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Posted on: July/1/2003 12:01 AM

The matchup you’ve been screaming for is finally ready to slash its way onto the screen.
By Kier-La Janisse

Published in Fanorgia #224.

You could say that Freddy and Jason represent two Titans in a new mythological hierarchy—and while they may not be the most benevolent of gods, they’ve certainly been doing right for New Line Cinema for over two decades. And with the Nightmare on Elm Street series, that company has done the horror franchise thing better than any of the major studios; Freddy’s last outing, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, emerged as a masterful exercise in self-reflexivity.

Along the way, New Line rescued the Friday the 13th property from lying fallow at Paramount, sending Jason in new directions of both story (Jason Goes to Hell) and location (Jason X). As can be expected, both series have been subject to their own moments of idiocy, but overall, nothing wrong there. The fun of watching them pursue their countless victims has won out over moral or intellectual responsibility every time—and now they’re setting their murderous sights on each other in Freddy vs. Jason, which New Line unleashes (after many years of planning and false starts) August 15.

Hong Kong import Ronny (Bride with White Hair) Yu steps in to direct this time, although he admits—as with his standout Child’s Play entry Bride of Chucky—that he had little knowledge of either series upon his hiring. “When I first started, I wasn’t that familiar with the franchises,” he says. “But later I thought I’d catch up while doing prep, so I started looking at all those [previous films]. One reason New Line wanted me to do this—or one of the reasons—was because I knew nothing about the series. Bob [New Line topper Robert Shaye] really wanted somebody to come in with a different take on it. Actually, this is a new franchise—Freddy vs. Jason. It’s totally fresh, even though the characters are the same, so that’s what makes it exciting, that he had the foresight to hire someone like me rather than a hardcore fan.”

In fact, a certain divine luck has colored Yu’s career, and he seems to excel at projects taken on without going the orthodox route. “I didn’t study film at all,” he says, “I had polio when I was about 9 months old, so I didn’t have a huge playgroup. My father, seeing that, took me to the theater all the time. We saw everything in Hong Kong—all the Hollywood films, Hitchcock, Westerns, whatever—and they fascinated me. I was like, ‘They’re using images, one image plus another image, and it tells a story’—that’s fascinating, you know? So when I tried to go to college, I wanted to go to film school, to study more, but my father didn’t think it was a proper job—so I didn’t get to study it. Then later on, I had a chance to hang out with all these film people, and get to know how to physically put films together. And my first job was as a director, so I thought there must be somebody up there who had it programmed, like, ‘You must be a director for the rest of your life.'”

The set for Freddy’s lair that Fango visits materialized as an augmentation to an existing (but not functioning) boiler room at Woodlands, one of two Vancouver-area asylums with large closed sections that are often hired out for filming. Freddy vs. Jason is also utilizing Belleview, the decidedly more sinister of the two, where charges of physical and mental abuse of its patients are still being fought out in court. The boiler room is dripping with condensation, and its rickety walkways make it a veritable death trap. As Fango looks on, cinematographer Fred (Stir of Echoes) Murphy swings the camera around to meet a beckoning Freddy, who seems especially at home in this cavernous womb. Yu is outside at the monitor, but his supervision is hardly needed; veteran Freddy actor Robert Englund practically directs himself.

Certainly, the actor’s scarred onscreen alter ego hasn’t changed much for his latest (and last?) adventure, but Englund continues to appreciate the fact that Freddy is not a one-dimensional stock villain, but incredibly informed by the culture that has developed since his earthly demise (which largely facilitates his trademark witticisms). And maligned as they may be, Englund maintains that the Friday the 13th films also have a place in the pantheon of cinematic culture.

“I understand them—there’s something nihilistic that I love about those movies,” he admits. “And of course, I’m buddies with various people who have worked on them. I always thought they were very different films [from the Nightmare series], and that makes this movie difficult too. The Jason films are almost like garage-band horror—three notes played really loud and brutal and aggressive. Whereas Freddy’s more Talking Heads—there’s more imagination.”

