From a distance, Jason X may look like the campiest and most cynical exercise in the entire Friday the 13th franchise but in many ways it takes the spatial explorations of the last couple of films to their natural conclusion. From Jason Lives – and more specifically, from the moment at which Jason was chained at the bottom of Camp Crystal Lake – the series started to evince a more cosmic, galactic sense of space, as well as a yearning for spaces that were actually commensurate to the complexity and voyeurism of Jason’s gaze. From the rudimentary houses and campsites of the first couple of films, we gradually moved towards the unbelievably labyrinthine ship of Jason Takes Manhattan, which was itself already a spaceship in all but name, and from there to the endless alleys and winding subterranean spaces of Manhattan itself. In many ways, then, Jason X should have been released in the early 90s, not only because science fiction was starting to come back into vogue around this time, but because by the time it was released in 2002 the rise of CGI and digital effects had started to flatten and dampen the extravagant spatial imagination that drove the franchise in its classical phase. In fact, one of the things that made the original cycle so compelling was that – unlike the Elm Street films – most of the instalments apparently had very little money to spend on special effects and no real access to even rudimentary digital effects, with the result that each successive director was forced to fall back upon actual physical space as the main venue, object and perpetrator of horror.
For that reason, there is something inherently anticlimactic and bathetic about Jason X, even if it possesses one of the most startling and original premises of the entire franchise. Opening in 2010 in the Crystal Lake Research Facility, it presents us with a version of Jason that seems closer to Hannibal Lecter or the Hellraiser cycle than to the original films – a cyborg awaiting cryogenic suspension and a valued military and scientific asset, thanks to his “unique ability to regenerate lost and damaged tissue.” By this stage, the only way to deal with Jason is to spatially sequester him, and yet the space of the film is drawn from Jason’s post-human invulnerability as never before, not only in its labyrinthine complications, but in its cool, sleek, mechanical artificiality. Every single object in this futuristic environment is man-made, with the exception of the characters themselves and yet even they are well on the way to becoming post-human, as director James Isaac suffuses his mise-en-scene with an icy, cryogenic ambience that considerably lowers the stakes when it comes to the actual kill shots. In a world in which people can regenerate limbs at a moment’s notice, Jason becomes less scary – and less distinct from regular people – which perhaps explains why the film aims for more and more elaborate and definitive kill sequences even as it comically and peremptorily punctures their suspenseful import.
Yet despite a bizarre cameo from David Cronenberg, this opening sequence is by no means the most science fictional prospect that the film has to offer, as we quickly jump forward in time to 2455, where a crew of astronauts visit the now-uninhabitable Earth and discover the Crystal Lake facility relatively intact. Transplanting Jason on board, along with a scientist who was inadvertently frozen with him, they unthaw and examine his body, in an extended sequence that plays narratively as a homage to Alien but feels more stylistically indebted to Alien: Resurrection, especially once it becomes clear that private business interests rather than official government directives are going to decide whether or not Jason’s corpse remains on board. While it’s only a matter of time before Jason wakes up, the film really revels in his gradual emergence from cryostasis, a process that seems to gather and condense all the stillest and quietest moments across the entire franchise into one suspenseful sequence. The only time we’ve ever seen Jason this static has been in the resurrection sequences that opened the second wave of films, and sure enough when Jason awakens he wreaks the same havoc on the crew as he did on a previous generations of doctors and nurses, freezing and smashing the face of his first victim and taking her surgical equipment to dispose of the rest of the crew as clinically and mechanically as possible.
