A time to kill

By Matt Zakosek

I had some fun experiences with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth franchises when I was growing up. My cousin Doug and I used to scare ourselves silly watching the movies. This was, of course, after I was cured of my aversion to them, when my older sister sat on me and forced me to watch the first Elm Street installment. Thanks, sis.

The movies are underrated. Sure, many of them are unwatchable, but that’s not because of the blood and guts. It’s because of the writing, the acting, the direction. Occasionally, though, a director will come along who gets it right. For example, Wes Craven’s A New Nightmare understood the whole jokey, self-referential bit long before Being John Malkovich.

Therefore, I was cautiously excited for Freddy vs. Jason. Many factors were working against it. It had been in the works for nearly 10 years, and no less a horrormeister than Stephen King called it “a setup job only a studio accountant could love.” Then again, after purchasing the rights to the Friday the Thirteenth films from Paramount, New Line rejected script after script, finally settling on a draft in the December of 2000. It’s obvious they were trying to get something right.

They almost succeeded.

The story behind Freddy vs. Jason is surprisingly clever. After enduring a hokey intro, we’re plunged into a plot that has just the right amount of reverence for what came before it. Kevin Williamson worked the same angle with his screenplay for Halloween: H20; he referenced the first two Halloweens and ignored the increasingly irrelevant sequels that followed. In Freddy vs. Jason, the writers make the wise choice of explaining only Freddy and Jason’s original endeavors, which are by far the most beloved.

I’ve given up all hope of either Freddy or Jason dying anytime soon, unless they’re done in by that deadliest of weapons: bad box office. But in Freddy vs. Jason, we actually care about the kids they’re killing, which is a nice touch. I guess someone at New Line remembered to write “character development” in the margins of the script. As always, some are marked for dead from the very beginning, but I soon began second-guessing myself about who was going to last until the final credits. The only kid I didn’t care about was a stoner who was awkwardly inserted to appeal to the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fans.

It’s a sad day for movies when solid storytelling is a novelty, not just something we take for granted, but we can hardly hold this against the makers of Freddy vs. Jason. That would be about as fair as when Freddy turned that one girl into a cockroach and plucked her legs off one by one.

Unlike previous Friday and Nightmare sequels, this movie doesn’t try to pretend like it’s still the 80’s, when the originals debuted. The kids hold a rave in a cornfield, which the filmmakers laughably try to pass off as de rigeur in teenage partying. There are references to fictional pharmaceuticals that sound just convincing enough to seem cutting-edge. But my favorite update, hands down, is when a character chastises the citizens of her town for pinning Freddy’s murders on an innocent victim, for trying to dismiss the killings as a “Columbine thing.” In an age when Ben Stiller removes the Twin Towers from the footage of Zoolander, shouldn’t we applaud the filmmakers for not shying away from the headlines?

I have only a few objections to the film, and while they’re minor, they may keep me from lining up for Freddy vs. Jason vs. Chucky (or whatever’s next) unless they’re fixed. Both offenses occur in the same scene. Kelly Rowland begins taunting Freddy, heroically luring him away from her friends. She wonders aloud if his massive razor-fingers are compensating for his manhood. Then she brands him a “faggot” for wearing his infamous red-and-green sweater. He turns around, faces her with a perverse smile and mutters, “Oooh, dark meat.”

Cringing? I was, too. Rowland is the only African-American in the film, and there are no gay kids, although I do have my suspicions about that supposedly straight boy who knows a lot about feng shui and dies at the beginning. Their absence, however, does not license the filmmakers to subject them to slurs. Jada Pinkett-Smith and Omar Epps have a great dialogue early on in Scream 2 about how there are hardly ever any African-Americans in horror movies. If this is the way they can expect to be treated, I’m not surprised.

It’s a shame for this scene to blemish the movie, because otherwise it’s a lot better than any reasonable person would suspect. For opening night, New Line chose Friday the fifteenth, which was a near miss. The same can be said about the movie itself.