Hear Me Out: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

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Hear Me Out: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

Hear Me Out is a Paste column dedicated to earnest reevaluations of those cast-off bits of pop-cultural ephemera that deserve a second look. Whether they’re films, TV series, albums, comedy specials, videogames or even cocktails, Hear Me Out is ready to go to bat for any underappreciated subject.

When I was a kid—not yet too old to trick or treat, but stuck in a town with no sidewalks or real door-to-door culture—I’d spend my Halloweens inside watching whatever horror movies AMC scheduled that year. Normally it was the Halloween franchise in order (all eight films, long before Rob Zombie’s polarizing remakes and David Gordon Green’s recent trilogy) but, one year, they decided to offer up the Friday the 13th franchise instead—which was a favorite in my house growing up. When I was far too young, my dad opened my eyes to the cosm of Jason Voorhees and Camp Crystal Lake. The first installment—Sean Cunningham’s 1980 out-of-nowhere success story—was formidable enough to catch my attention quickly and, in retrospect, probably only because its gore was practically non-existent and the kills, sans motherly decapitation, were bush league at best.

In other words, Friday the 13th was a perfect horror franchise to bestow upon a six-year-old kid—especially in the mid-2000s, when the horror genre was undergoing a gross-out, bone-deep gore renaissance through films like Saw and Hostel. I remember that Halloween when AMC played a bunch of Friday the 13th movies, and I especially remember curling up in the darkness of my parents’ living room to watch Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan for the first time, which was nestled into the 8 PM slot. At the halfway point, my mom emerged from her bedroom to nonchalantly open the blinds that obstructed the sliding glass door that led to our back deck—only to reveal a large man dressed in dark clothing and wearing a Jason Voorhees mask. Truth be told, dear reader, I have not screamed so loud and high-pitched since. And there’s probably a small part of me that still hasn’t forgiven my dad for putting me so close to God. But despite such a traumatic event, I was still positively entranced by the grayish bleakness of Jason Takes Manhattan.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to despise the original Friday the 13th movie. I am not willfully ignoring its importance as a torchbearer for what horror movies became in the 1980s—even if Cunningham and his crew did do their absolute best to rip-off John Carpenter’s groundbreaking Halloween—but I’ve made it to a place where Friday the 13th Part 2 is my spiritual franchise starting point. And, on top of that, I’ve grown extra fond of the franchise’s black sheep installments, like A New Beginning and Jason Goes to Hell—though I am not going to act like The Final Chapter and Jason Lives aren’t brilliant (or, whatever “brilliant” means in the context of a slasher flick), either. But, amid all of the ups and downs that come with being a Friday the 13th fan—and being someone who still struggles mightily to beat the video game and is a bit jaded about the franchise’s never-ending legal battles—Jason Takes Manhattan remains a series gem for me. It’s still as dumb, fun and awing to me now as it was 20 years ago.

There are many reasons why Jason Takes Manhattan absolutely rips. For starters, the film kicks off with the most 1980s-sounding song anyone could possibly come up with. Like, I’m not even sure a laboratory could cook up something so quintessentially Reagan-era as Metropolis’ “The Darkest Side of the Night,” which I absolutely did play during a late-night Uber ride in New York City a few years ago. Then there’s the whole Jason Voorhees of it all, specifically him looking wet for all 100 minutes of the film. I think there’s something that is heinously—and effectively—campy about that costume choice, and it somehow makes Jason (played by the legendary and beloved Kane Hodder) more menacing (which you will certainly wish was still the case by the film’s end), if only because now the victims have to worry about getting slaughtered and leaked on.

Oh, and Jason Takes Manhattan features my favorite kill of the franchise—amateur boxer Julius (V.C.Dupree) trying to fist-fight Jason and getting decapitated by one swift punch from our hockey masked antagonist—and favorite character interaction of any of the first eight movies—“You don’t understand, there is a maniac trying to kill us!” Rennie (Jensen Daggett) tells a waitress. “Welcome to New York,” the waitress replies, before Jason busts through the wall and throws a cook (played by Ken Kirzinger, who’d later play Jason in Freddy vs. Jason) into a mirror.

