With Batman‘s huge success, Warner Bros. obviously wanted another movie, and obviously wanted Tim Burton to direct it. However, Burton wasn’t sure he wanted to direct it, and had a story of his own he was passionate about. That movie, Edward Scissorhands, became the film that is probably most quintessentially Tim Burton. Release by 20th Century Fox in 1990, it was a modern fairy tale that utilized many of Burton’s already-known quirky styling and enhanced them. It was a hit.
Eventually, Burton went back to Warner Bros. and agreed to do the next Batman. The biggest thing he wanted, though, was the kind of control he’d had over Edward Scissorhands. As such, producers Jon Peter and Peter Gubers became executive producers while Burton and longtime collaborator Denise DiNovi became producers. A script by Batman writer Sam Hamm was rewritten by Daniel Waters (as well as a ghost-rewrite by Wesley Strick) and eventually passed muster. With Burton on board, Michael Keaton agreed to resume the roles of Bruce Wayne and Batman.
When Batman came out in 1989, I was fresh out of elementary school having just finished 6th grade (in these parts, 5th grade now constitutes the end of elementary school). Junior high school (7th-8th grade, as opposed to today’s middle school, 6th-8th) was pretty bad. Some of the worst years of my life. My freshman year of high school was only marginally better. I transferred schools after 2 months, not happy with the original high school I’d attended and opting for the area’s vocational-technical high school to do art. The two things I looked forward to for the 1991-1992 school year were Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and Batman Returns. At least one of them delivered.
The cast is quite good. Keaton’s second go-around as Batman and Bruce Wayne is more interesting than the first. Maybe it’s the redesigned suit, which features a thinner mask/cowl than its predecessor and torso armor that looks more like armor than the 1989’s sculpted muscles. Maybe Keaton just grew more comfortable moving around as the character. Either way, his Bruce Wayne is more interesting, willing to smile and actually try to be a part of his world, while his Batman kicks a little more ass, and is even more like the Batman from the comic books from that time period.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman starts off a little rocky, my guess is mostly due to the script, but quickly becomes a scene stealer. Pfeiffer is confident, sexy, and smart and it comes through. As the movie progresses, her character is more and more interesting and her performance gets better and better, no easy feat considering movies shoot scenes out of order. She is a great foil to Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman. The scene at Max Shreck’s masquerade ball is easily their best together without the masks. In masks, all their scenes together are great.
Danny DeVito’s Penguin is ridiculously over-the-top and hilariously evil. It shouldn’t work. Upon rewatching the movie for this essay, I didn’t think it would work now that I’m an adult. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the double- and triple-entendres I missed as a 14-year-old high school kid. The movie is wildly inappropriate yet most kids wouldn’t know it because the humor is above them. I found myself quite mesmerized by the character this go-round.
Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is the true villain of the piece. A corporate do-nasty, he has plans for Gotham City and uses the Penguin as a means for more control. When Batman foils the plan to get Penguin elected mayor of Gotham, Shreck disassociates himself with the deformed man, leaving the Penguin to fend for himself, which sets up the last act of the movie. Walken plays Shreck in a way that is subtle but scary. While DeVito is chewing the scenery and give a broad performance, Walken pulls it in and allows his eyes and increasingly wild white hair to do the work.
There’s better pacing this time around. Maybe because there are so many characters that the audience has to keep track of, maybe the filmmakers took a cue from some of the negative comments about Batman, but there’s more action in this movie, and more interesting things happening. It’s actually quite insane. The costumes and shenanigans of the Penguin’s Red Circus Gang are ridiculous, but create a world that one almost wishes existed. If these were the villains we had to deal with, life may be crazier, but maybe we’d be safer in the long run.
The movie is actually quite funny in places, and appropriately so. Unlike the campy satire of the 1966-1968 Batman, Batman Returns has the aforementioned risqué humor from the Penguin, as well as cute scenes, like the one involving Bruce, Alfred, and Selina. Bruce and Selina are on a date (that in itself is funny, since a heavy make-out session–that was about to go farther–had to be stopped since they both suffered from wounds they gave each other the night before in their alternate personas) when trouble happens. Bruce, scatterbrained as usual, tries to get Alfred to tell Selina a lie so he can run off and be Batman. The moment Bruce leaves, Selina comes in and does essentially the same thing.
Another great moment comes later on and also concerns Alfred. The Batmobile has been compromised and needs repairs. As Bruce Wayne is accessing a secret way into the Batcave, via an iron maiden, Alfred reminds him that they can’t just send the Batmobile to any old repair shop.
“Hey,” Bruce says. “Who let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? I’m sitting there working and it’s like, ‘Oh. Hi, Vicki. How are you?'”
It’s a great moment acknowledging the outcry the fans made over Vickie Vale entering the Batcave and the interaction between Michael Keaton and Michael Gough helps show Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
Which is why I’m going to give Michael Gough more accolades here. While Gough gave Batman some much-needed humanity, here he reinforces the humanity of others. Whether it’s the playful interplay between him and Keaton, or him and Pfeiffer, or it’s him alone discovering something or working some sort of Bat-equipment, Gough is phenomenal. He manages to make Alfred seem both put-upon and fatherly simultaneously.
Again, Tim Burton and his production designers, costumers, make-up artists, and prop people create a world unto itself. Gotham City in Batman Returns feels as though it belongs in the world set up in the first movie but takes it in different directions. The former amusement park where the Penguin has lived (and retreats to), Shreck’s Department Store and its offices, the rooftops of Gotham, and Gotham Square are all familiar and alien at the same time. Again, it’s hard to pin down the era in which the movie takes place, though it does feel more of its time (1992) than its predecessor, much of the costuming has a 1940s/1950s feel, except for Bruce Wayne, Batman, and eventually Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Danny Elfman’s score was great in the first movie and is even better here. Maybe in the three years between movies he grew more as a composer? Maybe he’s more comfortable with the subject? Either way, his score in this movie builds from Batman’s theme and goes way, way beyond. And without Prince’s crappy music to force into the movie, the music really soars. (And before you leave angry comments about me calling Prince’s music crappy, let me say that I don’t think all of his music is crappy. I actually like a lot of it. But his music for Batman was just bad, man.)
No Harvey Dent. Apparently, he was in some of the earlier drafts of the movie but was eventually deleted because they had too many characters. Even Commissioner Gordon’s role was diminished in this movie. While Pat Hingle isn’t my favorite James Gordon, Gordon is such a huge part of the Batman mythos that hardly seeing him onscreen is a little disconcerting. I think Dent’s character growing through the movie, even if it was only a few short scenes, would’ve been pretty cool. Yeah, that’s more of me as a fan-geek than as a serious critic, but that’s how I see it. Besides, I’m hardly a serious critic.
The film is a little too…theatrical? Is that the right word? One of the things that Tim Burton is known for is his distinct style. There were glimpses of it in his first three movies (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman) but it really took shape in Edward Scissorhands. His movies are very stylized and have a specific look to them, from the use of the camera, the use of miniature sets, to the way characters enter and exit a scene. It’s all very theatrical, which isn’t a terrible thing, and is arguably one of the things that makes his movies (well, most of them) fun to watch. Here it’s a little silly sometimes. Two examples I remember from when I was 14 and noticed (and made me smile) now have to do with Michael Keaton.
In these early Batman movies (and many other action movies of the 1980s into the early-1990s), there is a scene when the hero suits up. Whether it’s John Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Schwarzenegger in one of his movies, or Batman, there is a scene when the hero goes from being…well…the hero to the, um, hero. In this move, Bruce Wayne goes to the Batcave for the final act’s suit up. He goes into the new vault where all the Batman costumes are located (he must’ve renovated the cave since the first movie). There’s a drawbridge that leads right up to the first costume, which takes up the doorway. It’s quite apparent that you can’t go into the room with the costume where it is, yet Michael Keaton walks right up the small drawbridge and into the room–and obviously nose-to-nose against the first costume. I know what they were going for, and it would’ve been a great shot. Except that you can see at the last minute Keaton has to stop and stand awkwardly, trying not to dump that first costume.
The second moment comes closer to the end. Batman is in his new vehicle, called the Batskiboat, and rushing toward the Penguin’s lair in the abandoned amusement park. He has used a frequency changer (with the help of Alfred) to save Gotham from the Penguin’s penguins and has redirected them to the amusement park. The Penguin, quite angry, rides his motorized duck car to the surface and the Batskiboat follows, crashing from a tunnel and on top of the duck, crushing it. The lid of the Batskiboat slides open and Batman is obviously bent over, squished inside so he can stand up and get out of the vehicle. In other words, the life-size one they built for this scene was too small to fit Michael Keaton. I know I’m nitpicking, but I remember that it bothered me at 14. And that’s the thing with those small, stylistic things, as an adult I find them almost charming, but as a kid, they took me out of the story.
Gotham City feels smaller in this movie. Batman was shot in England, at the legendary Pinewood Studios, where a huge chunk of Gotham City was built. Pinewood Studios is also where portions of Superman and Superman II were shot on the famous 007 Stage. On the backlot, portions of New York City streets were recreated for the infamous fight between Superman and General Zod and his crew. In Batman, Gotham feels like a city. In Batman Returns, which was filmed at Warner Bros. Studios in Los Angeles, even though the sets were huge, it looks (and feels) like less of Gotham was built. And it’s pretty obvious that certain sets were re-used, albeit decorated differently (the exterior of Shreck’s Dept Store and the exterior of Gotham City Hall of Records). Even with the matte paintings of Gotham’s skylines, and chases on the rooftops, Gotham feels small.
Batman the murderer is on the loose. Seriously, Burton’s Batman is a killer in the same way that every action movie star of the 1980s-1990s are, and it’s disappointing. In an interview for one of the behind-the-scene documentaries on Warner Bros.’s superb Batman Anthology DVD/Blu-ray set, I believe it was Daniel Waters who said that while fans complained that Batman killed in these movies, they felt they needed to make him more modern, and in modern movies, the action heroes often kill indiscriminately. To which I say: Bullshit. Why the need to make Batman like every other action star of that time period? Batman purposely uses the Batmobile to set someone on fire, and purposely attaches a bomb to another criminal, blowing him to hell. (How many people will come to my website by searching Batman blowing? We’ll find out! Whee!). And for all intents and purposes, he kills the Penguin as well. Yet, he stands down in the Penguin’s lair, trying to convince Selina Kyle not to kill Max Shreck. He argues that they’re not like Shreck, which I read as, “We’re not killers like he is.” Except…he’s killed all those goons that worked with the Joker, the Joker, several of Penguin’s goons, and, at this point, possibly the Penguin…twice. The way I see it, if Selina Kyle/Catwoman kills Shreck, she’s doing something Batman most likely would’ve done anyway. The argument is, of course, he had no choice but to kill these people. Maybe, maybe not. But the thing that makes the comic book Batman so interesting is that he is unwilling to kill, and when he does, it messes him up.
The black gunk that comes from the Penguin’s mouth. It’s just weird. Blech.
Like Burton’s initial foray into Gotham City, Batman Returns is a tour-de-force of imaginative filmmaking. Nitpicking aside, not only do I enjoy the movie, but I like it even more than its predecessor. It’s faster paced, has more humor, and is just more fun. I saw it twice in the theaters when it came out (and still have the ticket stubs) and multiple times in the year or two that followed, once I got the videotape for Christmas.
Batman Returns was a financial hit, though the reviews were mixed. While Burton’s vision and unique storytelling prowess were often cited as plusses, they were also parts of the criticism that the movie, which was rated PG-13 (like its predecessor), was too dark and too scary. Still, it seemed inevitable that Warner Bros. would want a third adventure. And I knew, that summer in which I turned 15, that I couldn’t wait for a third movie!
A possible piece of trivia: I’ve kept movie stubs for every movie I’ve seen since June 1992. The first stub is for Batman Returns. So is the second stub, seen a month later.
1989 was a big year for Batman. It was his 50th birthday and it was the year he would appear in a major motion picture for the first time in 23 years.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Batman (and comic book) fan Michael Uslan tried getting Hollywood interested in bringing Batman back to the big screen. After pitching his idea to producer Benjamin Melniker, the two went from one studio to the next, eventually winning over the producing team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Still, there was little interest. Until the end of 1978.
With the success of Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. wanted to do what DC Comics itself had done 40 years prior and follow the film up with a new superhero movie. They brought the property back to Warner Bros. (who owns DC Comics) and began the task of bringing Batman to the big screen again. However, nothing seemed to work. Treatment after treatment was pitched to Warner Bros., which would agree, and then change their minds. Tom Mankiewicz, who’d ghostwritten revisions to Mario Puzo’s script for Superman and Superman II when Richard Donner was on both projects (and given the onscreen credit of Creative Consultant), even wrote a treatment. Getting the right director was difficult and pinning down the tone of the movie, and character, was also difficult.
After his success with the Warner Bros. release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton was asked to direct. Not a comic book fan himself, he was intrigued by the imagery of Batman and the Joker. More treatments were written and things weren’t official until Burton’s next movie, Beetlejuice (1988), was successful. Warner Bros. officially greenlit Batman and the stage was set for one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
I knew none of the above. I was a kid, fer chrissakes! What I did know was that in December of 1988, Entertainment Tonight promised a first look at the new Batman movie and I was intrigued. They showed a part of the trailer and I was blown away. I distinctly remember Batman turning around to face the camera, bloodied, his mask dark rubber, ears tall like they were in the comic books. I’d already heard that Michael Keaton–whom I knew from Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously (I love this movie!), Beetlejuice, and a movie I loved called The Dream Team (I haven’t seen it since about 1990, so forgive me if it’s bad)–would play Batman, and I wondered how that would be. I didn’t understand, at that time, the controversy of the decision other than he was known as a comedic actor and Batman was an action/adventure role. I didn’t really know that Batman was supposed to be dark because, even though I had a bunch of Batman comic books from the early-1980s, I hadn’t really read them. I was too young when they came into the house. I still had them and would go back and reread them, but at this point, that was still months away. Seeing that first glimpse of Keaton as Batman got me excited, but I was still a little confused. To me, Adam West was still Batman. I was 11 years old, give me a break.
Sometime around March the marketing machine really started and Batman tee shirts, posters, lunchboxes…the list goes on…started popping up. I remember walking through JC Penney at the local mall and seeing a bunch of Batman tee shirts, for someone my size! At this time, superhero clothing was still for little kids. I was in sixth grade (my last year of elementary school, back then). Also, I was a “husky” 11-year-old.
Batman was everywhere. One of the first adult novels I ever read on my own was the paperback novelization of the movie, written by Craig Shaw Gardner.
1989 was a big year for movies, and that summer was particularly good. It featured not only Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. I got to see Batman, Indiana Jones, and Freddy Krueger in the movies that summer. The other two I saw on VHS when they came out. Either way, it was a good summer.
We went to see Batman a week or two after its release and there was still lines going around the building. We saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids instead. Finally, my father took me one Saturday afternoon to see it. By now, I’d read the novelization and had read a behind-the-scenes magazine. The movie still left a big mark on me.
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Last year, when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman and geeks cried out in a rage, I laughed at them. Maybe they were too young to remember, but I do remember the Michael Keaton fiasco. His Bruce Wayne stands apart from any that had come before or since. He is seemingly a normal guy, looks completely normal. He certainly does not look like someone who dresses like a bat and fights crime at night. Yet, it totally works because of this. As Wayne, he is scattered and scarred, trying to find some sort of normalcy but having trouble. When we meet him at a charity benefit being held at Wayne Manor to help save Gotham’s bicentennial festival, Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) taps him on the shoulder and asks if he knows who Bruce Wayne is. He says no, she thanks him and walks away, and he stands there with a pen he’d been using to sign something with. He realizes he has the pen and doesn’t know what to do with it. He stabs the soil of a huge potted plant with the pen, leaving it there, to be instantaneously retrieved by Alfred (Michael Gough), who also saves a champagne flute. It’s the perfect introduction to a man who continues being the child he was when his parents were murdered in front of him. It’s only after a strange conversation with Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) that we see him in his true self, looking at a bank of monitors in the Batcave.
His acting as Batman is somewhat stilted and emotionless, but this makes sense for someone trying to conceal his identity. The costume itself provided lots of limitations. In trying to achieve accuracy between the comic books and the movie, the costume designers chose to make the mask and cowl go right down to the cape. Unfortunately, the latex foam rubber used to make the mask meant that Keaton couldn’t turn his head without ripping the cowl from the neck. Also, with the thickness of the mask near his eyes and around his head, he had trouble seeing and hearing. Taking all this into consideration, Keaton did a helluva job. Even without it, his tone was correct for the movie overall.
Jack Nicholson obviously needs to be mentioned, though I almost ask myself Why bother? Everyone knows he did an excellent job as the Joker. Yes, he may have hammed it up some, but the character hams it up. He had the energy that Cesar Romero brought to the role (mustache and all) in 1966-1968, but was sinister and deadly. And as much as I’m a Robin Williams fan and truly think he would’ve been great in the role, Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed like destiny. Not only that, but he brought a certain amount of respect to the movie.
