Winner Kills All: Why ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ Marked the Perfect Sendoff to an Era of Slashers
When we think of summer blockbusters, we tend to think of a certain type of movie. Things like Jurassic Park, Batman, Spider-Man, you name it. But as much as I’ve had a lifelong obsession with X-Men and always loved the Hulk, as far as I was concerned, there was only one movie in the summer of 2003, and that was Freddy vs. Jason. I first learned that it was even a possibility on the horizon when I was ten and saw it mentioned in the pages of Fangoria. In those early days of the Internet around 1999, I went digging for any and all information about what already sounded like the greatest motion picture there could ever be, just on concept alone. I taught myself to read screenplay format so that I could read the various scripts that had leaked online, all of them rejected, of course. I had convinced myself that script by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, in which Jason is on trial for his murder spree and spends the third act fighting Freddy throughout a shopping mall, was what the film was actually going to be, solely because that was the script I liked best. But the movie kept not happening and kept not happening and even I as a young fan with unwavering faith and excitement started to think that maybe this thing was really never going to happen. I didn’t even see the official announcement when it finally got set in motion. I saw a brief Access Hollywood teaser, scant seconds of footage, and it was like I’d seen the holy grail.
I’d only even known about the movie for about four years, but that’s an impossibly long time to wait when you’re a kid. Plus, there’s the whole concept alone. Freddy and Jason, finally combining in a single event, like peanut butter and chocolate? Everything about it sounds too good to be true, the kind of thing that, yeah, you’d love to see it happen, but obviously it never would. As soon as I found out it was, in fact, on its way, that pretty much became the only movie of the summer, as far as I was concerned. I remember visiting the website religiously, watching the trailers and TV spots and spending hours on the customizable wallpapers. I even bought the Official Movie Magazine, which I still have to this day. I bought the novelization and read it constantly. When I went to see it in theaters, they were handing out posters for it. That summer, I proudly placed both that poster and the pull-out poster from the magazine on my wall. When we took our seats, the vibe in the theater was everything I’d ever dreamed of. Everyone, every single person was talking about who was going to win. People were taking bets. My dad couldn’t have given a crap, but I was in Heaven. And as soon as the movie started, with the opening notes of the Nightmare on Elm Street theme fading into the classic “Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma,” I was in awe.
Make no mistake, Freddy vs. Jason is pretty damn goofy, often extremely dumb with at least one jaw-droppingly (and improvised, no less) problematic moment. I absolutely acknowledge and don’t want to ignore all of that when I say that it is also a slick, unbelievably stylish love letter to both franchises, one that manages to deliver on all the greatest aspects of both series while also being top-notch popcorn entertainment. Just like any summer blockbuster should be, really, just with a few extra hundred gallons of blood. It’s a spectacle of slasher Wrestlemania, an utterly imperfect but deeply stylish movie and I, for one, fully sanction its blood-soaked buffoonery.
One of my favorite things about Freddy vs. Jason is the way it highlights the strengths of both series, in a way that it almost feels like a “best of” compilation of series greatest hits. For all that people have complained about the ill-conceived “Jason died by water, Freddy by fire, how can we use that?” Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, the screenwriters, really managed to pluck the best elements of both franchises. In particular, the plot is very Freddy-centric, because those films (not universally, mind you) are a little stronger in that regard. Meanwhile, the body count leans heavily in Jason’s favor, as that’s always been where that series shines. What’s really great about this, though, is how it extends to the cast of characters.
Lori is a classic Elm Street protagonist. She not only lives in the house the franchise has revolved around since the first entry, she’s linked to the overall plot as well, as her dad is behind much of the town’s coverup of Freddy to prevent the fear of Krueger from spreading throughout town and thus giving him more power. This immediately echoes the parents of early Elm Street entries, going all the way back to Nancy in the original, whose parents are hiding from her the role they played in Krueger’s murder, even after she learns his name. Her boyfriend Will and best friend Kia also fit into that suburban Springwood mold. But then you have the extended cast. Gibb, Freeburg, even Linderman all fit specific, iconic Friday the 13th archetypes. Gibb is the drunk party girl, Freeburg, the stoner who also happens to be a huge ripoff of Jay from the Jay & Silent Bob outings, and Linderman is a classic type of Friday nerd, with extreme echoes of both Shelley from Part III and Eddie from Part VII. This is one of the best things about Freddy vs. Jason. It’s so easy to be sold on the concept of a match up, so easy to buy the notion of these two very different series going head to head, when the various archetypes of both series are embodied in the characters themselves. It helps the story to be a marriage of the two franchises on a much deeper level than simply having both monsters in the same movie.
