20 Years Ago Saw Freddy vs. Jason, but It Was Audiences That Won

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20 Years Ago Saw Freddy vs. Jason, but It Was Audiences That Won

Freddy vs. Jason. The title says it all. The coming together of two titans of horror that once ruled the screens of the multiplex had been in production hell for years before its eventual 2003 release. Talks went as far back as the late ‘80s, when both killers were in something closer to their prime. 15 years later, following an overabundance of junky and absurd sequels for each franchise that further devolved the initial purpose and origins of their characters, Freddy vs. Jason was situated at a crossroads. It had to both fulfill the simple pull of its elevator pitch while finding a way to revitalize characters that had become caricatures of themselves. How do you make a movie like this without reducing it down to the shallow trappings of the central gimmick?

The answer is, you don’t. You go so all-in on the possibilities within the novelty of the premise that the idea of a “gimmick movie” becomes a pro, not a con. When you have the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees occupying the same space, suddenly existing within a shared universe, you can do just about whatever you want—especially with the benefit of hindsight and a collective 18 movies to learn from. As poor young stoner Bill Freeburg explains before he’s possessed by Freddy and bisected by Jason’s machete: “Anything is possible! You just don’t get it!” 

Indeed, Freddy vs. Jason was a movie in danger of being helmed by someone who just didn’t get it. As both franchises became playthings of various studios and producers over the years, so much of their history was tied up in bureaucratic legal issues that it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that whoever was hired to tackle such an endeavor wouldn’t understand what makes these characters tick, or what a movie that brings them together should be shaped as. That Freddy vs. Jason works as well as it does is an all-time horror movie miracle. 

Credit is owed to co-writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (the scribes responsible for the very solid 2009 Friday the 13th remake and the abysmal 2017 Baywatch adaptation), who realized exactly how this movie needed to be structured. Specifically, it’s in how their story adeptly blends the styles of its two movie monsters’ worlds. At the end of the day, Freddy vs. Jason is more of a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel than a Friday one, Jason just happens to be along for the ride after being banished to Hell in his last entry, accurately titled Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday

Freddy vs. Jason cleverly uses Freddy’s acuity in tandem with Jason’s muscle: Jason is used as the heavy in Freddy’s plan to torment an Elm Street that has forgotten him, seeing as he needs the townspeople to fear him to haunt them. Jason is cast out of Hell to Elm Street, and once the bodies he’s responsible for start showing up, the older residents that remember the legend of Freddy begin to whisper his name once again, setting the stage for his return. But once Freddy realizes Jason is taking the kills that should be his, he sets out on a path for revenge.

It’s far more elaborately constructed and thought-out than it necessarily needed to be—I’m continually shocked by the effort put in to make this a bonafide slasher film on top of the feud that it all ultimately builds up to. It’s knowingly cheeky, but there’s a natural escalation on the way to the climactic battle between the two; the story never feels like a limp excuse to get to the showdown. This is not to say that it rises above your typical slasher fare—at its heart it’s still horny, drunk, dumb teens getting mowed down by the guys on the poster—but the film doesn’t shortchange its audience in ways it could definitely get away with. There’s a legitimately interesting thematic throughline about a generation of kids paying for the trauma that their parents never properly reckoned with and hid away from them, with everyone now being forced to pay the price. You would never think it, but the story of Freddy vs. Jason is potent. 

But really, the draw of the film is how it handles its two stars. The script tees it up perfectly, the dichotomy between the two imbuing the action with enough of Freddy’s dream world shenanigans and Jason’s real-world brutality. 

Director Ronny Yu takes his opportunity and runs with it. Yu is a bit of an unsung late ‘90s/early 2000s horror king, having taken the reins on Bride of Chucky five years before Freddy vs. Jason. Just as in Chucky, Yu has a playful and clever approach to the main duo, recognizing our innate understanding of their iconography and reinventing them in a way that works for the film without completely sacrificing their ethos. To be clear, Freddy vs. Jason is not a scary film—despite a couple of surprisingly good jumps here and there—but it’s not really meant to be. Yu injects the script with a breathless, fast-paced energy that sometimes feels more action than horror, and consistently reads as someone celebrating two horror legends rather than attempting to revive the roots of either franchise. It feels like one last hoorah for the two—fittingly, this was the last film of either series before each was rebooted.

