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Freddy vs. Jason

(2003) ** 1/2 R
92 min. distributer. Director: Ronny Yu. Cast: Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, James T. Callahan, Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland.

The long-awaited Freddy vs. Jason is an endlessly bizarre movie-going experience. At war with itself, this missive from the slasher-movie afterlife represents a collision of two separate and unequal horror franchises: the ambition-grazing Nightmare on Elm Street saga and the lowbrow Friday the 13th series. Beholden to nitpicky genre fans, Freddy vs. Jason is under an obligation to take its duelling mythologies seriously in staging an epochal showdown, while also serving up the Grand Guignol humor that has dominated the series' later entries (and undoubtedly served as prime motivator for cracked horror wizard Ronny Yu to take the directing gig).

The result is a horror movie that isn't the least bit scary. Gross, yes. Agressive, blood-soaked, full of implicit Sodom-and-Gomorrah moralizing? Check, check, and check. But in place of genuine jolts--arguably impossible at this late date in the franchises' histories--Yu (Bride of Chucky) brings to this comical horror vaudeville everything short of a straw-hat-and-cane duet for his scarred stars. Genre fans will have a field day (in a good way), and casual viewers may be surprised by this surprisingly watchable horror comedy, an unwieldy, clumsy, and preposterous film, to be sure, but one laden with trashy fun.

As to plot, Freddy vs. Jason has that, too, though it's better to squint at it than stare it down. Freddy Kreuger, you may know, was a molester and killer of little girls who, after getting off on a technicality, was burned to death by a mob of enraged Elm Street neighbors. Transformed into a dream-invading ghoul, Freddy began feeding on fear, killing people in their sleep. Jason Voorhees, a mama's boy and bullied tyke, has spent the last couple of decades taking lumbering revenge on anyone in sight (but mostly on the ephemeral residents of Camp Crystal Lake).

In short, the now-forgotten Freddy needs Jason to do his evil bidding until Freddy can regain the power of people's fear in him. The hockey-masked Jason's zealous killing spree sparks envy in the red-sweatered, blade-fingered Freddy, setting the stage for extended WWF-style smackdowns liberally dosed with Three Stooges humor. For every wide-eyed, frantic confab about Hypnocil (Freddy's pharmacological, dream-inhibiting Achilles' heel), there's an intentionally laughable scene like the town sheriff brushing a dozen crime scene photos into his desk drawer, sighing, and refusing to do anything useful.

The rest is a not-unpleasant morass of cozy slasher-flick familiarity: questionable acting, permanent soundstage settings (mental institutions, sheriff's stations, bedrooms, and showers), and the paraphernalia of the two franchises, including red-lit, labyrinthine boiler rooms and moonlit piers. Jason (here, stuntman Ken Kirzinger) mostly plays supporting actor to Freddy (typecasting victim Robert Englund, who hasn't had this much fun since, well, 1994's New Nightmare).

Jason's second banana-dom is as it should be, since Freddy's element of dream imagery (and, increasingly, wisecrackery) goosed even the dreariest of the Nightmare films, while Jason's faceless twitching has worn mighty thin after a half-score of bad movies. Besides, the Friday the 13th franchise--lucrative, but perhaps the Rodney Dangerfield of horror--could never shake the rightful impression that it was a cheap ripoff made from the parts of superior horror films.

The question of who wins is, of course, moot. Common sense dictates that the bets shall be hedged, though Yu is wise enough to provide a nominal answer to which killer is more badass in this particular head-to-head battle (the better to stage a rematch, my dear). Look, Freddy vs. Jason is not what I go to the movies for, but this is about as good as a Freddy-vs.-Jason movie is going to get, so who am I to complain? It's dumb enough for non-inititates to get (if dragged along) and clever enough for fans to relish.

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