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  • Brett Gallman

Dial Up The Future: Jason X (2001)

If you came of age alongside the rise of the Internet in the late '90s, the seismic shift in access was unparalleled. Where films once seemed to incrementally materialize — trailers, TV spots, newspaper ads, maybe the occasional mention in Fangoria or Premiere — their productions now unfolded virtually via computer screens, allowing fans to follow the various twists and turns along the way to finally reaching the silver screen.

The idea of being Extremely Online is something we take for granted these days, as we routinely hear about production SNAFUs, set gossip, and even plot developments. If you look hard enough, you’ll be able to spoil entire films long before they’re released, a phenomenon that can be traced back to the days when film geeks gathered by the glow of Usenet message boards. I’m guessing that most well-adjusted people experienced this rite of passage with The Phantom Menace (1999), quite possibly the most anticipated film of all time, especially on this new digital frontier.

However, when I logged on during my freshman year of high school, I was in search of something that felt even more mythical: any and all scraps of information that could confirm that Freddy vs. Jason might actually exist, only to have my brain set ablaze by the revelation that several scripts already materialized, and that the film was eternally "in development", just as it was some years earlier when Wizard ran a quick blurb insisting that the final shot of Jason Goes to Hell (1993) wasn’t just a gag. While several sites provided updates and even full-fledged descriptions of these unproduced tomes, Blake Washer and Brenna O’Brien’s Friday the 13th (1980) website was Jason’s unofficial interwebs home, and its accompanying message board became the campsite of choice for Friday freaks, who would spend years dreaming and speculating about that hypothetical crossover of dead teenager titans.

Freddy vs. Jason’s arduous creative journey is well-worn territory, so much so that its various detours and digressions became franchise lore etched into Dustin McNeill’s Slash of the Titans. One of the more notable coulda beens came in the Spring of '99, when the front page of Friday the 13th Films announced that Sean Cunningham and New Line Cinema would produce Jason 2000, a tenth entry into the Friday saga to be released before Jason’s showdown with the Springwood Slasher.

Even though this picture was only in pre-production, it felt remarkable that a new Jason movie just materialized out of nowhere. What’s more, it became clear over the next year that fans could hitch along for the ride, as constant updates trickled in once production officially began on the rechristened Jason X (2001), a far-flung futuristic sequel that would find Pam Voorhees’ baby boy terrorizing kids in space during the 25th century. Memories of other sub-optimal cosmic successors like Critters 4 (1992), Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), and Leprechaun IV (1996) lingered, but any reservations were (mostly) quelled by ravenous excitement for a new Friday.

Call it naivete or just blatant fanboyism; either way, Jason X consumed the next several months of my life in a way no movie ever had before. In addition to the usual casting announcements and plot synopses, the web yielded script reviews, convention scoops, and frequent comments from the filmmakers involved. Tantalizing behind-the-scenes photos trickled in, many of them featuring Jason glazed in ice, stoking anticipation on the message board, where rumors ran rampant, forcing fans to sort fact from fiction.

Director Jim Isaac and screenwriter Todd Farmer joined the forum (under the monikers “JimX” and “Wendago”), providing genuine insider intel, further legitimizing the site as the definitive Friday destination. Meanwhile, some jokers — like one member who falsely claimed to have visited the film’s blood-stained Etobicoke set — helped foster the sort of Wild West atmosphere that defined this era, where truth mingled with bullshit (only to be immortalized in future acts of wrongheaded podcast myth-making). It was one thing to anticipate a movie with a couple buddies on the playground; it was another altogether to share that excitement with hundreds of like-minded fans simultaneously, an experience that’s commonplace now but felt unreal two decades ago. Perhaps it's no wonder that lifelong friendships were forged here, as some iteration of the Friday the 13th message board has persisted ever since (it currently survives as a Facebook group), with some members having known each other for over half their lives at this point.

That sense of community became vital, because we didn’t realize just how much time we’d have to preoccupy ourselves, as Jason X faced numerous delays, starting with missing an original October 13, 2000 release date. At first, this only heightened anticipation: after all, it had already been seven years since the previous movie, so enduring a few more months was no sweat. Besides, an abundance of official photo stills, pre-production sketches, and additional plot details would tide us over, not to mention the chatter from Isaac and Farmer, who regaled us with visions of a Friday the 13th movie by way of Aliens (1986), where Jason would do battle with colonial marines on-board the ship. David Cronenberg was going to make a cameo appearance in the film’s much-hyped gory opening sequence. At some point, we learned that Jason would become the cyborg “Uber Jason,” and a fan’s interpretation of this transformation would grace the front page of Friday the 13th Films for months, a simple but evocative image that imagined a Terminator Voorhees. Surely, all of this would make the wait worthwhile.