The production design is pretty amazing. The idea of making a wholly original city that looks like a nightmare come to life is inspired. Taking the idea that Gotham City is a tortured, sickly, corrupt city and then making it look that way in an outward manifestation was bold. Anton Furst’s designs are nightmarish and effective. Compared to the studio backlots used in the serials as well as the 1966 TV series, or the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding country roads, and unlike Superman: The Movie (and Superman II), which used New York City as its Metropolis, this film had Gotham City as its own thing, unlike any other city. It was a place you’d barely want to walk in the afternoon, never mind after dark.
The Batmobile. How do you top the 1960’s iconic Batmobile? Well, here you go. It’s sleek, sinister, and not at all kitschy. It’s a more realistic Batmobile, to be sure. Where the 1966 Batmobile (as well as most of the comic book versions before and after) were gaudy and seemed to almost be an advertisement to the city of Gotham that Batman had arrived, this Batmobile is scary.
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler (and surrogate father) is amazing. Understated, elegant, and fatherly, he is the heart of the movie. In the scene where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale have their first date in Wayne Manor and end up eating with him, he turns a clichéd scene into something real. Throughout the movie, he is truly the one Bruce Wayne listens to. You get the idea that while he goes along with Wayne’s idea to dress up like a bat to kick some criminal ass, he doesn’t completely agree with it. As such, one of the movie’s most controversial scenes makes sense. More on this later.
The introduction to District Attorney Harvey Dent is a great thing, and the fact that they cast a black man, Billy Dee Williams, to the part is even better. It meant that there was the idea that a sequel could be made and that one could see Dent’s transformation into Two-Face. Because of knowing for this movie, it would make the tragedy of his story that much stronger. Williams turns in a solid performance, too, though he’s not given the screen time he should be.
Danny Elfman’s score is top-notch. The opening titles music alone (a slow reveal of the bat symbol) is as good as John Williams’s Superman theme (or his Star Wars or Indiana Jones themes, for that matter). Where Williams’s Superman theme was bold and hopeful, heroic, Elfman’s Batman theme is heroic, sure, but also dark and mysterious. The rest of his music is every bit as quirky as director Tim Burton is, and bold as the hero Batman is.
Tim Burton’s direction is brilliant at times. His quirky storytelling ability that led him to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (which was originally going to be directed by Wes Craven, with a darker, meaner script) and made them instant classics doesn’t seem right for Batman, yet he does a great job with the piece. The movie could move a little faster, and the dialogue could be better, but overall Burton’s vision of the characters–and of the nightmare that was Gotham City–made the movie unique and made it a movie unlike many other superhero movies, before or since. It’s set in a time unto itself. It could be the 1940s, except the TVs are all in color, and Vicki Vale’s wardrobe and car are definitely 1980s (so is Bruce Wayne’s wardrobe). I wonder if this is his way of saying that Vicki Vale is more progressive and ahead of the curve than those around her, or if it means that Gotham is behind the times. After all, she’s a visitor. Batman’s gear could be from the future. Burton’s vision is complete and the world he provides for us is complete.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is all right most of the time, and terrible at others. Of course, how she got the part has become part of the legend of this movie, but I’ll repeat it for those who may not know (which is a Good Thing, it means you have a life!). Originally, Sean Young had been hired to play the part of Vicki Vale, photojournalist. Part of Bruce and Vicki’s date was supposed to have them horseback riding on the Wayne Manor grounds. About a week before shooting, Young was getting acquainted with the horse she was supposed to ride and she fell off, breaking her arm. The producers decided to recast the part since it was so physical. The list of actresses available in such short notice, with the talent they were looking for, was short. Basinger was on the list and she could drop everything and move to England for three-to-four months, so she was hired. Again, she’s not terrible, but maybe a little more time, a better script, something would’ve helped. In scenes with Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox, she goes from friendly to sharp instantly. Her delivery of some of the lines is almost as though she’s practicing them. I also think the script and/or directing has her screaming too damn much. She just came back from a war, according to the story, and now she’s screaming the classic scream queen scream in every other scene? Once or twice? Yes. But….
I’m not a fan of Alexander Knox. Robert Wuhl is a gifted comedian. His HBO specials Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl and its follow-up are brilliant, but I can’t stand Alexander Knox. I couldn’t when I was 11/12, I can’t now. He’s supposed to provide comic relief, which I’m fine with, and he’s supposed to be the audience’s point-of-view, but I find him taking away too much screen time that I would’ve loved to have seen go to Bruce Wayne, Batman, or even Vicki Vale.
The writing and pacing are a little off. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the 1988 Writers Guild strike, which affected many movies and TV shows that year (it’s mentioned in my essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). The dialogue in places is spot-on and perfect (the Joker’s dialogue, Alfred’s dialogue), other times it’s pretty bad (most of Vicki Vale’s lines, many of Bruce Wayne’s). As far as pacing, there are some cool action pieces throughout the movie, but there are times when it’s dull and boring. I also have to wonder if getting Jack Nicholson actually hurt the movie. He was billed before Michael Keaton, who played the title role! His fee and demands are stuff of legend, as is his earning on the back end (which is quite common now), but I wonder if having spent so much on Nicholson made the movie more about the Joker. Of course, one plot point that gets fans angered is Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, something that co-screenwriter (and writer of the original story) Sam Hamm says he had nothing to do with, pinning it all on co-screenwriter, the late Warren Skaaren. While many have been very upset with this it does fall within the realm of possibility for this movie’s Alfred. There are certainly enough hints from Alfred that he wishes Bruce would lead a more normal life, and that Vicki might be a way to that life. So I’m not mentioning that as a bad part of this movie. Because the real thing, I think, is–
Batman kills everyone. In the comic books, the one thing that separates Batman’s style of vigilantism from that of, say, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character is that Batman will not kill. Batman will break every law in the book if it means getting the culprit, except for killing. In the stories when he’s had to kill, it often leads to follow-up stories where he’s dealing with the killing. In 1989’s Batman, though, Batman is like Rambo. Off the top of my head, Batman kills: Jack Napier (accidentally, though Jack actually survives both the fall into and the submergence in a vat of green chemicals, Batman doesn’t know that until the Joker appears); Joker’s thugs when the Batmobile drops bombs in Axis Chemicals in an attempt to kill the Joker; in Gotham Cathedral, at the end, one of the Joker’s goons leaps from a high place and falls through the floor (while Batman didn’t kill him, he didn’t try to help him, either, which I think comic book Batman would have); and another of the Joker’s goons gets dropped down the length of the cathedral when Batman swings up, grabs him with his calves, and drops him to his death; and, of course, there’s the Joker, who Batman uses the Batbolo (?!) to tie to a gargoyle as the Joker’s helicopter is trying to lift him away. Killing the Joker was a huge mistake because it meant that he couldn’t appear in any sequels. Of course, I’m sure that movie magic would’ve brought him back, as so often happens in comic books, but it would’ve been weak.
When the box office receipts cleared the air, Batman did several things: It revitalized interest in Batman in a mass way that hadn’t been there (except when news got out that Robin would be killed off in the comic books in 1988); it started a huge movie franchise for Warner Bros., who’d sold the film rights to Superman after Superman III; it gave DC Comics a popular film franchise character to capitalize on, something that hadn’t happened since around Superman III (because 1988’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a turkey in every way); and it gave Tim Burton a shot at the big leagues. Up until this movie, Burton was the quirky director of quirky films that turned in a profit. After this movie, he was Tim Burton, the director of Batman. It allowed him to make what could arguably be called his most important movie, Edward Scissorhands.
The even bigger side effect, I think, is that the success of Batman brought a generation of kids to comic books that might have neglected them beforehand. Sure, the mid-to-late-1980s are filled with important comic books that showed the artform as something more than just throwaway entertainment. Names like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman became household names for people who read a lot. If you were a reader, chances are you saw articles about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and The Sandman and may have been interested in them. But the huge success of the movie Batman brought kids like me into comic book shops for the first time to not only buy the various (and plentiful) Batman comics that existed, but got them interested in other titles. It even made comic books seem like a possible career path. I think that without Batman, I might not be writing this. Batman got me to look at comics again, to read them again, to go to the local comic book shop every Saturday, to want to draw and write them. This eventually got me into the local Waldenbooks, which eventually led me to buy The Shining by Stephen King, which made me want to ditch the art thing and just write.
With Batman, Warner Bros. had a new hit that could become a franchise. So of course, it wasn’t long before they approached Tim Burton about a sequel. And fresh off the success of Edward Scissorhands, he said yes.
I’m saddened, as are many, by the news of Harold Ramis’s death. If you’re in my generation, his contribution to Ghostbusters is the thing you automatically think of. I don’t know how many times I’ve answered the question, “What do you like to do?” with, “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” Every now and then someone will get it. I mean, everyone wanted to be Peter Venkman, but I think most of us kinda wanted to be Egon Spengler in some way, too. At least I did.
As I grew up, I realized just how much Ramis did in terms of writing and directing. I saw him on a talk show in 1990/1991 (I keep thinking it was Pat Sajak’s late night talk show) where he was asked if he was the class clown in school. Ramis answered, “I wasn’t the class clown; I was the guy who wrote for the class clown.”
It’s something I held dear to me and utilized throughout high school, when I was super shy and quiet. I would mumble wise-ass remarks under my breath and my classmate Chadd would yell them out. The class would laugh, he’d get in trouble, and I’d be satisfied that I came up with something funny.
Today’s news of his death at 69 deeply saddened me.
It also made me wonder something….
There has been talk about Ghostbusters 3 for the last few years, and everyone has said that the hold-out was Bill Murray. But as I read about Ramis’s health issues, the time-frame coincides with news about a new Ghostbusters movie. Since it seems that everyone is surprised by Harold Ramis’s ill health outside of family and friends, I posit this:
Perhaps Bill Murray wasn’t the hold-out after all. Maybe with Ramis being sick, the idea was to sort of fake the press and fanboys and -girls out with Bill Murray accepting the “blame.” This would take any pressure off Ramis and he could recover, which it seems was expected. Perhaps Murray was doing his old friend a solid by taking any spotlight away from him. Aykroyd would play along until Ramis got better and they could all make the third movie.
I know, it’s far-fetched and silly, but the thought crossed my mind and what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t post fan speculation?
Either way, Harold Ramis is gone and the world has become a little less funny.
So last week I sat down to watch John Green‘s Vlogbrothers video called, “A Middle Aged Man.” The title should have tipped me off right from the start. But it didn’t. So there I sat, ready to be entertained by Green’s witty, intelligent, and machine-gun-paced monologue when he points out, right at the beginning of the video, that he’s a middle-aged man. The realization of that shocked him. I laughed. Ha! He’s right! He’s 36 years old, he is, indeed, middle–
That’s not possible, because I’m 36. Not only that, but John Green and I were born on the exact same day. I mean, Steve Guttenberg and Rupert Grint also share a birthday with me, but they were born in different years. Guttenberg is 19 years older and Grint is 11 years younger. But John Green and I? Twins. From different mothers. And different locations.
Goddamn that got weird.
So it stands to reason if John Green is middle-aged, then [gulp] so am I.
Which began to make a lot of sense.
When I was a kid in the 1980s, there were a lot of movies and TV shows about adults reaching their mid-30s. I didn’t understand why at the time because in the mid-1980s, I was too young to get it. Between The Big Chill and Thirtysomething, various movies and TV shows where people went back to their hometown or told stories of their childhoods in the 1950s, there was a lot of it. As I got older, I saw even more of that as I read Stephen King’s novel It and novella The Body (the basis of the film Stand By Me) or listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. which features “Glory Days” and “My Hometown,” amongst other songs looking back. Billy Joel was “Keepin’ the Faith” and it seemed everywhere you looked, people were coming to terms with this thing called adulthood.
That has been me for the last year. I’ve been longing, with an ache from my core, to return to those Saturday mornings when cartoons played on TV, and the Creature Double Feature aired on Channel 56 out of Boston. I’ve been longing to go back to the local mall as it looked back then, hit the Waldenbooks, and get myself stuff that isn’t available anymore. To be in a place, for just 24 hours, where the Internet didn’t exist to the public. When movies relied on more than CGI effects and explosions to hold a mass-audience’s interest. I mean, don’t get me wrong, 1984 was no walk in the park. And as Billy Joel sings in the aforementioned song, “The good old days aren’t always good/Tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” Make no bones about it, I know I’m looking at things through rose-colored glasses.
But that feeling has been so strong for the last year or two, and I couldn’t figure out why. Until John Green pointed it out. I’m middle-aged. In 30 years, no one would be shocked if I dropped dead. Yeah, 66 isn’t exactly elderly anymore, but…. That’s a chilling sentence to me and I want so badly to delete it, but I’m going to keep it because it makes me uncomfortable.
I work with teenagers, I have a daughter who is turning 16 in two months, and another who is 15-months-old now. They help keep me young, all of them. But still….
There isn’t the kind of looking back now as there was in the 1980s because the Baby Boomer generation was so plentiful. They focused their attention on themselves and on the fact that the generation who would help change the world had become part of the establishment. Rampant crime, the destruction of business laws, the dissolution of personal freedoms, and the biggest chasm between the rich and everyone else since the Great Depression is what they left us with. They also left us with the Civil Rights Act, Equal Rights, free love, and the idea that we are both individuals and parts of a community. Oh, and the ability to be completely self-absorbed.
What will my generation leave behind? Cool status updates and Tweets? Some blogs? Superhero movies?
I don’t know, but I think it’s time I need to think about some things.
We survived this time. We went through twelve movies that had fairly bad reviews when they came out but captured the interest of many in the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s. The character of Jason Voorhees is a part of American culture in the same way Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster was in his day (and even now). Sure, he lacked the attitude and flash of Freddy Krueger, or the bizarreness of Pinhead, and he certainly wasn’t a cute as Chucky, but Jason held his own.
Looking back, I question whether it was a good idea to go down this road at all. Over twelve essays, I’ve hardly had anything nice to say about these movies. Fans of the series probably checked out a long time ago. What I want you to know is that when I decided, over a year ago now, to go watch these movies and write these essays, I did so in the hopes that they would surprise me. I wanted to see in Jason what his fans saw. I wanted to be able to say that, yeah, I got it.
But I don’t. I get why these movies made money, that’s not in doubt. But I don’t get how these movies are still revered. With the exception of the sixth movie, they’re not all that much fun, or clever. Jason is hardly ever scary. And you never really care about any of the victims.
Yet, their fame persists. I feel like I’ve been too critical–too grumpy, maybe–over these movies that were never designed to be good movies. Where I can make a rather funny argument that the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies are arguably the most important movies of the 1980s because of the socio-political commentaries (someday I may even tell you about that. It’s tongue-in-cheek but I think I have some actual good arguments), I have trouble finding any socio-political worth to the Friday the 13th movies. Except, maybe….
Jason represents Reagan era politics. Jason Voorhees is the conservative machine bent on killing the liberal 1960s and 1970s. The young people who die are lovemaking, pot-smoking kids (hippies) in the earliest movies and MTV kids in the later movies. Jason is a throwback to the conservative ideal that the good ol’ days were better. Once these kids started to experiment with free love and mind-altering substances, their morals and convictions went out the window. And even though Jason always dies at the end, it’s always by the girl (or the girl and guy) who is the cleanest cut of the group, the ones who will probably grow up to vote for the Conservative.
I totally pulled that out of my ass, but it reads well so I’m going to keep it.
Anyway, my favorite of these movies is Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. I think I’d actually own this and watch it again. That and Freddy vs. Jason, which I do own. But you know why. My favorite Jason is a toss-up between the Jasons in those two movies (C.J. Graham and Ken Kirzinger). Though I liked the Jason in the remake (Derek Mears), as well.
With the recent sale of the series back to Paramount, and their plans on doing another reboot, it’ll be interesting to see if they try to make an actual scary movie (if they even can) or just do more of the same. I guess we’ll see.
For now, though, we made it away from Crystal Lake (and New York, and Space) with most of our limbs intact. Thanks for making this journey with me.
Look, I already wrote this essay, but this one is going to be a little different. When I originally wrote about Freddy vs. Jason, it was from the viewpoint of a Freddy Krueger fan who’d hardly seen any of the Friday the 13th movies. At this point, I’ve seen them all and feel a little more comfortable going into my thoughts on this movie in regards to Jason. If you haven’t already read my original (and I’ll say, for now, definitive) take on Freddy vs. Jason, click on the link and read it. It all still applies.
I like this version of Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) probably more than any other. I know that Friday the 13th fans (those poor souls who will admit to it) were outraged that Kane Hodder was not cast as Jason in this movie, even after it had looked like he would be. I know there are still people upset by this. Get over it. Ken Kirzinger’s Jason actually performs in this movie. One gets a sense of vulnerability even though Jason is still the cold-blooded, mindless killer who has been through ten (should I even count Jason X?) movies. And his size is quite imposing.
