Sunday, 27 October 2019

Freddy vs Jason vs Michael vs Leatherface: The Ultimate Countdown! (#20-11)

We're getting close now! After whittling our way through a bunch of truly crappy slasher films, we're finally into the top 20, where I actually start enjoying some of these films! What a nice change of pace! With that said, let's get back to the countdown, starting with #20...


20) A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
In a lot of ways, The Dream Master is like a rehash of Dream Warriors, but to a much lesser effect. It makes the questionable decision of killing off all of the surviving dream warriors in the first act, replacing them all with a new protagonist, Alice, who inherits Kris' powers... somehow. Somehow's probably a good description for The Dream Master, because the film just doesn't bother to make any sense. Freddy's powers expand to whatever's most convenient for the writers at the time, such as how he gets around being buried and consecrated by being resurrected... in a dream. Shouldn't he have not even been able to affect dreams if he was gone anyway? Who cares! And don't even get me started on the ridiculous way that Freddy is defeated, I'm not sure I could even explain what the hell that was all about if you held a gun to my head. Freddy himself is starting to turn into more and more of a toothless cartoon here, with the particular lowlight of having him use his razor glove as a shark fin and then putting on a pair of sunglasses on the beach. However, The Dream Master is a pretty fun film overall with some of the best kills in the franchise. Debbie's kill in particular is incredible and shows off this film's fantastic special effects as she's turned into a bug. It's certainly a huge step down for the Elm Street franchise after so many good films, but at least The Dream Master is entertaining enough that it's watchable.


19) Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
I know a lot of people hate Freddy vs. Jason and I kind of get it. The characters all suck, Freddy doesn't get to do much, the fights are cartoonish and making Jason afraid of water is ridiculous. However, after more than two decades of slasher sequels just doing the same thing over and over again, they have to do something interesting to actually stand out to me. After getting burnt out on so many bad slasher sequels, at least Freddy vs. Jason had two horror icons going head-to-head with one another in truly brutal fashion. And, unlike many "versus" films, the showdown in the title isn't just a tease - Freddy and Jason really do get some great fights during the film, culminating in a brutal final battle to see who will come out on top. The whole premise of the film is pretty clever too, featuring a hell-bound Freddy manipulating Jason into murdering people in Springwood so that the murders will be attributed to Freddy, which will allow him to return to the dream realm and continue killing. Sure, most of the individual aspects of the film are pretty crappy, but ultimately the blockbuster premise of the film is enough to make it stand out compared to most other slashers.


18) Halloween (2007)
Halloween has always been a difficult film to follow up on. The original film is, by design, incredibly simple and it's difficult (perhaps even impossible) to recapture that magic now. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Rob Zombie's Halloween is notoriously divisive. The film tries to be both an origin story and a remake at the same time, to mixed results. I actually liked the origin story segment of the film, for the most part. It's something different, more of a character study of a disturbed mind. I know I've slagged a lot of the Halloween films for complicating Michael Myers' "pure evil" motives, but since this is a remake, not beholden to the rules of the original story, I can get on board with a more humanized, rage-fuelled, clinically psychopathic take on Michael Myers. Daeg Faerch's performance as the burgeoning serial killer is fantastic.

However, the second half of the film is where it all begins to crumble. It takes about fifty minutes (in the Director's Cut anyway) for Michael Myers to escape and for the narrative to finally get past what was only the first few minutes of the original film. From this point onwards, Rob Zombie's Halloween is basically just a poor remake of the original. Worse, moving the story in this direction largely makes the more enjoyable origin section largely pointless. What purpose was there in humanizing Michael Myers, making him seem sympathetic and downtrodden, if you're just going to shift the story's perspective to Laurie and have him murder innocent people like in the original film? It feels like they felt like they had to hit all the iconic beats from the original film, but with the fundamental context of the villain changed, it doesn't make sense. Given what we've seen of Michael up to this point, he kills in violent fits of rage when people antagonize him (Ronnie, Judith, the asshole nurse and the asshole redneck orderlies). He even has people that he likes and cares for (specifically, his mother and his baby sister). So why would he go on a murder spree against Laurie's friends? Hell, for that matter, how does he even know that Laurie is his secret baby sister or that he would find her in Haddonfield? Again, this made sense in the original movie - Michael's just evil, he goes back to Haddonfield because that's where he started his killings, and he targets Laurie and her friends by pure happenstance when he decides to start stalking them. I also think that they should have just made this Michael use homemade masks during his killing spree. I get that the Michael Myers mask is iconic and so they probably felt beholden to using it, but I just didn't get the connection that Michael would have with it where he'd come back to it seventeen years later.

