Reliving the ‘Nightmares’: Long-awaited monster mash ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ (2003) mostly delivers the goods (Movie review)

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rom Sept. 18-Oct. 16, we’re looking back at the nine films of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise. Next up is the eighth movie, “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003):

A decade after New Line bought the rights to “Friday the 13th,” its main reason for doing so — Jason’s showdown against “Nightmare on Elm Street’s” Freddy (as teased in 1993’s “Jason Goes to Hell”) – finally comes to the screen in “Freddy vs. Jason.” While nothing can make that long wait worthwhile, especially when these sagas are so intrinsically cheesy, this is the slickest and most crisply written film from either franchise since the 1980s originals. We have to deal with some early Aughts butt rock on the soundtrack, of course, but overall, director Ronny Yu delivers a fun flick.

Writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift do smart work. The film begins with a lively recap – voiced by Robert Englund’s Freddy – of the events to date. Later, our heroes learn about Freddy and Jason and skim over the sequel stuff. For example, Jason is nationally famous in “Jason Goes to Hell” but he’s almost back to urban legend status here. So the sequels did happen in this continuity, but we’re asked to not think too hard about them.

I like how Freddy’s dream-world powers – which have always cropped up on an as-needed basis – are all utilized here, including shapeshifting. “FvJ” clearly spells out the fact that Freddy gains power from people believing in him, something central to the first “Nightmare” (before the confusing one-last-scare). In contrast to “Freddy’s Dead,” wherein Springwood includes no children anymore, Lori Campbell (Monica Keena of “Dawson’s Creek” and “Undeclared”) lives in the main “Nightmare” house and has several friends over.

My knee-jerk reaction was to be offended that Kane Hodder was recast (Ken Kirzinger is the new Jason), but when I learned that it’s in order to make Jason taller than Freddy, I understood the visual necessity. Jason is the imposing, wordless one; Freddy is the jabbing jester.

But riffing on that concept from “Freddy’s Dead,” the parents have shipped off the kids who dream about Freddy – among them Will (Jason Ritter, “Joan of Arcadia”) and Mark (Brendan Fletcher) – to a mental hospital. When Will realizes their parents are trying to protect the town – since Will and the other dreamers can’t share their knowledge of Freddy, thus giving him power – it’s a clear sign that Shannon and Swift are thinking about the rules of the game (and wringing suspense out of them) in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.

I also like how they add in the mystery of Lori’s dad, Dr. Campbell (Tom Butler), who is hiding something from his daughter about the death of Mrs. Campbell. All of this is driven by a better overall cast and better developed characters – see also Chris Marquette (“Joan of Arcadia”), Katharine Isabelle (“Disturbing Behavior”) and Kelly Rowland (of Destiny’s Child) – than we’ve gotten in any “Friday” or “Nightmare” so far. More money, talent and care makes this a better movie.

The back half doesn’t totally sustain the narrative momentum, inevitably trading it for a grand battle of the titans, first in the dreamscape and then at Camp Crystal Lake. It’s decent stuff, with respectable choreography and impressive cinematography. My knee-jerk reaction was to be offended that Kane Hodder was recast (Ken Kirzinger is the new Jason), but when I learned that it’s in order to make Jason taller than Freddy, I understood the visual necessity. Jason is the imposing, wordless one; Freddy is the jabbing jester.

The filmmakers are well aware that entertainment can’t be wrung from the horror aspect – although “FvJ” gives nods to those tropes early on. Jason became popular because even timid theater-goers could get safe “scares” and Freddy was embraced even by children for being a live-action cartoon. There’s no escaping those legacies. So a comedic tone comes into the final act, like when we get the one-two politically incorrect punch of Freddy calling Rowland’s Kia “dark meat” and Kia calling him a “f****t.”

Because Freddy talks and has a personality, “FvJ” is able to deliver a truly epic showdown, something the following year’s “AvP: Alien vs. Predator” struggled to do. But also, it’s amusing that little Monica Keena takes on Freddy – and on a dock, no less (“Dawson’s Creek” fans will get the reference). The villains have always outshone the human heroes and victims, so it’s neat that the tables are turned here.

“Freddy vs. Jason” is straightforward enough to be watched even if you’ve only seen the originals of each saga, but it’s also a nice reward for those of us who have trudged through all the mediocre-to-bad follow-ups. This is a rare time when I can say without qualification: This is a good “Friday”/“Nightmare” sequel.

Schedule of reviews:

Friday, Sept. 18: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)

Wednesday, Sept. 23: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” (1985)

Friday, Sept. 25: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” (1987)

Wednesday, Sept. 30: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” (1988)

Friday, Oct. 2: “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” (1989)

Wednesday, Oct. 7: “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” (1991)

Friday, Oct. 9: “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)

Wednesday, Oct. 14: “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003)

Friday, Oct. 16: “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (2010)

“Friday the 13th” reviews:

“Friday the 13th” (1980)

“Friday the 13th: Part 2” (1981)

“Friday the 13th: Part III” (1982)

“Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (1984)

“Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” (1985)

“Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” (1986)

“Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” (1988)

“Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” (1989)

“Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” (1993)

“Jason X” (2002)

“Freddy vs. Jason” (2003)

“Friday the 13th” (2009)

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