday morning, we went to see this clash of horror titans in a packed theater.

Unfortunately, no amount of spin can hide the fact that Freddy vs. Jason is a mediocre movie. The final battle between the two eighties slasher icons is worth the price of admission, but the lead-up to that contest is an hour-and-twenty minutes of hemming and hawing vetted by talent-less, colorless actors and actresses struggling to look like teenagers. In fact, so much of the film is occupied by junior grade thespians attempting to explain the movie's byzantine plot that Freddy vs. Jason commits the horror movie's cardinal sin. It's boring. Mind-numbingly so. Basically, the featured teens talk endlessly about Freddy and Jason in a van, then a library basement, then in a hospital, then in another basement, then in the hospital. Without any real facts to rely on, other than some bloody murders, they suss out the plot, that Freddy has awakened Jason to do his killing until he is powerful enough to go back on the job himself. Of course, to accept this postulate (which happens to be correct...) The teens must accept that an after-life exists, that a ghost named Freddy kills teenagers in their dreams, that the adults in town are involved in a conspiracy involving untested dream-inhibiting drugs, and that the dream killer has recruited the services of an unkillable goliath from a nearby town...who also likes to kill teenagers. Right.

Monica Keena, a dim Brittany Murphy clone, essays the role of Lori, and Jason Ritter, a Hartnett-style hunk, plays her vapid beau, Will. These characters may be the most bland and plastic protagonists ever to grace a horror film. When one remembers Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) or even the quarreling siblings played by Gina Phillips and Justin Long in Jeepers Creepers (2001), one realizes how deeply Freddy vs. Jason has failed. The audience cares nothing about these kids; we've seen their ilk a million times before and they add nothing to the film. In any previous franchise entry, Jason or Freddy would have made mincemeat of them in the first ten minutes. With two overpowering villains gobbling up screen-time, a strong protagonist is a necessity to balance out the picture, and it might have been better to go back and feature Langenkamp's Nancy or Friday the 13th's sometimes-protagonist, Tommy Jarvis. Both characters had experience with the killers and could legitimately figure out their motives rather than merely speculate endlessly (and correctly) about them.

Destiny Child's Kelly Rowland (as Kia) boasts a little more personality, and actually registers as a human being, not an underwear model. Hopefully, she'll appear in better movies. The worst bit of casting involves Kyle Labine as a character named Freeburg. Labine is a fine fellow, no doubt, but in costume and delivery he appropriates the persona of Jason Mewes' Jay from Kevin Smith's Askewniverse. This character is so blatantly derivative that one is actually embarrassed for the film. If the writers (Damian Shannon and Mark Swift) planned to go this route with Freeburg, then Jason Mewes should have been cast. Nobody else plays the stoner role to such perfection, and seeing Jay battle it out with Jason and Freddy would have added substantially to the film's value. But then, virtually anything would have added substantially to the film's value...

Perhaps patrons who pay good money to see a movie called Freddy vs. Jason have no right to expect a plot or characterization, but it would have been thoughtful for the writers to provide these incidentals anyway. Many Nightmare on Elm Street films, including Wes Craven's 1984 original, 1987's Dream Warriors and the self-reflexive New Nightmare (1994) featured good plotting and genuine scares. Others entries, notably Dream Master (1988) and Dream Child (1989) had the distinction of looking good, both trippy in dream-imagery and stylish in over-the-top effects. The Friday the 13th films are a bit more spotty, though I always had a fondness for Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) and Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1988) - God knows why. Still, it is reasonable to think that with a good story and a little style, a satisfying adventure might have been forged from the blending of the series.

I liked Ronny Yu's Bride of Chucky (1998), so I had high hopes he would bring the same sense of humor and intensity to Freddy vs. Jason. Considering his previous efforts, I'm shocked at how ramshackle this film is, both visually and narratively. It doesn't generate a single scare, and the audience is left with a bloody WWF tournament between guys in make-up. For some viewers, that is no doubt enough, and judging by the film's blockbuster opening weekend, my opinion is clearly in the minority.

Still, some elements are enjoyable, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. The re-cap of Krueger's origin and murderous career is chilling and legitimately dark. Jason's nightmare about drowning at Crystal Lake is fun too, and succeeds in making the silent character the most interesting and sympathetic he has ever been. And, it is refreshing to watch a movie so totally anti-PC. Just minutes into Freddy vs. Jason, there are numerous glimpses of ample young breasts, a reminder of the good old days of 1980s exploitation slasher flicks. Of course, unlike the numerous decapitations and blood sprays, the tits these days don't look quite so real.

Aliens vs. Predators is the next horror match-up. Hopefully, its writers will remember to include some worthwhile human beings in the gory mix. After all, those franchises don't have silly one-liners and breasts to fall back on.