Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan might not be considered one of the best entries in the franchise, though it certainly has its fans. But it seemed to be a big deal at the time. Despite (or perhaps because of) the relatively lukewarm box office of Part VII, there was a heavy marketing campaign for Jason Takes Manhattan, even more than there had been for the previous film. Even the gimmick of the title, suggesting a change of scenery for the first real time in the franchise’s history, seemed designed to lure in some new blood—which was of course ironic, given the title of the preceding entry. The notion of Jason stalking the alleys of the Big Apple was something that fans absolutely wanted to see, even if it was probably a sequel premise no one would have predicted.
While there are more infamous bits of marketing, which we’ll get to in a second, so much of the legitimate excitement for Jason Takes Manhattan stems from that first trailer. It’s so disarmingly good, craning down to see a man on a pier looking out at the city while “New York, New York” plays, only for that man to turn around and of course turn out to be Jason, with the camera zooming in on his black eye and the subsequent reveal of the title. It might actually be the best teaser trailer out of the entire franchise.
Around the same time, of course, came the poster. Now iconic, the original Jason Takes Manhattan poster features Jason slashing his way through the classic “I Heart New York” logo. The New York Tourism Bureau immediately took issue with the poster, which caused significant controversy. Naturally, the franchise was no stranger to controversy—especially earlier in the decade, with Siskel and Ebert campaigning against the franchise as amoral and even dangerous trash—but this was the first time that controversy had begun before the movie was even released. While not an intentional marketing gimmick, it put a lot more eyes on the franchise than there may have been otherwise, at least for a time.
It also helped, consciously or unconsciously, to set up the film in people’s minds more than ever before. Part of the now thirty-year disappointment with Jason Takes Manhattan is that people had such a clear idea in their head for the movie they were going to see. And really, given the context, how could they not. People were complaining that Jason was terrorizing New York from the moment the marketing campaign had begun, months before the film was actually released. Even though The New Blood hadn’t done as well as the earlier movies, Jason Takes Manhattan was sold on a gimmick that seemed to work, and with the controversy added into it, everything seemed to set up what audience members no doubt expected to be a cathartic conclusion to what had accidentally become a very public fight between Jason Voorhees and Manhattan.
Honestly, though, New York was the perfect setting to take the franchise at the time, because it was almost universally depicted as a place where horror lurked around every corner. There’s always been an element of conservative fantasy that others have seen in the Friday the 13thmovies, which I’ve never bought into, but critics and marketing teams and even producers at the time often dead. The idyllic Crystal Lake had lost all sense of innocence after Jason had stalked those woods seven times. A location that had seemed totally unsuspecting in the original had become a place with a reputation so bad that they had to change the name of the town.
If Jason has already made Crystal Lake unlivable, it only made sense to put him in an urban environment in which the illusion of safety that had defined the original would be simply nonexistent. With that in mind, though, let’s really consider the way that New York was depicted in the 1980s, even before Jason Takes Manhattan. This was a decade, after all, ruled by things like the Death Wish franchise. This was the decade of the war on drugs and no small amount of racism thanks to xenophobic celebrity-turned-president Ronald Reagan. Even if the puritanical conservative fantasies projected on the Friday the 13thseries were never really an intentional angle, they did absolutely define the way that Manhattan itself was depicted on the screen throughout the 1980s.
In the Death Wish films (which had begun in the ’70s but carried on well into the ’80s), Manhattan was overrun with crime, and this certainly impacted many—if not most—other movies as well. It’s no surprise that this was the decade that gave us the first major blockbuster Batman movie, because that fetishization of New York as a corrupted city infested by crime is something that is inherent to the character. The depiction of New York in movies was so extreme that John Carpenter’s dystopian Escape from New York barely felt that different from any other movie set in the city around that time.
Jason Takes Manhattan does not make its way to the title city until the last act, but I have to admit, with as much as people complain about the lack of NYC in the movie, every single time I re-watch it I’m struck by just how much of the city is in there and how much Rob Hedden and Co. were able to cram into the time that they had to work with. The chase sequences through the city are without a doubt the best part of the movie, and they’re also somewhat hilarious in the context of the time because this is maybe the most 1980s New York to ever be presented on screen. This film looks at every punk, street rat and drug dealer, every seedy alley, every mugger and rapist and dials it all up to 11.
This is such an over-the-top version of the city in a way that really only a self-satirizing slasher franchise could get away with, and that’s kind of what ultimately sells it. New York, as presented in Jason Takes Manhattan, is so over-the-top that it feels like it’s satirizing what other movies and franchises were doing with the setting at the time. It almost certainly isn’t, and even if it is, it’s not all that well articulated. But whether it’s unintentional or half-expressed, it kind of works regardless. This is an absolutely fantastical version of a New York that is sleazy, frightening and has no regard for human life. No one can help you, no one bats an eye to the thought of murder, and the city even floods with fatal toxic waste every night at midnight. It’s ridiculous, but there’s absolutely DNA of it in the way so many other movies portrayed Manhattan. You can genuinely feel that Death Wish Manhattan floods the streets with toxic waste and probably even puts it in the drinking water, even though they never bring it up.