The movie has a silly basis and is fun. There are a few creepy parts (belonging to Freddy) but it’s really not scary. It’s gory, silly fun. Anyone going into a movie called Freddy vs. Jason wouldn’t want it any other way. In this movie, Jason is his normal force to be reckoned with. He stabs, crushes, beheads, impales, and slashes his way through the victims in this movie in the way he always had. If anything, this movie’s silliness allows it to be the goriest of all the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
There’s an attempt by the screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, and director Ronny Yu, to give both characters a little more background, and make them more human. In this case, it’s mostly Jason who gets the real winning treatment. Because Freddy is portrayed as a manipulative monster who is more than willing to torture any- and everyone, it falls on cold-blooded, murdering, mindless Jason to be the more “sympathetic” one. In some ways, it actually works.
Katharine Isabelle. All right, I mentioned her in the first Freddy vs. Jason essay I wrote for A Nightmare in Gautham. I think she’s beautiful.
The silliness is a cliché and wouldn’t it have been interesting if the filmmakers actually tried to make a genuinely scary movie? With the brute freight-train of Jason, and the psychological menace that is Freddy, the filmmakers could’ve really gone for the jugular with a movie in which no one is safe anywhere and in the end, the monsters fight for more than just survival (or the audience’s amusement). Just a thought.
Jason’s wardrobe doesn’t match anything he’s worn before. That said, I like this outfit better than all the rest. Freddy’s wardrobe has also changed in its details, and that bothers me.
Jason is afraid of water. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to do something that would mess him up, to give Freddy an advantage over him, but a fear of water? This same character who has, time and again, walked willingly into Crystal Lake? Who boarded a ship going to New York City? Really? But…yeah…he’s afraid of water in this.
Saturday the 14th
As I said in the other essay, Freddy vs. Jason is really Freddy’s movie. Jason has about as much screen time (and way more kills) but it’s really Jason in Freddy’s world. The last act of the movie takes place at Crystal Lake, but by then, Jason has terrorized Springwood and all the locales Nightmare on Elm Street fans know. While Jason is placed in a fairly sympathetic light, Freddy owns the movie. Maybe it’s because this was done by New Line Cinema but I think it boils down to the Nightmare on Elm Street movies show far more imagination than the Friday the 13th movies. In 10 movies, nearly every story involves Jason coming back and butchering people in various ways and in various locales. In seven movies, Freddy Krueger doesn’t kill as many people, but the deaths are far more memorable, as are the victims. By using the dreams and secrets of the teenagers Freddy haunts, he gives them a life that their waking interactions don’t in the weakest of the movies. With Jason, it’s just killing. This movie highlights those differences.
A sequel was proposed as New Line Cinema was looking into acquiring the Evil Dead franchise. Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash would’ve had the stars of this movie square off against Ash, presumably played by Bruce Campbell. The deal with the Evil Dead people fell through and New Line decided that remakes would be the best thing to utilize these characters.
I’m not opposed to remakes in general, especially if really good filmmakers are behind it….
In 1991, New Line Cinema decided to kill Freddy Krueger with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Around this time, they acquired the rights to Jason Voorhees and Friday the 13th and wanted to bring the two monsters together. However, when they asked Wes Craven if he wanted to be involved, he said no, but said he had an idea for a possible seventh installment. New Line jumped at the chance to have Craven back to helm a Nightmare film. Friday the 13th co-creator Sean S. Cunningham thought it would be a good idea to do with Jason what had been done with Freddy and officially kill him off, while also hinting at the long-desired team-up movie. New Line agreed and 1993 saw the release of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. You know this because I wrote about it in the last essay.
Jason Goes to Hell did all right at the box office but not as well as they’d hoped. New Line was eager to see what Wes Craven’s return to the dreamscape would do to revitalize interest in Freddy Krueger. Unfortunately, when Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was released in October 1994, it failed to live up to expectations. Interest in making the long-awaited team-up were put on the back-burner. At least until a different Wes Craven film, Scream, was a huge hit. Suddenly, New Line wanted a Freddy vs. Jason movie and even promised one for 1998. There was a major problem with that promise: They didn’t have a script.
Time passed and script after script was written, director after director was attached, and it kept falling apart. It seems that every year between 1994 and 2003, Robert Englund would tell an interviewer that they had a new script and there should be a movie within the following year. And each year would pass and nothing would happen.
Sean S. Cunningham didn’t like this. He was afraid that people would forget about Jason Voorhees. So he went to New Line head Michael De Luca and asked about a tenth Jason movie. Writer Todd Farmer pitched the idea that Jason goes to space and De Luca, he who co-penned the cinematic masterpiece Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, greenlit it.
Jason. In. Space.
Though the film was supposed to be released in 2000 or 2001, it was eventually released in April 2002. I didn’t see it then. Seeing now for this essay was one too many times.
David Cronenberg appears in cameo role. Until Jason (once again, Kane Hodder) kills him. It’s always a surprise to see a director that is considered very good make a cameo in a less-than-stellar movie, and here it’s downright shocking. To think that the man who directed one of the best horror films of the 1980s, The Fly, would appear in this horror (I use the term loosely) movie is shocking. But it’s fun for the What the FUCK?! factor.
The escape ship explosion was another nice touch. The set-up is typical horror movie stuff. A girl who is freaking out locks her friends out of their safehaven, in this case, the spaceship that will allow them to escape. Despite them banging on the door (or whathaveyou), she decides to leave the main spaceship without them. Typically, this is where Jason would suddenly appear to kill her. In this case, her own stupidity does her in and it actually surprised me. So did the spaceship’s crash into another safehaven, a space station, earlier in the movie.
The special effects are surprisingly good. I’ll give them credit. For a movie with a fairly small budget, the effects mostly came off.
Jason looks funny in this movie. His head isn’t malformed enough and he had a strange buzz-cut thing going on. His hockey mask is different. His clothes are different. And that’s before the Uber-Jason at the end. Uber-Jason is one of the worst monsters I’ve ever seen. The costume looks like something from a bad SyFy Channel movie. I understand that Jason has looked different in each movie, and there’s certainly a Who Gives a Shit? attitude about that, but this Jason just didn’t do it for me. I think there was too much of Kane Hodder present.
The acting is some of the worst in the series. But I can only blame them so much, because–
The story is ridiculous and full of clichés. I’ve read or heard somewhere that the movie was better before the studio watered down the script. Who knows? The very idea of putting Jason in space is stupid. At best it can only be a low-rent version of Alien. Add to that the most obvious one-liners and scripted dialogue, and we’re talking a disaster of a movie.
The Saturday After
Look, these have been some of the most negative essays I’ve written, and I know fans of the series are used to that sort of thing from non-fans. I almost feel bad about these essays, but I have to call it like I see it. Whether they made money or not, these movies just keep getting worse. The box office for Jason X was also lackluster.
But that was okay, because in 2002, news broke that horror nerds had been hearing for a looonnng time. And this time, it looked like it might actually happen….
With the lackluster performance of Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan in 1989, and with the urging of series co-creator Sean S. Cunningham, Paramount Pictures sold the franchise to New Line Cinema, whom they’d attempted to “rent” the Freddy Krueger character and situations from a few years prior. This would prove a major coup for New Line because now they could finally set up the Battle of the Ages: Freddy Krueger versus Jason Voorhees. The sale in the early 1990s came at just the right time because 1989 wasn’t a good year for Freddy, either. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, released a year after the highest-grossing Nightmare, earned the lowest amount for the franchise at that time. Hoping to cash in one last time, New Line released the final Nightmare movie, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, in 1991, and it made a good amount of money. The purchase of the Jason Voorhees character and Friday the 13th meant they now had the two most popular monsters of the 1980s and could finally put them together.
Robert Shaye knew Sean S. Cunningham would be on board since he’d been trying to get the Jason/Freddy project off the ground for years, but decided to ask Wes Craven if he had any ideas. As it turned out, Craven did have ideas…only not for a monster mash-up. Excited by any Craven involvement in a new Nightmare film, New Line Cinema went ahead with his idea for a seventh movie. This gave Cunningham and the studio the chance to do what the eighth Friday the 13th movie couldn’t do: Put an “end” to Jason and set up the eventual Freddy/Jason movie.
With a screenplay by Dean Lorey and Jay Huguley, from a story by Huguley and director Adam Marcus, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was released on August 13th, 1993. I remember watching it when it came on Cinemax about a year later, when I was either a junior or senior in high school. I was interested in watching it in and of itself but the real reason I wanted to see it was because, by that point, Fangoria had reported the surprise ending….
The acting is slightly better in this movie than in the previous Friday movies. The script gives the actors a little more to work with. That said, the stand-out performance for me was Erin Gray’s. Now, it could just be the nerdboy in me talking, except that I never saw her in Buck Rogers (because I never saw the show, not because I couldn’t see her, that’s weird of you to think), I only knew her from Silver Spoons. But she brings real pathos to her role. John D. LeMay as Steve Freeman is also pretty good. He also starred in Friday the 13th: The Television Series, only he played a different character.
I know I write this often in these essays, but I feel like I’m often grasping at straws, so my apologies for repeating myself, but the fact that the screenwriters tried to move into a totally different direction with Jason (Kane Hodder) and the series needs to be applauded. They truly leave the idea of Jason terrorizing teenagers/young adults behind and take the movie into a new direction. Jason is now a known enemy to the United States and a task force has been employed to destroy him. Playing with horror as a genre, they reference the Evil Dead films and give a reason for Jason’s supernatural ability, as well as a way to destroy him. They also give him a larger family that changes the way he can be viewed.
If you’re into these movies for the gore, then you’re in luck. Whatever shenanigans that kept gore out of the eighth movie seems to have gone away for this one. It’s ridiculously gory. So if you’re into that, that would be a plus.
Freddy! Yeah, you must’ve known I was going there. At the end Jason is dragged into hell by monsters. There’s a close-up of his hockey mask. He’s dead. And then Freddy’s gloved arm shoots up, grabs the mask, and drags it into hell, with Freddy’s signature laugh. Of course, the arm looks strangely muscular (Kane Hodder provided the arm) and the blades of the glove bend when they hit the dirt, but it’s Freddy.
While the overall acting is slightly better in this movie, there are still some horrible performances. For me, the most surprising of these bad performances was given by Steven Williams as he played bounty hunter Creighton Duke. Williams has had a long, good career. I first knew him as the boss on Fox’s hit 21 Jump Street, which starred A Nightmare on Elm Street alum Johnny Depp. Williams was also a nerd favorite on The X Files as Mr. X. He’s a pretty good actor who is terrible in this movie. Maybe it’s not the right role for him. I don’t know, but it’s bad.
The story is real bad. That’s the problem with the Friday the 13th movies (or the Jason movies, as I guess they should be called for the next few essays), even if it’s the best written one, chances are likely that the movie is still shitty. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday is no exception. It begins with Jason stalking a young woman who turns out to be part of that federal task force I mentioned earlier and ends with him being dragged to hell by some of the silliest monsters I’ve ever seen (though less silly than the Dream Demons from Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, I’ll give Jason the point for that). And then a young family walks into the sunrise. What? Yeah, you read that correctly. There’s a baby in this movie, and family issues, and a love story, and stereotypical foul-mouthed fat ladies, and more plot holes than I have time to list. And, the biggest problem by far is–
Where’s Jason?! New Line Cinema acquires their biggest horror competitor. They want to do a Freddy vs. Jason movie. They’ve already killed off Freddy (and it won’t be an issue that he returns for Wes Craven’s new Nightmare movie, which will be released the following year). And here we go with killing off Jason and…we’re going to keep Jason out of most of the movie.
Jason appears at the beginning, as I mentioned, until the U.S. government blows him up. Then his remains spout some creature that then goes around possessing people. We’re told by the bounty hunter that Jason the person has long been dead, but the evil entity in him takes his evil essence and finds new hosts for him. The idea is that Jason has been different people all the time. Forget the fact that almost every Friday the 13th movie showed him return from the prior movie’s resting place. The only other time we see Jason until the very end when he finally returns (plot hole alert), is in the mirror whenever his hosts stand in front of one. Instead of seeing Jason kill, which is all his fans pay to see anyway, we’re given a variety of characters committing Jason-style violent deaths.
Which only highlights what I’ve been saying throughout these movies: the true reason for the horror of a horror movie isn’t even being attempted, not even for laughs. The movies have devolved into a slaughterfest meant to do nothing but make powerless adolescents laugh at gruesome, horrible deaths. The fact that this is the ninth movie of this is a horrific happening unto itself.
Oh, and let’s talk about Jason himself in this movie. He looks stupid. His head has somehow inflated to twice the normal size, he’s regrown hair, and he’s not even close to wearing what he wore in the last few movies. If this is because he’s in a new body, how did the head come to look like a watermelon-sized meatball? He’s lame.
The Saturday After
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday is a new day for Jason. New Line was able to make it more supernatural than the character (and story) had been but ultimately failed to do anything interesting with the movie. It’s essentially a 90-minute prologue to Freddy vs. Jason, which they hoped to make after the new Wes Craven Nightmare was released. As a teenager, I thought the movie was okay. As an adult, I’m shocked by how bad it is compared to my memory of it.
The movie did okay and it certainly promised fans what they’d been hoping for for nearly a decade. With all the pieces in place, what could possibly go wrong?
Though the box office for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood wasn’t as high as some of the previous installments, it was still in the ballpark enough for Paramount to greenlight an eighth movie. This time around, longtime producer of the franchise Frank Mancuso, Jr., was out. Taking on writing and directing duties was Rob Hedden.
According to Hedden, he was one of the people who pitched for a Jason vs. Freddy Krueger crossover and was also a writer for the Mancuso, Jr.-produced Friday the 13th: The Television Series that ran on syndication at this point. The chance to write and direct the next film was something he couldn’t pass up.
Once again, Paramount gave permission to the writer/director to create a story in any way he wanted so he pitched taking Jason Voorhees out of Crystal Lake and bringing him to New York City. Paramount loved the idea and pre-production begun. However, even before production began, problems arose, mostly regarding budget.
This was, I believe, the second Friday the 13th movie I saw, again it was on Cinemax. My best guess was 1990 or 1991. I remember the teacher (Barbara Bingham) giving the star, Rennie (Jansen Daggett), a pen that she said she believed Stephen King used when he was a student. I also remember the boxer (V.C. Dupree) that Jason (once again, Kane Hodder) decapitates with a single punch to the head. There were other things I remembered faintly, too, that came back upon rewatching this movie.
Jansen Daggett as Rennie is attractive and likeable, though she’s not the best actress. She is also very 1980s. This is fun.
The attempt by Hedden to take the franchise to a new place, both metaphorically and literally, is to be applauded. He didn’t want to do yet another Jason-stalks-kids-in-the-woods movie. Taking Jason to New York is thrilling in many ways. First, just the What The Fuck? Factor of seeing Jason in Times Square is fun. And this is 1989 Times Square, so it’s not yet the full neon, crazed, carnival it is today. It still has a little of the old Times Square danger to it. Seeing Jason in back alleys and the like is also fun.
There’s a billboard in Times Square for 1989’s Batman, starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. That’s fun to see. Now digital effects would have replaced the ad for the Warner Bros. film for a billboard for a Paramount movie, or maybe even something else entirely. Yeah, this has nothing to do with the story, I’m grasping at straws here.
All right, in the last essay I wrote that I wasn’t a fan of Jason’s makeup. Well, this movie’s is even worse. First off, it’s a step backward. Where Jason looked too withered and falling apart in The New Blood, in Jason Takes Manhattan, even though he’s been under water for however long between movies, his shirt has somehow come back together and some of his flesh seems to have regrown. Oh, and it’s changed color, too. And when they take the mask off, it’s the worst makeup of the series. Jason looks like a poorly drawn smiley face. And the mask, which had black fabric covering up the left eyehole through most of the series suddenly has both eyeholes covered, so no eyes remain. I always felt that seeing Jason’s eye(s) somehow made him scarier.
The acting is typically bad. The story has a bunch of teenagers going on a cruise from Crystal Lake to New York City for some school thing in biology class and there’s a hell of a lot more kids than it seems we ever get to know. And the ones we do get to know are the normal stereotypes that we never get the chance to care about. Even Jansen Daggett’s Rennie is little more than the typical quiet girl who will survive this horror movie through her cunning and innocence.
And while I applaud Hedder for attempting to take Friday the 13th in a new direction (how often have I written that or something like that in these essays?) it fails. Part of it isn’t his fault. Some of it was the budget. Some of it was, no doubt, the MPAA.
At $5 million, the budget for this movie was higher than any of the previous installments, but it still wasn’t enough. Apparently, the original script had most of the movie set in New York City, but Hedder was told that it was too expensive to shoot there. And even with shooting some of New York’s settings in Vancouver, time in the city (and on location) kept getting shorter and shorter. In the end, he had two days in actual New York and only the last third of the movie was set there.