Unfortunately, even if they had justified Michael's actions a bit more, the remake section of the film is also just badly paced compared to the original. There isn't much tension building - we get about fifteen minutes total to meet the characters and have Michael stalk them before he's already murdering them (a process which, by itself, takes maybe ten or fifteen minutes before he's just pursuing Laurie for the rest of the movie). It's far less subtle and far less exciting as far as I'm concerned.

Rob Zombie's artistic influence might also turn plenty of people off. His dialogue tends to be very crude, with at least half of the entire cast being either straight-up horny, or full-on sex perverts. And I do mean the entire cast - we've got Laurie and all her friends having or talking almost exclusively about sex (I get that they're teenagers, but c'mon, they talk about other things), all of Michael's family talk about sex (and his mom's a freaking stripper for christsakes), Michael's bully/first victim talks about how he's going to bang Mikey's mom, both of Laurie's parent's talking about getting it on, even the goddamn babysitting kids are speculating about who's getting laid, etc. At a certain point it just makes your eyes roll when sex is all that anyone can talk about... which also leads us into the cynicism of this film. This movie is set in such a crapsack world and a lot of the sexual dialogue is also sexually violent (lots of instances of people saying that they're going to rape someone) or sexual insults (lots of instances of people calling someone a "faggot"). Combine this with several characters who exist for no other reason than to be unbearable assholes and the movie can just get tiring at times. The Director's Cut also has a scene where an asshole orderly and his asshole cousin straight-up rape a patient in front of Michael Myers. It's an idiotic and disgusting scene, which only exists to add some more extreme content to the film and ultimately makes Michael's escape from the sanitarium a matter of pure dumbassery.

There are some really good things about Rob Zombie's Halloween though. The cast is absolutely stacked and they all do a fantastic job, especially Malcolm McDowell's much more sympathetic Dr. Loomis. Michael Myers himself is extremely imposing, able to bash heavyweights like Danny Trejo and Ken Foree to death with his bare hands. Rob Zombie's direction is also fairly good, although he does ape John Carpenter a bit too much in the second half. And, again, I quite like the origin segment, even if it is pointless when you factor in the rest of the film. It's a shame that Halloween is such a mixed bag though. If it hadn't felt quite so beholden to telling the same story as the original, we could have gotten something truly special.


17) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a truly bonkers sequel, which is incredible when you realize that it was also made by Tobe Hooper, director of the original film. I saw both films for the first time as part of a back-to-back double bill and it was quite the tonal whiplash to say the least. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 aims to be more of a horror comedy and while it's questionable if it succeeded, the film is absolutely batshit crazy from start to finish. This is largely thanks to its colourful cast of characters, which features Dennis Hopper as an insane Texas ranger who wields an arsenal of chainsaws and screams "BRING IT DOWN!!!!" and "I am the lord of the harvest!" with such fervour that it becomes instantly memorable. Arguably even more memorable is Bill Moseley as Choptop, probably the most iconic character he's ever played and one of the best characters in the entire franchise. Then there's Leatherface, who suddenly finds himself in the throes of horniness as he has to decide between the saw and family. Hell, I haven't even mentioned the final girl Stretch yet, who is probably the best protagonist in the Chainsaw franchise. Really, there's a lot to love about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, but the film is mostly an entertaining failure. It's apparently supposed to be a satire of Reagan's politics and yuppie culture, but I don't think that these really came across that well, and more often I feel like I'm laughing at the film, rather than with it.


16) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
The Chainsaw remake is unquestionably a lesser film than the original, but on its own merits it is a decent remake which brings some interesting new ideas to the table. Probably the best addition is Sherrif Hoyt, a delightfully evil bastard who taunts the main characters and chews the scenery as only R. Lee Ermey can. Leatherface has also been given beefed up considerably, becoming more of a terrifying, somewhat more cunning hunter. The film is also nowhere near as violent and gory as its reputation would suggest, it actually feels quite restrained if you go back and watch it. In fact, I'd say that I was actually quite enjoying the Chainsaw remake for the first two thirds as it slowly builds up the tension and establishes the (somewhat mediocre) characters. Unfortunately, the film devolves into a series of tedious, loud chase sequences in its last third, which deflates much of the tension which it had been building up. It's too bad really, the Chainsaw remake is decent enough, but it could have been legitimately good on its own merits if that last act had had a bit more substance to it.