The actor adds, however, that while Jason has grown stronger and more supernaturally unstoppable through the Friday series, Freddy has grown older and more in need of assistance in terms of exerting his physical menace—thus his manipulation of Jason, a veritable bulldozer, as a means of killing off another generation of Elm Street kids. “We need those sacrificial teens,” Englund says. “It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, you know that, and who’s the man to hand out those spankings?! He’s not as full of the fear fuel that he relies on, so he can’t exploit that as much—you know how if a girl was afraid of bugs, Freddy would turn her into a bug, or if a kid had an ear problem, Freddy would turn the sound up too loud. Well, in this particular film, Freddy’s not really exploiting those. He gets to one kid pretty good, because he has a suicidal brother, and Freddy does explore that kid’s personal angst; but he’s trying to get his power back, and creates a Frankenstein monster with Jason that he can’t control.”

Although the minor detail of the geographical proximity of Springwood to Camp Crystal Lake is left unaddressed, the film takes place over an intense, sleepless three-day period that sees the characters travel from one to the other. Bunson Lake, situated in the British Columbia interior, is doubling as Crystal Lake for the production’s purposes, and is home to the film’s epochal denouement, where Freddy and Jason have their last mano-a-mano.

While the script had been in development for a decade, and writers came and went like teenage fry cooks, the job finally fell into the hands of novice writers Mark Swift and Damian Shannon. The duo’s work was subsequently refined by David (Blade films) Goyer, but Yu maintains that this was not to make any substantial changes to what was essentially the story they wanted.

“Basically, what David did was try to condense, because we had a very long script,” explains Yu. “I mean, I’m sure the two writers tried to put in enough information so that people could understand, but movies are cinema—they have to be more visual instead of talking about the backstory and all that. What David did was pare down all the information, so it was a good contribution. The whole movie happens in three nights, and the kids have to run for their lives, try not to sleep and try to avoid Jason. And also try to find a scheme where these two monsters will kill each other!”

In Yu’s vision, the long-awaited pas de deux between Freddy and Jason deliberately follows in the tradition of the Universal or Toho monster matchups. Just as there is a certain sentimentality attached to Japanese monster Gamera despite his leveling of entire cities, Jason Voorhees is presented as the product of abandonment and the trauma of his mother’s murder. His relentless will to destroy boils down to anger at the deprivations he suffered while others (primarily ditzy and expendable camp counselors) enjoyed the superficialities of a carefree life. All this is unconscious, of course—his waterlogged brain could hardly allow for any degree of self-analysis, but that’s where Freddy comes in as an all-knowing therapist (as Amy Steel and Corey Feldman pretended to do in Friday Part 2 and The Final Chapter, respectively). Freddy may be trapped in the dreamworld, but the indestructible problem child is an open vessel for Jason’s creative hate-mongering.

The film directly continues from Jason Goes to Hell, which ended with Freddy’s clawed hand pulling the trademark hockey mask into the bowels of the underworld. Placed within the same narrative, Jason comes off as the decidedly more sympathetic of the two, an angle that Yu deliberately emphasized. “Somehow, I’m a big fan of the WWF,” he offers as a point of comparison, “even though I don’t like it—but’s it’s so bizarre, I just keep tuning in. And then I realized what great scriptwriters those people are. Because everybody has a character, a larger-than-life persona. And when you see both of them fight, you somehow have to root for one side—if you hate both sides, you’ll turn off the TV—so that is my inspiration. Jason has no choice—he was born disfigured. It’s not that he said, ‘I’m a born killer,’ no—he doesn’t even know he’s killing.”

Former stuntman Ken Kirzinger, who replaces longtime Jason actor Kane Hodder (and who made a brief appearance in Jason Takes Manhattan), agrees that a sympathetic approach to the masked character is integral to the film. “They wanted to see more of a personality come out, and what we didn’t want to do was the ‘single tear down the face’ or whatever,” he laughs. “Jason’s character is sort of different from Freddy in that Jason is mildly retarded, and he’s doing all this because of his mother. So his motivation is out of love, in a way, but he’s this weird, twisted kind of psycho savant. Whereas Freddy is just consciously evil. And that’s the one thing about Jason—you do not mess with his mother. When he does figure out that Freddy’s putting one over on him, he is—needless to say—very upset.”

“His anger, it’s very simple,” Yu adds. “Everybody, no matter what culture, would be pissed off if you used their mother to do something. Like, don’t fuck with my mom! So that is the key.” Jason’s arrested development makes him that much more formidable a foe, especially as he takes his murderous tendencies in a sort of therapeutic stride.

“That’s the thing about Jason: He has no fear,” Kirzinger says. “He has no reason to be afraid, because he’s never come up against anything that can put him down all the way. He’s been cut up, blown up, shot, hacked, everything, and he keeps coming back. So it’s not that he doesn’t feel pain, he does—maybe not the same way a normal human being would—but he just copes with everything that comes his way.