Made with just a $5 million budget, Jason Takes Manhattan brought in a measly $14.3 million (for reference, 1989’s highest-grossing film was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which made $474 million)—a gross that was beaten by the last four films in the franchise in subsequent years. Paramount Pictures brought in Rob Hedden to write and direct Jason Takes Manhattan, because there is truly nothing smarter than handing the keys of a movie franchise to someone who’s never made a feature film before. But Hedden had directed episodes of the Friday the 13th TV series and was asked to steer the ship of the impending eighth film. Hedden took Jason out of Camp Crystal Lake (not a bad decision on paper), and critic Leonard Maltin went as far as to call Jason Takes Manhattan “the best film in the Friday [the 13th] series” and “imaginatively directed and written.”

Was Maltin’s analysis on to something? Well, considering that Hedden’s original script featured the sights and sounds of New York City—including the Brooklyn Bridge, Broadway and Jason Voorhees jumping off of the Statue of Liberty—it’s easy to see why he was deemed an apt captain of the franchise’s new direction, even if none of those ideas even came close to making it on-screen. “He had ambitions that we didn’t have the budget to allow for,” producer Frank Manscuo, Jr. said, even though Jason Takes Manhattan had the highest budget of any Friday the 13th film up until that point. Filming those crucial scenes in New York wasn’t possible so, after countless rewrites, Jason Takes Manhattan took place on a “cruise ship” (which I say lightly, because it was more like one of those sightseeing ships stationed on one of the Great Lakes, like the Goodtime III in Cleveland) that has shuffleboard, skeet shooting and melodramatic, unlikable teens. Plus, the New York City we do see isn’t actually New York City—it’s Vancouver, British Columbia! Squint and, just maybe, you’ll catch some resemblance—as long as you don’t pay any attention to the Pacific Northwest mountains in the backgrounds of shots.

But even after all of that locale nonsense, I still can’t help but love the hell out of Jason Takes Manhattan and see Hedden’s debut as a success—if only one of cosmically goofy proportions. “We live in claustrophobia, land of steel and concrete, trapped by dark waters,” an ominous, brooding voice says in a voiceover at the film’s genesis. “There is no escape, nor do we want it. We’ve come to thrive on it and each other. You can’t get the adrenaline pumpin’ without the terror, good people. I love this town.” No horror flick that is the eighth installment in a failing franchise should ever begin like that—and yet, it’s hands down the best opening sequence in any Friday the 13th movie across the board (plus, it’s got “The Darkest Side of the Night” playing beneath it, so).

I especially love how James A. Janisse explained it in his Kill Count video for the film back in 2021, when he said that Part VIII should have been titled Jason Takes Generic City, USA. I think the “Takes Manhattan” of the title isn’t totally off-base, as Jason does “take” Midtown. Who, what, or how much does he take? Undetermined, beyond who we see die on screen. But, it couldn’t be more obvious that Hedden was born on the West Coast, as his understanding of late-1980s New York City was nourished by long, droning shots of dime-store hoodlums doing heroin in alleyways, a graffiti-covered subway car, business men getting mugged, rats crawling out of random barrels full of toxic waste and that one obligatory diner in Time Square.

This might all sound like I’m just listing red flags or demerits against Jason Takes Manhattan, but I am telling you that those shots of the most stereotypical, your-grandparents-saw-it-on-the-news attributes you can give to any random city in America only better emphasize how much of a love-hate pleasure it is to really sit with Jason Takes Manhattan and take it all in. Rennie has a serious case of aquaphobia and her uncle, Dr. Charles McCulloch (Peter Mark Richman), isn’t too stoked about that—on account of him already being the ship’s chaperone. Now he’s gotta keep an eye on his niece, who is seeing apparitions of a disabled, disfigured Jason Voorhees all the time. To be honest, I don’t blame McCulloch for being a little bitchy about the whole situation! And Richman runs so many circles around the cast that his over-the-top, thespian attitude makes his scenes multi-dimensional enough to be thoroughly enjoyable, and his death (getting drowned in a sewage barrel) is absolutely ludicrous, gross and funny as all get-out (especially if you remember that he was hurled out of a two-story window like a ragdoll just seconds before).

