How I learned to stop worrying and love “Freddy vs. Jason”

Freddy vs. Jason Freddy vs. Jason (New Line Cinema)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. 40 years after Camp Crystal Lake appeared on the silver screen, we look back at Friday the 13th and how the perennial slasher series mutated across the years. Read the rest of our Friday coverage here.

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”

It took over a decade to turn Freddy Kreuger into a hookah-smoking CGI caterpillar. And as the Kreugerpillar blew its hypnotizing smoke, critics and purists were split on just what kind of fresh hellscape Freddy vs. Jason (2003) was. Was this evil caterpillar, so poorly rendered as to appear almost Cubist, trash or not trash enough

Yet, there’s a route beyond this binary. If we consider enjoying Freddy vs. Jason as neither trash nor poor-trash, it opens deeper possibilities of not only understanding the film, but both serials and popular film in general. In not bothering oneself with academic/film school criteria of what makes a film good or bad, valuable or worthless, a titillating space for a different kind of viewing pleasure opens up.

The premise is deceptively simple: languishing in hell after being forgotten by the residents of Elm Street, Freddy Kreuger (Robert Englund) decides to resurrect Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) to wreak havoc and remind them that he is the Crown Prince of Nightmares. When Jason is too successful and begins to steal the spotlight, the gruesome twosome turn on each other and engage in a battle for ultimate supremacy.

Freddy vs. Jason is a safe space to experiment with kinky viewing pleasures because it transparently and consensually solicits its openness to that kind of viewing experience. It had edged its own hype since the ‘90s. Thus much of the fanfare comes from its sheer existence as a release of anticipation. It’s a flagrant event picture of the grandest sort. This is Freddy vs. Jason, after all — the ‘vs.’, the bringing together, is the point.

The film went through a notoriously hellish preproduction. There were a dozen or so scripts; no director would stay attached for long. Jason decided to escape from Hell too early, missed Earth entirely, and ended up in spaaace. This fueled speculation and discourse around when, how, and if these two trademarked titans would meet face to face. 

By the time it was released, the studio and fans were so ravenous and pleased they had actually made it all happen, the trailer assumes you already like the movie. You’ve been speculating: now it’s time to “place your bets.” 

I refer to these as ‘serials’ because this gap between installments, filled by discourse, mirrors a long line of viewer and reader engagement dating back beyond comic books to Victorian penny dreadfuls and the serialized sensational novels of Willkie Collins or Charles Dickens. All of this chatter around Freddy vs. Jason is an important path for experiencing the thing in new ways outside of traditional critical binaries. 

Even if you’re not a fan of either the Nightmare on Elm St. or Friday the 13th serials, you know that there are massive film cultures around them. (Though, if you aren’t a fan of either, why are you watching?) Unlike most other releases, films like this invite, and perhaps even require, participation in a shared film culture. Memory, after all, is one of the film’s themes: as with its teenage prey, Freddy vs. Jason self-reflexively asks us to question what we remember about these colliding franchises.

Once we’re seated and watching, we’re treated to the next element that makes Freddy vs. Jason enjoyable outside of conventional criteria: its singular style. Director Ronny Yu, along with second unit director Poon Hang Sang and cinematographer Fred Murphy, create an aesthetic that is unlike any film in either franchise. It’s a charnel house of visual styles: there are bits of magical Asian action, Classic Universal Studios horror, Gallo cinema, and Grand Guignol. And all of it is filtered through a sense of millennial hyperrealism. This makes for some truly stunning moments, like when Freddy rises from Crystal Lake bathed in an intense crimson light. 

Here is what the Friday the 13th serial, specifically, brings to our understanding of Freddy vs. Jason. Friday the 13th has never been hampered by auteurism; unlike rival franchises like Nightmare or Halloween, which are praised for the vision and craft of its directors Wes Craven and John Carpenter, there has never been a stylistic stamp on Friday the 13th

Fans of the serial haven’t been taught to expect a certain kind of storytelling or aesthetics. Each film looks and feels different from the other, with little regard to the rigid structures of “continuity” or “voice.” This allows the series to feel more a part of a historical moment, an ongoing archive of different tones, fashions, and ideas. Fans are therefore free from the expectation of a “good film” or even a “good-bad film”, and can more easily enjoy it for what it is.

This freedom from such arbitrary criteria means the Friday the 13th franchise and Freddy vs. Jason can more clumsily stalk the thin line between inventiveness and ridiculousness. Rather than over-relying on rapid editing to create thrills, Yu’s style is still and distant. We are allowed to be stimulated by what we can see, rather than be restrained by what we can’t.

This doesn’t result in thrills in the classical sense. Instead, the film manufactures an affect, a bodily response, in the viewer that is somewhere between a laugh and thrill; a tickle almost. These are monsters who cannot die.

With a combined 17 films invested in these characters, we have moved beyond caring for the teens at the center of these films and become much more attached to these killers and the outrageous, corn-syrupy ways they find to kill them. Realism and believability are wholly unhelpful considerations.

Unlike most other releases, films like this invite, and perhaps even require, participation in a shared film culture.

Jason sandwiches a chauvinist youth with a bed, flings a rapist off a pole. Freddy jumps down a stoner’s throat as a giant caterpillar. These moments are neither shocking nor scary, but they are deliciously, painfully absurd. The groan, the laugh, the thrill we feel as audience members – they are each part of the whole thing. 

It’s the extra-filmic discourse, singular stylistics, and perverse affect that allows us to experience Freddy vs. Jason on a level that transgresses beyond elitist categorizations of what makes a good film or what makes a film properly enjoyable. It’s a noticeably liberating experience to relish it for what it is. 

This doesn’t mean that problems go unnoticed. But the things that get talked about tend to be global issues of film meaning and politics rather than local issues of film grammar. That Yu kept in Kelly Rowland calling Freddy a “faggot” still clangs through loudly. It’s a suddenly clashing note of real-world violence in a decidedly fantastic reality.

But overall, it’s the critics who let the fans down more than the film itself. The film begs to be enjoyed. Critics who neglect to see that film school adjectives structure their own displeasure ended up shaming fans into thinking that because this film did not meet the proper standards it (and by extension their pleasure) is worthless or, at worst, illusory. Instead, films like this should remind us that cultural criticism is a dialogue between fans and critics.

Experimenting with, and finally embracing, this kind of enjoyment applies retroactively, too. The absurdities of the mid to late entries of the serials become more exciting. And it applies to other franchises and popular event pictures as well. Thrills become more complex, because they include more than fright: they include our own discourse, laughter, and a naughty thumbing of the nose at the institutions who try to structure our feelings for us. 

So if you go chasing these kinds of pleasures, and you know that you’re going to fall in love with films like these all over again, when people ask how you do it, tell ‘em a hookah-smoking Kreugerpillar has given you the call. 

Freddy vs. Jason Trailer:

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