From the get-go, there has been an appealing pugnacity to the Friday the 13th horror movies. Sure, this enduring franchise launched in 1980 as a marginally clever knockoff of Halloween and Black Christmas, but in the annals of American pop cinema, the sequels revealed a devil-may-care brattiness all their own. Narratively nonsensical, obscenely violent and splattered with lethal dialogue, these nasty nuggets consistently flipped the ever-lovin' bird to critics and such lofty folk. In turn, the great unwashed hastened to witness the ultraviolent, hockey-masked Jason Voorhees butchering victims less um intellectually endowed than themselves.
Now, as his creepy cousins Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger temporarily lie dormant, the hulking, merciless fiend is back. The phenomenon is still twitching. Let's examine it. We're fortunate in many ways, because in the nine years since the last installment (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday -- as if!), producer Sean S. Cunningham (director of the first one) has teamed up with his crackerjack development team at Crystal Lake Entertainment to rethink the whole dipstick mythology he created with screenwriter Victor Miller over two decades ago. The result is Jason X, a happily self-aware body-count flick that's as brutally funny as it is plain-old brutal. A broad slash of scary sci-fi fun, the project leapfrogs all the Scream and Last Summer junk to carve itself a new, high-tech niche.
Screenwriter Todd Farmer clearly understands that when people go to hell, they come back transformed, and so it goes with Jason (played for the fourth disturbing time by Kane Hodder). Things start off obvious enough in the year 2010, as Jason's original stalking ground has become the Crystal Lake Research Facility. Naturally, within the requisite dark halls of the industrial complex, the big, ever-rejuvenating galoot is the research. Although he's chained and restrained, it's only moments before he dispatches a control-freak doctor (David Cronenberg, dropping in to do the Toronto-based shoot a little favor), and carnage ensues. The only survivor is a spunky lab tech called Rowan (Lexa Doig) who manages to lock the unstoppable killing machine in a carbon-freeze chamber, but not without being mortally wounded and frozen herself.
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In a fun and functional combination of invention and genre thievery, the story lurches forward to the year 2455. Of course, four and a half centuries of SUVs have rendered the planet a toxic, uninhabitable craphole, now called Old Earth. Under the guidance of a lecherous archaeology professor called Lowe (Jonathan Potts), a ragtag group of flippant, horny students lands there in a cool-looking spaceship and discovers -- dum-dum-dumb -- the meat locker. ("It's like a big, kinda frozen storage thing!" announces one valedictorian.) An annoying pupil called Azrael (Dov Tiefenbach) accidentally gets his arm chopped off, but otherwise unharmed, the team transports the thawing bodies back to their ship and blasts off for the sweeter climes of Earth II.
There's no mystery to the rest of the movie, but director Jim Isaac (effects whiz on such disparate projects as Return of the Jedi and Naked Lunch) makes this the most audience-friendly and visually generous chapter in the series. The sets and costumes sometimes look cheesy -- in the future, in outer space labs, chicks are still ab-obsessed? -- but with tongue firmly gouged through cheek, Isaac uses everything at his disposal to deliver comic-book kicks. Jason is revived and does his stalking-and-slaughtering thing, and then, thanks to an incredibly silly coincidence, he is destroyed and rebuilt as -- wait for it -- Über-Jason. Loads of people die horribly but amusingly as Jason discovers the wonders of liquid-nitro facial peels and hot-wired circuit boards, and Isaac cheerfully crafts the best B movie since Virus.
Just as the previous Jason films introduced and/or revived a surprising cast list (Kevin Bacon, Crispin Glover, Corey Haim, Ron "Horshack" Palillo and the delightful Walt Gorney as Crazy Ralph), we've got game players here. Tops is Lisa Ryder as the sly robot, KAY-EM 14 -- in a word: rowrr. We're also treated to the confused hero (Chuck Campbell), the expendable blond (Melyssa Ade), the stern sergeant (Peter Mensah) and the hard-ass ops man (Derwin Jordan). Everyone here enthusiastically plays haunted house in space, so look for their faces again.
As for the great, faceless one who is Jason, really? The strong, silent type? The mama's boy? The jealous jerk? The fine essayist Michael Ventura once wrote about children's obsessions with iconic horror figures, reaching the conclusion that watching -- and playing -- these madmen is a form of social inoculation for a scary world. Seems reasonable. Welcome back, Jason. Deliver us from this wickedly puritanical culture.