In the past, that surgical precision was always thrown into shocking contrast with the warm, ambient sensuality of Jason’s victims, but this time around the erotics have changed into something more austere, androgynous and professionalised, as the organic, orgiastic ecstasy of the earlier films are inflected through machinery and cyborg augmentations. In particular, Jason X obsesses over women with guns – the most eroticised character is a female robot who combats Jason with an ever more ludicrous phallic arsenal – resulting in a kind of post-gendered sexuality in which animate and inanimate fetishes and fixations are utterly indistinguishable. Whereas the first wave of films envisaged something unbearably transgressive about the conjunction of Jason’s metallic weaponry with quivering human flesh, in Jason X metal and flesh have already been fused for hundreds of years, inviting a kind of cool, masochistic scrutiny on the part of the audience, rather than the anxious and insecure participation engendered by Camp Crystal Lake (at one point, one of the characters helps the resident robot choose her breasts with same detachment that he brings to the ship’s IT system). In that sense, it feels like a film made for an era in which the internet has absorbed cinema’s capacity to disseminate erotic imagery, to the point where even the most dramatically sexual moments only seem to be designed to be perused in passing before the film scrolls on to the next screenshot.
That sense of peremptory perusal also imbues the film with a different, more procedural momentum from earlier instalments in the franchise, with great swathes of the action seeming to take place in the weird distended time of television crime procedurals in particular. Never quite day and never quite night, the crew keep themselves awake and alert with a procedural perkiness that often involves a playful, combative to-and-fro between men and women that tends to peak whenever they are examining, dissecting and discussing forensic evidence. Given that they have someone on board who has dealt with Jason, and that they’re apprised of his risks from the very beginning, it often feels as if they are trying to manage Jason as much as elude him, not least because the spaceship itself is well equipped to keep track of his presence and movements. As a result, Jason’s location never really feels like a sustained source of horror, and while the script often recalls Jason Lives in the way it milks the kill sequences for their comic potential, this time around it’s not really screwball but a more professionalised and ironised brand of comedy that seems determined to extract the most withering and perfunctory one-liners from even the most horrific tableaux and gory mise-en-scenes. In other words, the film plays as a study in professional distance and detachment, which again deflects the erotics of the first film into something sleeker and smoother, as well as adding a knowing, self-aware quality that often recalls Joss Whedon, leading me to wonder whether Jason X might have been as much of an influence upon Firefly as Friday the 13th was upon The Cabin in the Woods.
For all that knowing playfulness, however, this is a horror film, and Jason X manages to reintroduce the fear factor in two quite ingenious ways. While the capacity of humans to rapidly regenerate takes some of the sting out of Jason’s presence and renders Jason himself less unique or uncanny, the film revels in the process of regeneration as a visceral and gory spectacle in itself, with many of the regeneration sequences initially recalling the surreal body horror of The Final Friday, only to overlay it with a sleeker and more streamlined surgical grisliness. Among other things, that produces the most revolting extended examination of Jason’s “corpse” that we have yet seen, ranging from a series of point-of-view shots that take place from within his body as he is surgically dissected and then sutured back together, to a more focused and visceral dissection of one of his eyes. In that sense, Jason X very much belongs to the tail end of 90s slasher films – a moment at which suspense was starting to give way to extreme surgical horror, paving the way for the emergence of torture porn and extreme body horror in the mid-00s in turn.
Even with that visceral focus on reanimation, however, Jason would be somewhat dwarfed by the spaceship’s technology, so it’s a stroke of genius that the ship itself reanimates him again in the third act, resulting in an utterly new incarnation that the credits dub “Uber Jason.” After being apparently left for dead by the resident robot, an electrical fissure on the control deck inadvertently integrates Jason into the overall network of the ship, with the result that Jason is once again utterly identified with the space his victims inhabit, although it’s a different kind of identification from the earlier films. Rather than being seamlessly and invisibly subsumed into the ship – as he was in Jason Takes Manhattan – Uber Jason appears more like a figurehead or avatar for the ship, bulking up and taking on more visibility until he appears more like a forerunner of the rebooted Terminator franchise or the incipient Marvel Cinematic Universe than a descendent of the reserved slasher of the earlier films. Indeed, at this point Jason X stops being a slasher film altogether and turns into something more like a space survival film, as the ship starts to fall apart and Jason’s hulking presence turns into something between an alien and a mechanical error, with even his signature synthesised sound effects subsumed into a nu-metal, uber-intensity that plays as something of a companion piece to John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.
