2018 Film Essays

New Nightmares: ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ and the Meaning of Horror Movies

Fifteen years ago, Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason, a match-up between two of horror’s most menacing men, was unleashed on American audiences. But the film’s origins go back another 15 years earlier to the late 1980s and the heyday of the slasher movie, when a crossover between the genre’s biggest stars was originally proposed. Due to disputes over copyrights between New Line — the so-called “House That Freddy Built” — and Paramount, Freddy vs. Jason was delayed until 2003, almost a decade after Scream laid the traditional slasher movie to rest.

Getting New Line and Paramount — let alone Freddy and Jason — to work together might have been difficult in the last century, but in the decade and a half since Freddy vs. Jason, studios and IP rights holders have become all the more willing to join forces: think The Lego Movie, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the pending Disney-Fox merger. Almost every major Hollywood production has some sort of cross-property potential. It may have taken root in most every other popular genre, but the cinematic universe model has struggled to make an inroads into horror. Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) almost tripled their respective budgets at the box office, but hopes of a longer-lasting crossbred franchise have since fizzled out. Universal failed to launch a “Dark Universe” based off the characters in their classic horror stable two separate times, first with Dracula Untold (2014) and again with The Mummy (2017).

Today, horror might be light on the crossovers and team-ups, but it does have a surplus of something else: prestige. For the first time in the history of horror, the genre is respectable, thanks to the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, A Quiet Place, Hereditary and more, a movement John Krasinski mistakenly referred to as “elevated” horror. Elevated horror movies mean things, pushing subtext to the surface, packaged with more obvious “themes” than ever before — such films are self-consciously artistic, and some even get Oscar buzz. Above all else, so-called elevated horror is palatable to the kinds of people who may not normally consider themselves horror fans.

Despite the critical praise these movies have received, the public response to “elevated horror” has been polarized. For every A24 acolyte who adores The Witch and Hereditary, there’s another two viewers left pissed off and frustrated. A number of critics have also come down hard on these films, like Vague Visages’ own Tanner Tafelski, who wrote that “what’s truly terrifying about Hereditary is how empty it is.” Whatever the merits of prestige horror movies may actually be, broad appeal and entertainment value are not among them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the atonal dissonance of Hereditary lies a movie like Freddy vs. Jason. If The Babadook is a careful, character-driven study of a single mother’s pain, Freddy vs. Jason is a theme park ride. It’s character-driven too, only its characters can be — unlike the metaphorical monsters of It Follows and A Quiet Place — purchased as Halloween costumes. According to the documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy, the development of Freddy vs. Jason was “fueled by fans desire to see two titans of terror battle to the death” and “inspired by the classic horror matches of the 30s and 40s” like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) attributes the movie’s origins to “the adolescent male fantasy” of horror fans who wanted to see their favorite slasher kick the other one’s ass. Freddy vs. Jason is the on-screen equivalent of every young child who has ever made action figures from disparate franchises duel each other to the plastic death. It is a machine designed for one purpose: to please an audience.

The previous entry in the Krueger saga, New Nightmare (1994), sits closer to the prestige horror end of the spectrum. Wes Craven’s first installment is significantly more serious than the films that followed it, but New Nightmare — the director’s long-awaited return to his franchise that got away — ups the ante even more. It’s self-aware and self-referential, set in a world in which the Nightmare on Elm Street movies actually exist and the real-life Freddy has come home to roost. In Never Sleep Again, Craven says that New Nightmare was made “for the people who make films, and Scream was made for the audience that watches the films.” New Nightmare plays like a trial run for 1996’s Scream, which sees Craven using metatextuality to more comic effect. Alongside declining box office numbers, Scream was the final word on the slasher subgenre, planting a self-referential stake in the heart of Freddy Krueger. Moviegoers rejected this more serious take on the wise-cracking dream killer, which grossed almost 20 million against an 8 million dollar budget. Audiences were also ambivalent on the recent Friday the 13th films, whose box office receipts had steadily declined. In 2001, the Jason-in-space sequel, Jason X, scraped by with $17 million, a new low for the franchise.

Despite the odds against it, the wish fulfilment of Freddy vs. Jason worked, to the tune of $115 million. The film became the highest grossing Friday the 13th movie and the second highest grossing installment in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, only a few hundred thousand dollars behind the 2010 remake. The movie’s audience was built-in as a crossover between two franchises with devoted followings, but credit should also be given its director. Coming to Hollywood from Hong Kong, Yu made his introduction to American audiences with Warriors of Virtue (1987), a panned co-production between MGM and the China Film Co-Production Corporation. His first American hit was Bride of Chucky (1998), a self-mocking reimagining of Child’s Play for the Scream era. Freddy vs. Jason, which had a notoriously difficult development process, needed someone like Yu, who had proved he could revitalize the image of a horror franchise while respecting what came before.

What came before is precisely what Freddy vs. Jason is about. The movie opens with a montage of footage from the earlier films as Freddy provides a play-by-play of his criminal history. As any ardent Nightmare on Elm Street fan knows, Freddy feeds off fear: once his victims can overcome their fear, they can defeat him. Freddy can’t be killed, only forgotten, and that’s exactly what’s happened to him in the decade since the last Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Freddy first resurrects Jason and then manipulates him into killing the teenage population of Springwood until the town remembers Freddy’s name, allowing him to grow strong again. Only Jason doesn’t really like Krueger exploiting his labor, so the two duke it out, with the teens of Springwood, using the town’s historical memories as a defense, caught in between. There is, of course, a lot of hijinks and high school drama, this being what Roger Ebert would derisively call a “dead teenager movie.”