The MPAA surely hurt the movie. By this point in the 1980s, Tipper Gore and other watchdog types were actively going after horror movies and heavy metal and anything that could seem too much for children. This is because R-rated adult entertainment is something that children regularly see. Well…maybe…but I digress. This movie is actually pretty tame compared to the previous movies (and those that follow). Most of the deaths happen offscreen. Jason comes into frame, lifts his arm, brings it down, and then we see the body at some point. There are exceptions to this, I already mentioned the fate of the young boxer on a rooftop. Compared to the crazy gore and gratuitous violence of, say A New Beginning, Jason Takes Manhattan is pretty tame. People don’t watch Friday the 13th movies for tame, though. They watch for over-the-top violence and gore.
Even with the constrictions brought on by budget and censorship, Hedder must take most of responsibility in the failure of this movie. From beginning to end, very little fits logically with the story within the franchise or even within the movie itself. Rennie sees the little boy of Jason throughout the movie, and he only slowly grows to look like how he did in the original. The way Jason is brought back to life is also odd. He’s electrified again, which isn’t so odd, by a giant electrical cable that runs under Crystal Lake, which gets frayed by a yacht. How does a yacht fit on this lake? Is it one of the Great Lakes? Or perhaps a great lake in its own right? Anyway, this cable–which is out in the open under the water–is frayed by the yacht’s anchor (which is light enough to be carried by the lake’s current but strong enough to break this huge cable) and the electricity goes up the cable to where Jason is under the broken dock from the last movie. It brings Jason back but not the girl’s father from the previous movie. His body isn’t even there. So not only do Jason’s clothes somehow repair themselves (as does his skin) but the father also disappears magically. At the end, Jason is essentially turned into the little boy, which is also weird and doesn’t make sense. His choices in direction aren’t always the greatest (the POV of the boxer’s severed head is stupid, because the boxer can’t see because he’s dead).
And let’s not forget how Jason suddenly appears in places. There have been jokes as long as these movies have been out how the killer will walk after his victims and always seem to get them. For Jason, the walking after victims really began in the fourth movie. In this movie, though, Jason begins to appear whenever needed. One example is on the cruise ship to New York. Jason is stalking a victim and the victim turns away, runs up some steps, only to be confronted by Jason, who somehow managed to get from the deck to the stairs without passing his victim. Now I can only assume that this was done because of Freddy Krueger. Freddy is known to do this trick throughout his film series, and this makes sense because he’s in a dream. Jason may now be supernatural, but he’s still in the real world and should adhere to at least some of the physics that we all live with. Yikes.
Saturday the 14th
What might have been a fun jaunt to the city with a popular monster is a lame movie. The attempts at humor fail. There’s nothing particularly creepy or scary in the movie. And the one thing that the Friday the 13th movies always did well–gory death scenes–are trimmed to the point of nearly being safe for network TV (of the time, anyway).
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan no doubt caused more eyerolls than anticipation when the trailers first hit theaters. The film did the least business than any of the other movies in the franchise, earning a measly $14.3 million dollars. Its release date didn’t help any. Released on July 28th, 1989, it was smack-dab in the middle of one of the biggest summers the movies had seen. Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and Ghostbusters II were all released that summer. Even the better-faring Freddy Krueger movie A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (released in August) failed to do the business its predecessor of the prior year did; $22 million compared to $49 million.
Between the poor audience reception, the fact that it was the eighth movie, and the fact that the horror bubble was beginning to collapse all around, Paramount decided that Jason’s trip to New York would be his last resurrection for awhile.
With the Friday the 13th movies still making money but straining a very thin premise, Paramount and producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. were looking for something new to do with the franchise. Sean S. Cunningham was also interested in possibly doing something new with the franchise, especially now that there was a new kid on the block. The block happened to be on Elm Street in a sleepy town called Springwood.
In 1984, the fledgling New Line Cinema released a film by Cunningham’s protégé Wes Craven called A Nightmare on Elm Street. The movie was scary and had become a sleeper hit. The villain of the film, Fred Krueger, portrayed by the classically trained Robert Englund, sliced his way to the top of people’s Favorite Villains list with a concept unlike any that had been done before. New Line went ahead with a sequel even though Craven refused and 1985 saw A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. While the critical and fan response to the second movie was much less favorable than its predecessor, the movie earned more than the first movie, securing another sequel. In 1986, filming was underway on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. With the return of Wes Craven, along with his writing partner Bruce Wagner, on the story and script (along with Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell), anticipation was high. Freddy Krueger was already being mentioned alongside Jason Voorhees as one of the best monsters of 1980s horror.
Cunningham saw this as an opportunity to revitalize the series he co-created and pitched the idea of putting the two maniacs together in the style of the old horror movies. So began talks between Paramount Pictures and New Line Cinema. Paramount wanted to “rent” the rights to Freddy Krueger, Elm Street, and the rest. Being an old movie studio, it was in a position of power. Except that New Line’s new horror villain was the “It” Monster at that moment. Freddy had a sense of humor, ran around, and got people in their dreams while Jason just shambled about. So New Line proposed “renting” Jason, et al. Neither party would budge and the deal fell through. Still, the movie was pretty close to happening.
So with the Jason and Freddy match-up off, Paramount and Mancuso, Jr., went ahead with plans for a seventh Friday the 13th. Still, the idea that Jason had a formidable opponent was forefront in their mind, so writers Manuel Fidello and Daryl Haney gave Jason a psychic/telekinetic teenage girl to fight. It reminds me of that famous quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “I asked for a car, I got a computer.” Paramount asked for Jason vs. Freddy, they got Jason vs. Carrie.
This was the first Friday the 13th I believe I saw since it came on HBO/Cinemax the year after its release and by that point I was officially into horror. I liked it well enough at the age of 12, I guess. It was interesting, at least, the girl using her mind to move things. Since this was before I began reading Stephen King and hadn’t seen the movie Carrie, I didn’t have that as a frame of reference. That probably helped me somewhat like the movie back then.
Jason (Kane Hodder) looks like a monster, which is cool. Between the third movie and the sixth, he could just as well have been Michael Myers of Halloween–a dude with a mask killing late-teenagers/young adults. Somewhere he even got a jumpsuit like Myers. With this movie, director John Carl Buechler decided to really have Jason look like he’s been through the wringer. While the previous movie zombified him, this movie went all out. He’d been in a lake for years and now looked it with his clothes in tatters and bones visible. It also made Jason different from the other famous monsters of the 1980s.
The attempt at something different should also be given a nod. It would have been real easy to just have the kids be at a camp all over again and Jason inexplicably come back to life and kill them one by one. This time, there’s a telekinetic teenage girl named Tina (Lar Park Lincoln). There was a hint of spousal abuse that could be brought up and a doctor (Terry Kiser) who seemed to be taking advantage of his patient for personal gain. Tina’s powers are a little silly at times (try not laughing when a TV flies through the air when she’s upset at the doctor and her mother) but the fights with Jason are almost interesting and somewhat entertaining.
Terry Kiser is good in this movie. His is a face you would recognize as he was in so much in the 1980s. I mean, he was Bernie in the Weekend at Bernie’s movies! He has a quality about him that’s just kind of slimy and he pulls off the Doctor-Up-To-No-Good thing so well.
The acting has gone back to being uninteresting at best. Some of it is horrible. Most of it is forgettable. Lar Park Lincoln does her best with the material but it just falls flat. I almost wonder if a better director, or better script, would have helped her. The rest of the cast fits into stereotypes, one way or another.
Though the look of Jason now distinguishes him fully from Michael Myers, I was distracted by the make-up effects for him. You can see his teeth and jaw exposed on the left side of his face and his ribs and spine on his back. Yet, they never feel like they’re in him, but rather on top of him, which they are. It was a valiant effort that ultimately fails and actually distracted me.
The beginning and ending are lame. The movie starts with young Tina running out of a house on Crystal Lake (where we see Jason floating beneath the surface, looking like he did in the previous movie). Young Tina climbs into a boat and rows away from the dock. We’ve heard the sound of her parents fighting and her father hitting her mother. Then Daddy comes out and chases Tina, saying he’s sorry and that he’ll never hit Mom again and all that shit. In a moment of anger, Tina uses the Force to destroy the dock, which means Daddy falls into Crystal Lake, to his doom. When she comes back for “therapy” years later, Tina goes to the dock and senses a presence underwater (I think…this is never really clear). Then she uses her telekinesis to bring Jason back, thinking it’s her father.
At the end, the way Jason is finally “killed” is lame because Tina, once again on the dock, her new boyfriend with her, is being attacked by Jason (who we thought was blown up with the house). Tina uses the Force again to feel a presence under the lake and WHAMMO! Daddy comes out of the water, through the dock, and brings Jason down with him. Unlike Jason, though, who decayed underwater for almost a decade, Daddy is a little dirty but is otherwise the same guy we saw in the prologue.
And while we’re talking about Daddy here, let’s talk about how fucked up this movie is when it comes to women. Now, I know that the Friday the 13th movies tend to objectify women, but there are some strongish women in most of the movies. Or at least I think they’re supposed to be strong, because it’s almost always a woman who defeats Jason, or helps defeat him. But bear with me here. So in the prologue, we hear the mother get slapped by the father, who, moments later, tells his little girl that he won’t do it again, even though it seems he’s made this promise before. So she kills him. Now, she comes back in her therapy (which is really just the doctor using her powers to make a name for himself) to the location where Daddy met his fate. She is distraught at the memory that she killed him. Her mother tries to assuage her grief. There’s a photo of Dad on the wall in the house. She killed her Dad, she killed her Dad…waaaah! And then she uses the same powers she used to bring Jason back to bring him back to save her. Has she forgotten the reason she killed him? Has she forgotten that he beat her mother? I know that a child may feel guilt at this, and that guilt might carry over the years, but how can Mom be so understanding? Or am I just reading too much into this subplot?
While the filmmakers attempted something different, they fail. By now, it’s beginning to feel like gimmicks are being thrown together. Not that the whole series is anything more than gimmicks. Jason in 3D! Jason dies! A new killer! Jason lives! Jason fights…um…er…you said we can’t use Freddy?….um…Jason fights…[sees Stephen King’s Carrie on the bookcase]…a telekinetic girl! Here’s the thing with the Friday the 13th movies and the character of Jason Voorhees as he’d been presented up to and including this point: You can’t do much with him. He is a zombie who doesn’t eat his victims, who has superhuman strength, and always manages to find a machete. He’s just a machine that kills. So you could have him fight a telekinetic girl, Freddy Krueger, or the Harlem Globetrotters but the fact remains that he’s just going to shamble around killing people.
Saturday the 14th
I realized while writing that last paragraph that it was becoming the wrap-up, so I’ll wrap it up. By the seventh movie in this franchise, Jason Voorhees is a bore. The sixth movie proved to be the exception that proves the rule. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood was made for $2.8 million and earned $19.2 million after its May, 1988 release. Compare that to A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master, which was released that August and cost $13 million (about $10 million more than the former) but made $49.3 million, more than any of the original Friday the 13th movies had ever made.
The only thing the filmmakers could do to keep him interesting was throw in different gimmicks. What would be next? Freddy was too successful on his own. Fight Michael Myers, whose own franchise had been rejuvenated based on the successes of Jason and Freddy? Have Jason fight Superman, whose movie career was over for a bit? Or maybe a change of scenery would be it. Something silly, like sending Jason to New York.
Yeah, right. Who would buy that?
After the mess that was Part V: A New Beginning, it’s a surprise that Paramount would’ve okayed a sixth film, except for one thing. Well, make that 22 million things. With a budget of just $2.2 million, the fifth movie earned back ten times the cost. The movie may have been a financial hit but it still met with a lukewarm reception at best. Critics, naturally, hated it. This was nothing new. However, the fans didn’t like it either, and that was a problem. With this in mind, Paramount and producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. decided to abandon the set-up at the end of the fifth movie, where it looked as though Tommy Jarvis would become the next killer of the series (which is what the fourth movie did, as well). As such, the decision was made to bring Jason back. They hired Tom McLoughlin to write and direct the movie.
Unlike my experiences with the A Nightmare on Elm Street movies, I don’t have clear memories of the first time I saw most of these movies. I’m pretty sure I was between 12 and 15 and they were all showing on Cinemax. They never captured my interest as much as the Nightmares did, so watching these now is like watching them for the first time, only with odd flashbacks. So I can honestly say that Jason Lives surprised me.
I’m surprised, but happy, to say that the acting is pretty good. Now don’t get me wrong, no one was going to win any Oscars from this movie, but the actors were definitely better in this installment than in the previous few. Thom Mathews as the new Tommy Jarvis is pretty good. He’s much more charismatic than John Shepherd was in the role in the previous movie. Jennifer Crooke as Meghan is also pretty good, although straining at times. David Kagen as Sheriff Mike Garris also does a great job. And this movie features Future Serious Actor Tony Goldwyn, just four years before his memorable appearance with Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg, and Demi Moore Ghost (he can now be seen as the President of the United States in the TV series Scandal). This movie may have the best cast since the first movie.
The humor is a welcome change from what’s come before. This movie is actually funny in spots. Not that the Friday the 13th movies ever shied away from humor, but it was usually camp that was employed. McLoughlin’s script is actually pretty funny. This isn’t a comedy, not in the true sense of the word, but it’s got elements that would later be employed (more successfully) by Wes Craven’s Kevin Williamson’s-scripted Scream films.
There’s actual tension in this movie. Not much of it, but it’s there. Jason (C.J. Graham) has stopped running yet still manages to be unsettling. There’s a scene when someone catches him killing another person. He stops and looks at the voyeur. The shot is done so that we’ve become the voyeur so Jason has caught us. It’s a little thing, but it helps. So when Jason turns and begins walking quickly toward us, the reaction is purely, Oh, shit! Run! There are other scenes where this horror movie comes close to living up to the genre’s name, which is a welcome relief from the previous movies.
There’s an actual, true supernatural element to the movie. Prior to this, Jason gets his ass handed to him over and over again but is supposed to be some sort of man with a lot of strength. This movie opens up with Tommy Jarvis and a friend from the mental hospital (played by none other than Horshack himself, the late Ron Palillo) going to find Jason’s grave (skipping over the previous movie’s assertion that Jason was cremated) because Tommy doesn’t believe Jason’s really dead. They dig him up and upon seeing Jason’s decaying, worm- and maggot-ridden corpse, Tommy freaks out and grabs a piece of the wrought iron fence–which looks like a spear–and begins pounding it into Jason, screaming. Finally, back to his senses, he climbs out of the grave to get the gasoline to finally, truly cremate him. Lightning strikes the spear and brings Jason back to life. Jason is essentially a zombie from here on. It opens up a whole world of possible fun and actually gives the previous movies some help. Now Jason really did die as a child, but came back after his mother was killed. And that’s why no one is ever able to kill him, except Tommy in the fourth movie.
There’s thought that actually goes into this movie. If Tommy wasn’t obsessed with the idea of Jason not being dead, he wouldn’t have brought him back to life (even accidentally). I like that Tommy is the one who “killed” Jason before accidentally bringing him back. Also, the common thing is to have the main heroine of the movie be the sweet, innocent one. Not so in this movie. Meghan is the wild child who would normally be killed fairly early on in this kind of movie. The girl who is most like the typical heroine in these movies is the last of the camp counselors to die. There’s surprisingly very little in terms of plot holes in this particular story (though in the overall scheme of the franchise, there are plenty).
The ending is a little weak. Tommy puts Jason underwater with a chain around a rock and Meghan goes at him with the motor of a motorboat and he dies. Or does he? When the camera goes in for an extreme close-up of Jason’s eye, it’s no real surprise.
The sheriff’s deputy is played badly. He’s the typical horror movie cop and the rest of the material is beneath this.
Saturday the 14th
This movie surprised me. I liked it. More than I should’ve, probably. McLoughlin understands the material and does his best to make it fresh and it works. I don’t know if I saw the whole thing as a kid (I remember the opening in the graveyard from back then) but if I did, I certainly didn’t get the humor. Or maybe I thought it was lame. I don’t know, but I found myself quite entertained by Jason Lives. I daresay, it may be my favorite of the series. At least so far.
The movie made less than the previous movie at around $19.5 million, but still earned back a lot (its budget was $3 million). By now, though, Jason wasn’t the only monster on the block. Freddy Krueger slay his way through two movies with a third on the way in early 1987. And around schoolyards and school hallways, the inevitable question arose: Who would win in a fight…?
I know that at some point in my early teens I saw some of this movie, just as I saw some of the others. As I watched it more recently, though, I was surprised by just how little of it I remembered….
