It may sound like a strange thing to say but it is only in 1989, with Jason Takes Manhattan, that it feels as if the Friday the 13th franchise has really reached the 1980s. Up until that point, every film was still centered, if only residually, upon the 1970s naturalism of Camp Crystal Lake, but Jason Takes Manhattan marks the first moment at which the series definitively moves beyond that setting to fully inhabit the strange new conception of space glimpsed in Parts 6 and 7, and Jason’s new resting-place in the cold, dark, cosmic zone at the very bottom of the Lake. As a result, Jason Takes Manhattan is the first film that fees like a total reboot, rather than a revision or overhaul, so it makes sense that this is also the first film in the franchise so far to be written and directed by a single person, producing a sense of focus and purpose that harks back to the first couple of instalments. From the startling opening, which departs from the regular credits – and Manfredini’s score – in favour of a hip montage sequence depicting downtown New York accompanied by a Naked City-styled voiceover, it’s clear that this is going to be Jason’s crossover film, and what ensues often plays like a study of urban life in the vein of the Death Wish franchise, framing Jason more as an urban “type” than a slasher or monster.
Of course, the series still has to get to Manhattan from Crystal Lake and in many ways that transition is the most memorable and spatially inventive part of the film. As the opening montage sequence comes to an end, the camera dips under the waves of Hudson Bay only to re-emerge moments later at the Lake, where a pair of teenagers on a houseboat inadvertently wake Jason from his resting place after their anchor drags an electric cable over his body. From that moment on, Part 8 draws insatiably on the submarine and subterranean spaces of Parts 6 and 7 to craft a film that takes place largely on water, with nautical motifs and imagery suffusing every scene. It feels right, then, that the premise revolves around a group of teenagers who are taking a cruise from Crystal Lake to New York, a narrative turn that suddenly and yet seamlessly connects Crystal Lake to the entire Eastern seaboard by way of the liquid, looming, aqueous sense of space that can only come when a film is shot on water. Even after the teenagers dock in New York for the final act, the camera has a mobile, buoyant quality, floating across great waves of space in ways that seem to return us to the liquid tracking-shots of the first couple of films, as well as prompting some eerie experiments with canted perspectives and Dutch angles that recall the auteurist ambitions of those earlier instalments as well.
It’s a tribute to the film’s spatial imagination that this cruise ship ends up being an even more fascinating and reticulated space than New York City. While many contemporary critics took issue with the fact that Manhattan is reserved for the third act, the film seems less interested in the city itself than in an abstracted urban spatial logic that is set in place by the ship and then transplanted, fully-formed, to New York. As in the previous films, that spatial logic is driven by teen culture, but the connection is even more pronounced here in that it’s quite unclear what the teenagers are doing on the ship in the first place. Hovering between a pre-prom party, a post-prom party, a graduation party and a formal school excursion – there is a chaperoning teacher on board, but also a sauna – their attitudes, behaviours and gestures are dissociated from any single purpose, function or premise to create what often feels like an abstracted teenage space, or a space in which they can take all the competing demands of teenage culture and play them out without any external narrative pressure or exigency. In the past, the franchise has often established the purpose of its teenage characters in the opening driving scene, en route to Crystal Lake, so there’s something quite startling about opening with a collection of adolescents commuting away from Crystal Lake by water, heading back to the city from which virtually every other character in the franchise has arrived.
From almost the first moment the teenagers step onto the ship, it’s clear that this heightened adolescent zone is going to produce something like an MTV aesthetic, with virtually every space feeling like an incipient music video, or the film itself feeling like one extended music video, with brief snippets of dialogue to contour and flesh out the party vibe. Indeed, several of the teenagers are actually making their own music video, with Jason using his first kill to take control of the process by bludgeoning the lead guitarist with her own custom-made electric guitar. From that point on, it feels as if Jason is also identified with the camcorder that was used to shoot the video, which is perhaps why Jason Takes Manhattan is also the first film since Part 2 in which Jason feels completely identified with the camera once again, albeit a camera that has moved from the naturalistic austerity of the first part of the franchise to the cheesy extravagances of MTV culture. As a result, the film is less interested in actual violence – there are almost no gory kill shots – than in Jason’s gaze, and the way in which his gaze syncs up with the space of the ship, whose portholes often feel like throwbacks to the solitary eyehole in his original mask, prompting some of the most chilling and eerie moments in the entire film.
However, it’s not merely the portholes but the entire ship that feels attuned to Jason’s presence and perception. While every film in the franchise has found a way to spatially extend and outdo its predecessor, none of the instalments have had much in the way of actual architectural structures to work with. No doubt the rudimentary houses and cabins of Parts 1-7 were what prompted greater and greater spatial inventiveness on the part of franchise – limitation breeds creativity – but there is still something special about the way in which the cruise ship becomes the first single structure in the series that feels commensurate to the complex of gazes, sightlines and perspectives that make up Jason’s presence.With the addition of the camcorder, it becomes a labyrinthine series of nested interfaces, windows and mirrors that the earlier films could only dream about, as Heddon outlines a space that feels like a mere extension of Jason’s prehensile gaze, not unlike the suburban home at the beginning of Part 2. From the long takes needed to carve out the corridors of the ship to the plethora of reflective surfaces that punctuate every mise-en-scene, this is also the most Hitchcockian film since Part 2, which is perhaps why it also returns to and adumbrates the homages to Psycho that were more or less discarded after A New Beginning. In this tribute, it is a shard of mirror that concludes the shower scene, while the shower scene itself doesn’t occur at the end of the film, as it does in the earlier instalments, but quite early on, as it does in Psycho itself. Instead of a moment of climactic horror, we’re presented with a horrific spectacle that is immediately subsumed back into the eerie Hitchcockian quietness of the ship, which is big enough and reticulated enough that Jason can remain concealed – and his crimes can remain concealed – for a long time, producing an extraordinarily emergent sense of horror as the crew start to gradually, tentatively, speculate as to whether he might be on board somewhere.