True to its nonstop nature, Freddy vs. Jason is filled with an abundance of great moments and kills; it feels like every time one of these teens turns around they’ve got Freddy calling them a bitch or Jason’s machete chopping off one of their body parts. 

One moment that always sticks out in my mind is very early on. Blake—just one of many disposable teens to be killed—has a frightening encounter with Freddy after falling asleep on his porch, only to wake up and find his father’s decapitated body next to him spewing blood, only to then have Jason show up behind him and kill him too. Another is when Stubbs—a cop who sees the true threat of Freddy and Jason and decides to help the kids defeat them, and who appears to have an arc that will continue to the end of the film—is unceremoniously and brutally killed by Jason by shoving him into an electrocuting circuit board. There’s an unyielding, relentless, anything-goes attitude to who gets killed and how they die, like this was going to be the last slasher movie ever made.

Its breakneck spirit is perhaps only amplified by how stuck in its era Freddy vs. Jason is. Lest you forget this is a movie from 2003, Freddy vs. Jason is awash in the sort of garish color grading and occasionally cheap-looking cinematography you’re apt to find in films from this period. There’s dated humor and digital effects work, including a completely terrible-looking Freddy caterpillar thing that hits a bong rip before loudly belching a few moments later. It is not a good moment, but it is one with a dumb audacity that one may find themselves begrudgingly appreciating. Even despite these moments, Yu picks up the slack behind the camera, almost feeling like a proto-James Wan in the way he smoothly glides through the studio horror-movie funhouse sheen, making this something entirety indebted to the aesthetics of the early aughts while maintaining a certain level of technical proficiency and immersive craft. And besides, I’m not sure I would want a Freddy vs. Jason movie that doesn’t end with the sweet nu-metal sounds of Ill Niño blaring over the credits. 

And then, of course, there’s the showdown itself, once Freddy is pulled into the real world to fight Jason proper. Plot purposes dictate that it takes place at Camp Crystal Lake, where the two duke it out with both a winking sense of humor and tactile sense of physicality, full of stunt doubles getting thrown into walls or their heads smashed into windows as Freddy and Jason brawl within a burning cabin. It’s fun seeing Freddy be intimidated by Jason’s pure size and stature, as he’s forced to come up with more creative methods of physically incapacitating the hulking giant, including sending him flying through the air by way of pressurized air canisters that are used as torpedoes, keeping with the film’s occasional forays into slapstick comedy. 

Just as Alien vs. Predator would do the next year, Freddy vs. Jason is written so that one antagonist is more sympathetic—and offers more of a strategic advantage to the human protagonists if they were to win—than the other, which gives the fight slightly more weight. You’re clearly meant to root for Jason’s violent parental trauma over Freddy’s more genuinely evil associations with children that are, thankfully, only alluded to. The gradual escalation of events means it really is satisfying when Jason finally wins by using Freddy’s iconic bladed gloves against him, continuing the film’s impressive endeavor in finding rewarding ways to merge and subvert elements from both franchises. Whereas AvP would popularize the tagline that “No matter who wins, we lose,” Freddy vs. Jason offers a different feeling once the credits roll. Here, as Jason pulls Freddy’s decapitated head out of Camp Crystal Lake, only for the latter to give a sly, funny wink to the camera, the essence of each killer remains alive in pop culture perpetuity. It feels like everybody wins.

Trace Sauveur is a writer based in Austin, TX, where he primarily contributes to The Austin Chronicle. He loves David Lynch, John Carpenter, the Fast & Furious movies, and all the same bands he listened to in high school. He is @tracesauveur on Twitter where you can allow his thoughts to contaminate your feed.

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