Everybody’s Into Weirdness: FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989)

This week, we take a boat ride with Jason Voorhees and witness what some consider to be one of the worst horror sequels of all time.

The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.

The thirty-fifth entry into this disreputable canon is the widely despised eighth Friday the 13th franchiseinstallment, Jason Takes Manhattan…

Year: 1989

Trailer: Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives; Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood

Alternate Title: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Ashes to Ashes

It was a perfectly cut trailer, promising the delivery of a picture that exceeded even your wildest horror hound fantasies. An unnamed hulk gazes out over the NYC skyline. We can’t see his face, but something sure is familiar about this creep. His heavy breathing, that tattered utility suit…was this…it is! Just as we get too close for comfort, Jason Voorhees reveals himself. There’s a flurry of reaction shots – innocent Manhattanites raising their arms to stop the oncoming deathblow. Smash cut to black. Friday the 13thPart VIII! Jason Takes Manhattan! Coming Soon!” Mr. Trailer Voice bellows at us like Crazy Ralph, guaranteeing nothing but doom and gloom. Any true terror aficionado felt their soul jump into their throat via sheer excitement when they first saw the spot. Has a horror premise ever held as much raw potential for mass carnage? Doubtful.

Sadly, this Big Apple bloodbath isn’t the movie we got when Jason Takes Manhattan hit theaters in Summer of ‘89… not by a long shot. Instead, Jason takes a cruiser that has somehow embarked upon a journey to New York utilizing an invented aquatic route from Crystal Lake to the Atlantic Ocean (how the Captain of this vessel ever rose to the rank of “Admiral” [and furthermore, in which Navy], is possibly the biggest mystery of the Friday franchise). As the boat’s anchor drags the floor, it picks up the corpse of America’s favorite hockey-masked maniac (after another ship tugged on a power line and shocked his body back to life, of course). The mere moniker Jason Takes Manhattan proves to be a giant cheat, since the majority of Jason's homicidal hijinks take place on the high seas. It isn’t until the film's final reel, during which he pursues a handful of Lakeview High seniors through the side alleys of NYC, that we even get to see Mr. Voorhees hanging out in the titular urban jungle, and yet he still only gets to punch one dude’s head off. What a rip-off.

The main reason we never really get to see Jason pound the New York pavement is because Paramount Pictures slashed writer/director Rob Hedden’s budget just before production was set to begin. Hedden had envisioned entire set pieces revolving around Madison Square Garden, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building. But instead of re-jiggering his idea to fit the smaller sum, Hedden instead mashed his high concept up with another involving a boat, and voila – Jason Takes Manhattan was born. Sort of. Really, the movie borders on becoming a brightly colored parody of the series, where everything is vaguely Canadian (most of the picture, save for three days in Times Square, was shot in Vancouver). The kids of Lakeview High screw, do cocaine and tell each other tales about that “young boy who drowned in the lake”, while a Crazy Ralph clone creeps around the deck, hissing how everyone on this voyage is “doomed” or “gonna die”. It’s a weird tonal mixture of familiar sincerity and cheap ineptitude that never truly finds a coherent balance, as Hedden struggles to both deliver an obvious studio cash-in while simultaneously trying out something vaguely interesting with a franchise that was on its last lucrative legs.

There’s a slickness to Jason Takes Manhattan that sets it apart from its seven predecessors; a music video sheen that only gets glossier once the good ship Lazarus crash lands in NYC (yes, the kids of Lakeview High enjoy a graduation party aboard a vessel named after an undead Biblical figure). Before that, a girl plays guitar in the bowels of the commercial liner (before having the instrument shoved through her face) and Kelly Hu (in her film debut) is stalked and strangled in a sleazy disco dance hall (the sequence is one of the series’ closest cousins to a true giallo set piece). In-between, there are acidic dreams, in which our latest Final Girl (Jensen Daggett) inexplicably hallucinates about young Jason drowning in Crystal Lake. These gauzy reveries are rendered all the more confusing by the fact that the movie can’t seem to make up its mind regarding the Voorhees boy’s deformation. In one dream, he’ll be a perfectly normal kid, while in another he sports the “bad eye” fans know so well. It’s a complete disregard for continuity that would almost seem purposeful if everything else in the picture weren’t so glaringly off.

This complete lack of narrative logic extends past in-series goofs and becomes ingrained in Manhattan’s own storytelling DNA. For instance – why does the school chaperone (Peter Mark Richman, doing his best to make every moment reek of Daytime Soap) keep threatening to rat these recent high school graduates out to their parents? How is Jason teleporting around the ship, appearing in one spot and then another like a burly ghost? When the kids are being chased through New York, why are they told that the city flushes the sewer system with toxic waste every night at midnight? Jason Takes Manhattan often takes on the texture of a live-action cartoon, never once giving a shit about existing in a reality that the audience recognizes as their own. It’s baffling in its utter ridiculousness, but also a complete hoot to witness with an audience.

Look – Jason Takes Manhattan isn’t a good film. It just fucking isn’t. To be frank, it’s barely competent (which is quite embarrassing, given the Paramount pedigree). Yet its badness is what renders it borderline transcendent. There’s “so bad it’s good”, and then there’s “what in God’s name is even happening here?”, and the eighth Friday the 13th most certainly falls into the latter category. Nevertheless, this isn’t a call to enjoy the film ironically; quite the contrary, actually. Though nearly every creative decision is a head-scratcher from any sort of reasonable stand-point, the commitment to bait-and-switch hucksterism makes you look back at that initial teaser with rose-tinted glasses. When Jason Voorhees looked out on the NYC skyline, he was pining – just as we were – to be allowed to tear that city a new asshole. Thanks to studio politics, all we got was a half-remembered night terror of what never was. Thankfully, there’s enough goofball anti-reality to keep Manhattan chugging along, merciless in its skull-drudgery; a mercenary product that manages to still tear out the hearts of those of us who grew up devouring this already suspect franchise on late night cable at unsupervised sleepovers. There’s a whole generation of suburban dunces who thought Times Square was a glowing, toxic wasteland thanks to this picture, and I was one of them .

This Week at Weird Wednesday: Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things

Previous WW Features: Penitentiary; Skatetown USA; Blood Games; The Last Match; Invasion of the Bee Girls; Julie Darling; Shanty Tramp; Coffy; Lady Terminator; Day of the Dead; The Kentucky Fried Movie; Gone With the Pope; Fright Night; Aliens; Future-Kill; Ladies and Gentlemen…The Fabulous Stains; Pieces; Last House on the Left; Pink Flamingos; In the Mouth of Madness; Evilspeak; Deadly Friend; Don’t Look in the Basement; Vampyres; She; Dolls; Alice, Sweet Alice; Starship Troopers; Message From Space; Rabid; Child’s Play; Lost in the Desert; Suspiria; Effects