When I was younger, watching Jason kill a character by pressing a scorching hot sauna rock into his chest until it erupts in flames shook me to my core—even if none of that makes any real sense. But no one should ever come to a Friday the 13th movie with the hopes that it will make sense. Part of the experience is surrendering yourself to not thinking too complexly about what’s going on. When we’re not watching the prom queen do cocaine and try to manipulate McCulloch for favors, we get a lot of unnecessarily long shots of Jason’s hands picking up weapons—as if Hedden was taking cues directly from the short films I was making in my high school video production classes. And then when Admiral Robertson (Warren Munson), the ship’s captain, gets his throat slit by Jason, we get to see that our masked killer used the dull side of the machete to do so—a choice that was likely a mistake, but I like to imagine that it was some sort of intentional “fuck you” aimed at the MPAA’s ongoing censorship of the franchise’s gore.

After having exhausted the series’ beloved hero Tommy Jarvis in three of the previous four films, the stand-in for Jason’s greatest foe is Sean (Scott Reeves)—who is the son of Admiral Robertson and easily one of the most unlikable deuteragonists in the entire franchise, if only for his inability to conjure up any sort of charisma. He’s no Paul Holt (John Furey) or Rob (E. Erich Anderson), that’s for damn sure. But, his “There is no more restaurant!” line delivery holds such little passion that it still makes me chuckle, especially after learning that he was not the original actor cast to play the role (that was Lee Coleman, who producers felt didn’t have enough chemistry with Daggett). The only thing more laugh-out-loud than watching Reeves suck the allure out of the script every second he’s on screen is Jason’s ability to teleport everywhere (on account of every door on the cruise ship being locked, for some stupid reason).

This might all sound negative, but I promise you that it’s not. Ever since watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time in high school, I’ve been waiting for our next chapter of that cultish devotion to show itself. If there is ever to be a second-coming of such folkloric, late-night movie viewing, I will happily nominate Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan for the gig—if only for its ending, in which Sean and Rennie hide in the sewers which, apparently, flood with toxic waste at every night at midnight. After Rennie tosses a bucket of waste onto Jason’s face, he rips off his mask and reveals a cartoonish, melted face that looks like Play-Doh that was left in a sandbox for too fucking long.

When you think that it can’t get any more absurd, Jason—while trying to kill Rennie and Sean—watches the waste come barreling down the canal, cries out “Mommy?!” like a child and then, in an instant, starts puking out water, only to drown in the grossness thrashing upon him. Once the waste recedes, a boy version of Jason is left unconscious on the sewer floor, sprawled out right next to our jaws. This is where I tell you that there was an original ending that was filmed and scrapped from the final cut that included a miniature, disfigured child Jason coming out of the melty cartoon Jason’s mouth. Yes, we were robbed of something truly so beautiful, but what we did get is still comically glorious and unforgettable enough to endure in infamy.

Never before has a film so boring and monotonous been so fun. Those long shots of Jason grabbing weapons off the wall, or the self-censored lack-of-gore because of the MPAA’s distaste for the Friday the 13th franchise, are just plain enough that, when Julius gets his head punched all the way off, the shock and awe hits you so much harder. Friday the 13th is at its best when the film really embraces the “What the fuck?” of its own lore. The timeline in Jason Takes Manhattan makes no sense in the greater context of the franchise, but Jason pukes Crystal Lake water out of his mushy mouth for no reason other than Rob Hedden and his team thought they could. And hats off to Hedden for wanting to take a big swing on his first feature film, even if the studio suits didn’t give him the money to hit a home run. He did, however, give us good advice: Next time you’re thinking about exploring or hiding out in a nearby sewer tunnel, just remember that it floods with toxic waste at midnight.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste’s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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