It has been fifteen years since Freddy vs Jason made its way into cinemas but, despite being much anticipated and long gestating, the apathy with which it was met on release remains. In fact, despite being moderately profitable for New Line, the response it received was so negative that it effectively buried both franchises for several years. Removed as we are now to such an extent, it’s time for another look at the slasher team up – is Freddy vs Jason rightfully ridiculed or wrongly reviled?
The first official moves to a crossover between the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises was all the way back in 1987, some sixteen years before Freddy vs Jason finally materialised. In response to persistent requests from genre fans, and after finally re-acquiring the rights to the franchise following the less than stellar The New Blood and Jason Takes Manhattan, series originator Sean S Cunningham began to actively develop the concept with New Line. The movie was delayed when Wes Craven returned to the studio to make another Nightmare movie – 1991’s excellent New Nightmare – and Cunningham used the time to produce Jason Goes To Hell, 1993’s strange body-hopping entrant into the Friday the 13th canon. Despite being a departure from the franchise’s formula to some degree, Jason appears briefly as bookends to the story, it was successful. More importantly for fans clamouring to see the slasher genre’s brightest stars go toe to toe was a final scene in which Freddy’s gloved hand pulls Jason’s iconic hockey mask into the ground; Cunningham’s signal to fans that Freddy vs Jason may well be coming to screens sooner rather than later. However, when internal studio wrangling further stalled the idea, Cunningham resurrected Voorhees once again for the much-maligned Jason X which, despite being completed in 2000, languished for almost two years before seeing a theatrical release. Whilst there’s some fun to be had in the central conceit of Jason in space, Jason X is a problematic movie and – in the wider Voorhees story – is largely irrelevant and forgettable. It did however reignite interest in Freddy vs Jason at studio level; it finally went into full production shortly thereafter.
The first clue that Freddy vs Jason was treated differently than fans may have suspected was in the hiring of Ronnie Yu as the movie’s director. Renowned in Hong Kong as primarily a director of wuxia movies, and with only 1998’s Bride of Chucky as a genre credit, concerned eyebrows were raised by fans around the world. Given the key conceit of New Line’s horror team up was the titular battle, someone with quality action movie chops made perfect sense. Indeed, the movie’s final scenes between Freddy and Jason are a predictable high point – but more on that later. What Yu’s experience on Bride did demonstrate though was a solid grasp of one of the Elm Street franchise’s more inconsistent ingredients; the black humour that had become synonymous with Freddy himself in more recent years.
As the Krueger saga unfolded – and as New Line sought to drag their child molesting serial killing cash cow into the mainstream – Freddy was moved away from Craven’s original vision of a terrifying shadowy monster into more comedic territory. It was a divisive move; movie by movie Freddy was sanitised and given more and more zingers as was common in contemporaneous mainstream movies. For genre fans however he gradually lost the fear that he had inspired in the 1984 original, becoming more a figure of fun rather than one of horror. The balance was best struck in 1987’s Dream Warriors, arguably the Elm Street movie where Krueger manages to be both humorous and threatening in equally effective measure. Freddy vs Jason’s version of the Springwood slasher manages to get closer to this iteration than any other instalment. Yu – and on top form, Englund – show both sides to memorable effect; on one hand Freddy is the snarling, ferocious dream stalker of the earlier movies and on the other the grandstanding comic, despatching victims with one liners on a par with the best in the series.
What about Jason? He is after all the other half of the equation and one could have been excused for feeling less than optimistic when casting was announced. Kane Hodder is the greatest Jason, without doubt. He changed him from a lumbering giant into the heaving, violent menace slasher fans love. However, despite having been sent the script, Hodder was never offered the role. Stepping into the boiler suit was Ken Kirzinger, a stunt performer who had previously worked in front of and behind the camera on Jason Takes Manhattan. On initial viewing, Kirzinger’s Jason is a noticeably slower and more ponderous best than Hodder’s – a strange choice given how beloved and successful the latter’s portrayal had been. On reassessing the movie though, it starts to become more clearly an effective and clever decision.
