by Ashley Naftule
Few films trends are more bewildering than “Horror Character in Spaaaaaace”. A big reason why horror has endured as a genre for so long is because of how cheap it is. Horror flicks are easy to bang out on a low budget, and there’s an inexhaustible supply of thrill junkies out there looking for movies to scare their dates into a “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll protect you” makeout sesh to guarantee a solid return on investment.
With that in mind, the decision to take a popular franchise slasher and transport them into space seems completely bananas. Just by virtue of being “in Spaaaaaaace” the film will be more expensive to produce. Renting some cabins in the wood and dousing college student actors in carob syrup won’t break the bank; having to CGI space ships and futuristic gizmos takes a bit more effort.
And not only is it a questionable decision in terms of financials, it’s a choice that almost never makes sense on a creative level: what the hell is the point of firing the goddamn Leprechaun into space?
As a whole, the subgenre of Franchise in Spaaaaace is white-hot garbage. Only one franchise has ever succeeded in sending their earthbound psycho killer into space and producing a solid movie. And not just a solid movie, but arguably the best entry in the entire series. I am, of course, talking about “Jason X.”
What separates the “Friday the 13th” series from most other long-running horror franchises is that it’s never produced a certifiably Great Movie. “Halloween”, “Hellraiser”, “Scream”, “Nightmare On Elm Street”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”… all these series have at least one genre-defining classic to their credit. They’ve all produced their share of shit sequels and pointless reboots, but there’s at least one film to their name that even non-horror fans can watch and go “This is a genuinely great movie.”
The Jason movies are pure trash. They’ve never been able to equal the creeping menace of Carpenter’s movie, produce an environment that seeps into your nerves and rattles you as badly as the cannibal’s home in “Massacre”, or derange the senses with the hallucinatory nightmare scenes you’d see with Freddy or Pinhead. The Jason films don’t have scripts and characters that stick with you; I can quote entire passages from “Scream” (as you can probably imagine, I identify with Randy a LOT), but I’d be at a loss to explain the plots or personalities that happen in any “Friday the 13th” flick.
At best, the franchise is a reliable delivery system of boob shots and teens getting shredded with weed-whackers. At worst, it’s as dumb as a $200 bag of pet rocks. So when it was announced that they’d be sending everybody’s favorite summer camp HR rep into the black depths of space, it didn’t look promising. Jason’s already taken Manhattan and went to Hell, and those were pretty disastrous vacations. Why would “Psycho Momma’s Boy in Spaaaaaaaace” be any better?
It’s shocking how good “Jason X” is when you compare it to the rest of the series. Sure, the film is completely ridiculous: tough talking marines that get slaughtered in seconds! Sex robots that kick ass! Liquid nitrogen kills! Cyborg Jason! What makes it work so well is that it owns its absurdity and tries to keep a straight face about it.
“Jason X” is like “Scream” in reverse. The film mocks and subverts all our expectations about what a “Friday the 13th” film is about. It offers the snark; the characters, on the other hand, take everything that’s happening very seriously. It’s a refreshing antidote to “Kevin Williamson fatigue”; the filmmakers crack jokes through visual references and certain plot twists, liberating the characters from the burden of having to rapid-fire spit out genre-savvy quips every five minutes. Instead of having characters joke about Jason having a thing against premarital sex, we get the amazing holodeck scene to illustrate that point for us (if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it).
For a film with an incredibly dumb premise at its core, it’s a surprisingly smart movie. When the killings start, the characters don’t act like suicidal dumbasses. They try to stick together, they fight back, they don’t make dumb decisions for the sake of giving Jason an easy kill. The film even introduces two black characters (TWO! That has to be a record for these movies) who last way longer than you’d think, given this series’ track record, and put up a good fight. And while all the characters have an identifiable type, they’re each given a moment to shine and transcend their status as “Final Girl”, “Nerd”, and “Slut”. The only character who isn’t given any kind of nuance is the greedy teacher on the ship, who’s there to fill the Paul Reiser quota — I mean, someone’s gotta be the dumb corporate guy who thinks monetizing The Braindead Machete Express is a good idea.
Even the setting of the film is way more thought-out than you’d expect. After a prologue (featuring a cameo by David Cronenberg, of all people) in which Jason and Final Girl Rowan (Lexa Doig) get cryo-frozen after the Crystal Lake killer escapes from a military base (the army was trying to figure out what makes the Hockey Mask Hacker so indestructible, which is basically the kind of insane shit the real military would actually do in this situation), they get discovered by an interstellar field trip. Students on a research ship (and yes, some of them are horny students), traveling the galaxy to get their course credits. We get to see a bit of what life is like on the ship and discover that there’s a whole underground market for cryogenically frozen people. Watching “Jason X”, it becomes clear that the writers spent more than ten minutes concocting the narrative, which is more than you can say for the rest of the series.
And best of all: “Jason X” is FUN. It isn’t like the dimly lit, torture porn of the Marcus Nispel “Friday the 13th” reboot. It isn’t a film that revels in the brutal suffering of its characters, or makes you feel like you’re watching a freshman cinematographer trying to reenact a Nine Inch Nails music video. The film harkens back to an era of horror where the movies were supposed to be goofy fun, and not “let’s watch someone get skinned alive for forty minutes” endurance tests. It brings the gore but also brings the laughs, and gives the heroes a chance to shine (esp. Lisa Ryder’s android character, who basically gets a Milla Jovovich upgrade halfway through the film). It’s the ONLY “Friday the 13th” movie that I could watch over and over again and it still holds up.
It’s not a classic. No film class will slot it next to Carpenter or Hooper when they’re doing a unit on horror masterpieces. It is, however, a far better movie than it has any right to be. It’s the overachieving little brother of a ne’er-do-well series, working hard to score a B+ while the rest of its siblings settle for D’s.