20 Years Ago: Jason Voorhees Gets Stranded in Space in ‘Jason X’
It’s long been a cliche that, when a horror franchise runs out of ideas, someone suggests shooting it into outer space. (Horror sequels run through their potential as quickly as their central antagonists run through nubile teens.) Hellraiser did it in 1996, and Leprechaun followed in 1997. So it’s only natural that venerable film slasher Jason Voorhees would take the giant leap into space in 2001’s Jason X.
You can’t blame him. The long-running series’ previous installment, 1993’s New Line film Jason Goes to Hell, had been a financial flop, earning just a hair more than the final Paramount entry, 1989’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. As seen in their titles, the franchise had already abandoned the original Camp Crystal Lake area in a quest to jolt Jason’s bloody antics from the rut they were most definitely in.
With Sean S. Cunningham, director and producer of the original Friday the 13th, reacquiring the rights to Jason (although not the Friday the 13th name) after the financial and critical bomb that was Jason’s foray into a very Canadian-looking New York City, Jason Goes to Hell similarly underwhelmed. Learning nothing from the audience's outrage at the “fake Jason” reveal in 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Cunningham’s first New Line Jason movie, Jason Goes to Hell, saw the hockey-masked killer being killed off, only for his slimy, wormlike soul to possess a disposable roster of wan replacements.
Still, Cunningham knew he had one surefire moneymaker in his pocket, in the form of a team-up between Jason and Freddy Krueger. Plans for a killer vs. killer extravaganza had been in the works since as early as 1987, with the various script and licensing issues repeatedly leaving the proposed film in development hell. Jason Goes to Hell all but guaranteed New Line (now owners of both Jason and Freddy) were revving up to finally make the clash of the cult characters happen, as the defeated Jason’s mask is seen, at the end of the film, being dragged into hell by Freddy’s razor-gloved hand.
Unfortunately for the impatient Cunningham, Freddy vs. Jason wouldn’t get made for another 10 years, leaving the producer fretting about allowing Jason Voorhees’ profile to fade into the public consciousness. It’s from such business-minded quandaries, however, that ingenious — or at least novel — solutions are born. So, to keep Jason alive (as a commercial entity, if nothing else), Jason X sent the formerly woods-dwelling serial killer into the void of space.
Jason X’s setup sees the captured Jason (Kane Hodder, in his fourth and final big-screen outing as the character) chained in the shiny and undermanned Crystal Lake Research Facility, as Jason’s bloody exploits had turned the formerly sleepy little children’s camp into a hotbed of scientific study.
Escaping to murder everyone in sight, Jason is eventually foiled by lead doctor Rowan (Lexa Doig) with a handy cryogenic chamber, but not before the quickly frosting Jason manages to thrust his handy machete right through the metal of the enclosure. Dying, Rowan sees the room sealing itself off, freezing both her and Jason for, as it turns out, the next 400 or so years. That’s when a cross-planet field trip of science students, led by Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts), breaches the room in the year 2455. Our Earth having been made uninhabitable in the intervening centuries, the researchers are visiting from humanity’s new home of Earth 2, digging through the remnants of our civilization. Excited at the sight of two preserved, 21st-century humans, the crew brings both Rowan and Jason back, Rowan to be revived with 25th-century nanobots and the presumed very dead Jason to be studied.
The crew of the ship (named The Grendel, for added ominousness) is a mishmash of sci-fi references and traditional Friday the 13th machete bait. There’s a cadre of space marines straight out of Aliens, a helpful android named Kay-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder, who went on to star in the Canadian-produced sci-fi series Andromeda, alongside Doig) and the students are a gaggle of horny dummies, whose post-mission sexcapades are explicitly shown as the impetus for the defrosting and gooey Jason to rise from his slumber. Meanwhile, Lowe is shown to be a money-hungry plunderer of Earth 1 artifacts, who, learning Jason’s historical significance when not engaging in kinky and inappropriate sex with a student, all but ensures that Jason’s body count will continue to climb in this brave, vaguely sci-fi-looking new world.
Watch the 'Jason X' Trailer
Helming Jason X is the late Jim Isaac, long an associate of Canadian horror master David Cronenberg, who accepted a cameo role at the beginning of the film. (In the DVD commentary, Isaac claims that Cronenberg insisted that his officious bureaucrat die horribly and wrote his character’s inimitably Cronenberg-ian line, “I want him soft,” when denying Rowan’s request to have Jason frozen.) Isaac, who died at 51 in 2012, reveals himself to be admirably forthright concerning the commercial and narrative requirements of the project. Repeatedly noting that whatever power Jason had to inspire terror had long waned through familiarity and Jason’s “one-note” nature, the director packs Jason X - which was released on April 26, 2002 - with as many distinctive and gory methods of crowd-pleasing deaths as a futuristic spacecraft can provide.
Here, Jason smashes one woman’s head into bloody chunks after dunking her into a handy vat of liquid nitrogen, tosses a soldier onto an enormous and expectant space drill (the victim slowly twirls down along the screw mechanism) and causes one unlucky young woman to be excruciatingly pulled inside out through explosive hull decompression.
Further signaling the creative team’s dedication to camp in Jason’s adventures in space, Jason X is just as filled with Freddy-like post-kill quips. (An unimpressed Roger Ebert quoted the aforementioned victim’s pre-vacuum complaint, “This sucks on so many levels!,” in his predictably scathing review.)
The film’s big third-act twist (thoroughly spoiled by the marketing, including the movie’s poster) is that, after being soundly defeated by an upgraded Kay-Em, Jason is carelessly brought back to life by those nanobots, resulting in a souped-up, metal-masked form referred to by fans as “Uber-Jason.” From there, it’s a very Alien-like scramble to blow up the hurtling Grendel and its resident monster by the few remaining crew, with Jason’s rampage ultimately destroying an entire space station in a fiery collision that, according to the director, adds some 20,000 casualties to Jason’s kill total.
Throwing in some Star Trek: The Next Generation to the mix, there’s even a holodeck scene, where, to slow the hulking neo-Jason down, he’s sent into a reprogrammed approximation of Camp Crystal Lake, obligingly dimwitted and very topless coeds and all. Leaving aside the fact that nobody in the future could know enough about Jason’s old stomping grounds and feelings about skinny-dipping campers, the gratuitous T&A aspect (casting director Robin Cook reportedly refused to cast the young women who wound up in the scene) stands out as emblematic of the franchise’s checklist approach to exploitation cinema.
In the end, there’s the most halfhearted attempt at suggesting an Earth 2 continuation of Jason’s career. (Burning up in the planet’s atmosphere, Jason’s metal mask sinks to the bottom of a waiting lake, while some requisite teens set out to examine the splash.) But Freddy vs. Jason quickly relegated the underperforming and widely derided Jason X to a forgettable footnote. Jason X ultimately sat on New Line’s shelves for two full years, after the ousting of New Line executive Michael De Luca, leaving this Jason without his main studio champion.
And with even the decent box office of Freddy vs. Jason failing to reignite public enthusiasm for a continuation of the old timeline, Friday the 13th was eventually rebooted in 2009 with an all-new Jason and a do-over continuity that looks to leave Jason X out there in the void where all ill-advised stunt concepts are left to drift.