horror

The Once and Future Jason

“Jason X is my favorite episode of Andromeda.” – Carol Borden

“Honey, this is bad. This is Space Mutiny bad.” – my husband

“Guys, he just wanted his machete back!” – actual dialogue from Jason X

After enough sequels that you might lose count of which Friday the 13th they were on, Jason X – get it? X is Roman numeral ten? – may be better known as The One Where Jason Goes To Space, [Thing] in Space being a trope of genre entertainment that’s right up there with mirror universes and musical episodes. Pinhead and the Leprechaun both beat Jason into orbit, while his voyage to the final frontier cooled on a studio shelf, but Jason X wins the space race of my heart. It came at a point in the franchise where its long history was becoming a liability, tastes were shifting, and audience expectation had been sharpened on the knowing meta-commentary of titles like Scream, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, movie or series, you pick. The previous Friday, the convoluted Jason Goes to Hell, had ended by teasing Jason Vs. Freddy,* but that production was catatonic in its own bureaucratic nightmare. Sean S. Cunningham, pressed to release something Jason, went with Jason in Space. Jason X was a compromise among all of these influences: an acknowledgement of a fan-favorite franchise that, despite many bold attempts to reboot and rejigger internally, kept the staid reputation of an iconic brand; a thirst to be hip and play past the fourth wall as a sort of Jason Gen X; and a way to keep the franchise alive without messing up the continuity for the Jason Vs. Freddy movie everybody really wanted. And while just the concept may seem like a silly one-off, consider that Jason X  actually gets that whole laundry list done. You get classic Jason. You get Uber Jason (more on that later). You get comedy-horror. You get horror-horror. You get some inventive kill scenes, like the liquid nitrogen head smash that was featured on Mythbusters, and a heroine sucked through a screen into the void of unforgiving space. (“This sucks on so many levels!” she laments with her last breath.) You get some truly expressive Jason shrugs by Kane Hodder. You get a far better movie than Jason Vs. Freddy ended up being. You even get some classic campground action before it’s all over, in a brief diversion that became its most iconic scene. Jason X is also a timeless Jason, not burdened with a weird mythology like in Jason Goes To Hell, not stranded in the horndog mores of yore like almost everything previous to Jason Goes To Hell, and yet not a fake Jason. You get, in short, the Once and Future Jason.

The movie opens with Jason, hauled up and immobilized by chains, a captive at the Crystal Lake Research Facility. Project leader Rowan LaFontaine (Lexa Doig), whose last name I only know because I looked at the wiki — it’s not even in the credits — argues with her colleague Dr. Wimmer (David Cronenberg in pure, icy Dr. Decker mode) about putting horror’s favorite goalie in cryogenic stasis. Rowan wants Jason on ice until mankind evolves the knowhow to murder him once and for all, a fun reversal of the usual reason for cryogenic preservation. Dr. Wimmer, however, wants Jason “soft,” in the hopes of investigating and replicating his weird tissue regeneration powers, which also sounds like a pretty good Cronenberg movie. Jason escapes, naturally, quickly shishkabobs him an acclaimed horror director and his marine contingent like they’re mere horny co-eds, and faces off against Rowan in a cryogenic chamber, which ends with them both frozen in a very cold open indeed. The pair are harvested 400 years later by a group of spacefaring archeology students retrieving relics from the surface of our dead Earth. Dealt a killing blow by Jason moments before she’s caught in cryogenic stasis, Rowan gets revived by the group and their professor, because in the future, tissue regeneration is no big whoop. While Jason seems as dead as usual, once he defrosts, he’s undead as usual, and that’s how you get a Jason in Space. Rowan’s warnings are ignored until Jason is fully on the loose, and the fact that the spaceship comes with a complement of space marines just gives him a much-needed warm-up after all those centuries of downtime.

There are a lot of things I like about this setup, not least that Jason, who spends ten films going from a deformed drowned child lurking beneath the placid surface of Crystal Lake to manchild yokel stalker who’s not creative enough to poke two holes in the bag on his head to a hockey-masked undead teleporting beastmode killer, gets both demoted and promoted by technology in the film. I mean, we start with Jason making short work and short ribs of a well-armed elite military unit that is specifically there to contain him. For those of us who remember Jason actually falling down in pain when he took a knife to the thigh, the distance he has come in his journey as a self-fashioning masked psycho killer is weirdly inspiring, like the Coal Miner’s Daughter of undead murderers. But as many an RPG player can attest, enemies that don’t scale with you can take the fun out of being overpowered pretty quickly. Luckily, humanity leveled up while Jason was on ice and now has a comparable capacity to get better from mortal wounds. When Jason and Rowan’s bodies are discovered, inert Jason rocks forward and chops one of his liberators’ arms off, but the scene is played entirely for laughs. Har har, Jason kills people even when he’s a chunk of ice. But tissue regeneration, again, no big whoop. They just grow the kid a new arm. And not everyone on the ship is human; they have an android, Kay-Em (Lisa Ryder), who matches Jason’s resilience and deathlessness, indeed surviving the last quarter of the film or so as a head in the crook of a dude’s arm. Finally, humanity is on an even playing field with Mr. Voorhees, even in his ridiculously-overpowered, late sequel form, and it’s as though we are transported back to the days of potato sack head Jason. This is going to actually be a little bit of a workout for him.