By now, such delays are synonymous with doom, but my zeal was undeterred throughout 2001, especially since it just seemed to be a matter of studio politics after Michael De Luca, the longtime executive who greenlit Jason X, was fired. Once New Line got its house sorted, it would only be a matter of time until Jason X debuted and blew all of our expectations away (right?). Yet as more release dates (some rumored, some official) went by without the goods being delivered, anticipation curdled into frustration, and those expectations metastasized into an imaginary version of the picture that the actual Jason X could never live up to.

The illusion started to crumble once Jason X leaked online, earning it the infamous distinction of being one of the earliest movies victimized by Internet piracy. Reactions could charitably be described as "mixed": while it was clear Jason X contained the splattery exploits expected of a Friday the 13th sequel, this wasn’t exactly a return to the franchise’s more grounded form. Early viewers insisted Uber Jason resembled Lord Zedd more than he did a Terminator, with many dismissing the entire affair with the dreaded “cheesy” label, something I absolutely did not want to hear as a much-too-serious seventeen-year-old. The trailer’s debut should have left no doubt: scored by Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” and highlighting some of the film’s sillier moments (“He just wanted his machete back!”), this early glimpse made it clear that Jason X would arrive with its tongue firmly inserted into its cheek.

Instead of accepting these facts and rolling with the camp, Young Brett bristled. When I finally settled into a theater seat at the earliest showing after school, I held out hope that New Line was simply marketing Jason X to a post-Scream (1996) world, where self-aware irony was just as vital to the slasher formula as Karo syrup. Even as the film unfolded, heralded by Harry Manfredini’s chintzy, one-man-band score, I steadily convinced myself that this movie was everything I’d hoped it would be.

To be fair, Jason X sports plenty to enjoy: Kane Hodder is always a delight to watch as Jason, and it was obvious that Farmer and company had a great time orchestrating an old-school splatter show. Still, something nagged at me throughout, insisting that this just didn’t feel completely “right” for a Friday the 13th movie: the sleek, glossy production design betrayed a budget that was too meager to match this grandiose vision, while the characters and dialogue were often too arch. And, yes, Uber Jason looked more like something out of Charles Band’s Full Moon universe than anything James Cameron ever conjured onto the screen.

Simply put, Jason X was just not very cool, a thought I couldn’t shake when I saw it again 24 hours later on prom night (it should come as no surprise that I eventually married the girl who agreed to spend midnight of her senior prom watching Friday the 13th Part X). When I logged onto the Friday forum that weekend, I had to face a sobering truth: maybe this movie — which began production when I was a freshman in high school but wasn’t released until a month before graduation — didn’t live up to the type of expectations engendered by such a rabid obsession.

But here's the thing: I was a man now. I’d been let down by movies. I lived through The Phantom Menace like everyone else. But something about Jason X sucking cut deep: the guffaws in the theater auditorium whenever the trailer played, the anemic crowds at the screenings I attended, the lukewarm reception among fellow die-hards that also spent years waiting. My beloved Friday franchise had become an afterthought at best, a joke at the worst. I couldn’t even fathom what this might mean for Freddy vs. Jason.

In retrospect, it’s obvious that what I really couldn’t admit in '02 is that I was unfairly judging Jason X for what it wasn’t instead of judging it for what it was. Instead of approaching it on its terms, I allowed it to compete with the mythical movie I’d imagined for three years. Not only was this an unfair fight, but it was also a completely misguided way to engage with art. Sometimes, what you want doesn’t match an artist’s vision and, even though Farmer and Isaac later revealed that Cunningham influenced the film’s cheeky tone, Jason X was ultimately their movie — not mine or any other fan’s. Formative experiences often come from unlikely sources, and Jason X was the movie that taught me the valuable lesson of accepting that movies will (and should) defy rigid expectations. Greatness isn’t dictated by a film’s ability to check off a personal wishlist, a mantra I would have to take to heart 15 months later when Freddy vs. Jason (2003) finally bowed in theaters, haunted by the specters of a half-dozen undeveloped phantom films (not to mention the ones I dreamt up for a decade).