The movie begins with Corey Feldman returning as Tommy Jarvis. He witnesses two young men digging up a makeshift grave for Jason Voorhees. Jason comes alive and murders them both. Then he comes after Tommy, raises his machete, and Tommy (John Shepherd) awakes, a young man, in the back of a van. He is being brought to a halfway house after his release from a mental institution. He has had a hard time coping with killing Jason (as well, I assume, as the grisly murders that took place around and at his home). Of course, violent murders begin happening shortly after Tommy arrives leading to a final showdown with none other than Jason…or is it?
Claiming the fourth movie as The Final Chapter no doubt brought people into theaters, which no doubt decided the Paramount brass, as well as producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., to immediately resuscitate the franchise. So A New Beginning was devised and the world became a darker place for it.
Corey Feldman returns as Tommy Jarvis. Seeing him and the level at which he works is a great thing. It’s a shame that it all went downhill for him after Stand By Me, but here he kicks ass–again–as Tommy Jarvis. In the five minutes or so he is onscreen, mostly in close-ups, he brings emotion and pathos to the film.
While I’m mentioning Feldman, I’ll mention Shavar Ross, who plays Reggie. If you grew up in the early-1980s, then you’d recognize Ross from Diff’rent Strokes, where he played Arnold’s (Gary Coleman) best friend Dudley. Here, he gives the second best performance of the movie. I think the reason both he and Feldman are so good in these movies is that they are kids. They’re not adult actors who are aware of the kind of movie they’re making. They’re child actors who are probably thrilled to be in a Friday the 13th movie, or any movie. It’s one more step to a long, fruitful career for them. Ross isn’t as good as Feldman was in the prior movie, or in his five minutes in this one, but he’s the best thing in the rest of the movie despite the poor writing he’d given.
The nudity is the most in this series thus far. Now, I know it was a little funny the first time I mentioned this. And maybe still funny, a little, the second time. Now I look like a pervert. Well, allow me to defend myself: As I mentioned, the teenagers and young adults who paid for Friday the 13th flicks in the 1980s wanted only violence and sex. Let me go back and edit that. The teenagers and young adults who paid for many low-budget horror flicks in the 1980s wanted only violence and sex. Unless the horror flick was truly scary (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser) the only thing going for these kinds of movies were violent and sexual perversion. So, by that standard, this movie succeeds. The nudity is upped. There are lots of breasts in this movie. Not as many as some, perhaps, but better than others in this series.
The violence has been upped. Again, if you’re paying for this–and teenagers were–then the depravities onscreen are upped.
The writers try to go in a “new” direction. There’s a little more psychological suspense (a term I loathe) in this movie. When older Tommy Jarvis arrives on the scene, he sometimes sees Jason (Tom Morga). It’s apparent that it’s not the ghost of Jason but his own PTSD that’s fucking with him. Unfortunately, writers Martin Kitrosser, David Cohen, and Danny Steinmann and director Steinmann don’t really get into it. They try to keep Jason dead.
The acting is all around bad, except for Feldman and Ross. Again, I think they’re bad because they’re not given anything to work with. By the fifth movie, the template hadn’t just been set, it had become part of the DNA of a certain moviegoing audience. A small set-up at the beginning where we meet the characters, all stereotypes, and then 60 to 70 minutes of those people being murdered in especially grisly fashion, with tits thrown in for good measure. So the actors are there just to flesh out the stereotype and then react to the killer. And the actor who plays older Tommy, John Shepherd, is awful. He’s a goddamn zombie!
If I’m going to be base, then I have to say that the killings are lame. Because the writers decided to try something kinda-sorta new, we never see the killer until the very end, when it appears to be Jason. This means that, like the first movie, the filmmakers have to be clever and not show the killer doing the killings. While this worked for the first movie, it hinders this one. Maybe that’s because it comes after three where Jason Voorhees was seen in all his cardboard glory, I don’t know. But it falls flat.
The writing is horrible. Yeah, Mssrs. Kitrosser, Cohen, and Steinmann get a little kudos for trying to go in a new direction, but the rest of the movie just sucks. And if you’re going to try a new direction, try a new goddamn direction. Don’t do the same fucking thing but with someone else, unless it’s in a new place, under new circumstances, and breaks away from everything that’s come before. And if you want the Tommy Jarvis connection (and what about his sister?), why not bring him to a hospital in the city where he starts having hallucinations? I don’t know. Like Friday the 13th in New York? (See what I did there?). But they don’t. It’s in the woods, assumingly in Jersey, near Crystal Lake. It’s a halfway house this time, that way we can give the kids in the movie a reason for acting differently, and maybe get some built-in pathos straight away. The lines the actors are given are bad. The story is nearly nonexistent, and there’s no real structure. The “heroine” in this movie, Pam (Melanie Kinnaman) is boring. She looks like Amy Steel from Part II but isn’t given anything interesting to do. And considering she’s one of the people in charge, she makes some horrible choices. The Black characters are given bad lines, the White actors each have their own stereotypes to deal with (the slow fat kid, the angry kid, the horny guy, the horny girl, the sweet girl, the new wave girl, the super-sensitive guy, the guy running the show) and none move beyond that. And let’s not forget the ending, which takes place in a barn. Just like the third movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same barn. And the twist ending(s) of Jason not being Jason but rather an ambulance driver we see for 10 seconds at the beginning of the movie, after the first (actually, third, if you count the opening nightmare) murder who is upset because his son, the fat kid, is murdered by the angry kid. The other twist is that Tommy may suddenly be a killer. At least that’s what’s hinted at. Both leave the viewer feeling cheated. The former because there’s really so little evidence that it’d be the ambulance driver that no one could guess it, and the latter because if you want Tommy to be a killer, have him be the killer!
The direction is horrible. Again, comparing this one to the first one makes the first one almost seem like Casablanca. Sean S. Cunningham will never win an Oscar for directing (or for anything else) but at least he did a semi-professional job. Danny Steinmann points the camera. Done.
Lastly, the violence. I know that I listed the increased amount of violence in The Day section, but that was in terms of what is wanted by the boneheaded 1980s teenager/young adult who pays for (or sneaks into) a Friday the 13th movie. In actuality, the violence is appalling. I counted 10 grisly murders in the first half hour, and 12 by the 40 minute mark. There were twenty grisly murders in this movie before the killer is killed and there’s still another one in Tommy’s epilogue nightmare. I just looked it up and, up until this point (I’m not spoiling the rest of the movies for myself) it’s almost double the average, already-too-high number of deaths in these movies.
Now, folks, I’m not a squeamish person. I think Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is a superb, heartwrenching novel and I liked the movie (much to the horrified chagrin of my lovely wife). I have watched the original I Spit On Your Grave several times (and have it on my Netflix instant streaming queue for another viewing). I’m not squeamish when it comes to film violence, but I want it to at least have a reason, and preferably an outcome that is more than just a body count. This is the kind of violence that gave the horror movies of the 1980s a bad name. Maybe as a teenager I would’ve thought it was cool, but I have definitely outgrown the target audience for these movies. It’s almost enough to make me abandon this series and move on to greener pastures.
Saturday the 14th
This movie is despicable. There is no redeeming value in it. According to Wikipedia, Cory Feldman was only available for the five minutes at the beginning of the movie because he was filming The Goonies. Good for him. This turkey is beneath him. Even though the fourth Friday the 13th lacked charm, at least there was some. This movie is a giant, steaming pile of shit. It’s only purpose that I can see is to remind us of how bad these movies could get.
The movie cost around $2.2 million. It made about $22 million. So you know what that meant….
With Friday the 13th‘s premiere in 1980, a sequel followed each year afterward for two years. Friday the 13th Part II came out in 1981 and Part 3 came out in 1982. The filmmakers, seeing how the film was repeating itself like a crazed hamster on its wheel, decided not to rush things for a fourth part. They also decided it was time to end things. This led to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which was released in 1984 and took the franchise into new territory with careful plotting, intelligent directing, and acting that blew away every other horror film that year.
All right, the only true part in the above paragraph are the titles and the dates, I made up the rest. The truth is, I have no idea why it took two years to make this movie except that, maybe, Paramount was ready to end the franchise with the third movie but figured, “Hey, why not? These things keep making money for us.” However, they may have also had enough of the Jason Voorhees character and may have decided this would be his last outing.
The Final Chapter begins much like the prior two sequels. The first five minutes show what has happened before. Unlike the prior two movies, though, it doesn’t replay the final scene. Instead, it takes “The Legend of Jason” story from Part II and illustrates it with some of the “Best of” the gory scenes, leading us into the end of Part 3. This movie picks up almost immediately after. Jason (Ted White) is on the floor of the barn we left him, ax removed from the head, but only recently. He’s taken to the hospital and turns out to be alive(!) and, well, does what Jason does.
There’s a little bit a new twist in this movie. There’s a family, Mom, daughter, and little boy living in the woods in a log house. They have a dog. There’s a house next door (the only house next door) where the “kids” who will become the main victims will stay, but there’s at least a family unit at play here. Joan Freeman plays Mrs. Jarvis in a fairly realistic way. Considering she’s not given much to do, she does a pretty good job. Kimberly Beck plays Trish Jarvis fairly well. Certainly not the best acting I’ve ever seen, but better than most heroines in this series (though I still think Amy Steel is the best so far). Her little brother, Tommy, is played by Corey Feldman, who turns in a star-making performance. He’s a little boy in this and cute-as-a-button, and he steals the show. This family gives what little heart The Final Chapter has. And it is only a little.
The hunter, Rob Dier, played by Erich Anderson, is also a nice twist to the movie. He’s the brother of a girl killed in Part II and is looking for Jason under the guise of hunting bear. His performance isn’t bad, though fairly thin.
Crispin Glover. Do I need to say more? I will. He’s as bad as everyone else in this movie but the fact that he’s in this movie, a year away from his big role as George McFly, is funny. He also displays some cool dance moves.
The gore is upped once again. Tom Savini returns to the series and the gore factor is raised from the prior movie. And while I’m writing about base entertainment, the nudity has returned, too. Woo!
Will I continue to knock the writing and directing in each of these essays? Probably. It struck me as I sat through this movie that I bet that somewhere, someone can write a good Friday the 13th. At this point, four movies in, I’m not sure. Here’s an interesting idea: Instead of making another Kids In the Woods Get Killed movie, focus on the family unit. The recently divorced Jarvis and her children who happen to be staying in the woods meet young Rob Dier, who’s “hunting bear” but is really looking for his sister’s killer, whom he believes is haunting the woods around Crystal Lake. Have the story unfold as Jason comes back and stalks them, maybe because Dier pesters him. Something like that. Spend time with the characters so the audience cares about them. Yes, yes, it’s breaking the formula, but why not? Instead, there’s a ton of characters that are barely written (though are better written in this movie than the last) and a killer who is somehow able to get around everywhere easily and without much effort. He can get from a kitchen to an eave near a window to a room downstairs to a room upstairs to the house next door to a basement in moments, and somehow finds time to arrange his victims for horrific display at just the right time. Jason is an artist. His canvas is the human body. His medium is fear. But physics don’t apply to him for some reason.
Should I mention the acting? I just did. I’ll leave it there.
The blatant disregard for life is another theme in these movies. Not just by the killer but also by the filmmakers. They just don’t give a damn about the horror of the violence they portray. I know, it sounds hypocritical of me to say this yet praise the gore, but it’s true. It’s scary how popular these films were (and still are) despite this. I’m not saying I’m above watching this shit, I’m obviously not, but I feel like I should mention it somewhere.
Saturday the 14th
The second movie introduced Jason as the killer. The third movie introduced the hockey mask. This movie makes Jason almost superhuman. He keeps getting lethal blows and coming back. Yet, the writers and such are still saying Jason is a man, a crazy man, true, but a man.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, according to Wikipedia, was a huge hit and spawned, of course, a fifth movie. I’ll also note that seven months later, the far superior A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. This would become very important for this franchise.
Like its predecessor, Friday the 13th Part 3 begins with the last five or so minutes of the previous movie. Unlike its predecessor, it reinvents the ending just a tad, which leads us to the third part of this ever-growing saga. Director Steve Miner returns to the franchise with his second–and final–effort. Being the third film in as many years, they had to pull out all the stops, so they made this movie in 3D! Makes sense, right? Part 3. Part 3D. Get it? Great, huh? And, because they wanted to really get the audience, they crafted the best script yet and hired the best actors the series had seen until this point.
All right, I’m lying. The extent of their efforts was in the 3D department. Oh! And the gore. This movie is gorier than its predecessors. Anyway, even though you can pretty much guess what I’m going to say by reading my last entry, let’s get into this.
I’ll give the filmmakers a little credit. They try a little to differentiate these movies. The first movie took place at Camp Crystal Lake. The second one happened at some other camp. This one takes place at a cabin/barn/house on the lake. The last two films featured blondes as the heroines, this one has a brunette. So at least it’s not happening at the same place…just the same lake. I’ll put this in the positive section, along with–
The gore. I know, this is base entertainment, at best, but like being happy with the nudity in the prior film, the gore in this one was upped. According to my sources (Wikipedia), most of the death scenes were edited down because they were too gory and the movie almost received an X-rating. Why the Blu-Ray I watched didn’t have it unedited is beyond me, but it didn’t.
The 3D shots. I had the option to watch the movie in 3D. I didn’t. Why? Because I thought it would be more fun watching the way things came at the screen for no real reason, and I was right. It’s silly and it’s fun. Handles to pitchforks, yo-yos, popcorn, prongs from pitchforks, and eyeballs all come toward the screen, along with other things. Whee! F-U-N!
The origin of the hockey mask is told here. According to my sources (again, Wikipedia) the hockey mask was used because it was around. They wanted to change Jason’s mask from a sack to a mask and 3D effect supervisor was a hockey fan who happened to have gear with him. The director loved it and they made masks for Jason. Little did they know that the hockey mask would become his iconic look.
Oh, and Jason (Richard Brooker) runs some more. That’s good. He’s almost scary.
This cast is the worst cast yet. There is so little distinction between the victims that it’s puzzling. There’s the girl who owns the house, the pregnant girl, her boyfriend–who walks on his hands, the hippie guy, his girlfriend, the fat kid with the Jewfro and a penchant for doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time, the Latina girl, and the main girl’s boyfriend. There are other victims, too, including a three-person-biker gang: a tall, bald black guy, a black woman, and a white dude with a dagger earring and cigarette hanging from his maw. There might be more, I can’t remember. This movie killed too many brain cells. The extent of their characterizations is exactly what you just read. Nothing is followed up and no one really comes off the screen despite the 3D (see what I did there?). These people exist only to get killed. And unlike the second movie, which at least killed the original movie’s heroine within the first fifteen minutes, the second movie’s heroine is mentioned in a news report at the beginning of the movie as being transported to a local hospital. Which reminds me, there are two people who die in that scene–an inept shopkeeper and his shrieking-stereotyped wife. Ugh, the stereotypes.
The writers (I use the term loosely) provide a script that is not so much story as graphically violent scenes attached with minimal story. In true Friday the 13th fashion, things are left unexplained. We never know what happens to the camp in the second movie and the main heroine in this movie (played by Dana Kimmell) has survived a Jason attack two years earlier. He attacked her and she passed out, to wake up later in her bed, unharmed. Huh? Why? Who knows? In this world, loose ends abound and the filmmakers don’t care because they know their audience: kids out for a good time and a few laughs. There’s a hippie guy who seems to be too old to hang out with the others. Why? Because. Why doesn’t Jason replace his sack until he finds the hockey mask from Jewfro? Oh, who cares?
The nudity. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Maybe things were getting tough in 1982, but there’s so little nudity that it’s a step backward. Prudish Americans.
Jason. In Part II, Jason is almost scary. He’s dressed like a farmer with a sack on his head, but he runs and is kinda creepy. In this movie, he’s larger, he’s lost his hair, and he’s…well…less scary. Not that he was really scary in the second movie, but was almost scary. In this one, he still runs, he still feels pain, but he takes a much harder beating. The makeup is pretty terrible, too.
Saturday the 14th
By 1982, people knew what they were getting in a Friday the 13th movie: young people being picked off one by one by a killer with nearly supernatural strength. I imagine seeing it in the theater in 1982, with your friends, and wearing silly 3D glasses is the optimal way to watch this movie. Check brain at door and have fun. This third installment could’ve ended things and just let sleeping hockey-masked killers lie. But, of course, that wasn’t going to happen….
One of the things that’s great about sequels is that the premise has been set up so the action can begin at once. It’s one of the reasons why The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight work so well. The characters are re-introduced in clever ways and we get right into the story. Friday the 13th Part II doesn’t even get that right. Released a year after its predecessor and featuring a new writer and director, the audience is given a recap of the previous movie in the first five minutes. It only gets moderately better from there.
I first saw the movie in my early-teens, I was probably around fourteen or fifteen when it showed up on Cinemax, and I was surprised by how different Jason Voorhees was to the monster I’d watched in later installments in the franchise, for this is the installment where Jason (Warrington Gillette) becomes the monster, which in itself is historic to horror geeks like me. Hell, Drew Barrymore died because she didn’t know this! Because you know the story, I’ll get right into my ten cents of opinions.
