Horror icons are sparse in the 21st century for a very simple reason. Horror used to be adults scaring children. Now it’s all about creepy children scaring adults, and adults don’t scare the way kids do. Hence, a decent slasher flick gets forgotten after four or five years, regardless of how many sequels it has (witness the interminable Saw franchise of torture-porn).
Two of the most enduring figures in terror are Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, of the Nightmare on Elm St. and Friday the 13th franchises. Both are bogeymen; mythical killers of young folks, in familiar settings. Therein lies the key to their longevity and appeal.
Just about everybody had a bad experience at summer camp, or in high school. Jason covered the first, Freddy the second, slaughtering hundreds of youngins in the process. Friday the 13th movies weren’t technically “good”; they were movies you remembered because of a particular scary or bizarre moment. An arrow in the eye, a machete in the shoulder. Nightmare on Elm St. films were at a bit of a higher standard, in that instead of a campground, they had to convincingly portray the dream world that Freddy inhabited.
As you probably know, Freddy Krueger murdered so many kids in the town of Springwood (with his homemade bladed glove) that the parents mobbed up and burned him alive in his boiler room, after he was freed on a technicality. As revenge, Freddy enters the dreams of the other kids, and taunts them before killing them in their sleep. So begins a game of cat and mouse as Freddy is eventually lured into the real world and destroyed. Or is he? (No.)
I thought Freddy was awesome when I was in school because everyone feared him. I had a red-and-grey striped sweater (red-and-green did not exist in reality, I guess for licensing reasons), and a fedora like his, that did double duty as Indiana Jones’. I even talked my dad into helping me make the glove, although he would not sharpen the blades.
I used that glove to scare hell out of friends I’d invited over to watch Elm St. I, II and III in a row. As the Dream Warriors credits began to roll, I reached behind the couch, slipped the glove on, pulled it out and screamed. It worked very, very well. Especially after over five hours of Freddy movies, including Freddy’s Revenge, the “gay one”.
I didn’t so much outgrow Elm St. movies as become disenchanted with their quality, which inevitably decreased with each chapter. I was really pissed when Kristen, the tenacious survivor of Dream Warriors, was killed off (and played by a different actress) in IV. (This is apparently a tradition.) I wasn’t crazy about the anthology show, Freddy’s Nightmares, which rarely focused on the man, outside of a lukewarm depiction of his trial. And oh yeah, then there was Final Nightmare, which was promoted as 3-D when only a scene at the end employed it.
The solitary aspect of Nightmare on Elm Street that never once wavered in quality is Freddy himself, portrayed by Robert Englund.
Sure, his powers could be inconsistent, and his voice varied from sequel to sequel, but Englund’s Freddy is indisputably classic. In my opinion, the peak of the series is the third installment, Dream Warriors. He’s funny, he’s scary, he’s sick, and he’s utterly relentless, like a Terminator. The screenplay was written by Wes Craven, Frank Darabont, and Chuck Russell, who directed. The score, by Angelo Badalamenti, is flawless beginning-to-end; I’m convinced it inspired the music for the first Resident Evil video game. I’d call Elm St. III the greatest horror sequel ever made, not like there’s much competition. It is essential viewing, especially for slasher connoisseurs.
Even though I hadn’t the same affection for Jason, I felt a similar dread for him as I had for Freddy when I learned of an approaching Freddy vs. Jason film; that he’d be done wrong. Even in the abhorred Jason X, the titular monster is portrayed correctly, and that one’s in space. But the memory of Alien vs. Predator and its botched direction was fresh in my mind, and I had little to no confidence that Freddy vs. Jason would be a better bout.
I was way off. Freddy vs. Jason is a near-masterpiece.
Everything awesome about the two series is present in Freddy vs. Jason. This was the final installment before both were rebooted, and it absolutely delivers. When it comes time for the titular villains to battle, they fight in styles well-suited to their physical forms; Freddy is fast and agile, while Jason is a lumbering juggernaut. The kids to be slaughtered are believable and largely likable. The budget was $30 million; let me just be kind, and say that’s a lot more than the budget for any previous installment. Dude, they used to crank these suckers out for under $4 million a pop. $11 million was considered a big deal.
Like the heavy-meta New Nightmare, Freddy vs. Jason plays on the killer’s reputation both in film and the real world. Freddy narrates parts of the film, which works better than you’d expect. Visually, Freddy is telegraphed with fire, Jason with water, reflecting their particular weaknesses. Oh, and they both look fantastic, especially Freddy, when he reaches full demonic power.
It’s not a perfect film, but no film of this kind can be. There are bound to be moments that ring a tad false, once the “rules” of the concept are set in place (and bent). There’s a scene where Kelly Rowland gives Jason CPR in the back of a van that rivals the Jason Lee dropped-toothpick bit from Dreamcatcher for OH MY GOD WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS NO ONE WOULD EVER EVER DO THIS.
Yes, there are early-2000s CGI effects, but frankly, they look alright. The bright primary colors are another indicator that this was from 2003. Again, this visual telegraphing works fairly well for the material, with its polarized monsters. Ronny Yu, veteran Hong Kong action director, does a fine job helming. I mean, it’s a monster movie. We’re not talking Amistad here.
Rowland is one of three lead girls that are almost distractingly easy to look at, the others being Monica Keena and Katherine Isabelle. Truthfully, they’re all too hot for this kind of thing. Heather Langenkamp and Patricia Arquette set the bar for Elm Street damsels; attractive for awkward teenagers, but not overly so. These girls wear belly shirts and cause errant boners.
As you probably know, Isabelle refused to appear nude, and a body double was used for her shower scene. This always backfires. Producers and horny dudes will find out who the double is and go find her. Listen, it’s fine to not want to expose your body in a movie. The problem is, as an actor or actress, nudity is just one of your costumes. When I was growing up, there were musicals like Hair and Oh, Calcutta! that featured nude actors, as an artistic statement.
So, when an actor openly refuses to wear a particular costume, and a double has to do it, audiences naturally wonder why. I couldn’t understand why Neve Campbell kept her back to the camera while having a threesome with Denise Richards and Matt Dillon, in Wild Things. I theorized that Ms. Campbell had pizza-slice titties, which compared to Ms. Richards’ perfect golden orbs, would look off-putting on screen. I later discovered, to my horror, I was absolutely correct.
In any case, when Katherine Isabelle’s body double took a shower, I involuntarily shouted “YAHOO”.
It was just nice to see boobs in a regular movie again. The 1990s were a marathon of cock shots.
Monica Keena, as Final Girl Lori Campbell, is Eyes, Lips and Boobs. That’s not meant as a put-down. She’s very cute and soft-looking, so you hate the idea of her being poked with blades. She gets a slash on her cleavage at one point, and you think, how dare you.
The ancillary characters are all solid, particularly the police, played by Lochlyn Munro and Garry Chalk. If Chalk sounds familiar to you as Sheriff Williams, you’re probably a Beast Wars fan. He provided the voice of Optimus Primal for that show, and in several others he was Prime himself.
The protagonists include the requisite nerd and stoner, leading to some terrific moments, and many of the deaths subvert expectations. Jason attacks a rave in a cornfield and ends up ablaze. Think about that; the unstoppable terror of Jason Voorhees… and he is on fire.
The Freddy/Jason mythos is also explored, condensed into digestible flashbacks; Westin Hills, Crystal Lake and “Hypnocil” are all integral as ever. As was their stated purpose, the makers took the best aspects of the F13 and NoES sagas and gave us a bloody hit parade.
It might not be the greatest slasher film ever made, but it’s certainly the one I watch the most often.