“Jason has been a lot more monotone in the past, but what we’re attempting to do in this one is give him a broader spectrum as a character,” the actor continues. “It’s in simple things: his movement, all his emotions—because he doesn’t verbalize at all. So by just expanding on his movement a little, to create a thought in the audience’s minds as to what he’s thinking, it’s very subtle.”

Initially, Yu thought that fans would instinctively cheer for Freddy because they would respond to his lively character more than Jason’s oafish silence. But as filming has gone on, it has become apparent that each character has a distinct appeal. “I feel that at the end of the day, people are going to cheer for both of them,” the director says. “And even the human characters, for once. When I look back at both franchises, and I look at the people in all the movies, there’s almost no value. The only purpose is just to get chopped up or killed.

“So this time around, how do you put two monsters like Godzilla and King Kong together—it has to have some medium,” he continues. “Here, the writers were very smart, and they thought of the people who turn the tables around. In the beginning they’re victims, but they think, ‘Ah, why don’t we use ourselves as bait, to bring these two together and let them fight it out while we watch?’ Those characters become the means to bring the two monsters together.”

Among the new crop of Elm Street kids is Jason Ritter (son of comic actor and Bride of Chucky alumnus John Ritter), Dawson’s Creek veteran Monica Keena and—most impressive in Yu’s eyes—Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland, who makes her acting debut with Freddy vs. Jason. “She’s our one fantastic discovery; she is just so natural,” raves Yu, who confesses that he had no knowledge of the young actress’ musical superstardom when he cast her. “Actually, New Line said, ‘We have this girl you should take a look at,’ and apparently she was dying to be in the film. And she came in very humble, not like a big star.”

But for horror fans, the real catch is Katharine Isabelle, who—despite having stated a reluctance to be considered a scream queen—has transfixed audiences with her roles in Ginger Snaps (not to mention its two recently wrapped sequels), the thriller Insomnia and NBC’s remake of Carrie, and who provides Freddy vs. Jason with its expected skin quotient.

When Ritter, last seen in the teen thriller Swimfan, came aboard for the role of Will, originally cast Brad (Apt Pupil) Renfro was a day away from vacating the part. Within a whirlwind three-day period, Ritter found himself in the lead and was flown up to Vancouver to begin shooting. Although a professional actor for the past four years, his educational commitments prevented him from too many film appearances until recently; the NYU alumnus looks forward to a heavier work schedule now that he’s graduated. An early interest in the Child’s Play franchise prompted the young actor to go after Freddy vs. Jason, and he assures that his father’s connection to Yu was not instrumental in anything more than an advisory fashion.

“I am a longtime horror fan,” Ritter says. “The original Child’s Play was one of the first ones I saw. I hadn’t met [Yu] before, but my dad told me he was a really cool guy and a good director, so I wasn’t as nervous to meet him as I would have been otherwise.”

When asked for his personal preference between the two titular fiends, Ritter is quick to point to Krueger: “Before coming onto the movie, I was a big Freddy fan, because he cracks these horrible sick jokes, and the idea that he can enter your dreams is one of the best premises ever. Because that’s when you’re most vulnerable—and he takes your worst fear and uses it against you. It was completely surreal and bizarre to see Robert Englund just sitting right there; I mean, I’d seen all his movies since I was a kid.”

Ritter’s character Will has echoes of Friday’s Tommy Jarvis, which led to unfounded Internet rumors that Feldman would be reprising his Final Chapter role. “At the beginning, he has been in a mental institution for four years,” Ritter explains, “and he breaks out because he’s worried about his girlfriend Lori, played by Monica Keena.”

While the Fridays aren’t noted for their wealth of character development, the marriage of the two franchises seemed to call for more depth in that department. “I was surprised,” adds Ritter. “I thought they would mostly be stock characters, because usually they are, and everyone’s OK with that because it’s all in fun. But these people aren’t just stereotypes—they’ve both had tragedies in their pasts.”

Beyond rumors of unrest on the set (there were reportedly communication problems between Yu and various cast/crew members), the shoot has been tough and literally dirty, thanks to the number of water effects and the consequential mud. “It has been surprisingly physical,” says Ritter, “a lot of running, having an unconscious person slung over my shoulder—although most of the choreography is between Freddy and Jason.”

