Summer Shocks 1989: Jason Takes Manhattan

ON

Jeff bares his affections for this sequel

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

Of all the old-school slasher villains, Jason Voorhees has the distinction of being the most seasoned traveler of the bunch. Michael Myers has done little venturing out of his home base of Haddonfield (save for a road trip or two to try to finish off his sister) and Freddy Krueger has done more than his share of dreaming (but then, haven’t we all?). Jason, though, he’s gone a few places. They say that travel broadens the mind but in the case of the Sultan of Slaughter, leaving the comfort of Crystal Lake only broadened Jason’s selection of victims.

Every fan knows that the eighth entry in the Friday the 13th saga was not Jason’s finest hour. By all measures, the ’80s ended badly for the slasher superstar. But then, the ’80s ended badly for horror films period. Jason Takes Manhattan was a weak film in what was a weak year for fear fare. But while I can’t make a case for Jason Takes Manhattan as being much good, I still maintain a stubborn fondness for it. After all, it marked the end of an era – it was the last Paramount-released Friday the 13th and the last Friday the 13th of the ’80s. While the body count has gone on since then, it’s never been quite the same.

It was exciting – and seemed like a perfect match – when genre-friendly New Line acquired the rights from Paramount in the early ’90s and carried on with Jason’s exploits but the New Line films have, understandably, been their own thing. Even with Kane Hodder staying behind the mask in Jason Goes To Hell (1993) and Jason X (2001), they just weren’t true Friday films. Likewise, Freddy vs. Jason (2003) was a good enough time but it would’ve been so much better had it been made in 1987 or so. Even if an ’80s version of that team-up had been bad (and I think it’s pretty certain that it would’ve), it still would’ve had that ’80s touch going for it (one can only imagine the awesome metal soundtrack that might’ve been). But the final nail in the coffin for Friday the 13th was the 2009 remake. Derek Mears tore it up as Jason but the movie just didn’t have it. It had good moments, and I liked some of the kills, but every time I make a move to rewatch it, I remember that this is the movie where Jason lives in underground tunnels, has an alarm system, and keeps a girl hostage for weeks on end and I end up putting the DVD back on the shelf and reaching for something else – like a stiff drink. For whatever reason, Friday the 13th was a phenomenon of the ’80s whose alchemy (if not its appeal) evaporated once that decade was over. They just knew how to make these movies back then. Even when, as in the case of Jason Takes Manhattan, they kind of didn’t know how to make them.

With a modern horror franchise like the Saw series being such a calculated enterprise, I think there’s something endearing about the completely haphazard way that Friday the 13th came together film by film in the ’80s. Even the most casual glance at the films makes it clear that Friday the 13th was a series made by people who never had a master plan (and who also scrubbed any sense of continuity with the previous films whenever it suited them) and while that doesn’t say much for the artistic process behind this franchise, I think this slapdash approach is part of the series’ appeal. Horror fans took things far less seriously then than they do now. Back then it wasn’t such a crime for Friday‘s producers to make it all up as they went along and not even give a damn about something as fundamental as giving the unmasked Jason a consistent look from film to film. Fans, for the most part, just went along with it. That kind of stuff rolled off our backs. Until Jason Takes Manhattan, that is. Then no one was such a happy camper.

At the time, Jason Takes Manhattan appeared to be the ultimate example of a series that had hopelessly lost its way. A copycat killer in A New Beginning was one thing but this…what the hell? That said, as soon as I hear the opening chords of “The Darkest Side of the Night,” the unabashedly ’80s-style rock tune composed by Fred Mollin and Stan Meissner that kicks off Jason Takes Manhattan, and I hear the voiceover of the DJ waxing poetic about the dark allure of the Big Apple (“We live in claustrophobia, the land of steel and concrete. Trapped by dark waters. There is no escape – nor do we want it. We’ve come to thrive on it and each other. You can’t get the adrenaline pumpin’ without the terror, good people!”), I feel that I’ve made the right viewing choice.

I’ll admit, back when I watched the end credits roll on Jason Takes Manhattan after seeing it at an opening night show back in ’89, I never thought I’d end up being fond of this movie but over the years it’s slowly crept into my affections. Every fan knows firsthand about the mysterious, confounding process in which yesterday’s garbage can transform into today’s nostalgia but the passage of time alone isn’t enough to turn every bad movie into a favorite. There has to be something there worth liking, some quality that wasn’t immediately appreciated. With Jason Takes Manhattan, it’s a sense of good-natured fun. In ’89, the film embodied everything that fans hated about where horror was at then. It wasn’t gritty, it wasn’t gory, and it damn sure wasn’t scary. But to judge writer/director Rob Hedden’s film in retrospect not as a suspense-driven horror film or as a splatter movie but instead a gaudy live-action comic book starring Jason (even before the film arrives at the bright neon lights of New York, the ship bound action set on the Lazarus boasted a more colorful palette than any of the previous Friday films), credit must be given to Hedden for delivering a movie that was fast-paced, funny (usually deliberately so) and that tried to stretch the limitations of the Friday films.

Hedden was criticized for not making a scary movie but looking back on his film, I like that he embraced a more playful attitude. This attitude is best illustrated by the scene in which Peter Mark Richmond’s arch-weasel character flees from a pursuing Jason into a building and barely a moment after Richmond enters (with Jason having just been on his heels), he’s hurled out of a second floor window by Jason. Hedden was out to give a wink to Jason’s perplexing ability to be in all places at once and while that may not have gone over so well at the time, the intended wit of moments like this comes across more clearly today. It sure beats the idiocy found in the Friday remake of having to “explain” how Jason can always get ahead of his victims. Hedden correctly realized the fun of the series was in showing Jason accomplishing the impossible without having to explain it.

While Hedden may have been stymied by the MPAA, forcing all the kills in this film to be dry affairs, he did manage to stage one of the series’ most memorable kills with the rooftop boxing match between Jason and Julius (V.C. Dupree) that ends with Jason punching Julius’ head clean off his shoulders, sending it plummeting into a dumpster many floors below. Like the rest of the film’s kills, this was a largely bloodless scene but as a clever touch, Hedden put viewers in the POV of Julius’ severed head as it falls through the air – a move that was so cool that Mel Gibson appropriated it for a moment in Apocalypto (2006) as a sacrifice victim’s head tumbles down the steps of the temple. Well, “appropriated” might be a strong word as it’s likely that Gibson never saw Jason Takes Manhattan, but at least Hedden can say he was the first to pioneer the decapi-cam.

Over the years, it’s been discussed to death that the promise of seeing Jason truly take Manhattan was little more than a shell game, with Jason’s NYC rampage taking up only a fraction of the film. While I do agree that it sucks that Jason isn’t in New York more (and that even when he is, Vancouver is usually the city that we’re actually seeing him in) what New York footage that did make it onto the screen is still damn cool. If nothing else, this movie put Jason in Times Square for one historic moment and I love that.

Say what you will about Jason Takes Manhattan, but I only wish the worst of today’s horror offerings were this entertaining. Even if Jason never got quite into the New York groove, I think it’s fitting that he got to close out the ’80s by having a rock star moment.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’89:

The Return of Swamp Thing (May 12th)

Miracle Mile (May 19th)

Fright Night II (May 19th)

Vampire’s Kiss (June 2nd)

Ghostbusters II (June 16th)

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (July 28th)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (August 11th)

Little Monsters (August 25th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

Source: Jeff Allard