Take Your Best Shot: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
By 1989, the Friday the 13th franchise had hacked its way into the homes of obsessive horror fans with seven films, two video games, a television series with little association outside a cash grab title, five novels, and a slew of merchandise that turned immense profit where the films couldn’t. After the immensely disappointing box-office draw of 1988’s Friday the 13th: The New Blood, in which Brian De Palma’s The Fury met the slasher genre, Paramount Pictures sought to remove the profit hemorrhaging franchise from the restrictive confines of Crystal Lake, giving Jason Voorhees a much needed vacation. Assigning first time director Rob Hedden, who worked for almost seven years at Universal Studios before concocting two elaborate stories for the franchise, Paramount was able to strip away the blood-laden cabins in place of open seas and rat-infested streets, bringing the death curse to the docks of New York City with Jason Takes Manhattan; widely considered to be one of the worst sequels the genre has to offer.
Its poster, depicting a certain knife-wielding maniac stabbing through the iconic I Heart New York logo – axed from distribution after the New York City Tourism Committee huffed and puffed – was quickly replaced with the image of Jason looming over the Empire City, his knife ready to cut through a different kind of heart. One could simply reach out and feel his rigor mortis grip over the neon glow of a city up for grabs, inviting you to accept the fish out of water direction the franchise is so gleefully toying with.
Just imagine, New York City. The Big Apple. A sardine can of beguiling camp counselors and unprepared New Yorkers, packed to the gills in a maze of sanguine streets. Jason, livid and alive, lumbers after a few screaming co-eds into the grimy subway system, only to use an oncoming train to decapitate one. A severed limb is used to knock its owner out onto the third base of Shea Stadium, while later a Coney Island hot dog is impaled through the back of someone’s throat. These visions danced through my head like sugar plum fairies, quickly popping out of existence as the blood splattered realization dawned on me of what Jason Takes Manhattan really was!
While the eighth film did actually plan on setting itself entirely in Manhattan, Paramount knew that Hedden’s rather lofty ambitions – a visit to Madison Square Garden was planned, as well as a brief stint atop the Statue of Liberty – would drastically exceed their 5 million dollar budget; the largest of any of the Friday the 13th films. To put it into perspective, Hedden’s budget equaled that of Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ music video (directed by David Fincher), which features more of a cityscape (and ambition) than most (if not all) of Jason Takes Manhattan. Hedden, who decided to cut and paste two script ideas together, created a Frankenstein’s monster of laborious intentions marred with studio restrictions.
One of the two scripts places the infamous camp killer within the bowels of a cruise liner picking off unsuspecting teens – “a little bit of Das Boot and a little bit of Aliens…” says Hedden - while the other drops Jason Voorhees directly into the city that never sleeps, which if you’re a Friday the 13th fan sounds too good to be true. And it was, given the premise of an urban playground in which Jason could unleash mayhem. The film even fools us by casting its opening credits against set pieces that Jason will (eventually) visit, making us think that Jason doesn’t just take Manhattan, but that he’s already there. But with almost an hour in, without the glow of a certain city in sights, it would appear the only thing this Friday the 13th entry takes is its time.
After being jolted back to life from an underwater power line, Jason stows away aboard the rusted confines of the cruise ship Lazarus - fortuitously named after a resurrected Saint – that just so happens to be carrying the graduating class of Lakeview High (the smallest graduating class in the history of cinema). Our final girl, Rennie (Jensen Daggett), suffers from aquaphobia and continually has inexplicable hallucinations of a young Jason, whose make-up alternates between J-horror and that one Halloween costume you tried out when you were 9-years-old. Her romantic interest, Sean (Scott Reeves) just so happens to be the Captain’s son, whose limited knowledge of a sextant mirrors his on-screen charisma. The trip’s chaperone, Dr. McCulloch (Peter Richmond), whose overprotective relationship with Rennie provides a link to Jason, seems to have a hard-on for busting students, all the while dismissing any notion of a masked killer. While the ship’s teens let loose with cocaine and a discothèque – the dying breath of ‘80s excess crammed aboard a party vessel - Jason begins picking them off one by one on the open waters, all the while creeping somewhat closer to New York City.
Where previous films took inspired measures to dispatch its motley crew of expendable teens – Part 3’s failed handstand comes to mind – Jason never really discovers his sea legs here in order to tap into his expressive side. One heavy metal rocker, testing out the ships killer acoustics, gets a Fender slammed into her face, coincidentally ushering in the Heavy Metal category onto MTV’s own Video Music Awards that same year. Another is chased into the discothèque where she’s subsequently choked under the glittery light of a disco ball, a particular genre of music that also saw its last breath snuffed out on the dance floor. Outside of a rooftop boxing match that sees a one punch decapitation, there’s nothing particularly notable or gruesomely compelling about the methods of mayhem at the hands of a killer who, frankly, has dispatched others in just about every conceivable method.
Which is in many ways what makes Jason Takes Manhattan more absorbing than it has any right to be. It’s a film that shares a similar pop culture sensibility shown in director Tom McLoughlin’s sixth entry, Jason Lives, which saw the horror genre playfully skewered with observational meta humor. Here, the franchise seems to be skewering its own ridiculous nature, as Jason appears out of nowhere, only to clearly teleport around the deck of the ship in incomprehensible ways. Even the films first kill has a teen pretending to be Jason as he jokingly scares his girlfriend, right before being skewered by the butt of his own joke.
Sure, it isn’t until well over the hour mark – in the franchise’s lengthiest entry, clocking in at 100 minutes – when the film’s band of survivors make it to the docks of New York City, and yes, most of its grime coated alleyways are sets shot in Vancouver (Jason Takes Vancouver doesn’t quite carry the same ring). But seeing this hulking, waterlogged corpse standing amidst the neon ads of Times Square almost makes up for the complete red-herring title. Almost. Jason Takes Manhattan is by and large a failure, one that too often feels like it’s choking on its own enthusiasm for breathing new life into an old formula. Yet the film’s failed ambition is what keeps it from remaining capsized, as Jason – after nine years and 68 kills (not including that phony Roy) – clearly proves he’s a piece of the pop culture zeitgeist. An icon who’s now large enough for the big city. It’s just a shame he couldn’t afford to get their sooner.