And speaking of water, a Freddy vs. Jason technician now leads Fango out to an imposing metal fountain erected in the middle of one of the concourses, awaiting its use later in the shoot. Because Jason’s primal fear is water, that’s what Freddy uses to intimidate him, and this structure functions as the means to create a veritable gushing wall that can immobilize Jason when he is trapped inside it. The machine is cleverly rigged up so that the actor will not get a drop on his costume.

“We do have some fantastical action in the middle of the film when Freddy’s got Jason in his world,” Yu says, “so that is more mythical and surreal. Freddy can make anything happen. And then later, when Freddy gets caught [and brought] into this world—our world—that’s realistic, that’s flesh and blood. And their physical is different, because Jason is giant, like a tank, and Freddy is a small guy, so he has to use his wit and his brain. What makes the film entertaining is that you have both sides, the fantastical and the realistic, one on one.”

Bill Terezakis’ Vancouver-based WCT Productions is on FX detail this time out, as it has been for most recent New Line productions shooting in Hollywood North (including Willard and Final Destination 2). But with his wealth of experience, Terezakis’ greatest challenge was overcoming the limitations of creating makeup for established characters. Kirzinger describes Terezakis’ Jason as a composite of all his movie visages, “but less decomposed; the face looks more retarded—that’s the only way I can really put it. It will look familiar when you see the mask off.”

But of all the traditional elements, it seems Jason’s choice of weapon is the character’s most unshakable tenet. “His machete is really his tool of choice in this movie, and you’ll see it used a lot.”

Talk of Freddy’s new “demon face” trickles through the conversation as Fango is led through one of the FX trailers, but Terezakis’ crew is careful not to divulge too much information, other than that the mask is one of few departures from Freddy’s original look. Polaroids of various cast members, both in and out of makeup, litter the walls, and the assortment of stipples, foams, paints, and appliances testify to an FX team hard at work and constantly improvising.

The greatest change attendant to Jason, of course, is the switch in actor. Yet while Yu had no qualms about replacing Hodder, he admits that shooting a Freddy movie without Englund would be impossible, and says that the two are working in true collaborative fashion. “Every time I have an idea, I run it by him, like, ‘Would that be too far-fetched? Would that be too way off?’ and he’ll say, ‘No, no, no, let me deliver that line and see how you feel.’ So immediately, I can see whether or not this is Freddy. It’s so funny—without the makeup, with the makeup, it’s almost like two different people.” On set, Englund is a personality to be reckoned with, and Yu knows who’s boss.

As far as the film’s mood is concerned, Yu’s primary mandate is pure entertainment, and Goyer’s comic-based film scripting experience (also including work on Ghost Rider) has no doubt helped him lend the film the pacing it needs to secure a crossover audience of X-Men and Matrix fans. Yu is also being careful to balance the elements of humor with good old-fashioned scare tactics.

“I have my own feeling about what’s scary,” the director says. “I like these old classic movies, Hitchcock and others that use the principle of the three big S’s: First you set up the suspense, then you surprise the audience, then immediately you shock them. So the challenge or the difficulty of making a horror movie is not how gory you can make it, but how to play this game with the audience. When the audience expects something to happen, you delay that. So then they relax, like, ‘Oh gee—aaahhhhh!’ You constantly play this game with them.

“I shoot a movie not just from the point of view of Ronny Yu, but from the point of view of the audience,” he continues. “It’s not how great the lighting is, the composition, all that—that is stuff you have to deliver because you’re a professional, you have to deliver it—but what is inside that little frame, that information: Does it entertain me, first of all, and secondly, does it give me that shock, or happiness or sadness, or something?”

Likewise, Ritter acknowledges that the rollercoaster of emotions characteristic of horror films is a healthy and unique experience, and that humor definitely has its place. “It’s a release,” he notes. “You get so nervous that to have some sick joke about a murder allows you to let out that nervous laughter, to let out a sound—since you’ve been stifling a scream the whole time, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of your friends!”

As the film heads toward its nationwide release, thousands of horror fans across America will be turning their eyes to New Line for a film they hope will live up to their mammoth expectations. Any criticism that New Line is bleeding the fan base dry can be countered by the fact that fans have been begging for this film for years—but whether the long-anticipated matchup will enthrall or disappoint remains to be seen. On set, Yu is smiling and cheerful, but the shoot has obviously taken its toll on the seemingly tireless director. “This one took a lot of my energy out of me,” he sighs.