Jason himself is interestingly ambivalent to the environment and, by and large, it’s ambivalent to him. No one in New York notices Jason until he actually starts to kill them or—in the case of a group of punks inexplicably listening to hip hop—he just takes off his mask to show them his rotted pumpkin of a face. This if anything reinforces Jason as a presence absolutely without any particular motive, as he’s only after the survivors of the cruise ship, otherwise he’d have absolutely nothing to focus on.
It’s also interesting to note that Jason is basically the star of this movie. This was a shift that had started in Jason Lives, when the series began to take a more comedic turn and the camera centered on Jason even more in The New Blood, which was appropriate as that felt much more like an old-fashioned monster movie. Jason Takes Manhattan is much more tongue-in-cheek in the vein of Jason Lives. There are more attempts at self-satire, usually with much less success. More than anything, this spoke to the influence of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and the way it was beginning to impact Friday the 13th.
Once Freddy became an icon, it changed the game for slashers in a lot of different ways. Jason—who was largely hidden in his early appearances—became the star of the movies in the same way that Freddy did, which was a lot harder to do with a character that neither spoke nor showed his face. Hell, Jason Takes Manhattan even saw Jason takes a page out of Freddy’s promotion playbook with an appearance on Arsenio Hall, which might very well still be the best thing this movie produced.
Much like the Freddy films, the deaths in Jason Takes Manhattan take a much more bloodless and fantastic approach. This was also without a doubt reflective of the MPAA’s notorious treatment of the series. After the intensive censorship of The New Blood, Jason Takes Manhattan was conceived as a much more bloodless movie, with the violence taking a more humorous approach. That appears to be Rob Hedden’s intent, at least, and certainly speaks to the influence of Freddy and the Elm Street franchise.
That’s not totally how it feels, though, because even if these deaths aren’t as explicitly violent as the earlier movies, they’re almost shockingly mean-spirited. When Susie is killed at the beginning, Jason is toying with her in a way that’s borderline uncomfortable to watch. He’s hovering over her while she’s pleading for her life and it goes on for so long before he finally harpoons her in the chest. This mean streak is balanced by the humor, if not always well, and certainly sets up the eventual trip to New York.
Jason gets a lot more character beats this time, little comical moments of looking to the camera or showing punks his aforementioned rotted pumpkin face. The movie even finds a way to make Jason speak thanks to his childhood ghost, with the maniac crying for his long-dead mother as he is drowned in sludge at the end. While a misguided and incomprehensible story beat, it still spoke to the franchise’s decision to focus on Jason more and more. He’s the star of this movie and it works when the camera’s actually focusing on Jason himself. The design of the character is much more simplistic than The New Blood, but it’s one of his most unique and effective looks. At the beginning of Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason is framed as a ghost story and once the character shows up, he looks the part. There’s an EC quality to this Jason, with blacked out eyes, darkened clothes and a perpetually moist appearance.
There are several shots of Jason just stalking around the ship by himself, so that you really always know where he is at any given time. Interestingly, he’s only really framed as the villain cinematically once the action actually shifts to Manhattan itself. At that point, Jason’s much less front-and-center, which also no doubt is due to the claustrophobia of the cruise ship vs. the openness of Manhattan.
In the end, though, while there’s much less Manhattan than promised in the title, the final chase sequence makes the most of it, and in ways that seem tailored to convey the seedy, crime-infested Manhattan of the era. A New Beginning is often pointed to as the sleaziest Friday the 13thand by and large it is, but it’s not the one where our heroine is forced to take heroine by would-be rapists. And it says a whole lot that that is the first thing that happens to our characters the moment they set foot in New York. That is the perfect example of the satirical, over-the-top version of Manhattan that Friday the 13th Part VIII presents, whether it’s trying to or not. And it’s not far off from any other movie set in the city of that era. Even the plot device of Manhattan as a toxic waste dump was used in everything from C.H.U.D. to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Jason Takes Manhattan, for all of its faults, still stands as an unexpected antithesis to an era defined by the Death Wish series and so many Cannon Films action vehicles, in which Jason is not fueled by revenge but is simply doing what he always does, picking off back alley thugs and privileged yuppie teens indiscriminately. The notion that Friday the 13th Part VIII was at all intended to hold a mirror to the cinematic New York of the time seems incredibly unlikely, but it can still be seen in the movie itself.
As a fan of cult films of the era, it’s almost impossible not to make those comparisons either way. At the end of the day, this entry might be the least successful of the series in terms of both box office and in how well it accomplished everything it set out to do. But it is a curious experiment even still, one which could have much more explicitly played on Manhattan movie tropes had the city not been relegated to the last twenty minutes, but one that at least succeeds for the most part at its decision to turn its central masked murderer into a genuine movie star.