15) Leatherface (2017)
Leatherface feels like it has the deck stacked against it - it's a prequel that no one asked for, continuing the story of a Chainsaw sequel no one cares about and sheds pretty much everything we've come to expect from the franchise thus far. Despite that, on its own merits, Leatherface is a surprisingly solid film, although it would probably be better without its Chainsaw heritage. Instead of a slasher film, Leatherface is a roadtrip movie featuring a bunch of surprisingly fleshed-out, runaway psychos who are about ready to kill each other at any moment. The film also builds up a mystery about which character will grow up to be Leatherface, although the ultimate answer to this mystery is questionable and doesn't jive with the character as established in the previous films. The film also builds on the Hartman/Sawyer feud established in Texas Chainsaw 3D, although it also reestablishes the Sawyers as straight-up evil bastards, so I'm still not sure what they were doing making them appear heroic in Texas Chainsaw 3D. Again, Leatherface is a reasonably good film, although its status as a Chainsaw prequel hurts it more than it helps.


14) Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
For the most part, Friday the 13th Part 2 is the same film as the first, only with a bag-headed Jason as the killer instead of his mom. Sure, he's supposed to be dead and the film basically acknowledges it up front, but it's not really something worth getting caught up on. There's a never-ending debate about whether the original Friday the 13th or Part 2 is better and it ultimately comes down to personal taste, because they both have different strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, I like how Part 2 handles Jason, only giving us bits and pieces of him at a time. We start out only seeing his feet, then later we see him but he's got a bag on his head which keeps him mysterious. Then when he loses his bag, we still don't get to see his unmasked face until the end. The film handles his shack in a similar manner, introducing it but making the contents a mystery until Ginny stumbles across it. The movie also has a couple of classic kills, with Mark's machete to the face which causes his wheelchair to go careening down two flights of steps, and Jeff and Sandra getting speared together right after sex. Part 2 also has some characters that I actually like. Ginny's a strong final girl, she's smart and fairly clever and even fights back against Jason sometimes. Her boyfriend, Paul, is also an enjoyable character; he's not super deep, but he's responsible, likeable, capable and a very solid supporting character who you don't want to see anything bad happen to. Speaking of which, Part 2 has two of the best "victim" characters in the whole franchise with Mark, a wheelchair-bound hunk, and Vickie, a cute girl who is really into Mark. Watching them interact is so cute and you instantly find yourself rooting for them both, which makes it heartbreaking when they end up on the chopping block and Jason starts hunting them down. Slasher movies, why can't you give us more characters we actually care about instead of cannon fodder?

Speaking of which, the way that Mark and Vickie are handled shows that the whole idea that slasher movies are always exploitative and regressive when it comes to sex really didn't have to be a thing. Vickie is very upfront that she wants to have sex with Mark and we, the audience, are totally rooting for it because they're both into it and are respectful of each other. In a franchise (and genre for that matter) replete with casual sexual harassment for cheap titillation, it's nice to see a healthy, happy relationship for once and I wish that more played out like this in slasher films... y'know, even if it ends with murder.

Which brings me to the negatives for Part 2. While I can praise some of the characters in this film, the rest of the main cast are not great. There's Jeff and Sandra, who are basically just sexy, dull nobodies. I didn't really get anything out of their characters, despite their considerable screentime. They're both preferable to Ted though, this movie's obligatory stupid prankster, but unlike the first film's Ned, he survives the whole movie... ugh. Then there's Terry and Scott, who both suuuuck. Scott spends the whole film sexually harassing Terry, staring at her ass, stealing her clothes so she has to chase him naked, etc. I hate this guy so much and you'd think that that would make me at least like Terry, but she's handled so badly. She just runs around in short shorts and a crop top, which is basically treated as her character because she does absolutely nothing. Like, when her dog goes missing, she decides that the best thing to do to find it is to go skinny dipping so the audience can see her naked. I mean, clearly, that's all she's really here for. Probably the biggest issue with Part 2 though is the pacing. The film is shorter than the first film, but it feels sluggish in comparison. The first six and a half minutes are largely recycled footage recapping the ending of the first film. It's annoying and unnecessarily long - they could have easily cut the entire thing, but if they felt like they had to include it then it could have been several minutes shorter. It's clearly just padding for time. The film then wastes another five minutes following previous final girl Alice wandering around her house until Jason finally pops out and kills her. The film also takes forty-four minutes to really get going, more than ten minutes more than the original film and I'm not convinced that there was really a need for this additional setup time. Like I said though, your preference of the original or Part 2 is going to come down to taste. While I prefer some of the characters in Part 2, the original's snappier pace and twist ending give it the edge in my opinion.