Jason would not be Jason unless he were freakishly unbeatable though, and thus: Uber Jason. Once Kay-Em makes Jason one big flesh wound, unattended nanotech on board the ship goes to work, making him bigger, stronger, faster, using synthetic materials from the ship itself to fill in for atomized tissue. This is just like when iTunes automatically imported that U2 album without asking anybody. The tagline was “Evil Gets an Upgrade,” and it is fully the moment the trailers promised, not just a functionally immortal Jason, but, with apologies to Alice Cooper, a Jason who is no longer any kind of man behind a mask. He’s just mask, baby. Metal, mask, and mercilessness. He can withstand the airlessness of space, a reentry burn-up, close quarter explosions, and the best robot kung-fu the future has to offer. Good thing the Earth is already dead, one supposes.

There are so many movies in Jason X.  You have Aliens and Starship Troopers in the form of the grunts that hunt Jason in the first part of the movie. And nobody needs to think much about how things go on on this spaceship because everything, from the designs and procedures of the ships and space stations to the computer consoles our heroes stand around, is familiar from a decade of syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation and everything it inspired, including Gene Roddenberry’s own Andromeda, which starred two of Jason X’s leads. Kay-Em’s kung-fu grip upgrade for her first clash with Jason is more than a little reminiscent of The Matrix’s Trinity and anticipates Milla Jovovich’s badass zombie killer Alice in the Resident Evil films. You also have a little bit of Alien/Aliens in the calculating professor who seeks to keep Jason alive for a big payoff. But for all that, it is still a Friday the 13th, and it knows it. The students on board the spaceship Grendel** that retrieves Rowan and Jason are disproportionately belly-baring girls, even the studious one who dies first. The implicit slasher rules that forbid sex and drugs are always in play, and the sequence that juxtaposes Jason defrosting to wakefulness with a pair of lab assistants doing sex ed extra credit edges all the way up to the line of parody, but punches a well-timed machete through it. It’s tricky to lampoon yourself while being yourself, but Jason X pulls it off, and a lot more entertainingly than some straight parodies manage.

Is it scary? Nah, although Uber Jason does command a certain HOSHTness simply by virtue of his bulkhead immensity, not unlike Rob Zombie’s Michael Myers. But I don’t think any Friday the 13th is really scary. Every film has its memorable moments: the face pushed through the camper wall in part VI, Agent for H.A.R.M. dunked headfirst into a drum of toxic waste in part VIII, Crispin Glover’s dancing in part IV. But scary? Only if the WWE is scary. There’s something about Jason, more than any other masked killer or slasher antagonist, that makes him not exactly sympathetic – though his backstory surely is the most tragic of any movie murderer this side of Sleepaway Camp’s Angela – but somehow a monster to rally behind. There are plenty of scenes in Jason X that emphasize Jason’s vulnerability, from repeated close-ups of his eye, the surrounding flesh no longer the maggot-studded hamburger of previous films, to seeing that vulnerable eye speared and removed from its socket by a spaceship co-ed to his comedic dismemberment by Kay-Em that’s more than a little reminiscent of Monty Python’s Black Knight. He’s not Norman Bates-level sympathetic, and he never says a word but ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma,*** but somehow, he’s at least as relatable as Ash.

Friday the 13th, while it started as kind of a whodunit with Mrs. Voorhees’ shock ending, has spent its most popular hours as a howcatchem. Or maybe a howeviscerateem. It’s not that the series heroes and heroines are unlikable or characters you want to see murdered, but at the same time, the tension isn’t that they might be killed. The tension is how they’ll get killed. And the more powerful Jason becomes in the franchise, the more iconic he becomes, the more the audience is invested in him. Not his success. Just him. Which is why I have a cute game on my phone that is essentially the player as Jason navigating a slider puzzle by murdering people (but don’t kill the kitties!), why you can play as the counselors or Jason in the Friday the 13th multiplayer game, why you can get Jason Funko Pops and shirts like this, and why an attempt to replace him as the franchise lead met with fury, despite that movie, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, having the most ambitious kill count of the series. At some point, people aren’t in it for the vicarious thrill of facing death. They’re in it because death is an old buddy.

You can love or hate the Friday the 13th films, but I admire that they’ve always been very aggressive about moving the franchise forward. Not a single Friday fails to innovate in some way, and Jason X is perfectly in this spirit. In previous outings, Jason gets resurrected by lightning, squares off against a tormented psychic girl, jumps bodies via a putrid cursed heart, and, as previously mentioned, is not actually Jason one time. Jason X has never gotten a lot of love, but if I’m honest, it’s my favorite. I love the previous entries; I grew up with them. But I also grew up. And those Fridays, for the most part, haven’t aged well, normalizing toxic masculinity here and slut-shaming there. I spend way more time cringing than flinching with those movies. Jason X is the first, best Friday to move past that bullshit, counting the lackluster 2009 series reboot. It evolves, like Jason evolves. Hopefully it won’t be its final frontier.

* It also laid the groundwork for Jason to be classified a Deadite in the Evil Dead series, although because lawyers, this was more of an Easter egg than a tease.

** Grendel being the OG monster with a bad mama. The movie is absolutely brimming with cute things like that.

***Jason is, in fact, saying “ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma” sampled and looped from “Kill her, Mommy,” during Betsy Palmer’s psychotic break in the first movie, not “ch-ch-ch, ah-ah-ah,” but much like Captain Kirk’s Starfleet uniform actually being green instead of yellow or the chorus in ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” not appealing to someone named Bruce, it may be a case of audience perception pwning the truth.

Angela has never been a camp counselor, but she is often a counselor who is camp.

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