If this transition from a cabin in the woods to the ship’s cabin is one of the most ingenious moments in the franchise so far, that’s not because it discards the suburban overtones of the previous films but instead takes them to their logical conclusion as well. Indeed, as the point of transition between Crystal Lake and New York, the SS Lazarus stands in some sense for suburbia, as the party lights that seem to suffuse every scene create the kinds of lurid cinematographic thresholds characteristic of suburban melodrama – and especially suburban melodrama in the vein of Douglas Sirk – with most of the scenes on board taking place at the cusp of bright red, green and blue zones, spaces where navigational equipment segues into party decorations. At its most spectacular, the entire cruise converges on the central dancefloor, the site of one of Jason’s most extravagant kills, and yet even the dancefloor feels grounded in the mechanical depths of the ship, which recall the industrial dreamscapes of the Elm Street franchise in their vertiginous sightlines. Surrounding it all is an amorphous, liquid darkness that often anticipates Jason X, since by the time night sets in and the SS Lazarus has hit open water, the teenagers are effectively trapped in a spaceship, anticipating 90s films like Ghost Ship and Deep Rising that transplanted outer space to the open ocean, but also forming a critical nexus between suburbia and science fiction in the franchise as a whole.
It feels right, then, that when we do finally arrive in Manhattan – with a severely depleted collection of teenagers – it almost feels as if we have arrived in outer space, as all the science-fictional overtones crystallise into a fully-formed MTV aesthetic. Playing more or less as a thirty minute music video, this final act is a pastiche of 80s “inner city” or “urban” fantasies that feels as if it is shot on a sound stage even or especially when it ventures into actual New York locations. Over the course of the franchise, this urban element has always hung around the fringes of the series, particularly in the placement and characterisation of African-American and Hispanic characters – in The Final Friday, Jason actually is African-American, at least in his first incarnation – and here Jason quickly feels less like a slasher and more like a critical juncture in the ebb and flow of inner city gang culture. At moments, Jason protects the teenagers from muggers, at other moments he operates more like a mugger himself, but the result in both cases is to supplant horror with action tropes and to introduce a new selectivity and discrimination to Jason’s pursuit of his victims. At one point, he leaves one of the main teenagers behind to take down a gang leader, while at another point he’s prepared to traverse all of Times Square with barely a glance at the curious crowd to get his hand on another teenage victim. That’s not to say, exactly, that he seems to have a particular dislike for certain characters, nor a particular agenda, but that his indiscriminate impersonality is somewhat modified by this new urban setting. Sometimes, admittedly, the result is a little banal, but the best moments turn that banality into a new kind of horror, most spectacularly when one of the teenagers – a boxing champion – effectively exhausts himself to death by punching and punching at Jason until he can barely move.
As that might suggest, the Manhattan sequence could easily turn into a separate film-within-the-film were it not so clearly indebted to the spatial organisation of the ship, and the way in which even the most glitzy and extravagant spectacles were ultimately rooted in the cavernous subterranean and submarine spaces of the Lazarus hull. For all that the third act traverses an extraordinary number of New York spaces, the action never ventures too far above the ground without descending or at least retreating to some subterranean-styled space. The more panoramic these Manhattan vistas become, the more deeply rooted they are in the earth, turning the subway into a logical conclusion in the bravura climactic sequence in which Jason chases the teenagers onto a train, out onto the line and then through a series of underground tunnels that emerge in Times Square, only to descend once again to the sewerage system, where he is finally destroyed by the nightly tide of toxic waste that flows beneath the city. While this final chase may transform Jason’s body more than ever before – when the tide recedes he has returned to his childhood self – it also cements the underground as his natural home more emphatically than ever before as well, setting up the stygian imagery that is taken to such extravagant lengths in The Final Friday, which completes the movement from slasher horror to supernatural horror on display here.
All in all, then, Jason Takes Manhattan is the most spatially inventive film in the franchise since Friday the 13th Part 2. As it occurs relatively late in the cycle, it doesn’t have the opportunity to enhance the franchise as concretely as the earlier films, but the freshness of the vision often makes it feel as if has influenced the franchise retrospectively, recapitulating and reinventing the first seven films in its own image until it is easy to believe that this truly is the Jason we’ve known all along. Certainly, Jason Takes Manhattan is closer to the version of Friday the 13th that I had inherited from popular culture than any of the previous films, which must have something to do with how successfully this particular film achieves something like a serial crossover, spinning Jason into music video and a whole new camp presence in popular culture that has probably allowed the last few remaining films to have more of a pervasive influence than any of the first seven. As a result, Jason Takes Manhattan also feels very continuous with 90s horror, with the music video aesthetic often seeming to anticipate The Crow franchise and the preoccupation with dockside New York feeling like a forerunner to the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise, especially because Jason’s time at the bottom of Crystal Lake often makes him appear like a slightly dishevelled, windbeaten fisherman. It feels right, then, that the supervising teacher on the cruise gives his favourite student a pen that Stephen King supposedly used in high school, since Jason Takes Manhattan finally feels like a gift from the franchise to future franchises, an acknowledgment that while the Friday the 13th films may be ending the end of their reign that just means that they are perfectly poised to offer some of their secrets to the next horror generation.