13) Friday the 13th (1980)
Considering that it's just one of many Halloween rip-offs that kicked off the slasher boom of the early 80s, Friday the 13th is a pretty decent movie in its own right. I mean, it's nothing particularly special - the story is super simple, the acting isn't great, the characters are pretty flat and half of the kills are off-screen, but there's something enjoyable about it regardless. One big asset in its favour is the soundtrack, which definitely elevates the film every moment it is used. It's eerie when it needs to build tension and then explosive at all the right moments. I mean, sure, it's also clearly derivative of Psycho's soundtrack, but at least they're imitating the best, right? Another element of the film that has retroactively become even better is the mystery angle. At the onset, the audience doesn't know who is killing the counsellors or why. Considering the legacy this franchise has developed, most new viewers are going to assume that it's Jason, but this just makes the Pamela Voorhees reveal even better. Betsy Palmer kills it as an unhinged, murderous grandma, making what could have been a pretty lame reveal (especially considering that we haven't even heard of this character before her reveal) into something special.

Considering that Friday the 13th was basically just a Halloween knock-off, it's interesting to compare how the two contrast. For one thing, Friday the 13th is definitely a gorier film. It's restrained by the standards of its franchise, but there are still some pretty gruesome shots of Kevin Bacon getting an arrow through the back of his throat, a girl getting a freaking axe embedded in her face and another getting pinned to a door by three arrows. Friday the 13th also tries to spend time letting us get to know its cast of characters, but it does so to much lesser effect. We get several scenes of the characters interacting, but we don't really get to know much about their personalities, other than that Ned is a dickhead (who dies mercifully quickly). I mean, they're all better than the typical slasher movie "cannon fodder" who are introduced and then die immediately, but not even final girl Alice feels like a fleshed out character. The other thing that Friday the 13th unsuccessfully tries to emulate from Halloween is tension-building. Someone must have seen all the scenes in Halloween where nothing of major import is happening and thought that this is how you build up for a good scare. However, in Halloween, these scenes of "nothing" usually remain interesting because there's still a clear motive or goal for the character while they are performing their actions which keeps it interesting. In Friday the 13th, we get multiple scenes of Alice doing nothing particularly important, but it doesn't really build to anything. For example, Annie is bored, so she plays guitar and then puts on fire wood... nothing happens. Later, she's bored so she puts on a kettle and grabs some sugar... nothing happens. It just wastes time. Later we spend like three minutes watching Alice barricade a door and close windows while she tries to hide from Pamela. It's ultimately just meant to be monotonous and lull you into boredom so that when Pamela throws a body through the window they can get a cheap scare. I mean, I guess it works, but it's a pretty poor way to go about it. Still, I can't really be too harsh, Friday the 13th is a fun, simple, classic 80s horror film which is still easily watchable today.


12) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)
Season of the Witch is the infamous Halloween film which wasn't about Michael Myers, a decision which earned it scorn for decades (although it has finally started to get a cult following in recent years). Setting that bone of contention aside, Season of the Witch is actually a really enjoyable film, enough to make one wish that the Halloween franchise hadn't felt like it had to be tethered to Michael Myers. On its surface, the whole premise is certifiably insane - there's an evil toy maker who wants to commit a mass sacrifice by convincing children all across America to buy his magical Halloween masks, which will be triggered en masse when a special broadcast is played. Oh and there are androids and a stolen piece of Stonehenge for good measure! But none of that really matters while you're watching the film, because it's all played straight and is made competently enough that you just go with it. There's a very palpable 80s charm to this film, harkening back to the sci-fi/horror/mystery films which modern properties like Stranger Things and Super 8 try to recapture. Anchoring it all is leading man Tom Atkins, who plays the most 80s hero imaginable: a meatheaded, womanizing, chronic alcoholic, deadbeat dad who stumbles into a mystery after meeting a beautiful stranger whose father was killed by a shadowy conspiracy. Atkins' character is ridiculous, but he's played with enough charm that I at least found him funny, although I can certainly understand if someone couldn't stand him (especially since the female lead, while initially intriguing and feisty, is quickly relegated to generic damsel in distress). The kills are also pretty brutal, including such highlights as a guy getting his head ripped right off and an annoying ginger kid's head exploding into bugs and snakes! The music is also great, with a repeated jingle that will get stuck in your head forever after. It's certainly something worth seeing, and is definitely better than most of the Halloween sequels that followed.