Amy Steel as Ginny. She’s likeable, pretty, and somewhat realistic. She’s got a strength about her that radiates from the screen. A few of the other campers are also not too badly drawn, and I’d mention their names except that I never learned them. And we’ll get to that later. But Steel is pretty good even though I wish she were onscreen even more.
The nudity. Let’s face it, there are two reasons to watch a Friday the 13th movie: sex and violence. The first movie was much tamer on both counts than what I remembered. This one ups the nudity. I know, it’s very base of me to say such a thing but let’s not beat around the bush (no pun intended), these movies are base and when I watch them, I want to see me some boobies. This movie delivers…at least a little bit.
Jason’s introduction is also not bad. As a matter of fact, he’s almost scary. Jason’s outfit in this movie is biballs, a flannel shirt, and a sack on his head. He’s not a supernatural entity here so much as a madman running through the woods. Running. Jason Voorhees runs in this movie. He chases people, and tackles them, and is generally quite energetic.
The music by Harry Manfredini is also really good. Better, I think, than the first movie’s music. He takes the whole Psycho-meets-Jaws thing to a new level.
Alice’s return. Adrienne King returns as Alice in the first ten minutes or so of the movie. She’s having nightmares about the events of the first flick (that helps the audience know what’s gone down until this point) and wakes up. Ms. King is likeable but she’s not a great actress. Her return is generally better than most of the lines she delivered in the first movie. And then she’s killed with an icepick. In her home. In the city. With an icepick. How come so many people die from icepicks in movies? I’ve never even seen an icepick in real life. But anyway, she’s killed and that’s the end of Alice. So, aside from her memories from the first movie that helps set the audience up for this one, what’s the point? According to the well of information known as Wikipedia, Adrienne King was stalked by an obsessed fan of the first movie and only agreed to make this movie if her time was short. Why appear at all? Besides money? Why have her at all? Anyway, it doesn’t work and it makes the ending of the first movie tragic.
Characterization. Get used to this being in my reviews of these movies, methinks. Who are these people? Why should we care about them? I’ll give that the filmmakers of both movies used likeable actors who did their best to give the characters some kind of personalities, but I never really cared about any of them. Not enough to remember their names anyway. There was the guy running the camp, his girlfriend (Ginny–who I looked up to get Amy Steel’s name), the weird guy with red hair and electronic games, the wheelchair guy, the girl-who-likes-wheelchair guy, the frizzy-haired-big-boobed girl, her boyfriend–the blond guy with the hat and the truck, the work-out girl with the dog (who gets nekkid), the smarmy lothario who’s trying to get her…and I think that’s it. These characters mean so much to the filmmakers that the weird guy with red hair actually disappears from the movie. Which leads to–
The story. This movie does not take place at Camp Crystal Lake but at another camp on the same lake, five years later. Two camps sharing a lake? Does that happen? Well, in this part of Jersey it does. I don’t remember the name of the camp and it doesn’t matter, any more than the names of the characters matter. The only purpose of the camp is to make it like the first movie but more believable (???). After all, what’re the chances that a serial killer would go to the same camp?
Not only does the story not make sense, but the direction and editing also has major flaws. After a night at a bar, Ginny and her boyfriend come back to the camp to find everyone dead. Jason attacks the boyfriend but chases Ginny. There’s some cool, intense moments hear, but then she gets away and runs through the woods. We dissolve to the full moon, dissolve back on Ginny running, then dissolve to the full moon. She seems to have run to Camp Crystal Lake, yet when Jason is in the place where she’s hiding, she comes up with the chainsaw she was using earlier in the movie to cut wood, which means she didn’t run out there. Which means…what? She was running in a circle? The boyfriend comes back in Jason’s little hut to help her “defeat” him. They go back to the camp to find the little doggie that we believed was dead because we saw the remains of the same kind of dog earlier (Shi-Tzus run rampant in the woods of Jersey). Then Jason, sans sack, crashes through the window and attacks Ginny. The camera holds the shot and fades out. Only to snap back to Ginny being loaded into the back of an ambulance, asking after her boyfriend. What happened? Why isn’t she dead? And in all of this, what happened to the weird guy with the red hair they left at the bar? Or the other campers at the bar, too? And why does the movie take place five years later? How come so many sequels take place five years later? Don’t filmmakers know that styles and technology change in five years?
There’s a lot that’s taken for granted in this movie, stuff the characters seem to know yet shouldn’t. At least, the audience wasn’t made aware of them in the first movie. The Legend of Jason, let’s call it. The legend went that Jason Voorhees didn’t really die in the Crystal Lake but lived in the woods surrounding it. When Mrs. Voorhees is killed, he witnesses it and decides to kill everyone because of it. We’re told this legend around the campfire, which is cool, except…how come no one in the first movie knew of the legend? How come the crazy old man on the bicycle didn’t mention it when he was telling those original campers about how Camp Crystal Lake would lead to their doom? And how come Pamela Voorhees didn’t know about the legend that featured her son? And if Jason loved his mother so much, how come he lived in the woods, hiding, and not with Mother?
Saturday the 14th
Overall, the movie is a fun popcorn slasher flick, but it’s little more than that. There are too many questions and holes in logic. More so than its predecessor, it feels like a very cynical movie. The cynicism of the filmmakers to give its audience what is essentially the same movie with different faces, the lack of attention to detail, or the lack of any real thought makes Friday the 13th Part II a basically forgettable movie. But it did well in 1981 and meant that a sequel would follow.
The story goes that Sean S. Cunningham, producer of low budget movies (mostly horror, including Wes Craven’s first movie, The Last House on the Left) had an idea for a movie called Friday the 13th. He had no story, no characters, nothing else in mind except for the title. So he went to a graphic designer and had an ad designed with the title smashing through glass. The kicker was the tagline: The most terrifying film ever made. Then he placed the ad in Variety. The feedback was immediate. People–teenagers and young adults, mostly–wanted to see this movie.
Victor Miller wrote the story and Cunningham took on directing as well as producing. You know the story already: After being closed for 20 years because of murders, Camp Crystal Lake is being reopened as a place for inner-city youth to experience nature. A group of young people join Steve Christy in preparing for the reopening. Someone attacks and murders them one-by-one until the lone survivor, Alice, wins. There is a shock ending and an implication that a sequel could be made.
There is a gradual build-up to this first film. Miller and Cunningham start off with a young couple being murdered in 1958, but then allow some time for the characters to arrive at Crystal Lake and hang out before the killings really start up. There is the sense that they actually want the audience to know the characters.
Peter Brouwer as Steve Christy is pretty good, though he is hardly in the movie. He’s the “old man” of the group, in his mid-to-late-twenties, yet is young enough to have a thing for Alice (Adrienne King). There’s an implied romance there that is never developed.
Betsy Palmer is priceless as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees. Her arrival at the end of the movie is sudden but you instantly like her, and then fear her when she goes nutty. Her revelation that she’s the killer and her motive, the drowning death of her son Jason, is well done for a melodramatic scene. It looks as though she’s having a blast playing the crazed killer.
Tom Savini’s makeup is another thing that’s always fun to watch. His makeup never really feels polished yet is always believable. His strength as a makeup/special effects guy is in the roughness of the final product and helps the movie achieve a shock-value that the other early slasher movies lacked.
The music by Harry Manfredini is also really good. It’s very Psycho-meets-Jaws in its execution and sound. When the famous Friday music begins, you know to hang on to your armrest.
The overall feel of the movie isn’t serious. Sean S. Cunningham wasn’t trying to create a horror masterpiece, but rather was trying to make a fun, scary movie. Obviously inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, he moves away from his work with Wes Craven to something meant to sell a shitload of tickets, barrels of popcorn, and make kids scream and laugh. And it does. More than 30 years later it’s like opening a time capsule, but it’s fun.
And the last good thing about this movie is Kevin Bacon. He does a good job in this movie. Hell, all of the “kids” do a good job in this movie, but it’s Kevin fuckin’ Bacon! And this is where the passage of 33 years really counts. To see someone who has become more than just a really good actor but an icon in an early role like this is fun. It’s like seeing Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, there’s a major difference between the two. I’ll get to that later.
The characterization is crap. With the exception of Mrs. Voorhees, none of the other characters have a history. The only “kid” who seems to have lived at all before this is Annie (Robbi Morgan) whom we first meet hiking into a small town on her way to Crystal Lake. She is thumbing her way there and gives a little insight into her life. There is an attempt at giving Steve Christy and Alice a little bit of characterization but it never really gets off the ground. Whether it was Victor Miller’s writing or Sean Cunningham’s lack of caring is for the individual viewer to decide. I think it’s a combination of both. Considering the slower build-up to the killer’s spree, this is a shame.
Because of weak characterization, the acting never really gets off the ground. As I said before, all the “kids” do a decent job, and I’ve already acknowledged Brouwer and Palmer (and Bacon) but for the most part the kids are given very little to do. They are caricatures more than people. Alice is the nice, smart one who Steve wants but may want Bill (Harry Crosby) instead. Jack (Bacon) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) are boyfriend and girlfriend and go to the camp with their friend Ned (Mark Nelson), who is a bit of a jokester who takes things too far. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) is a little risqué but…not…? And to try to go any further is impossible, because that’s all these people are. They’re played adequately enough, but there’s no meat. They’re given nothing to really do but go through the movie and, well, die.
This is the biggest problem of the movie. Because we’re never really invested in the characters, we never really give a damn about who lives and who dies. One of the strengths of Halloween, the thing that made it a classic, is that John Carpenter and Debra Hill crafted teenagers who one could relate to and care about, so when the faceless killer goes after them, you give a damn.
The revelation of the killer at the end is also a misstep. Yes, Betsy Palmer plays Mrs. Voorhees with gusto and has fun in the role, but because she shows up out of nowhere, she’s meaningless to the audience. Miller gives her a throwaway line (“I’m a friend of Steve Christy”) to throw the audience off and make them think she’s safe, but considering they’ve never seen her before it doesn’t matter much. Perhaps if she’d been around throughout, it might have more surprising. Even if she’d been in the town at the beginning, trying to warn Annie off, it would’ve worked. Instead, here’s this nice lady from out of nowhere who must be the killer. (Let’s not go into the question of how she can lift some of these dead bodies and throw them through windows even though they’re larger than she).
Saturday the 14th
Overall, Friday the 13th is a fun movie with no pretensions. Cunningham wanted to make a movie that would sell tickets and popcorn and he did. The film has been picked apart by critics and naysayers since its debut in 1980 (which, being three years old, I wasn’t really aware of). It is not, and never should be, mistaken for a work of art, or even a good movie.
The biggest problem from an adult point-of-view is that it exists only to watch people die in various ways. It’s surprisingly tame considering the later movies and its reputation. There are gory scenes, but the gore is minimal and is cut away from quickly. And there is, surprisingly for a slasher movie, an innocence that comes through. Despite the depravities, it’s somehow a very innocent movie and worth watching now if, for no other reason, only to see it as a popular classic movie, bad as it may be. I had fun.
With the template set, and box office being huge, there was no wonder Paramount wanted a sequel.
If you grew up in the 1980s, you know that horror was king. In the bookstores, the horror section featured many books with lurid covers that titillated and frightened those of us curious–and brave–enough to venture into the section. Late night TV was creeping with horror. And in the multiplex, a turf war was going on. Every child of the 1980s had a side. The horror wars had two major figures and you were usually fans of one or the other. These figures were Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger. I fell on Freddy’s side, of course. So it’s with great caution that I have decided to leave my nice home on Elm Street and venture into the woods at Camp Crystal Lake.
I knew of Jason just like everyone else, and over time have caught nearly all of the original movies (the Paramount movies, and the first New Line one). Unlike each A Nightmare on Elm Street movie (or as the lamebrains would call ’em, Freddy Movies), I don’t really remember much of watching the Friday the 13th movies (or the Jason Movies). I know I saw most of them on Cinemax in various marathons, but hardly recall much else, or at least not enough to write about. Even as a 10-to-14-year-old, the movies left me uninspired and unimpressed. Still, they are a part of an era so why not take a look at them in my own, special way?
Over the course of a year, I have watched all the Friday the 13th movies. Considering the final Friday the 13th will be in September, I decided this was the appropriate time to begin a series of essays about the movies. I’ve decided that between September 13th and October 31st, I will post these essays right here. Some of these essays will come twice a week.
For fans of the Friday the 13th franchise, please take it easy on me. This will be like a Boston Red Sox fan trying to write about the New York Yankees (or vice versa). Let’s be civil, shall we?
After the mixed and bad reviews that Superman III received, as well as the same for Supergirl (1984), Alexander and Ilya Salkind sold the film rights to Superman to Golan-Globus Productions, which were working with Cannon Films. Interested in bringing Superman back to the big screen, they approached Christopher Reeve, who had pretty much sworn off playing Superman again. They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: If he signed on to reprise his role as the Man of Steel, 1) he could help come up with the story, 2) they would greenlight any project he wanted, 3) if Superman IV were a success, he could direct Superman V. Reeve signed on.
The story came from an actual letter he received from an actual little boy who asked how come Superman didn’t get rid of all the nuclear weapons in existence. For those reading this who were born after 1990, keep in mind that while the shadow of nuclear holocaust still envelops us all, back in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan as President and Gorbachev in power of the Soviet Union, it felt like there would be nuclear war at any time. I remember being a little boy and aware of this, terrified of it. By 1987, the year I turned 10, I’d been living with the understanding that the kind-looking old man we called President was really a lunatic with a charming smile, and so was the dude with bird doo on his head. So the idea that a little boy would write the actor who was Superman for a generation of youth isn’t surprising. The fact that Reeve wanted this to be the basis of the fourth Superman movie is surprising.
I saw some pretty earth-shattering movies in 1987: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Beverly Hills Cop II that were personal favorites. I also saw Three Men and a Baby and The Secret of My Success, because I was a big Michael J. Fox fan. Even though I wanted to see it, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace wasn’t in my cards. I had to wait until it came on HBO/Cinemax.
The movie that Reeve got Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus to produce was 1987’s Street Smart, which earned Morgan Freeman an Oscar nomination. As far as Superman V is concerned, well….
It’s 90 minutes long.
All right, all right. I’ll try harder.
The concept isn’t bad. The credit for story belongs to Christopher Reeve, Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal. Moving into a direction where Superman decides to go against the rule that he should not interfere with humanity on such a grand scale was done in the first movie, but it’s something that’s bound to come up again and again if you’re Superman.
Also, Christopher Reeve is still a real good Superman/Clark Kent. He still plays the part with earnestness and takes the character seriously. That’s important. He even dyed his hair this time around. The scenes of his I like the most are at the beginning when he’s on the Kent farm, just looking around. There’s a scene where he’s brooding on the couch of his apartment when there’s a knock at the door. He looks up, surprised, and grabs his glasses. It’s subtle but it never feels put-on. He’s even good as he’s sick from radiation poisoning (though I find this scene chilling since the makeup isn’t too different from what Reeve looked like as he began to lose his hair after his accident).
The acting is pretty bad by everyone else. Margot Kidder’s role is once again fairly prominent, Marc McClure returns as Jimmy Olsen (though his part is even less existent than in Superman III, where they at least gave him stuff to do other than stand in the background). Jackie Cooper is firing on all cylinders as Perry White in this one, though he seemed to have aged quite a bit in the four years between movies. Finally, Gene Hackman returns as Lex Luthor, which should be a welcome thing considering the watered-down villains of the previous installment. Newcomers include Mariel Hemingway as Lacy Warfield; Sam Wanamaker as her father, David Warfield; Jon Cryer as Lenny Luthor, Lex’s nephew; and Mark Pillow as Nuclear Man. With the exception of Cooper, all the acting falls flat. Kidder should be a welcome return but the dumbing down that began with Lester’s rewrite of Superman II continues here. As I mentioned, Jimmy Olsen is barely involved in this movie. The Warfields are boring, Wanamaker is the typical 1980s tycoon who cares only for money and Hemingway is the typical 1980s-spoiled-rich-girl-who-finds-there’s-more-to-life-than-money (that may be the longest hyphenated title I’ve ever written. May be). You’d think that Gene Hackman’s return would up the ante but he pretty much phones in his performance. There are maybe one or two good moments, but they’re brief moments. The rest of the time he’s hamming it up. Jon Cryer, one of my favorite actors of the 1980s, is horrible as the silly Lenny Luthor. Horrible. Uck. He actually calls Superman “The Dude of Steel.” I know that’s the writers’ fault but the fact that he agreed to say it…. And don’t get me started on the piece of cardboard called Mark Pillow. Maybe it’s because a decision was made that he’d sound like Lex Luthor (which doesn’t make sense), his acting is wooden. Or it could be that he was a terrible actor. His IMDb résumé shows that this was his only film role, and he only acted twice afterward on TV.
