August 20, 2018
‘Freddy vs Jason’ is 15 Years Old and It’s Among the Last of Its Kind
This month marks the 15th anniversary of Freddy vs Jason, and if you’re even a mild horror fan you know the movie was a big damn deal. Not only is it the highest grossing entry in both the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, but it’s also the fourth highest-grossing slasher film ever (beaten only by the first three Scream films). It’s about more than mere box office, though, as the film was also one of the last real face-offs between genre icons. Freddy and Jason are permanent fixtures in pop culture, and while each have their own fans, the film brought them together in gory and glorious fashion for a big, fun brawl.
It’s a flawed but fun flick and we’ll get to more of it shortly, but its anniversary raises a serious-ish question. Where have all the “vs” movies gone? The short answer is to Full Moon Pictures and the Syfy Channel, but narrowing the field to big, name-brand horror characters reveals they’re something of a lost art these days. It hasn’t always been the case, obviously, and as with many things horror-related, Universal Pictures earns credit for getting that particular ball rolling.
The Earliest Clashes
Universal opened the spooky floodgates in 1931 with the release of Tod Browning’s Dracula, and the next several years saw big screen appearances from the monster in Frankenstein (1931) as well as The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Wolf Man (1941). The first crossover delighted audiences in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and while there’s no “vs” in the title, the two monsters don’t seem to know it (or care).
The film sees two punks open Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) grave looking for trinkets, but they revive the Wolf Man instead. Fools. Once again faced with the guilt of turning into a murderous monster with every full moon, Talbot goes looking for a cure and eventually winds up in Baron Frankenstein’s rundown castle. He finds Frankenstein’s monster frozen in ice and breaks him free, but after a brief period of bonding, the two revert to their monstrous ways and break out in a vicious brawl that only ends when they get washed away by rapidly moving flood waters.
House of Frankenstein (1944) followed, and while it opens with Dracula (an ill-fitting John Carradine) in the mix, he’s soon dispatched and replaced with the arrival of two other creatures. The ruins of Castle Frankenstein are discovered to once again house the frozen remains of the Monster, but this time Talbot is on ice with him. The pair are thawed out and Talbot once again seeks an answer in science for his affliction, but while fate is fickle, it’s also fiercely determined and it’s not long before Talbot returns to his murderous ways as the Wolf Man. He meets a more decisive end this time (ha, no) on the receiving end of a silver bullet, and the Monster walks into his own tomb as he sinks in quicksand.
The Ultimate Monster Mash
Like comic book movies of their time, Universal’s creature features had no loyalty towards a character’s death, so in 1945, all three monsters returned for House of Dracula. A scientist is on the hot seat as both Dracula (Carradine) and Talbot (Chaney Jr.) arrive separately in the hopes that he can cure their vampirism and lycanthropy, respectively, but chaos descends as expected. Talbot winds up in an underground cave where he discovers Frankenstein’s Monster sleeping one off, and soon enough all three are back on their grind. Dracula is killed (by sunlight, again), the Monster is crushed to death, and Talbot finally achieves his goal of a cure. As the most sympathetic of the monsters it’s a good call, and as the last of the official and serious films featuring the Wolf Man, it’s canon that Talbot beat the curse. Remember when horror movies could have happy endings without the need of a final stinger suggesting the evil threat survived?
The Universal gang met just once more in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – a misnomer, but what are you gonna do, it’s a 70-year-old movie – that sees the bumbling comedians cross paths with Dracula (Bela Lugosi, reprising the role for the first time since his 1931 debut as the Count), the Wolf Man (Chaney Jr.), and the Monster. The funnymen joke, trip, and act scared while the monsters once again go at each other’s throats, but it’s comedy that takes center stage tone-wise. It’s a fun time even if the best beat comes at the very end when an uncredited Vincent Price “appears” as the Invisible Man, giving the boys one last scare.
The comedy marked the end of an era both for certain Universal Monsters and the conceit of seeing two (or more) well-established creatures meet on the big screen in battle. The favorites had fallen out of favor with their comedic appearances being a last gasp of sorts, and while 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon delivered a new franchise beast, he was too late to make the ensemble cut. The ’50s saw the rise of less personable monsters – i.e. less human ones – and that added to the lack of crossover event films for the genre. I for one would have enjoyed a fight scene between the Wolf Man and the Blob, but c’est la vie.
Universal’s Failed Resurrection
Universal stayed out of the crossover game for decades after that, and it wasn’t until 2004 that they allowed another go at it. Director Stephen Sommers had delivered big returns with his reboot of The Mummy, and he repeated that feat with Van Helsing. The film opens with Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula in cahoots with plans to use the Monster for malicious purposes, but Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) isn’t having it. We see him dispatch Dr. Jekyll before being tasked by his boss at the Vatican to hunt and kill Dracula, who by this point has also teamed up with the Wolf Man. It may not have been a monster hit (not sorry), but it earned double its budget and should have landed a sequel, but it wasn’t to be.
Instead, after making the amateurish mistake of announcing their shared Dark Universe before the first film had even released, Universal unveiled The Mummy (2017) to unflattering results. It was meant to start a new era of Universal monster movie crossovers and featured Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) as a supporting player opposite Tom Cruise’s mummy hunter, but it was dead on arrival. Undead? Whatever. The Dark Universe never stood a chance.
Giant Monster vs. Giant Monster
While Universal left the business of monster fights and movie crossovers behind in the middle of the 20th century, another studio was ready to pick it up just a few short years later. Japan’s Toho introduced Godzilla in 1954, and after targeting humanity early on, the giant lizard soon aimed his aggression towards other mammoth beasts. King Kong vs Godzilla (1962) pit him against the infamous ape, Mothra vs Godzilla (1964) saw him spatting with a giant hippie moth, and Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster (1964) kept him busy with Mothra and Rodan.
All of them had previous standalone films before being incorporated into epic battles with Godzilla, but the fire-breathing reptile also fought plenty of giant creatures who only ever landed supporting player gigs. The stories only varied slightly and saw Godzilla wavering between threat, friend, and indifferent lizard when it came to his relationship with humanity, but these kinds of mash-ups became Toho’s calling card into the ’70s, ending with their 15th film Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). The studio took a 10-year break before returning with seven more city-smashing Godzilla features, and an additional seven have been released in the years since, culminating in 2016’s Shin Godzilla. The last to feature monster on monster action, though, was Godzilla: Final Wars (2004).
Which brings us roughly back to the U.S. and 2003’s Freddy vs Jason.
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