October Horrorshow: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

See that subtitle? The one that reads ‘Jason Takes Manhattan?’ There’s a lot of promise in a subtitle like that. New York City is a big place. It’s an assault on the senses like nowhere else in the country. It’s loud; it’s packed full of smells, strange, pleasant, and offensive; no matter where you are in the city, there is always something worth looking at. It’s a city that begs to be experienced every day one is there. It’s also an expensive place to film, so when writer/director Rob Hedden had his Friday the 13th sequel greenlit by the studio, they told him there could only be two days of filming in the Big Apple.

So, that subtitle? It would have been more accurate if it had read ‘Jason Takes a Pleasure Cruise’ or ‘Jason Visits the Alleys of Vancouver.’ Hedden was crushed by the studio’s decision, but soldiered on, delivering a movie that he knew disappointed fans, because it disappointed himself just as much. That’s the bad news. The good news is, after a string of films with loosely-connected plot threads and uninteresting premises, the Friday the 13th franchise returns to a more basic slasher formula, and one that works better.

Once upon a time, it was Hammer Film Productions that perfected the art of the improbable resurrection, when they had to repeatedly bring Dracula back to life for their films. That championship belt was seized by Friday the 13th in the 1980s, and although there have been many contenders, I think this franchise still holds it.

For this flick, series bad guy Jason Voorhees comes back to life after an anchor pierces an underwater electrical cable in Crystal Lake that happens to be draped over his corpse, and Jason arises, Frankenstein’s monster-style. Then it’s time to get to some killing.

The victims in this flick are members of a high school graduating class and their chaperones. They are taking a party ship down to New York City. From northern New Jersey. Yeah. Part of the budget restrictions meant Hedden had to move a sizable portion of his movie aboard the ship, turning a short road trip in real life into an overnight voyage on the open ocean. It’s sad, but also kind of endearing when one knows how the studio screwed up Hedden’s film (in all seriousness, if they couldn’t afford to film the movie as intended, they should have insisted on an original screenplay they could actually afford, instead of forcing Hedden to butcher his idea).

The kids and the adults are all aboard the Lazarus (played by SS Princess Patricia, broken up for scrap shortly after filming), a not-small cruise ship. While they are steaming for New York, Jason wastes no time winnowing down the cast. Hedden only bothered with the most superficial character development before dispatching a good deal of his cast, sometimes in the very scene after meeting them. In fact, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan posterI counted four killings before all of the principal cast had even been introduced. I get that it can be a good thing to feed an audience a steady stream of corpses in a film like this for reasons of pace, but jeez. A little less efficiency could have been called for.

Jason has always had a supernatural ability to chase down his victims. No matter how fast one runs away, Jason will catch up. In this flick, the idea is taken to a silly extreme. A character will see Jason in front of them, they will turn around, and Jason will already be behind them. This happens many, many times.

Eventually, enough bodies pile up in the limited space of the ship that the characters realize the danger they are in. They separate into groups to hunt Jason down, but of course all they do is manage to sink the ship. Now the cast is down to its true principals — the two chaperones, Colleen and Charles (Barbara Bingham and Peter Mark Richman); would-be boxer Julius (Vincent Craig Dupree); heartthrob Sean (Scott Reeves); and Rennie (Jensen Daggett), who has some sort of psychic connection with Jason after she almost drowned in Crystal Lake as a child, and that matters not at all the plot. It just means the film telegraphs who the final girl is going to be.

The movie is in New York, now, although most of the exteriors are still not New York. After more than 60 minutes of the movie’s 100-minute running time, viewers are finally getting what was promised in the title, and most of it is ersatz. The lone scene filmed in New York featured Jason walking through the middle of Times Square, and somehow Hedden and company made it look like a fairly pedestrian place. That’s impressive, when one remembers that when this movie was shot, Times Square was still a seedy location. There’s a lot of local flavor missing from this scene.

As these films go, the cast is reduced further, leading to a final confrontation when Jason’s gory face is revealed, and then he gets killed. Surely, this time, Jason will stay dead for good.

There is one more glaring flaw with this film. The Jason face reveal is just about the only gore we get. There is plenty of blood, but viscera is all-but absent. This was a series made iconic in large part because of the brilliant effects work of Tom Savini and his crew. The gore in this movie is tame. Even network television would show more decades ago. We know what went wrong with the production from a budget standpoint, but the lack of gore is inexplicable.

From a basic nuts and bolts standpoint, this film works. All the hocus pocus surrounding Jason in the previous few entries is gone, and his sole purpose is to rip through co-eds. Mission accomplished. But, that was not nearly enough to overcome the film’s other problems. I know that it was not, but the film feels lazy and rushed. This movie, and its less-than-stellar return at the box office, accelerated the rapid decline of the franchise, effectively ending the regular series of films.

Funny thing is, it’s not an unwatchable bad movie. Once it starts moving, it doesn’t stop. It just has so little that’s compelling, beyond the idea, that the film begins to dissipate from one’s memory as soon as the credits roll. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Spends a Few Minutes in Manhattan, lands in the bottom half of the Watchability Index, displacing The Devil Below at #292.

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