It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the scariest feature of Uber Jason is his eyes, since in the process of fusing with the ship his iconic hockey mask fuses with his face, turning it into a metallic carapace that makes the raw organic spectacle of his eyeballs feel like the last remaining residue of anything approaching a regular human being. For the first and last time in the franchise, Jason is expressive, and it’s an expression that more than lives up to the terrifying blankness of the earlier films, while giving Jason’s gaze a new kind of embodied presence even as his actual body is almost totally mechanised. Yet Uber Jason isn’t exactly presented as a twist so much as a logical progression of every creature’s convergence with machinery, just as the film ultimately departs from the Alien franchise by starting from the premise that there is no real distinction between humans and robots, or between automated and organic attraction. Just as we find out that the most alluring character is a robot in a fairly peremptory manner, so Uber Jason doesn’t puncture the comic bathos for very long, not least because his intensified communion with this very robot, and their mutual efforts to erotically “reprogram” each other, quickly turn into something the camp centrepiece of the film. At the same time, Uber Jason’s movements are very different from Jason’s – more awkward at times, but also more sudden and clinical at times, they’re less seamless overall, and while that undoubtedly enhances the fear factor, it does also create new comic possibilities as well, with Uber Jason moving towards his victims slowly enough for them to engage in perky banter and set up their final one-liners as he approaches.
What finally tips the balance firmly in favour of comedy, however, is the fact of the tenth film being made at this particular moment in cinematic history. If it had come out in the early 90d, it would have had to rely on more obsessive spatial ingenuity, whereas if it had come out in the early 10s, CGI would have progressed to a point at which it could effectively compensate for the experience of filmed physical space. As it stands, however, Jason X occupies a strange moment at which space has been flattened but CGI isn’t spectacular, which is perhaps why it aims for a metallic, monotone and clinical palette that often makes it quite difficult – even now – to distinguish between real and CGI spaces. Watching it, I was reminded of the way in which Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey starts with lavish spatial vistas only to flatten and condense them into a final spectacle that seems inchoately post-spatial in its opacity and resistance to interpretation. In that sense, Jason X plays as a kind of weird fulfilment of 2001, which is perhaps why two of the most incredible scenes take place in and around virtual reality spaces. In the first, two characters “kill” a virtual version of Jason within a role-playing game only to discover, when they take off their oculus rifts, that he is still coming for them. As the only virtual component that remains once the rifts are removed – or the only “real” component that makes it into gamespace, depending on how you look at it – Jason seems utterly and comically bemused by his own virtuality, and his subsequent brutalisation of the two gamers almost plays as a way of dealing with that frustration and regaining control of his body from their consoles.
However, it is the second virtual reality sequence that feels like the film’s real moment of inspiration, to the point where I found myself wondering whether it had single-handedly inspired the rest of the film around it in the first place. As Uber Jason becomes more and more insatiable in the closing minutes, the crew trick him by bringing up a virtual recreation of Crystal Lake – “Prepare variations using data file: Crystal Lake 1980” – over the stark, mechanical coordinates of the ship’s control room. Some of the best and most moving moments in the franchise are often – weirdly – Jason’s few flashes of subjectivity, and as he moves in and out of the virtual Crystal Lake environment, there is a sense that we are finally seeing things from his perspective. In particular, the virtual threshold between Crystal Lake and outer space works beautifully to suggest that Jason’s victims are as remote and otherworldly to Jason as he is to them, reminding us that, for all his insatiability, he is in many ways the most disoriented, distressed and displaced character in the entire franchise, just as Jason X is more unsettled and uncertain of its place in the franchise than any other instalment. Poised at that threshold, you sense that Jason is really no more connected to his actions than the gamers are to theirs, at least while they’re wearing the oculus rifts, producing a momentary vision of Jason that is more debilitating and vulnerable than any amount of physical damage could ever render him. Like Freddy before him, even Uber Jason has finally lost his power, and while the two might band together soon enough in Freddy v. Jason to bring back the fear factor, it’s that vulnerability that really comes through as the closing note of Jason X, the last film to have any real claim to serial continuity – no matter how tenuous – to the rest of the Friday the 13th franchise.