The question that Freddy vs. Jason asks — what happens when the world no longer remembers Freddy? — is one that could also be asked outside the text. How can Hollywood revive Freddy and Jason’s franchises when the trends and the times have moved on? As a case study, let’s examine the generic contemporaries of Freddy vs. Jason. Consider 2002’s highest-grossing horror movie: The Ring, a rather different kind of scary movie. The Gore Verbinski-directed film almost looks a little like the prestige horror movies of today: it’s moody, atmospheric and concerned about digital culture. It would go on to become the highest-grossing horror remake of all time, launching a wave of Hollywood J-Horror cash-ins like The Grudge and Pulse.

In the early 2000s, remakes were the word as horror franchises rose again, shedding the weight of earlier failures and ditching over-complicated chronologies. Freddy vs. Jason wasn’t really a remake, but it wasn’t a conventional sequel either, closer to the so-called “sidequels” of contemporary anthology franchises like Cloverfield and Unfriended. The decade’s avalanche of horror remakes would officially begin a few months after the release of Freddy vs. Jason with Platinum Dunes’ The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Michael Bay’s production imprint went on to reboot — to varying degrees of success — both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Hitcher before moving on to new properties like The Purge, Ouija and A Quiet Place. The coming years brought even more remakes from other studios and producers: Rob Zombie’s two Halloween movies, Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead, Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, The Fog and Piranha, a phenomenon that was the subject of a legendary monologue by Hayden Panettiere in Scream 4.

The year 2003 also saw the release of a 10-minute short film called Saw, directed by a then-unknown named James Wan. Along with Eli Roth’s Hostel, the feature-length version of Saw would ignite the decade’s other dominant horror trend: “torture porn.” Unlike the haunted house thrills of Freddy vs. Jason, torture porn movies could be made cheaply and quickly, making big bank off minimal risk.

Freddy vs. Jason may have been of the moment with its nu-metal soundtrack and snarky horror movie references, but it was also out of its time and out of step with the trends around it. Unlike 2002’s Busta Rhymes-starring Halloween: Resurrection, Freddy vs. Jason was a profitable success, one that seemed to promise an actual resurrection for the twin franchises it belonged to. But that success was only for a moment. Plans for a Freddy vs. Jason 2 never materialized and both franchises became fodder for the Hollywood horror remake machine.

Freddy vs. Jason is at once steeped in the history of horror and an anomaly in the equation, but its outlier status is only one of the reasons why I find it so fascinating. Freddy vs. Jason is also useful as a teaching tool to the purists who hold up prestige horror movies over “trash.” It might be a Hollywood thrill ride, but it is also about something, as is every other entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, even the disregarded ones. If, as critic Andrew Swafford has described them, horror movies are “laboratories for processing fear,” Freddy Krueger is a mad scientist. He might be a familiar icon, but he’s malleable and has meant different things at different times. In A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Krueger represents a young man’s struggle with his sexual identity. In Dream Warriors, Krueger takes the shape of drug addiction, abuse and the most painful memories of institutionalized teens. I would even argue that Dream Child (1989) is about the necessity of access to abortion.

Freddy vs. Jason is about something, too: other horror movies. Like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream, Freddy vs. Jason is a reflection on the power of icons and their relationships with audiences. Like he does in the film, Freddy Krueger loses cultural capital as a brand and commercial appeal as a product when audiences forget him. Horror movies– in the mainstream and the art house genre  — have, like Mr. Krueger, meant many different things at many different times. Specific cultural fears change as society changes. Freddy vs. Jason is a reminder that the fears, violence and trauma of earlier eras never really goes away, even if we bury or black it out. There are real horrors in our world that cannot be undone, even if we are told they were never real to begin with. In its text, Freddy vs. Jason is, in its own weird way, an argument in favor of remembering our cultural past and recalling historical trauma. Freddy vs. Jason wrestles with our relationship to history and asks if we should suppress the pain of the past or make it known.

In its production, Freddy vs. Jason argues for a more cynical form of remembrance: the recollection of pre-existing intellectual properties for the purpose of financial gain. The last decade’s glut of horror remakes may have been profit-driven, but their reprocessing and reconsideration of violence can also tell us something about the time in which they were made, a moment in which the mass media’s obsession with replaying and reliving violence crystalized into a national pastime.

Fifteen years after its release, Freddy vs. Jason can be read and interpreted differently than it might have 10 years or five years ago. Genres are in a constant state of mutation as trends and styles change. The artists and audiences of the next 15 years will grapple with their fears differently than we do today. Maybe they’ll reject the viewpoint of the elevated horror movie or maybe they’ll embrace it even more. But they will still grapple with their fears through some means of cultural production. Different types of horror movies will be made, but the horror movies of the past will look different, too. Movies, like our reality, are never solid objects — they can be reread, relitigated and reinterpreted. Cultural subtext shapeshifts across movies and time. Pop culture weaves our dreams and nightmares, just like Freddy Krueger. Freddy vs. Jason is — like almost all horror movies — a signpost for the anxieties of an era, looking much like the prestige horror movies of today will look from the vantage point of the next decade.

Born in the American South but raised on the Internet, Nathan Smith (@trillmoregirls) is a scholar, freelance writer, DJ and video artist. He received his Bachelor’s in Cinema Studies and American Studies from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Film & Media Studies at Columbia University.