11) Jason X (2002)
Jason X is absurd and I fucking LOVE it. While there has always been an element of dark humour to the Friday the 13th films, they're usually very self-serious (aside from scattered moments where Jason stabs someone in the eye with a honking bike horn, or bashes a face into a tree which leaves behind a smiley face, etc). This generally-dour attitude can make Friday the 13th films a bit of a slog to get through, but then along comes Jason X, which captures the spirit of this franchise far better than you would ever expect. Usually when a franchise heads into self-parody, it's a disastrous move which kills the franchise's main storyline (see: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Alien: Resurrection, etc). In the case of Jason X, we're already ten films into this series and it actually provides a refreshing twist to make the film overtly tongue-in-cheek. The sci-fi setting helps this immensely, as having Jason running around on a space ship gives us all sorts of creative new opportunities, from healing nanomachines to holodecks. It also makes him even more intimidating, because guns are not in short supply here. Jason gets pumped full of bullets, but they barely phase him, which is far more frightening to me than just having all his victims be too feeble to fight back.

Jason X also benefits from the fact that it plays out more like an Alien movie than it does a Friday the 13th film. In a Friday the 13th movie, usually the big cast of characters split up to do their own thing and then get killed one-by-one. In an Alien movie, the cast generally sticks together while the monster hunts them down one-by-one. It's a seemingly-subtle change, but it makes a huge difference. Instead of having cannon fodder characters who we only see in once or twice before they get killed off, we get cannon fodder characters who actually get time to make an impression as the cast quickly gets whittled down. None of the characters are fleshed out or deep, but in a regular Friday the 13th film, obvious victim characters like Crutch, Waylander or Janessa would not make any sort of impression. However, since they get time to interact with the group of survivors and actually get something of a personality, I can't help but feel bad for them when their inevitable demise comes. There aren't really any unbearable, cartoonish asshole characters either - sure, Professor Lowe is a sleazeball, but he's actually fun to watch. I'll actually go so far as to say that Jason X has the single best performance in the franchise (outside of the actors playing Jason anyway, they've always done a great job), courtesy of Lisa Ryder's android character Kay-Em 14. The moment she comes onto the screen, you can tell that she's an android without having to be told - the way she moves and the way she talks is subtly mechanical, but it contrasts enough with the more natural actions of the human characters that it's clear. She also gets to take a level in badass near the end of the film and is in general such a pleasant and helpful character that you can't help but love her. Not only do we get one standout character, but Jason X also features the total badass Sgt. Brodski, a regular soldier who goes toe-to-toe with Jason on multiple occasions and manages to survive each time. Again, he's not particularly deep, but he's played with such gusto by Peter Mensah and is so unkillable that you just want to cheer whenever he's on-screen.

In case it wasn't obvious already, Jason X is a hell of a lot of fun. For one thing, it has what is considered one of the best kills in the franchise with the liquid nitrogen kill, plus plenty of other awesome kills including a guy getting thrown onto a giant corkscrew (and then spinning around due to gravity, nice!), Jason breaking another guy's back over his knee, or Kay-Em 14 blowing Jason to bits with a grenade launcher. The film's tongue-in-cheek tone is also just hilarious. We get moments such as Jason managing to resurrect himself in the film because he literally senses horny teenagers having sex nearby and he is not going to let that shit go down on his watch! I also love when Uber Jason gets drawn into a VR simulation where he beats a ditzy counsellor inside a sleeping bag to death with another ditzy counsellor in a sleeping bag (complete with goofy squeals of "Ow!" every time he lands a hit). There are also several funny one-liners. Brodski acts like a total badass when he gets skewered by Jason for the first time, saying "Gonna take more than a poke in the ribs to put this old dog down!" Jason then immediately follows that up with a machete to the gut, to which Brodski says "...Yeah, that outta do it." The line delivery is so funny, but the crowning moment has to be when Professor Lowe tries to defeat Jason with with his Charisma stat. Suffice to say, "Guys, it's okay, he just wanted his machete back!" might be my favourite moment in the whole film. Even the filmmaking itself is funny - as soon as the final girl realizes that Jason is on board the ship, she demands to see him. Professor Lowe says that he's definitely dead and the incredulous heroine says "Show me". It then immediately cuts to them cleaning up the body of the liquid nitrogen kill while the Professor squirms about this predicament. It's not only a funny moment, but it is also very efficient filmmaking which keeps the pace moving at a snappy rate.

I love Jason X, it tickles me in all the right ways. It is undeniably a dumb film with poor character writing, terrible special effects and lacking in any real originality, but goddamn if it isn't a good time. Hell, I enjoy this movie so much that I'd say Jason X is probably my favourite Friday the 13th film in the whole franchise. I wouldn't say that it's necessarily the best, highest-quality entry in the franchise by any means, but it is my favourite to watch.

...and that's all for this entry. Be sure to tune in again soon as we finally count down the top 10 best movies in these franchises. Which movie is going to take the top spot?

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