Retrospective

20 years ago, the Friday the 13th franchise succumbed to a pervasive sci-fi cliché

When there’s nowhere left for a franchise to go, it goes to space.

After nearly a decade in the wilderness, the Friday the 13th series launched a comeback in 2002 by boldly going where three mid-tier horror franchises had gone before. Yes, following in the footsteps of such greats as Hellraiser: Bloodline and the fourth installments of Critters and Leprechaun, Jason X sent its machete-wielding maniac into space.

With its closing shot of Freddy Kreuger’s gloved hand pulling Jason’s mask into the netherworld, 1993 predecessor The Final Friday appeared to have perfectly set the scene for an altogether different follow-up. But with the planned Freddy vs. Jason showdown getting stuck in a hell of the development kind, producer Sean S. Cunningham switched his focus to a different project that would both lure back long-time fans and reel in the post-Scream generation.

The book Crystal Lake Memories later revealed that Jason goes to the Arctic, Jason the street fighter, and even Jason versus NASCAR were just a few of the pitches considered. But ultimately the appeal of Jason causing havoc in a shoddily-designed spaceship 455 years into the future proved impossible to resist.

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It was an idea conceived by screenwriter Todd Farmer, who briefly shows up as ill-fated VR gamer Dallas, and one which he now appears to regret (“We let the fans down, we let ourselves down and we cost ourselves a lot of money”). While the latter point undoubtedly holds weight — Jason X grossed just $17 million at the global box office which, when adjusted for inflation, remains the franchise’s all-time lowest – Farmer is being a little too self-flagellating elsewhere.

Not that Jason X is by any means a misunderstood classic of the genre. The Starship Enterprise-on-a-budget sets visibly creak, the visual effects are stuck in the early ‘90s, and the narrative has more holes than Jason’s mask. But if you accept it as an unashamedly dumb meta-comedic spinoff? Well, it kind of works. You have to applaud the temerity of a finale in which a disembodied head quips “I’ll be back on my feet in no time,” with a straight face.

Rowan, who joins Jason in being flung into the future.New Line Cinema

Filmed in 2000, released in 2002, but initially set in 2008, Jason X begins with the beloved monster imprisoned at a government research facility determined to discover what we’ve all been wondering since the days of Kevin Bacon: How can Jason Voorhees withstand everything from electrocution to a firing squad without batting an eyelid?

This quest to explore his regenerative abilities is interrupted when Jason summons the strength to break free of his shackles, adding to his murder tally by dispatching with a doctor played by David Cronenberg before getting cryogenically frozen with scientist Rowan LaFontaine (Lexa Doig).

Fast forward to 2455 and, in a surprisingly topical development, Earth has been ravaged so much by climate change that humans have been forced to relocate to a different planet. Of course, it takes more than four centuries of stasis on an abandoned planet to keep Jason down, and after a college field trip discovers the two frozen bodies, they bring them aboard the Grendel spacecraft to attempt resurrection. This doesn’t go well.

Jason X is generally about as scary as an episode of The Jetsons, yet Voorhees’ first kill after awakening could lay claim to being the franchise’s most memorable. Poor scientist Adrienne (Kristi Angus) is not only forced head first into a vat of liquid nitrogen, but then her frozen face is smashed into smithereens.

The calm before the goofy storm. New Line Cinema

The majority of victims are slain in more disappointingly mundane manner – heads are bashed, stomachs are gored, and backs are broken with the utmost ease. Nevertheless, there’s still fun to be had in how the film plays with Friday the 13th conventions, particularly its sheer horniness.

Indeed, Jason X may well be the most sexual of the franchise’s 10 chapters. It’s certainly the kinkiest. Just before all the space age carnage we see cross-dressing Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts) having his nipples clamped. Students Kinsa (Melody Johnson) and Stoney (Yani Gellman) have no qualms about making out next to Jason’s thawing corpse (“I bet he’s hung like a mammoth,” the former also ponders), and the android named KM-14 later regenerates into a karate-kicking dominatrix.

Most inspired of all is the Camp Crystal Lake holographic simulation Tsunaron (Chuck Campbell) creates as a distraction tool. “Hey, you want a beer?” two virtual scantily-clad counselors ask Jason. “Or do you wanna smoke some pot? Or we can have premarital sex!” Cut to the cheery pair yelling “Ow!” as they’re bludgeoned together in their sleeping bags, a tongue-in-cheek callback to Judy’s grisly demise in The New Blood.

Jason becomes a cyborg, as spoiled by the trailer.New Line Cinema

Played by Kane Hodder for the fourth and final time, Jason himself has never looked cooler, thanks to the cyborg makeover he conveniently receives from the ship’s nanotechnology. Much to Farmer’s dismay, the reveal of Uber Jason was spoiled by both the trailer and poster. Still, there’s one aspect of the character that did manage to subvert expectations: The all-seeing, indestructible machine actually dies. Permanently!

Only his charred cyber mask remains intact after Sergeant Brodski heroically sends himself and Jason hurtling toward Earth Two, the pair dramatically burning up as they enter its orbit. Although the Freddy Kreuger mash-up finally made its way into cinemas a year later, the franchise’s chronology means Jason X remains the villain’s official swansong. On screen anyway – remarkably, the comic book world has since treated it to both a sequel and miniseries.

“This sucks on so many levels,” quips Janessa (Melyssa Ade) just seconds before she’s yanked into outer space through a grate. For many, including Roger Ebert in his brutal 0.5 star review, this on-the-nose line could have been referring to the film itself. Yet 20 years on, and with the “in space” cliché a distant memory, Jason X now seems worthy of joining the lineage of horror films that has its cake and slices the hell out of it too.

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