Written by: Todd Farmer
Directed by: Jim Isaac
Produced by: Noel Cunningham
Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans
This review contains MINOR SPOILERS for the film Jason X.
As I sit here sipping cheap gut-rot wine at 10:30 in the morning, I can't help but wonder if Sean Cunningham was doing the same when he decided to re-involve himself with the Friday the 13th franchise. Mind you, I'm a huge fan of the series on the whole, but ever since Cunningham brought himself back into the creative fold, the franchise's output became somewhat more controversial. While Jason Goes to Hell did a good job of splitting opinion, Jason X is the film that really threw a monkey wrench into fandom's collective cogs.
Having seen Jason X seventeen times during its theatrical release (I worked in a cinema at the time), I think I'm well prepared to try and pin down just what went wrong with a film that, in more capable hands, could have been be a really spiffy sci-fi/horror jaunt.
The film opens an undisclosed number of years after the events of Jason Goes to Hell. Jason Voorhees has been captured by the US Government and is being held captive in the Crystal Lake Research Facility. A scientist named Rowan (Lexa Doig) hopes to cryogenically freeze the unstoppable Jason, but an arrogant researcher (David Cronenberg) has got Uncle Sam's permission to transport Voorhees out of the facility so that the mass murderer's unique regenerative abilities can be studied and exploited. Bad idea.
After Jason escapes and kills everyone else in the facility, Rowan lures him into the cryogenic chamber. Unfortunately, Jason pierces the chamber door with his machete (!) and floods the room with cryogenic gas, trapping Rowan in stasis. 400 years later, a group of students arrive on the abandoned planet Earth during an educational field trip. They enter the facility, excavate Jason and Rowan, and carry the twosome to their ship. And that's when the funk really hits the fan.
The idea of moving Jason Voorhees to an outer space setting was not popular from the outset. Several other franchises -- including Hellraiser and Critters -- had made similar transitions with varying degrees of success. The over all feeling in fandom at the time seemed to be "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the problem facing anyone who wanted to do a new Jason Voorhees film was keeping it from conflicting with New Line Cinema's planned crossover with Freddy Krueger. As a means of circumventing continuity conflicts, Sean Cunningham suggested a film set in the distant future.
The flaw here wasn't so much in the idea, but in the execution. Jason X ended up being New Line's answer to Jason Takes Manhattan -- just substitute Manhattan with Earth 2 and the ocean liner with a spaceship. Moving Jason into the distant future might have worked if the film hadn't spent the majority of it's 93 minute running time trying to be Aliens with a hockey mask.
Todd Farmer wrote the screenplay for the film, which on its own was a pretty good read. The early draft took itself a bit more seriously, and it was obvious that Farmer respected the films that came before. Unfortunately, as often happens, the film's executive producer demanded changes. Very few of them were for the better. While Farmer's script wasn't perfect, the more Cunningham tampered with it the less appeal it had.
Jim Isaac, a guy who worked on several David Cronenberg features as a special effects artist, was tapped to direct. Isaac proved to be a pretty competent director, although the small budget and large amount of effects work the film required certainly did him no favors. Jason X definitely has more visual flair than most of the films in the franchise, and is lit quite beautifully (props to the DP for that), but the lack of money is painfully obvious. It's too ambitious.
The cast is a mixed bag. The acting on display isn't really any worse than what we've seen in the previous nine films, but when you stuff an actor's mouth with technobabble and faux future-speak, you do run the risk of them coming across a lot worse than they otherwise might have. The characters in the film also lack back-story or on-screen development, so it was really difficult to give a damn whether they lived or died.
Another problem has to do with Jason specifically. The production team decided to tinker with his well-established character design, and not only did they redesign his signature hockey mask, they gave him an upgrade.
This new embodiment of evil was donned Uber Jason, and while I think the concept as written in the script is pretty good, the on-screen execution left something to be desired. I really liked the original concept art, but the final costume looked cumbersome and overall less impressive than the early sketches. It really needed to be a bit more streamlined, but with Kane Hodder in the suit it was never going to be as sleek and aerodynamic as it could have been. It's probably the most disappointing aspect of the film.
On the musical front, long-time franchise composer Harry Manfredini wrote the film's score. While the melodies and leitmotifs aren't bad, the quality of Manfredini's equipment is a little bit suspect. The music actually comes across slightly better on the soundtrack CD, but in the film it just doesn't have the same kind of oomph as the stuff he wrote for the earlier entries. The synthesized instruments he uses are a pale comparison to a live orchestra and were even pretty weak when compared to other mainstream synthesized soundtracks from the same year (there were PlayStation 2 games released in 2001 with better quality music).
As far as carnage is concerned, despite the fact that there are a couple of shots needlessly padded with CGI, most of the gore is pretty decent and there are a few gags that are all about good ol' fashion splatter. Jason dispatches his victims in a variety of brutal ways, including a fairly impressive skull decimation. There are also some gratuitous boobies for those of you who fancy that sort of thing, which is pretty much par for the course in a Friday the 13th film.
The DVD presentation of Jason X is pretty good. Special features include commentary by Jim Isaac, Todd Farmer and Noel Cunningham, the theatrical trailer, and two featurettes that are both informative and entertaining to watch. The first digs into the history of Jason Voorhees and explores why he's such a memorable character, while the other follows production of the film.
The digital transfer of the main feature is pretty decent. The shadows are deep and rich, there's little (if any) color bleeding, and as far as I can tell there's not a whole lot of compression artifacts (given how beautifully some scenes are lit, I'd really like to see what a Blu-ray transfer looks like.) The 5.1 sound mix is pretty standard stuff, it doesn't do anything that jumps out as being above average, but the dialog comes nice and strong through the center channel and is never in danger of being drowned out by the music or sound effects.
On the whole I'd say that Jason X is a fairly mediocre film. I don't hate it like a lot of fans, but I can certainly see that the film suffers from a number of flaws. The outer space setting was always going to be a hard sell, Cunningham implemented some teeth-grindingly bad changes to what was otherwise a pretty decent script, Uber Jason was an Uber Disappointment, and New Line showed little backbone in supporting the film (this lack of spine includes, but is not limited to, shelving the film for over a year and then releasing it in less than 1,000 theaters). Not that I can blame them -- they knew they had a pretty weak entry on their hands. It's really no wonder that the film only pulled $17 million whilst in the cinema. If you're not a fan of the franchise, you're probably better off skipping this one. If you are a fan -- Rent it!
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