As someone who saw Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan on its opening night of July 28th, 1989, I can tell you from first hand experience that the immediate reaction was not enthusiastic. Yes, it was quite the deflating night at the movies, save for the raucous response when V.C. Dupree as aspiring young boxer Julius got his head punched off his shoulders. Of course, you didn't have to be there to know that Friday Part VIII was a disappointment. Its reputation speaks for itself. But with fellow slasher icon Ghostface now set to take their own stab at the Big Apple, I think it's worth showing a little nostalgic appreciation for the flawed but fun Jason Takes Manhattan.
The major complaint with Manhattan, of course, was that despite the promise of the title and a marketing campaign that primed audiences to expect Jason to be rampaging his way through the streets of New York City, the Sultan of Slaughter spends most of Manhattan's running time on a boat. Had the movie been called something like Death Cruise or Blood Waters and the Manhattan aspect of the film had been a complete surprise to audiences, it might have gotten a better reception because the portion of the film that takes place on the SS Lazarus is satisfying, slickly made late '80s slasher fare. As long as you're able to put aside your (very legitimate) questions about how a cruise ship could get into the waters of Crystal Lake and how Crystal Lake somehow also opens up into the Atlantic Ocean and - most importantly - as long as you're not feeling increasingly impatient waiting for the movie to finally live up to its title, it's an ok movie. Writer/director Rob Hedden does a fine job, showing more flair than the typical Friday director with Manhattan being the most sharply directed Friday of the '80s after 1986's Jason Lives.
There's no way that a marketing campaign that promoted the concept of Jason on a boat could have possibly compared to Jason slashing his way through the iconic "I Love NY" poster. And in the end, even without being promoted as a New York movie, the reception probably wouldn't have been substantially different. Marginally better, maybe, slightly less aggrieved, but it's not like it would have been greeted as a masterpiece. It just would have gotten a little less grief upon its release.
I will say that I think had the ending to Manhattan been better, many fans would have been quicker to get over the lack of NYC action. Sure it sucked to have to wait (and wait...and wait...) for Jason to actually get to freaking New York but the real disappointment was having the climax be Jason being hit by a flood of toxic waste and somehow, in death, being transformed back into a child. This ending was so massively misconceived that I think it does far more damage to the movie than the interminable wait to get off the damn boat.
The failure of Manhattan's ending is especially galling given the fact that the perfect ending was right there. Jason gets hit by a wave of toxic shit - so just fucking have him dissolve into a puddle of goo. No need to overthink this shit. No need to get artsy with it. No need to put a creative spin on it.
Having toxic waste melt him down would have been a spectacularly disgusting way to take out Jason, a perfect opportunity to have a big practical FX moment in true '80s fashion and it would have been a death that was big enough to seem really final rather than just burying a machete in Jason's head. And if they had wanted to do another Friday, there's always a way to undo any slasher villain's death no matter how permanent it might look.
I believe that all (or at least most) of Manhattan's sins would have been forgiven had Hedden just resisted the urge to get clever with Jason's death. Over time, I've come to terms with Jason spending so much time on the Lazarus but I've never been able to justify that misfire of an ending. It is truly a self-inflicted wound on Hedden's part. Would have been so easy to avoid but oh well. It is what it is.
All these years later, I would say the initial disappointment that Manhattan was met with has been replaced with...less disappointment. It'll never turn into a great Friday but it's become easier to appreciate. What Manhattan has going for it now is nostalgia. Nostalgia for old school Jason, nostalgia for the NYC of the '80s, and nostalgia for a more innocent time for the horror genre. In 1989, Jason Takes Manhattan embodied everything that fans hated about where horror was at. It wasn’t gritty, wasn’t gory, and it damn sure wasn’t scary. You look at it now, though, and think "Man, I miss when horror movies were just fun."
In retrospect, Manhattan has a great pop sheen to it that is so late '80s. Even before the film arrives at the bright neon lights of New York, the ship bound action set on the Lazarus boasts a more colorful palette than any of the previous Fridays, complete with a disco dance floor (with a mirror ball!) for Jason to bust his moves on. I also love that Hedden had Jason straight up teleporting in this movie - not just having him get from place to place with no explanation but doing so in ways that are physically impossible, done with the faith that the Friday audience will see the fun in that. I much prefer this playful approach to the tired, literal minded thinking that compelled the makers of 2009's otherwise strong Friday remake to feel the audience needed to be told that it's because he uses a network of underground tunnels that Jason is able to mysteriously get ahead of his victims. Fuck that. Just have him pop up anywhere.
As limited as Jason's time in New York may be in Manhattan, the one shot that circles around Kane Hodder's Jason as he stands in the middle of Times Square remains one of the highlights of the franchise. Freddy may have surpassed him at the box office by that point but for those brief few seconds, Jason was king of the world. Say what you will about Jason Takes Manhattan but even if Jason never fully got into the New York groove, I appreciate the fact that Crystal Lake's favorite son got to close out the ‘80s with a rock star moment.