The biggest problem faced by Freddy vs Jason was the genre audience itself – how to cater to, and appease, too equally passionate fanbases. The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise had spent six movies establishing Krueger as an elemental force, someone who could never be truly defeated; Friday the 13th’s Jason had been repeatedly established as an unstoppable killing machine who could never die. How could the showdown between the two possibly be satisfying to everyone? Kirzinger’s Jason is the key. Always a large, looming presence, this iteration is positively monstrous, standing six feet five inches next to Robert Englund’s five feet nine and in doing so Yu establishes a physical conflict seen routinely in the wuxia movies on which he had been so successful. Freddy – smaller, smarter, more agile – going up against Jason – huge, powerful, unstoppable – created something unexpectedly exciting in what could have been another by the numbers slasher outing for both characters; genuine intrigue. Fans in both camps could discuss and argue how it may play out ahead of the scene itself.
The final showdown is worth the price of admission alone. Arguably New Line could have gone the safe route and put Freddy and Jason on screen together and fans would have been reasonably satisfied. In Yu’s hands, it becomes something else; a brutal, violent, extended battle that veers from one side to the other throughout. Is there any real peril for either man? No, of course not, but the audience is in on the joke here. Neither Freddy nor Jason can ever really die, so as final as it is possible to be with these two, the ending still carries a knowing wink, both literal and figurative, to the audience. The fans know Freddy and Jason are destined to battle forever a la Batman and The Joker, even if aspects of the final showdown bear greater comparison to a bloody Tom and Jerry than DC’s finest.
That’s not to say that the final showdown is the only attraction for fans here either. Some of the visuals have real panache – Jason’s corn field attack and the oddly melancholy visit to his swamp-side shack stand out as some of the franchise’s best, as does Freddy’s final appearance in full demon form – and some of the kills show real flair. The plot, so often a forgotten element in slasher fayre, is serviceable and does a good job of manoeuvring Freddy vs Jason’s many moving parts – sleep drugs, teen romance, homicidal parents, as well as two legendary killers – into position for the final act to go down. There are some great effects too and, despite it being CGI heavy, they have aged very well over the past decade and a half. There are some occasional missteps – the boiler room brawl is hokey in spots and the drug- fuelled Freddy-worm is right up there with Super Freddy in the catalogue of franchise missteps – but generally speaking, Freddy vs Jason is a well plotted, carefully considered, and well-made genre movie.
The real strength of the movie is its stellar cast. Final girl Lori, played by Monica Keena, ranks in the top echelons of protagonists across both franchises. After starting off with a predictably hokey backstory about a missing boyfriend, she develops into a well-rounded, vulnerable, and appealing lead whose arc is among the more satisfying in the movie. Love interest is played in square jawed fashion by Jason Ritter, and amiable support appears in the form of the ever-dependable Lochlyn Munro. The lovely Katharine Isabelle appears as Gibb and, despite being as engaging and watchable as ever, is given precious little to do – something the reflected negatively on at the time – and one of the genre’s most dependable faces, Brendan Fletcher, steals every scene in which he appears as escaped mental patient Mark. The only real weak link in the chain is Kelly Rowland – yes, that one – who appears as Lori’s friend Kia. Despite trying manfully, she is yet another example of how talent in one arena does not always translate to another, and her performance is distractingly wooden. It doesn’t help that she appears to be at least a decade older than any of the other teen characters either.
So just why is Freddy vs Jason not better regarded? Honestly, I do not know. For a movie designed to cash in on the fame of two of horror’s most famous faces, a surprising amount of care was taken to tackle both faithfully. The plot is on a par with the better entrants in both franchises, the cast is full of talented faces putting in good performances, the effects are great and have aged well, and – most crucially – Freddy and Jason have rarely been more entertaining in their solo outings. The final showdown between the two is a genre highlight, the culmination of an almost intolerable wait for fans, and somehow manages to be everything that we hoped it would be. Is Freddy vs Jason the best Nightmare movie? No, but it’s close. Is it the best Friday? No, but it’s close. Does it do everything fans of both franchises had hoped way back in 1987? No, but it’s close. On its fifteenth birthday it is time to give it another go; give yourself the chance to see it for what it is – a bloody fun slasher mash-up that is so much better than it had any right to be.