As the twilight age of the slasher movie began to fade towards the end of the ‘90s, studios that had built empires off larger-than-life villains began spitballing ways to keep them relevant. Tons of franchises languished in development hell as studio executives tried increasingly outlandish ideas to win back fans, but out of all of them, none proved as tantalizing as the concept of the versus crossover.
For over a decade, Hollywood was plagued by failed attempts to produce ridiculous horror crossovers such as Candyman vs Leprechaun and Helloween (that’s Michael Myers vs. Pinhead), but only one of them gained enough traction to actually happen. Developed as far back as 1987 and teased in 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, Freddy vs Jason was a smackdown 16 years in the making. Against all odds, it manages to rise above the absurdity of its premise and deliver a pulse-pounding crowd-pleaser — provided you’re willing to indulge in its stupidity.
Freddy vs Jason is streaming now on HBO Max, but it leaves on November 30. Here’s why you should watch it now. And what you need to know before you do.
By 2003, both the Jason and Freddy franchises had become sprawling, convoluted webs of loosely connected canon. The most recent Nightmare movie had featured Freddy escaping into the real world, while Jason Voorhees was floating around in orbit circa 2455, courtesy of 2001’s Jason X. Screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift had their jobs cut out for them, but surprisingly, one of the best parts of Freddy vs Jason is how well it restructures the canon of both franchises to fit together. Opening with an extended montage of Freddy’s many gory demises over the years, it’s revealed that the Springwood Slasher has lost his powers due to people forgetting his legacy (a bit of a meta-wink at Freddy’s fall from pop culture grace). In an effort to revive himself, Freddy recruits Jason to stir up some gruesome trouble in Springwood. But when Jason’s off-switch stops working, the two mass murderers turn their blades on each other.
One of the reasons the film is so beloved by horror fans despite its flaws is that it is such an unabashed love letter to both iconic franchises. The script is filled with dialogue, visual cues, and narrative references that pay homage to Freddy and Jason’s greatest hits, including the return of Hypnocil as well as Westin Hills Psychiatric Hospital from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Director Ronny Yu brings these qualities to life with a distinct visual and atmospheric flair. No stranger to the kind of quick-paced meta-humor that movies like Scream popularized, Yu is a Hong Kong native whose second American-language film was the 1998 horror classic Bride of Chucky.
Under Yu’s direction, Freddy and Jason come to life with flawless characterization. Robert Englund is clearly having an absolute blast and maintains a pitch-perfect balance of repulsive sleaze and gleeful comedy. Jason, on the other hand, is as close to the Terminator as he’s ever been here. Stunt performer Ken Kirzinger portrays him as a cold, reflexive murdering machine that moves with the unstoppable forward momentum of a shark.
The movie does a great job of exploring what makes them both tick. in one particularly memorable scene, Freddy pokes and prods around in Jason’s subconscious, which is visualized as a sopping wet camp cabin filled with the corpses of his many victims.
Freddy vs Jason also carves its way to the top of both franchises in one important category: the murders. Just like in Bride of Chucky, Yu brings such spirited creativity to the staging of carnage. Aside from the goofy stoner caterpillar that Freddy turns into at one point, most here rank alongside some of the best in either series, with one particular bloodbath featuring the incredible visual of Jason Voorhees hacking folks to pieces while on fire. The movie’s central rivalry is broken up into two fight scenes, and while some people cringe at the Wrestlemania-style physicality on display, they’re both such exciting showcases of each character’s brutality.
There’s also a lot of charm in looking back at the movie as a time capsule of the early 2000s. With a soundtrack featuring acts like Seether and Slipknot, a starring role for Kelly Rowland in the middle of the Destiny’s Child era, and costume design that shows off the best and most ridiculous aspects of Y2K fashion culture, watching Freddy vs. Jason in the 2020s is like taking a step back in time. This element of the film is a double-edged sword, however, as most of the teenage cast feel like insufferably thin stereotypes of 2000s teens. There’s also some casual homophobia characteristic of most big-budget releases of the time.
But there’s no way around the fact that Freddy vs. Jason is exactly what it is – a mindless hack-em-up with a script that doesn’t really care about its characters other than turning them into ground beef. However, Ronny Yu’s bombastic direction gives the entire affair a jolt of kineticism, coupled with a script that knows better than to take itself too seriously. Folks searching for a terrifying prestige horror release should run for the hills…but fans looking to hoot and holler as Freddy Krueger takes on Jason Voorhees in a no-holds-barred steel cage match will find themselves undoubtedly entertained.
Freddy vs. Jason is streaming on HBO Max through November 30.