This notion of being a love letter to the franchises’ glory days is absolutely showcased by the titular slashers themselves, too, Freddy in particular. While none of us even really suspected it at the time, this proved to be Robert Englund’s swan song as Krueger. But as such, what a way to go out, in a colossal blockbuster that celebrates the character’s place in pop culture, with Englund playing him just as he played him at his peak. To me, that’s proven to be the truly great thing about Freddy vs. Jason over time. It’s a farewell to both franchises, at least in their original incarnations. It’s even a farewell to that whole era of horror, in some ways. It’s a goodbye to Englund as Freddy in a huge hit where he gets top billing, one of the highest grossing entries in either franchise. Nobody knew it would be that at the time, of course, but looking back, if they had to go out, there was no better way to do it. With Englund’s performance as Freddy, it’s almost like he stepped back into a time machine directly into 1988. It’s no surprise. He’s always had his finger on the pulse of this character, always known exactly what the people want, and when people think of “classic Freddy,” he knows what they mean. While his sweater might be a little darker and his pants a little baggier, the Freddy of this movie feels totally akin to the era of The Dream Master, when Krueger was at his pop culture peak.
Jason is treated similarly, yet at the same time, very differently. That naturally has something to do with the change in actor. While many different people had played Jason before, Kane Hodder had played him throughout the previous four movies, and had championed the idea of this film through its entire development. Ken Kirzinger has a completely different vibe than hardcore fans had been used to just by virtue of being a different person under the mask. Jason’s look is radically different from what had come before, but visually fit within the style of the film. Yet he is still the Jason we know, driven by his love for his mother and ready and willing to kill absolutely anyone he comes into contact with. And he racks up a large body count in this one, taking people out with beds, impaling them and, of course, finding many varied uses for a machete. He’s doing what he does best and he’s doing it in style. But there’s also an interesting additional layer to Jason this time (aside from his jacket) as we can feel how truly tired he is.
This is set up right at the beginning, when the two cross paths between their respective hells. For Freddy, hell is a void, being unable to prey on his children, unable to cause pain. For Jason, hell is repetition, living out a parody of his undead existence at Crystal Lake, killing the same counselor over and over. This is a somewhat more passive Jason performance than Kane Hodder’s rage-filled Voorhees. This Jason is tired, weary, almost statuesque at times. That puts him in perfect opposition to Freddy, of course, who is full of rage and anger and passion and only helps to accentuate the vast differences between the two characters. Which is great, as that’s what makes the fight so enticing in the first place. It’s not as if there’s no precedence for this incarnation of Jason, either. If anything, it brings to mind the Jason of Part VI, who did not ask to be resurrected, who blames Tommy for bringing him back as much as Tommy blames himself, as Jason was content to be dead and possibly at peace for the first time.
All of these elements, from the spotlight given to the titular killers to the merging tones and cast that bring out the most recognizable elements of both series, help to make Freddy vs. Jason a total love letter to not only two titans of the genre, but an entire era of horror history. A time when R-rated slashers became household names, had their face on bubble gum, got Nintendo games and could spawn primetime TV shows at the same time that they had a brand new sequel in theaters. A time that had never existed before and will probably never exist again, at least not in the same way. But those aren’t, by themselves, the things that make it the massive blockbuster that it is. That other crucial element is, naturally, director Ronny Yu.
The script was clearly crafted by people who know the franchise inside and out. Ronny Yu, meanwhile, had never seen a single movie in either series before he got the job. You wouldn’t think that would be a recipe for success, but it proved to work wonders in this case. And it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as Yu had never seen a single Child’s Play before directing Bride of Chucky, one of the best of that franchise and one of the best horror comedies of the ‘90s in general. Yu takes the familiar characters and worlds we know, but provides a totally new and refreshing lens, one that still looks great all these years later. He’s taking extremely recognizable ground and giving it to us in a way we had truly never seen before, while also wholly delivering on the thing a Freddy vs. Jason movie truly needed in order to work: spectacle.
