Most horror franchises, and their sequels therein, always have an easily coded shorthand/gimmick so that diehard fans can easily swap stories about their favorite fright moments in their beloved titles with casual scary movie lovers. For HALLOWEEN II (the original one, not the second sequel, or even the third sequel), it’s the one that takes place in a hospital. With CHILD’S PLAY 3, that’s the Chucky title that takes place in the military school (and the one that deserves a little more love, folks). HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE? Three words: Pinhead in Space (cue echo). The great thing about the FRIDAY THE 13TH films is that each and every entry in the camp carnage series has its own shorthand/gimmick from the three-dimensional terror of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III, the white-trash whodunit of FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (easily known between fans as Imposter Jason or uttered by its many fans monosyllabically as “ROY!”), and the Jason Vs. Carrie showdown of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD. For the seventh sequel, however, it goes by many alternate fan-christened titles – “Jason Takes Vancouver,” or “Jason Takes A Cruise Ship” (the name its director begrudgingly bequeaths it with in the fantastic Crystal Lake Memories book), but its most commonly known title, the one that splashed onto summer screens in July of 1989 was FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, and it’s about time for Daily Grindhouse to revisit it for its thirtieth anniversary and see what it gets wrong and what it ends up getting right!
By 1989, our beloved hockey masked maniac was no longer the hottest ticket item on the chopping block, and for good reason as the competition was fierce for horror icons that year, with both HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS (you know, the psychic niece one or “cookie woman!”) and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (Freddy’s got a kid, friends!) both dropping their entries in their franchises towards the end of ’89. With THE NEW BLOOD underperforming at the box office the prior year, Paramount was all but ready to dump Jason to the bottom of Crystal Lake for good, unless a good concept came along to inject some life into the stagnant franchise – which came courtesy of writer/director Rob Hedden, who prior to cutting throats on the big screen, cut his teeth on television programs like MacGyver and Friday the 13th: The Series. It’s a tale all Friday fans know by now: Hedden’s idea was to freshen the story of Jason Voorhees by taking him out of his Crystal Lake comfort zone (to Manhattan specifically, thanks to franchise guardian Frank Mancuso Jr.). Hedden’s original concept was to have Jason make his way to New York via a cruise ship, cause a smidge of carnage on a cruise ship and then create as much chaos as he can in a city that thrives on chaos (with set pieces taking place in Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty) – at least until the budget chop-blocked him. Now, all the glorious madness of Jason Voorhees in New York was whittled down to a sliver and most of the film was now going to be about Jason Voorhees racking up a kill count on a boat bobbing in the middle of a body of water that doesn’t even exist.
As it stands, JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is a perfectly okay franchise entry. Hedden’s television pedigree ensures that the characters are at least likeable, but frustratingly sketched on a surface level (there are far too many human villains as well), in his brief moments in the film, a minimal character like Julius ingratiates himself more than any single individual in THE NEW BLOOD. Sadly, our leads, Sean and Rennie are bland, though attractive, and as white toast as they come and saddling them with basic daddy issues and childhood trauma respectively (it didn’t work for Chris and Tina either) doesn’t serve them at all, and we know their survival is all but guaranteed anyhow by virtue of them both being the leads, and the Friday series at this point in its history being safer than the grindhouse originals, where practically no one was safe. There’s some decent humor (Jason seeing the hockey mask billboard, Jason kicking the boom box and wordlessly freaking out the gang members by showing them his face underneath the mask), and a gag that feels like a parody of obvious slasher movie visual cues (the knife hanging from the rack, and then disappearing in the next shot). The score by Fred Mollin, lends some inky atmosphere to the film, and while it’s a vast improvement of the repetitiveness of Harry Manfredini’s prior compositions, the score never escapes its made for television trappings (Mollin was a composer for THE SERIES). All that being said, the song that Mollin composed and that plays over the opening credits – “The Darkest Side of Night” is one of the best songs written for a film ever, and creates a sultry, noir-ish vibe that the later New York scenes would not be able to capture.
The kills are wishy-washy in their memorableness: for every great gnarly kill like the guitar to the head, the sauna rock to the chest or the iconic head-punching sequence (the way Hedden lets the fist-fight drag out – letting the audience think that Julius might have a fighting chance against Jason is the most clever thing about this film), there’s the bland way that the film’s victims are dispatched (drowning in a bucket of waste is gross, but not a death befitting your film’s bad guy) and I realize that this is probably a result of the MPAA’s ruthlessness – but the kills have no bite to them, a good portion of kills are off-screen, which is a shame (and a no-no) considering the gory history of this franchise. The film is also not very scary (there’s a decent jump scare that the back case of the VHS spoils!), and since the film features Jason in full on teleportation mode, there’s no sense of suspense simply because the victim can be set upon by Mr. Voorhees at any time. The film is also overly reliant on NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET style visual gags, like child Jason attacking Rennie in the bathroom.