I think there’s a good reason for the bad acting: bad script and direction. The screenplay is by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal (I’ve already mentioned they worked with Reeve on the story) (and now I’ve mentioned it again), and Sidney J. Furie directed. Now, Furie seems to have been around forever and has done some good work, but Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is not among the good. I’ll be talking about the budget for the movie, which was low and seems to be the thing blamed most for the poor reviews and earnings of the movie, soon enough, but I think the small budget is only a fraction of the issue. Sure, you may not be able to have great special effects or shoot on the locations one would like, but that doesn’t excuse sloppy acting, writing, or directing.
I mentioned above that this movie is only 90 minutes long. Superman: The Movie runs at 2 hrs 23 mins (the Extended Edition runs 2 hrs 31 mins), Superman II runs 2 hrs 7 mins (I’ll add the Richard Donner Cut only because you may be interested: 1 hr 54 mins, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a finished film, but rather as finished as it could get nearly 30 years after shooting began), and Superman III runs 2 hrs 5 mins. At 90 minutes, it’s the shortest of the Christopher Reeve series. That was not the intention. The original script went much longer and there was much more footage shot. Word is that Cannon Films cut nearly 45 minutes from the film during the editing phase. Part of it was due to budgetary issues, a lot of it was because it was just bad. There are several places for more information about this, including Mark Rosenthal’s commentary on the DVD and Blu Ray releases of this movie. The Superman Homepage is one such place, as is Caped Wonder. If you’re interested but don’t feel like going to hardcore Superman websites, then Wikipedia will do. No matter, the extra 45 minutes would’ve brought the movie up to 2 hrs 15 mins, the second longest movie of the series. Rest assured, having seen some of the cut material on the Superman Anthology Blu Ray of the movie (if my reading is correct, there’s actually more deleted goodness on a DVD version of the movie), no one is missing anything.
And it goes back to story. As the movie opens, The Daily Planet is being bought by David Warfield, who is planning on turning the Planet into a tabloid and letting his daughter, Lacy, run it. So it pokes fun at the Rupert Murdochs of the world, as well as every other businessman who performed hostile takeovers of companies and destroyed them. As this is happening, arms talks fail and it’s announced that both the United States and the Soviet Union are going to expand their nuclear weapons, which could lead to, well…BOOM! A school somewhere is watching this where two of the worst actors of the movie are. One is a school teacher and the other is the boy, Jeremy, who will write Superman despite the taunts of classmates. He wants to know why Superman doesn’t just collect all the nuclear weapons of the world and destroy them. After some back-and-forth and public humiliation, Superman, Jeremy, and a crowd that includes Lois Lane, Lacy Warfield, Jimmy Olsen (I think), and many others, go to the U.N. (not the real U.N.–not even close) where Superman announces to the world leaders that he will be ridding the world of all nuclear weapons. And, just like it happens in real life, every world leader agrees to let this alien from another planet, who could kill them all with a fart, take the weapons they’ve spent decades and billions of dollars building and accumulating and destroy them. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor breaks out of jail with the help of his nephew, Lenny. Luthor devises a plan to stop Superman by taking some of Superman’s hair from a museum exhibit, grinding it up, using some science, and launching it into the sun on one of the missiles to create…(music)…Nuclear Man! There’s fighting and this and that and Superman wins and gives a speech. The end.
If you skipped over the above paragraph, or skimmed through it once you realized it was the movie’s story, I don’t blame you. But you have to understand that it’s that kind of movie. The kind that you feel compelled to retell in detail because you’re not sure it could be that bad. Watching the movie is painful at times, and it’s the story. It often feels like the screenwriters took pieces from the previous Superman movies and threw them into this one because they knew fans enjoyed them the first time around. One of Superman’s earlier appearances in this movie is when Clark misses the subway but Lois gets on. The driver has a heart attack and Superman has to save the train. He literally stops rescue personnel from getting to the driver to tell the crowd that the train is still one of the safest ways to get around the city. Just like he told Lois in the first movie that flying was, statistically speaking, the safest form of travel right after the helicopter she was in nearly killed her. Speaking of Lois Lane…. Remember that scene I mentioned where Clark is brooding in his apartment until a knock on the door? Well, it’s Lois. They’re going somewhere together and he’s not ready. He takes her by the hand, goes onto his balcony with her, and they walk off the building with her protesting and screaming. He changes to Superman in front of her and she suddenly remembers Superman II. Then, like Superman: The Movie, Lois and Superman fly around. Only this time, he actually lets go and she keeps flying (more on this later). Finally, they return and he feels better. He kisses her and as she stands, out of it, he quickly changes back to Clark Kent and she awakens, having forgotten that Kent and Superman are one and the same. You know, like Superman II. Of course, Lex Luthor is back and there’s a supervillain with many similar powers. There’s a return to the farm in Smallville and the Fortress of Solitude with holograms. It’s all familiar and so bad the second time around. There’s very little original in this movie and when there is, it’s bad.
Take the double date between Lacy Warfield and Clark Kent and Lois Lane and Superman. It’s supposed to happen at Lacy’s apartment where Lois is cooking for them. What happens in this scene is some fun slapstick for a kid, where Kal-El keeps changing between Superman and Clark Kent, doing things to trick the women so they don’t know the two are the one (I wrote that purposefully confusing). I remember particularly enjoying this scene at the age of 10 but now, at 35, I find it pretty mean. Why schedule both “dates” on the same night with women who will be together? Lois needs to interview Superman, and Lacy has the hots for Clark. Okay. So why allow them to happen together? The same night, a few hours apart? All right. But together? No. Only a dick would do that. No logic.
And speaking of logic, because of the cuts made, and the poor budget, there are some ridiculous leaps from logic and science. At the end, Nuclear Man sees a picture of Lacy Warfield and decides he must have her. He goes to the Daily Planet building and lands on the street outside, because that’s what a guy with super powers would do, as opposed to busting through an exterior wall. He wreaks havoc and suddenly Superman re-appears (he was nearly killed after his last fight with Nuclear Man) and shouts, “Leave her alone!” or something like that. Huh? How does he know why Nuclear Man (oh, how it pains me to write that name) is there? Well, it’s in the cut scenes, which actually make things more complicated. Anyway, Nuclear Man finally gets Lacy and flies her into space. Go back, reread that sentence. I’ll wait. Good? Good. Yeah, Nuclear Man takes Lacy Warfield into space sans spacesuit. You know, he takes her into the freezing vacuum of space unprotected. And Superman is okay with this. He saves her, but… Ugh. Need I go on? I know it seems trivial to be upset about her not having a spacesuit since, by all rights, even Superman should, technically, have one. I’m willing to buy that Superman (and his kind) can survive in space without a suit, fine, but not a human. Not no way, not no how. And there’s the science of Lois’s flying alone. It happens for a few seconds in the film (the deleted scene had her flying alone for far longer) but is ridiculous and goes against what happens in the first movie when Lois’s hand slips from Superman’s and she begins plummeting. And there are more instances, I’m sure, but time is running out and I still have more bases to cover.
The budget was miniscule. As I mentioned before, the budget is the thing that seems to get the most blame for the quality of the movie. That’s horsepucky. Yeah, the effects suck, but they were already on the decline in Superman III. Now they’re even worse. Apparently, Cannon Films had many movies in development that, for a small company, ended up hurting all the films. They simply didn’t have the funds to make the movie they’d intended. Consider the costs of making the prior three movies:
- Superman: The Movie – $55 million
- Superman II – $54 million
- Superman III – $39 million
When you take into consideration that the first films were begun simultaneously and one of the reasons that the Salkinds fired Richard Donner was that he went over schedule and over budget, it should come as no surprise that the third film’s budget is lower. Most likely, that’s probably closer to the budget wanted for each of the first two movies. Now, according to the Wikipedia article on the Superman series (and they give the source as Empire), the original budget for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was $35 million. That was cut, though, due to all the other films Cannon was trying to do. The final tally for the budget of the fourth film of one of the most popular franchises of the 1980s was…(drumroll)…$17 million. We’re talking low-rent Superman in a time before rampant digital effects. Still, that doesn’t excuse poor writing, poor directing, or poor acting. Hell, let’s throw the editor under the bus, too. Poor editing. The reason the budget was probably cut wasn’t only because of all the other movies Cannon was trying to make at the time, but probably because the Powers That Be saw the script, saw some of the crap that was coming in from dailies (like the first Nuclear Man. Yes, there were originally two. The first one is like Bizarro and is destroyed the first time he fights Superman), and said, “Hells no!”
After the Battle
Look, I could keep going. I’m at nearly 2,800 words at this point, though, and you want to go back to your life. Needless to say, this movie is bad. The only charm this movie has to offer is that it’s so 1980s. When I did a similar essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, another movie I hate that comes from a much-loved franchise, I mentioned one of the only redeeming factors of the movie is its 1980s charm. The same can nearly be said about this movie. The shoulder pads, Nuclear Man’s hair, the corporate greed thing as well as the nuclear arms thing–these all give the movie some charm, but it’s taken 26 years.
As a 10-year-old when I watched it on HBO/Cinemax, I was shocked by how bad it was. Yeah, some of it entertained me, but most of it was bad. My opinion on it hasn’t changed in that regard, and has only become more venomous. I never understand how people who get the ability to take the reins on such a good franchise would hurt it so much. I know that wasn’t anyone’s intention, but it still angers me. Maybe it’s that inner-9-year-old who still dreams of being a filmmaker, but when things go so wrong like this, it gives me pause and makes me angry. Give me the keys to the goddamn car and let me drive! Alas, that will not be.
Due to the failure of this film, the Superman franchise died. There was always talk of the possibility that maybe, possibly, someone would come along and rejuvenate the franchise. That Christopher Reeve would don the blue spandex and red cape and fly once again. But you and I know that would not happen. You and I know that it wasn’t Kryptonite that would kill this Superman. It was almost 20 years before Superman would fly across the Silver Screen again, and my, how things changed in that time.
One Last Word
If you’ve been reading these essays since the beginning, then you surely noticed that I mentioned Christopher Reeve’s performance in each of his movies. I struggled about whether or not I should do so. After all, death tends to sweeten such a performance. The thing is, that’s not the case here. Reeve was a great actor who never really got the credit he deserved in his screen career. His comic timing was great, his energy always came through, and he was classically trained and able to do drama. His way of speaking his lines and his acting was unique. I sometimes think about what would have happened had he not fallen off that goddamn horse in 1995. I like to think he would’ve had a career upswing sometime in the 1990s, one that would’ve brought him along to us today. It looks as though his career was already on an upswing when the accident happened.
The thing about Christopher Reeve as Superman was that he was always approachable, and I think that’s because Reeve himself embodied much of that same spirit. Kirk Alyn’s Superman was eager to fight bad guys and be Superman. George Reeves was the wise uncle. Sure, he’d fight the bad guys, but he always had good advice. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was earnest, honest, and had true beliefs and morals, and was flawed. He was our brother, our friend. One of the successes of Superman IV, that I purposely waited until now to mention, is its politics. In that way, it’s a brave movie. Greed, war, fear are all bad and government-sanctioned in some capacity, but Superman is able to still see the good in everyone and uses his kindness to sway others. He acts as a role model, not out of a sense of being better than us but by trying to be us. Reeve surely brought a lot of that into the role.
As a child, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Christopher Reeve, but because he was Superman. As an adult, Christopher Reeve was a hero. Not because he was Superman, but because he was Christopher Reeve.
In 2000, I went in for an appendectomy and woke up with much more done to me. My appendix had been fine when they removed it and further exploration led the surgeon to discover that my intestine had ruptured due to undiagnosed Crohn’s Disease. This led to a temporary colostomy bag. What was supposed to be “three, four months,” became a year-and-a-half. During that time, whenever I’d fart in public because I couldn’t stop it, whenever I’d have an issue with a colostomy bag leaking, whenever I felt bad for myself because of my situation, I’d tell myself, If Christopher Reeve–Superman–can find a way to stay positive and keep fighting, then I can get through this.
Reeve’s accident happened days after I signed out of high school.
I learned of his death in an apartment I lived in a few months after my separation from my first wife. I think I cried. I don’t remember. I remember, though, the feeling that this man had lived. He’d done good for others. He was…well…Superman.
One last, brief, thing. The story of Superman IV can work. In 1998, DC Comics published an oversized graphic novel called Superman: Peace on Earth. It was written by Paul Dini and painted by Alex Ross. In it, Superman decides to rid the world of nuclear weapons. However, instead of all the nations of the world cheering him, many are offended and threaten war. It’s a beautifully written and illustrated book that I highly recommend.
1983 was a big year for me. I turned six in August. I was finishing up kindergarten that spring and going into first grade that fall. And, most importantly, the third film of my favorite movie series was coming out: Return of the Jedi! I was also excited that there was a new Superman movie. I only got to see one of them that summer, though, and the honor went to Return of the Jedi. Still, I was very much aware of Superman III and even watched the hour-long Making Of special that aired on TV to promote the movie. What a delight for a six-year-old that special was! Superman was going to go bad! That funny dude from The Toy (which had been on HBO), Richard Pryor–whom Mom said told dirty jokes for adults–would be in it. There was a lady named Lana Lang, and Clark Kent would go back to Smallville. And, the coolest of all: Superman would fight Clark Kent…in a junk yard!
When the movie finally came to HBO, I was not disappointed. I thought it was strange that Lois Lane was only in it at the beginning and at the end, but I thought the movie was funny and full of adventure. Sure, even at six/seven I knew it wasn’t as good as the previous movies, but I liked it well enough. So much so that when Dad brought me to an auto salvage yard, I re-enacted the fight scene. Alone. It gave the guy to whom my father spoke a great laugh. And imagine my shock when I discovered, on the dirt next to some scrap metal, a pair of broken glasses. Unaware of just how big the world was, I thought that maybe–just maybe–they shot the movie in that junk yard.
The Salkinds and Spengler rehired their screenwriters from the first two Superman films, David Newman and Leslie Newman, as well as director Richard Lester, to return to the franchise for Superman III. Most of the original cast returned, too. And with Richard Pryor on board, the movie was sure to be a winner. Right?
Christopher Reeve’s return as Superman is the best part of this movie. After all the time playing the Man of Steel from 1976 through 1980 for the first two movies, by the time he returned for 1983’s film, he had it down. Of course, the reason most people are even willing to rewatch this movie is when Superman turns bad. The bad guys give Superman synthetic Kryptonite with one wrong ingredient (this actually happens in 1950’s Atom Man vs. Superman) that turns him bad instead of killing him. As a result, we get to see him leer at and try to pick up Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), be mean to people, have sex with the bad guy’s squeeze (played by Pamela Stephenson), and become a drunk. His suit gets darker, too; the same shade as the suits in Superman Returns (2006) and Man of Steel (2013). The best part, though, is the fight between Superman and Clark Kent. It’s pretty deep when you get right down to it. The Bad Superman is a symbol of the feelings that Superman surely puts to rest while Clark Kent is the symbol of the wholesome goodness he tries to live by. Does Superman literally break into two people? Is it just in his mind? Who cares? Even though the special effects are somewhat dated now, it’s fun to watch. Of course, I’ve always loved the idea of an actor playing off him/herself onscreen. It probably goes with my love of dual personalities and the like. Either way, the Bad Superman parts of this movie (which go longer than the Powerless Superman parts of the prior movie) are fun, if not somewhat silly. And you can tell Christopher Reeve is having fun. Not in a silly, slapstick way, but he’s digging his teeth into the chance to go dark.
As a matter of fact, Reeve is the only serious thing in this movie. He takes the character(s) seriously and it shows. And as much fun as it is to see him as Bad Superman, for my money, I think his best performance in this movie is as Clark Kent. It’s established in the first scenes that he would like to return to Smallville for his high school reunion (Class of ’65 representin’!). At the reunion he runs into Lana Lang, his high school crush (she’s actually featured in the first film). Lana is divorced and raising a little boy on her own. There is an attraction between Clark and Lana almost from the go and it plays out slowly through the movie. Unlike the romance between Lois and Superman, which became quite intense, the romance between Lana and Clark is simple, much more innocent. Of course, the big thing is that Lana likes Clark for Clark, whereas Lois accepted Clark as Superman but was pretty dismissive of him beforehand. Reeve understands this and it’s in his performance. Around Lana, Clark isn’t stumbling around. He isn’t the joke. He’s a real man, though he still has to throw people off the scent of Superman.
Annette O’Toole is also pretty good as Lana Lang. She’s not a Lois Lane 2.0, which is a direction the producers, writers, or director could have gone. She’s more innocent but wants to move on, wants to leave her life in Smallville for a life in Metropolis. Fear holds her back, as it does to so many. O’Toole plays the role earnestly. Plus, I just think she’s beautiful. I love her. Don’t tell my wife.
As I write this, I am at about 960 words. I never intend for these essays to go much past 1,000 words. However, the more I dislike something, the longer the essay gets. I’m going to try to keep this minimal, but it’s really not my fault. It’s the goddamn filmmakers’ fault. So….
