Director: Ronny Yu
Writers: Damian Shannon and Mark Swift
Cast: Tom Butler, Garry Chalk, Robert Englund, Brendan Fletcher, Jesse Hutch, Katharine Isabelle, Monica Keena, Ken Kirzinger, David Kopp, Kyle Labine, Chris Marquette, Lochlyn Munro, Jason Ritter, Kelly Rowland, Paula Shaw, and Zack Ward
Forget Alien Vs Predator (2004) and its hateful sequel. This is how you make a proper monster mash. A full decade in the making, Freddy Vs Jason delivers everything a nostalgic gore hound could reasonably ask for: two slasher icons restored to their former glory, a faithful distillation of their respective myths, and a story that emphasises all the themes and motifs long-time fans have come to celebrate. Better yet, Ronny Yu approaches the material with the sort of manic earnestness one could only expect from a Hong Kong action director, matching our enthusiasm in every frame.
This strikes me as no small feat, given we’d been waiting for this crossover since 1993, when Freddy (Robert Englund), who’d croaked two years earlier in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, popped out his trademarked scissor hand at the end of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Curiously, Freddy Vs Jason ignores the events in both films, presenting Springwood as a thriving suburban community rather than a ghost town and Jason (Ken Kirzinger) as an undead behemoth rather than a body-snatching worm. I’m not complaining, mind you. With seventeen chapters from which to draw, shortcuts had to be taken in regard to continuity. If anything, I applaud screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift for prioritising the spirit of each franchise.
Consider their streamlined take on Jason, who was bullied to death in Friday the 13th (1980), survived to avenge his grieving mother (Paula Shaw) in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), croaked for real in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), and returned as a zombie in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). Here, he’s just the indestructible ghost of a mentally challenged kid. One’s got to admire the elegance of this contracted origin and the succinct way Freddy Vs Jason conveys the ghoul’s motivation through an imaginary victim: “I should’ve been watching them, not drinking, not meeting a boy at the lake. I deserve to be punished. We all deserve to be punished.”
Sure, one could complain about Kane Hodder not reprising the role despite offering his services to New Line Cinema. However, I like the way Ken Kirzinger emphasises Jason’s more pitiful traits, evoking with slow mechanical movements a creature that doesn’t fully understand what it’s doing. I also dig his sad puppy-dog eyes, which remind me of more romantic horror figures such as Boris Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein (1931). You see, the Crystal Lake butcher serves less as a slasher villain than an anti-hero in Freddy Vs Jason, deemed the lesser evil even though he kills ten times more people than his rival in the first hour alone.
This may disappoint the more competitive fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I contend Freddy works best as a pathetic figure anyway. The creative minds behind Freddy Vs Jason would seem to agree, constantly undercutting his menace with ironic twists of fate. Take, for instance, the scene in which Jason robs him of a kill by sheer virtue of his simple-minded expediency. Even when pulled into the real world, the dream demon gets hoisted by his own petard, tripping over his makeshift weapons: “Oh, give me a break!” These slapstick sequences not only showcase Robert Englund’s impeccable comic timing; they speak to the very essence of the character, whose threat lies in gleeful cruelty, not otherworldly abilities.
I also appreciate how Freddy Vs Jason uses as a springboard one of the more esoteric aspects of Wes Craven’s original creation: the idea that our baddie feeds on belief. Blocked out by the drug Hypnocil from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) and forgotten by the new generation of Springwood children, Freddy finds a unique way out of hell, tricking Jason into reviving his urban legend: “He may get the blood, but I’ll get the glory!” That’s a pretty heady concept on which to build a campy mash-up, and I’m grateful to be spared the usual contrivances, like the retconed origin tying our two monsters together or the all-purpose satanic cult kneeling to Deus Ex Machina.
Therein lies the charm of Freddy Vs Jason, which knows not to reinvent the wheel when the source material offers up all the parts needed to carry us through. Consider the seamless way composer Graeme Revell switches between the iconic scores of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th depending on which monster has got the upper hand. Granted, the teen protagonists draw more from Scream (1996) than either of the source franchises, but I like some of their wisecracks, so there: “Dude, that goalie was pissed about something!”
I only wish Katharine Isabelle, who brings such soul to the otherwise thankless role of promiscuous addict, had got the lead instead of Monica Keena. I’ve seen the latter do well in other projects, but she displays in Freddy Vs Jason all the charm and charisma of a floating goldfish. I actively hate her performance and that weird open-lip pout she sports in every shot. Mind you, Lori makes for a poor “final girl” to begin with, what with all the whining, screaming, and pointless expositing: “Wait a minute. Freddy died by fire, Jason by water. How can we use that?” You can’t, and you don’t. Please never speak again.
Obviously, no one’s suggesting we’re dealing with a masterpiece here. Anyone who got past the pot-smoking caterpillar scene or the awesome kung fu climax knows Freddy Vs Jason packs its share of dumb. I’d argue, though, the movie is dumb in just the right way, building on the absurdity of its premise instead of countering it with unnecessary updates or knowing winks to the audience. We paid to see Freddy brawl with Jason, and the filmmakers have delivered exactly what we asked for: nothing more, nothing less. Believe it or not, that takes skill.