I don’t think any versus movie before or since has delivered this much on the promise of the title. In fact, most barely even seem to make an attempt. In Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the two don’t actually meet until the climax, and the fight is over in seconds. In Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, the fight barely lasts two minutes. In recent memory, only Godzilla vs. Kong has come close to how well Freddy vs. Jason succeeded in giving hungry fans all the monster mashup mayhem they could possibly want. Freddy and Jason hack the crap out of each other. The violence is extremely exaggerated, just as it should be, and all of the set pieces are top-notch. We get fights in both the dream world and the real world, catering to each character’s strengths. But some of the most stunning sequences don’t even revolve arounds the fights, as made obvious during the cornfield rave. Jason barely even notices as a partygoer sets him ablaze, slowly stalking after the terrified teen while on fire, burning the field down as he walks. It ranks among the best Jason scenes ever, easily.
Freddy vs. Jason might be the best looking movie in either franchise. It looks incredible. This movie needed to feel huge, to be bigger than any entry that had ever come before, and that’s exactly what Ronny Yu and cinematographer Fred Murphy brought to the table. There are some astonishing visuals, particularly the scene inside Jason’s mind. It’s breathtaking, this exaggerated nightmare version of Crystal Lake. This is Jason as a wraith, and we really get to see how he acts on his own for the first time, even how he sees himself, wading through the water and opening a closet door in his dilapidated cabin to reveal a lake full of corpses behind it. This whole sequence might honestly be the best bit of visual FX in the whole film. But that’s not to say that the fights themselves don’t deliver, because they absolutely do.
No versus movie has ever delivered on the promise of the title like Freddy vs. Jason. As mentioned, we’ve got fights in the dream world and the real world, and even when you think these guys might not be the most dynamic fighters, the film still allows for incredible action that manages to keep these characters intact. Jason’s a monolith, he can stand there and take a lot of damage and just needs one good hit to make a hell of an impact. Freddy’s quicker, physically, and also better at thinking his way through any given environment. The construction site fight showcases this very well. Freddy’s just been thrown through the air, he’s really started to get his ass kicked, and uses the terrain to his benefit once he’s realized that physically overpowering Jason doesn’t seem to be in the cards. I know that many fans have complained about seeing Freddy in this kind of fight, which has always been weird to me, because it’s never seemed out-of-character at all. Freddy’s been in heavy, choreographed fights before, particularly in Dream Warriors and Dream Master, they’ve just never had this much money.
At the end of the day, you can absolutely feel that Freddy vs. Jason was born out of a love of the characters, of both franchises, and a love of the audience that had stuck with these two titans for roughly twenty years. It’s a tribute to its title characters and an absolute celebration of their place in pop culture. It wasn’t supposed to be the end. Myself and plenty of other fans just assumed there’d be a sequel or these characters, after their revitalized box office, would go back to their respective franchises, rejuvenated.
That didn’t happen. Instead, it was the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just two months later that wound up dictating the course of the franchise slashers throughout the rest of the 2000s. We didn’t know at the time that this would be our last time seeing Englund as Freddy on the big screen. We didn’t know it was our last time entrenched in the original continuity of either franchise, making its inclusion of things like Westin Hills and Hypnocil even better in that regard. And even when you take reboots into account, both series have only had one movie apiece since then. Freddy vs. Jason is still the next-to-last time we saw any interpretation of these characters in a movie.
And yet, even as air-headed as the movie can be, even as ridiculous and goofy, I could not think of a better way to send them out. To make one last love letter to both characters, letting them go toe-to-toe, to hack the holy crap out of each other, impaling each other with machetes and claws, and ultimately treating them like the icons they are. To make them feel bigger than they ever had before, honoring their place at the bloody black heart of pop culture for all time. For all the faults it may have, it is exactly the movie it should have been. It was the most hyped I’ve ever been for a film and I don’t think anything could ever top the way it felt to finally be on the cusp of it coming out. Freddy vs. Jason was simply the biggest movie in the world to a kid like me, who had grown up obsessed with both series, with years spent imagining the possible match-up in my head. Who knows, maybe it still is.
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