The real killer of this series was when Jason went from being an object of fear to a crowd-pleasing killer. Kane Hodder turns in good work as this incarnation of Jason, and I really like the sleek, slimy look of “Manhattan Jason,” but there’s no time when he strikes fear in my heart versus the galloping, prone to injury Jason of earlier entries. The final act cat and mouse chase with Jason falls too flat for me because there’s no terror; New York is too spacious, too filled with people and far too bright – even with its Vancouver gloom attached. It’s just one long rushed chase scene, with scenes being squandered (like the subway sequence) in lieu of dealing with the aforementioned Jason/Rennie backstory. There’s too much propulsion, never have the characters felt more like pieces on the chessboard merely being moved towards the end of the film. Even the way Jason is ultimately killed, melted by a deluge of toxic waste that floods the sewers of New York is both illogical and ludicrous.
Here’s the thing: Jason on a cruise ship then in Manhattan has a flaw at its core, and not because of the fact that it makes zero geographical sense. It feels like two films stapled together, which overall, it is. But Jason on a cruise ship as a sole idea for a film, now that could work on many levels. A cruise ship on dark, dank waters can be just as isolated as a campground in the deep, dark woods and escape isn’t easy all the same. Then, you get him in claustrophobic corridors, maximizing your tension and playing with all the places the film barely even touches, like the scary shadows of an engine room. Furthermore, you can capitalize on all the aquatic horror films of 1989 like LEVIATHAN and DEEP STAR SIX except instead of aquatic beasties you’ve got our familiar axe-wielding, athletically inclined psychopath. The biggest problem with JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is that the film rushes through all the ship stuff to get to the Manhattan stuff in an effort to please the idiots who get upset when the description on the tin doesn’t match the contents within … but they still got mad anyhow because the film took forever to get to Manhattan, and barely spends any time there (despite the fact that Jason takes Manhattan for a decent amount of time, although not as long as the Muppets take Manhattan). Regardless of the length of time Jason spends messing with the junkies on 42nd Street or whatever, the last thing you can argue that this film doesn’t do is do exactly with the title of the film promises – Messer Voorhees’ fling with Manhattan, albeit brief, actually happens.
Let’s talk about the marketing campaign for a moment. Most films in the franchise have had killer taglines, posters and trailers attached to them. Think back to FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s “The Body Count Continues” (which is so simple, yet ominous sounding), or FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES’ brilliant teaser trailer, which is simply a coffin bursting from the rain soaked ground of a cemetery, opening to reveal that it’s empty. It’s straightforward, it’s stark and it’s scary. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite trailers of all time. When Paramount started the promotion pump for the eighth entry, they went all out. There’s the original poster that riffed on the “I Heart NY” logo, which courted its own controversy as the “I Heart NY” usage was unauthorized and the poster was then replaced with a “generic” but still memorable poster all the same (it’s the one that lured my eager eyes towards the VHS box all those years ago in Video Express), along with its tagline – “New York Has A New Problem,” which between the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s, paints a historically bad picture of the old Rotten Apple. The trailer is also great: it’s a gorgeous shot of the New York skyline, a twinkling piano score, and the silhouette of slimy, forlorn (?) Jason Voorhees standing alongside the river, before he turns around, his blade at the ready to attack a series of people in quick cuts, before the title smashes onto the screen in glorious bold red lettering. It’s a heck of a trailer.
Is JASON TAKES MANHATTAN a bad film? If we’re to look at its critical (“a real dunghill of a major motion picture, a zinger courtesy of Chris Willman and the Los Angeles Times) and box office reception (debuting at number five with $6.2 million and a total gross of $14.3 million – the lowest of the series), then yes. It all but ended the FRIDAY THE 13TH tenure at Paramount and would mark the beginning of the second longest hiatus between Friday films with the first being the decade long gap between the reboot and the as-yet unknown next film in the series. To answer the question, I don’t think JASON TAKES MANHATTAN is a bad film. Personally, I don’t think there’s a bad FRIDAY THE 13TH film at all, honestly. It’s a flawed film, sure, but it’s also a film that knows how to please its audience (despite said audience feeling cheated by the “lie” in the title). I certainly don’t feel like it’s anything other than a Friday film, by the end of its admittedly long journey, I recognize that I had a good time, and that it gives me precisely what I want from a Friday film – Jason killing folks in a myriad of MPAA approved ways. If anything, the novelty of Jason shuffling about in Times Square is a thrill. And even if the film failed on every fundamental level, we’d always have “The Darkest Side of Night” which would in turn lead us horror hounds to describe the film as “the FRIDAY THE 13TH film with the kickass song at the beginning.”
Tags: British Columbia, Bryan England, Frank Mancuso Jr., Fred Mollin, Harry Manfredini, Horror, Jensen Daggett, Kane Hodder, Kelly Hu, Los Angeles, New York City, Paramount Pictures, Peter Mark Richman, Rob Hedden, Scott Reeves, Sequels, Steve Mirkovich, The 1980s, Times Square, V. C. Dupree, Vancouver, Victor Miller