This isn't to say that every film earns a pass. I’m not going to pretend that Jason X suddenly becomes a masterpiece when you concede its obvious budgetary constraints and its hokey approach to the material. But it is a lot more fun if you just go with it and acknowledge that it’s a hoot, something the Friday the 13th series has always been to varying degrees. Jason X might have gone into hyper-drive in this respect, but it’s unlikely that a movie that flings Jason Voorhees into space was ever going to be a grim, gritty affair. After all, the franchise hasn’t taken itself too seriously since Tom McLoughlin gently ribbed it with Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). Jason X is a natural endgame; a through-the-looking-glass slasher romp that finds one of the genre’s old-timers stomping around in a post-modern sandbox of sorts, proving that there’s something elemental about these movies. Whether it’s set in 1980s Crystal Lake or on a 25th-century holodeck, it’s always going to be fun to watch Jason bash someone’s face in. It just so happens it’s even cooler when he plunges it in liquid nitrogen first.

While the gory credentials of Jason X were never in question, other aspects have aged well over the past two decades: its cast of characters is as colorful as any bunch found in previous Friday films, while the wry, self-aware tone has become an anthropological curiosity. Like so many slashers produced in the shadow of Scream, Jason X acknowledges a meta-frontier this franchise had helped to pioneer fifteen years earlier. The likes of Halloween H20 (1998) and Bride of Chucky (1998) are often-cited examples of genre icons keeping up with their times, but Jason X is rarely in that conversation (likely because it felt like the filmic embodiment of the Steve Buschemi “hello, fellow kids” meme when it arrived two years after the then-final Scream movie). Jason X earns its place in this particular canon, though: not only does it deploy the same smart-ass self-awareness that permeated this era’s slashers (Jason revives just as two students climax during sex, for example), but also fully embraces the cliches, pushing them to the edge of camp figuratively and literally during its most notorious sequence.

Late in the film, Uber Jason wanders into the ship’s holodeck simulation chamber and finds himself back in '80s Crystal Lake, where a pair of promiscuous girls are eager to drink, smoke, and have premarital sex as they climb into their sleeping bags. Jason responds by reprising one of his most infamous murders as he drags one of the girls away and slams her against a nearby tree trunk. It doesn’t stop there, though: moments later, after a brief cutaway, the action returns to find Jason slamming the first girl’s corpse against her companion, an absurd sight gag that feels like a culmination of this era’s preoccupation with slasher self-reflexivity. At a certain point, you just have to lean into the absurdity of it all and, if nothing else, Jason X isn’t embarrassed that it’s Friday the 13th Part X. You know what? I take it back. Maybe this movie is pretty cool.

Say what you want about Jason X, but it represents one of the biggest swings any of these franchises has ever taken. This might not have been the exact movie I wanted in 2002, but it was arguably exactly what I needed in 2002: a reminder that movies are ultimately more rewarding when they don’t merely pander and instead broaden your horizons — even if the horizon here sports a subplot where a guy is reckoning with how to bone his fembot. At any rate, it's certainly more interesting than merely slapping a coat of Kevin Williamson paint onto an anniversary showdown between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode.

Writing this just a few days after Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022), the umpteenth Marvel joint that’s inspired years of speculation and hype, I can’t help but notice how certain corners of Hollywood have seized on this pre-release ritual and turned it into an Industrial Hype Complex. If the newest particular Marvel outing didn’t fulfill every expectation, then the next one will be along shortly enough, with its own set of rumors and fan wishlists in tow. The journey to these movies have become embedded in the experience, often coming at the expense of appreciating what the final products are. Already, I’ve seen articles lamenting that certain Multiverse of Madness rumors didn’t pan out, which is absurd considering Sam Raimi just dropped one of the nerdiest deep dives into Marvel lore yet, all while retaining a hint of his signature style. It reeks of a spoiled kid whining that he only got ten presents for Christmas instead of eleven.

Obviously, I can’t quite begrudge a younger crowd for having this reaction; however, anyone of adult age should probably go outside and "touch grass", as the kids say. Or, better yet, learn to appreciate what you have instead of regretting the movie you were never going to get. After all, you might someday find yourself going thirteen long years without a new entry in one of your favorite series, leaving you with nothing but your imagination — and that can only take you so far.

Brett Gallman is a longtime horror blogger, whose work can be found on Oh the Horror!, and who has been published in everything from Daily Grindhouse to Fangoria.

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