The move opens, pre-credits, on Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) standing in a jam-packed unemployment office. He’s being kicked off unemployment after a year or so because he can’t hold down a job. When he asks another patron for a light, he sees an ad on the matchbook cover for a school for computer programmers. He grunts as though this might be a good idea, and we’re off.
Think about that opening for a moment. This is a Superman movie. There’s no Krypton, no crime, no Superman. Just Richard Pryor doing Richard Pryor (and doing it well, I might add) and then the loose set-up. If the prologue is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the movie (which it should) then this isn’t a promising start to the third Superman adventure. But okay, cut them some slack. Once the titles are streaming by us in space and we get to Metropolis and Clark, Lois, and the rest of the gang at The Daily Planet, surely things will go back into normal territory and we’ll be on our way. Gus Gorman will prove to be an important villain or ally for Superman and everything will be right. After all, these are the people who made Superman II.
So imagine the surprise that befalls the viewer when the opening credits don’t stream past us in space, but rather in blurry places at the top and bottom of the screen as a slapstick comedy opening ensues. We’re talking mechanical toy penguins running amok (one has its head on fire and is extinguished by Clark Kent), a blind man chasing his seeing-eye dog, a man who’s had a paint bucket fall over his head and then crashes into a gumball machine, the gumballs of which roll under the feet of a mime. There’s even a cream pie in the face of some poor schmuck who’s been weaving his way through this mess since the beginning. Oh! And there’s a bank robbery that goes unchecked and a guy who almost drowns in his car after it strikes a fire hydrant and fills his car with water until Superman rescues him. And that’s not all of it, either. Not by a long shot.
It’s the humor in the movie that essentially hurts it. Superman‘s humor came from character and life. Sure, Lex Luthor and Otis were a little silly, but you had no doubt that Lex Luthor would happily murder millions and not give a damn. Superman II began camping it up under Richard Lester’s control, but with a movie that still had quite a bit of Richard Donner’s (uncredited) work in it, the slapstick campy humor didn’t drown out the drama. Superman III does not have Donner’s or Mankiewicz’s touches on it at all. The script is all David and Leslie Newman, whose script for the first two movies were pretty distasteful to Donner, which is why he brought Mankiewicz on to rewrite them (uncredited, see the first Superman‘s essay). The movie is all theirs and Lester’s, and this is the heart of the problem. It keeps going for the laughs when it shouldn’t, because their laughs aren’t funny. It’s like watching two movies playing simultaneously, a Superman movie and a Richard Pryor movie.
Which leads me to Richard Pryor, a man–a legend–whom I admire a great deal. Richard Pryor has an Every Man way about him that really comes across on film. He was a great actor. Some of his scenes in this very movie are wonderful. Just not when he’s being funny. When he breaks into the Pryor persona, it falls flat. This is not the right kind of vehicle for him or his comedic talents and it sticks out and hurts the movie. I think he would’ve been great had they dropped some of the silliness and had him play it straight. The premise for his character is pretty cool, really. He’s a down-on-his-luck guy who finds out he’s a savant with computers. He makes a mistake by trying to rob his boss (Robert Vaughn) who catches him and is evil in his own way. He decides to use Gorman’s talents for bad and Gorman goes along out of fear. There could have been a really good human story here. Instead, we have Richard Pryor pretending he’s other people, from a salesman to a general, to trick people. We have strange, funny hand gestures. We have him skiing off a building and surviving.
The villains are pretty shabby, too. The rumor is that Gene Hackman refused to work with the Salkinds again after the firing of Donner (it’s said he refused reshooting scenes for Superman II) so instead of Lex Luthor we got Robert Vaughn. I have to look up Vaughn’s character’s name, hold on. He played Ross Webster. Annie Ross plays Vera Webster, his sister. Rounding out the villains is Pamela Stephenson who plays Lorelei Ambrosia. Now, I had to use Wikipedia for those names because I didn’t know them, not through the movie, not now. Vaughn, who’s been around forever, plays the evilish Webster in the way one might expect, sneering, overly dramatic, very different than Hackman’s matter-of-fact villainous ways. Pamela Stephenson’s character is sort of Otis mixed with Miss Teschmacher, only not good at either. I find that they make her pretty intelligent at moments but she hides it whenever her man and his sister is in the room. She’s conning them, and that’s the best part about this trio. There’s no real scheme they’re plotting. After Webster discovers Gus Gorman stealing from him by being a savvy computer guy (remember, this is 1983) he decides to use Gorman’s talents to ruin the Colombian coffee crop for a reason I have since forgotten. Gorman takes over a computer that runs a satellite that has the power to control the weather and–I don’t know. It goes from there to them wanting to control the oil, and there’s a super computer that suddenly becomes alive and Vera Webster becomes a cyborg and–
I know. It’s crazy. Let’s move on.
Lois who? Margot Kidder is convinced that the producers were punishing her for being vocal in the press about firing Richard Donner so they gave her what amounted to a walk-on part. Ilya Salkind refutes that. I say, who cares? She’s not in it, and when she is she isn’t all that great. If she was embarrassed by it, why sign on? Was the paycheck that good? I don’t know, but it does feel strange to have her gone and Clark Kent seemingly fall for someone else, when the last two films were about Lois and Clark/Superman’s love.
Superman doesn’t have black hair. I don’t know if Reeve didn’t want to dye his hair black this time around, but his hair is his dirty-blonde/light brown color. With the stuff they use to style the hair of both Superman and Clark Kent, it’s hard to tell completely, but for a lot of my life, I thought it was gray hair showing. It took the remastered Blu Ray to realize it was dirty-blonde showing. Continuity, man.
It’s mean-spirited. I found quite a bit of Superman III mean-spirited. Maybe it’s the 1980s vibe in this movie, maybe it’s that David and Leslie Newman and Richard Lester are just mean-spirited, but I was unhappy with some of the jokes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there should be limits on humor. Everything is game, if it’s funny. But from the bumbling blind man at the beginning, to the silly happenings as the computers malfunction and we’re shown the effects of these changes on citizens, there’s mean-spirited stuff. Sexist, too. One example of the sexist humor comes during a montage of shots when Gorman has used the computer to create havoc. A man and woman, husband and wife, sit down for breakfast. The man is older, with a mustache, wearing a jacket and tie. The woman is a mousy housewife type. Both have grapefruit in front of them. The man opens an envelope from Bloomingdale’s and finds he owes something like $175,000. He takes the grapefruit and pushes it into his wife’s face. She just takes it and then gives a Lucy-type eyeroll! What the hell? And then there’s Lorelei Ambrosia. She is supposed to be Webster’s Miss Teschmacher and she’s definitely got big boobs that are flaunted as much as possible in a PG-rated kid’s movie. Unlike Valerie Perrine’s performance as Miss Teschmacher, though, Pamela Stephenson plays Ambrosia as trampy, stupid, and selfish. The few times we see that she’s actually pretty intelligent, she quickly hides it for Webster and his sister. And when she seduces Bad Superman, it hits a new low.
After the Battle
I can’t say that I hate Superman III because I don’t. There are some people who do hate it and I understand why. While it never really hits any of the heights of the first two movies, Superman III does have some good, watchable moments. It’s really the performances of Reeve and Pryor that make this movie. The supporting cast ranges from real good (O’Toole) to unwatchable (the lottery winners) but it definitely is a step down from the previous movies.
Coming out a month after Return of the Jedi to lukewarm reviews, Superman III disappointed all around. The Salkinds would try one last Super- adventure on the big screen (1984’s Supergirl) before bringing Superboy to syndicated television in the late-1980s/early-1990s. In interviews to promote the movie, Christopher Reeve said he doubted he’d ever do another Superman movie. If only he’d stuck to his guns….
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the fiasco between Richard Donner and the producers of the Superman movies. It may have been in issues of Entertainment Weekly or Starlog or even online. Either way, I was in my teens or early twenties. Maybe my mother read or heard it somewhere and informed me. Either way, there was a Eureka! moment for me, when it made sense that the feel of Superman II is different than Superman: The Movie and Lois Lane is hardly in Superman III. I know that the documentaries that came on the 2000 release of the Superman movies on DVD, along with the special extended edition of the first movie, went into it a little. And like Superman fans around the world, I wondered what could have been. By the time I really knew about Donner’s firing, Christopher Reeve was already paralyzed from the neck down and the idea that there was, apparently, a load of unused footage of him in his most famous acting role was heartbreaking. If only Warner Bros. or the Salkinds would release the footage. If only someone would go by Donner’s notes and try to piece together what was filmed for his version of Superman II (surely Donner, who’d moved onto The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, and other successful films, wouldn’t want to come back) it would be such a great thing to honor Reeve, the late-Marlon Brando, and the hard work put in by everyone involved in those movies.
In 2004, Christopher Reeve died. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it broke my heart.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, but I was excited. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first DVDs I got from Netflix when I joined.
Due to demands made by fans worldwide (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns being on its way toward theaters at the time was a big influence) Warner Bros., who now owned the sole film rights for all the Superman movies, went to Richard Donner and asked if he wanted to do a special edition. He agreed, bringing his friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz back into the fray. Using remastered footage from the original shoot of both Superman and Superman II, along with some Richard Lester footage, two screen tests, and even a few brand new shots, Donner told the second chapter of the Superman story as it was originally written. Or at least as close as he could manage under the circumstances.
The DVD came during a particularly dark period for me. I was living with my parents again, not long after the divorce from my first wife. I was depressed. This movie made me very happy, while it also hurt a great deal.
It’s essentially the same story as the theatrical Superman II. General Zod, Ursa, and Non are freed from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth. Superman and Lois Lane consummate their relationship and he gives up his powers for her. He gets his ass kicked and finds out about Zod, goes back to get his powers back, fights Zod and crew in Metropolis, and finally leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude where he defeats them. Lex Luthor even escapes jail the same way, finds out info about Superman the same way, and sits in the background the same way. By the end, Lois has forgotten that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same and everything is status quo again.
Yet, it’s very different.
I intend to keep this one short. I don’t wish to get as carried away by this movie as I did with the original version. Let’s see what happens….
Should I even waste the space mentioning Christopher Reeve as Superman? I think I do. I think his performance is even more impressive in The Donner Cut than in Lester’s version. While a lot of Donner’s footage was used in Lester’s movie, a lot wasn’t. Most of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman II were rewritten and reshot, which led to the continuity errors mentioned in the last essay. That said, the idea that Reeve, Kidder, and the rest would shoot a scene in Perry White’s office for Superman, then go change, come back, and shoot a scene for Superman II where there seems to be a higher comfort level for Clark and the rest is pretty amazing. Reeve brings a certain intensity and seriousness to the role that seems even more on display with Donner behind the camera than with Lester. Maybe it’s comfort. I don’t know, but while he’s great in the 1980 Superman II, he positively shines in the 2006 Donner Cut. The scene when he returns to the Fortress of Solitude after getting his ass kicked is so much more powerful in this version, with Reeve playing it not only as desperate but terrified, because–
Brando returns. By the time Warner Bros. approached Donner to do his cut, Brando was dead and his family had given consent to use footage of him as Jor-El. This meant that the story of Jor-El and Kal-El continued to its logical, and heartbreaking, conclusion. I don’t want to give anything away in case you’ve skipped this version of Superman II, but suffice it to say that the scene is great. To know that greed triumphed over this scene back in the original is a sin.
The movie is less silly. Even the scenes that needed to be kept that Richard Lester shot have been re-edited to excise superfluous silliness. If you’re from Krypton, you’re taken seriously. If you work for the Daily Planet, you’re taken seriously. The humor in this movie comes from the same place as the first film: Lex Luthor and company, as well as the simple things that come out of life, best personified by Clark Kent. The rednecks, the silly army stunts, Non’s silliness, Lois Lane’s screechy stupidity, and the people of Metropolis’s odd comments and sight-gags are all gone. That’s not to say that everything is dead serious. Lois and Clark still have witty banter, Otis still almost brings the balloon down, and other funny moments pepper the film, but they’re from character, not set-ups.
The story makes more sense because the continuity is kept in better check. From first-to-second movie, to the scenes within this movie itself, it just flows better. Let’s look at an example.
In Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Superman takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude. They have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so he calls on Lara (Susannah York) and is given a speech. A chamber comes up and he steps inside. Red light shines and there’s a pretty cool special effects shot of the breakdown of Superman. The audience sort of goes into Superman and watches him become (gasp!) normal. In a strange turn of events, Superman’s costume and hair fade to street clothes and simpler hair, and he leaves the chamber as Clark Kent. Then he and Lois sleep together.
As a kid, I wondered: How the heck did his clothes change? Why did his hair suddenly change? It made no sense.
Now, Donner’s cut (2006): Superman still takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude. They still have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so…they sleep together. Now, let’s ignore the science of interplanetary coitus for a moment, and how someone who is called the Man of Steel might accidentally kill his lover when he…well…you know. It’s a beautiful scene, done the same way as in the theatrical version. Now, though, he awakens and leaves Lois in the shiny silver bed. We next see him dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. He is talking to Jor-El, the same basic conversation he has with Lara. And this time, not only is Lois watching, but she’s watching him wearing Superman’s shirt! It’s a subtle touch, but so effective. Even more effective, the holographic head of Jor-El looking at Lois in an accusatory way as Kal-El becomes Clark Kent. Again, the drama in the situation is heightened and makes more sense. When Clark Kent steps out of the chamber, sans special effects of him coming apart on the inside, he is wearing the street clothes he went in wearing. His hair is the same. He’s just…different. Another superb moment by Christopher Reeve.
The biggest problem with this movie is, of course, that it isn’t really the sequel to Superman. Because it wasn’t finally put together until nearly 30 years after it should’ve been, it looks like a rough cut of the movie in some places. I got the sense that this is a good outline, in some cases, of the way the final film would’ve looked. That it was mostly the best thing they could come up with based on what they had. Which is exactly what it is. The joy of watching this movie isn’t getting Richard Donner’s definitive vision, but rather as close to it as we’ll ever get, which is pretty damn close. In that way, this movie works wonderfully.
The ending. I could’ve this in the 1980 Superman II essay but chose not to because I was already very long. The deaths of Zod, Ursa, and Non. Superman tricks them out of their powers and then beats the hell out of them. Well, out of Zod and Non. Lois takes care of Ursa. They fall into the nothingness of the Fortress of Solitude and, we presume, their deaths. In the Donner Cut, the same thing happens. They up it, though, by showing only Superman and Lois Lane leaving the Fortress. They lands miles away and Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to destroy the place. Unlike Lester’s Superman II, Lex Luthor is not shown leaving with Superman and Lois, so one must assume that he’s still in the Fortress. A cut scene in the Special Features section of the Blu Ray shows the three Kryptonian villains and Luthor being taken away by the U.S. Arctic Patrol, presumably to jail. I’d understand why this was cut. If the Fortress of Solitude was supposed to be a secret, how would they get there? Of course, it also helps understand why Superman would destroy his little piece of Krypton. In the theatrical version of the movie, Superman leaves with Lois and Luthor and the Fortress of Solitude remains.
The ending, part 2. As I mentioned in the my essay on Superman: The Movie, the scene of Superman changing Earth’s spin, and thereby changing time, was supposed to end Superman II. In The Richard Donner Cut, the movie begins with what Donner wanted for the original ending of the first movie (and a much better scene of the Phantom Zone Prisoners’ escape) and ends with the Earth-spin-time-changing sequence. I feel like this is even more confusing than it was in the first movie. Did this whole second movie not happen? Isn’t that akin to saying it was all a dream? I don’t know. I really just don’t like this ending, either way. If this is only to make Lois forget about their romance, it’s kind of douchey. Speaking of which–
The ending, part 3. This is the ending of both versions of Superman II, shot by Donner. Superman saves the world and goes back to the diner where he got his ass kicked in the few days he went without power. There’s Mr. Wonderful himself, the truck driver who kicked his sorry ass. And, being the hero we all aspire to be, Clark Kent/Superman shows just how human he has become by humiliating and, essentially, kicking the bully’s ass. Now, I’m torn on this part. As a kid who was bullied, and who has some great stories about me getting my ass kicked, I still cheer that Superman/Clark Kent teaches the bully a lesson. Still, it is unbecoming for a hero who should be teaching by example. In essence, by teaching that lesson, he sorta kinda becomes the bully himself. Do you disagree?
After the Battle
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a beautifully executed case of What Might Have Been. This is not the movie that Donner would’ve released, but is as close as we’ll ever get, and it’s fine. It is a labor of love and the love seeps through. It’s also a fascinating thing to watch for those wanting to be filmmakers. To compare and contrast the two versions of Superman II shows how you can get two very good movies with the same basic story, but how the minor details can make or break aspects of it. Which do I prefer? I don’t know. Both have things I love, both have things I’m not fond of. Either way, it’s worth seeing whether you’ve seen the original Superman II a million times or only once.