By the end of the 1980s the slasher film had all but run its course. Whilst franchises such as Halloween, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp and A Nightmare on Elm Street had struggled to keep the interest of their fans, other lesser efforts like Offerings, Intruder and The Horror Show (aka House III) had failed to reignite the cycle. The horror genre itself was losing popularity; no longer was sleaze and gore a box office draw, instead cinemagoers were spending money on psychological thrillers like Fatal Attraction, The Stepfather and, a couple of years later, The Silence of the Lambs. It had been almost a decade since Jason Voorhees had first entered popular culture and for several years Friday the 13th dominated the genre, but recycled ideas, overzealous censors and poor box office returns would cause the slasher’s most beloved franchise to run aground.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood had done little to prove to Paramount that the series was still a success and soon the studio began to give serious thought to killing off Jason once and for all. They had tried this once before with 1984′s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter but, at that time, the franchise was still making money. But now, five years later, the generation that had flocked to see the first movie had grown up and the kids of 1989 had little interest in horror clichés and such a one-dimensional character. Even as The New Blood earned a modest amount at the box office (although far less than its predecessors), the producers began to discuss potential ideas for the next sequel, with both director John Carl Buechler and actress Lar Park Lincoln pitching concepts that would carry on the story of Part VII‘s disturbed heroine, Tina. Eventually it was decided that the series had run its course and the eighth movie would be the last.
In late 1987, Friday the 13th: The Series made its debut on American television and, despite its suggestive title, had no relation to the movie franchise. The show would, however, feature contributions from several directors who had already carved a name for themselves within the horror genre: these would include slasher veterans Tom McLoughlin (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) and Armand Mastroianni (He Knows You’re Alone). One director who would get his big break through the show would be Rob Hedden, a young enthusiast who had previously worked as a writer for Paramount on MacGyver and had been offered the chance to pen an episode of Friday the 13th: The Series. On the condition that he could also direct, Hedden was eventually brought onto the show and was given the opportunity to helm two episodes, The Electrocutioner and 13 O’Clock, which would appear in the first and second season, respectively. Whilst filming the latter, Hedden was visited by Frank Mancuso Sr., the head of Paramount whose son, Frank Mancuso Jr., had nurtured the Friday the 13th movies since the first sequel and was looking for a filmmaker to both write and direct the eighth installment.
Although Hedden had worked on the TV show he had little knowledge of the movie franchise and so immediately watched the previous seven films to familiarise himself with the formula and mythology. Soon after he found himself in Mancuso Jr.’s office pitching his concept and it became apparent that the producers were concerned that New Line’s A Nightmare on Elm Street had begun to steal their thunder (1988′s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master had grossed over $49m, whilst The New Blood had managed just $19m) and would demand something a little different from their new director. Hedden decided to introduce a new supernatural element to the story, in which Jason would appear to the heroine like a ghost, whilst also moving the action from Crystal Lake to New York City. Mancuso Jr. immediately sensed the potential of Jason embarking on a killing spree around the Big Apple and Hedden began to suggest possible locations: Madison Square Gardens, Broadway, Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge and even the Statue of Liberty. But before long Paramount grew concerned that the concept could inflate the budget and decided to cut back on many of Hedden’s ideas.
Initially, New York was to be introduced at the end of the first act, but Hedden was then instructed to base the first half of his script on a cruise ship, and finally – when the overall budget was calculated at $4m – he was told he would only get one week to shoot in New York. To save cost, the producers decided that Vancouver in British Columbia would make an ideal substitute and so Mancuso Jr. contacted Randolph Cheveldave, whom he had worked with a few years earlier on the slasher comedy April Fool’s Day. Cheveldave had worked for Mancuso Jr. as a production manager and the two had become friends and, with Mancuso Jr. tied up with the thriller Internal Affairs, he offered Cheveldave the chance to produce Friday the 13th Part VIII. Hedden, who at that time was relatively inexperienced and unable to debate with a major studio, was forced to deal with the changes suggested by the producers and rewrote his script accordingly. The final draft saw a graduating high school class embarking on a cruise onboard the SS Lazarus from Crystal Lake to New York but are picked off one-by-one by Jason, before a handful of survivors escape into the city.
Although the previous four Friday the 13th movies had featured the obligatory blonde heroine, Hedden was determined to cast against type for the role of his ‘final girl,’ Rennie. Amongst the young hopefuls to read for the part were Dedee Pfeiffer (The Horror Show), whose older sister, Michelle, had enjoyed minor success with Grease 2, Scarface and Tequila Sunrise, and Elizabeth Berkley, whose subsequent career would include the hit show Saved by the Bell and the notorious flop Showgirls. Jensen Daggett, who would eventually win the role, had come from an acting background and had pursued theatre in high school, before relocating to Hollywood at the age of eighteen. For her audition, Daggett was required to perform a ‘scream test’ in order to prove that she could deliver the goods during the film’s more tense moments. Hedden would be pressured by the studio to have his lead strip for the movie but Daggett refused and, unable to even convince her to appear topless in a scene, eventually stopped asking.
At this point, no actor had wanted to or had been given the chance to play the character of Jason more than once. Jason Lives‘ C.J. Graham had initially been considered to return for The New Blood but the director, Buechler, had insisted on casting actor/stuntman Kane Hodder, whom he had previously worked with on the flick Prison. Hedden was offered the chance to recast the role and the producers had considered a Canadian stuntman for budgetary reasons, but Hedden had been impressed by Hodder’s turn as Jason and fought to have him return to the role. The supporting cast would be primarily made up of fresh young talent who would enjoy various degrees of success in their subsequent careers: these would include Kelly Hu (The Scorpion King), Martin Cummins (Dark Angel), Scott Reeves (The Young and the Restless) and Gordon Currie (Beverly Hills, 90210). Scott Reeves, who would play the male lead, had not been the first choice for the role of the heroic Sean but had been brought in early in the shoot after the actor originally cast was replaced.
Just prior to principal photography, the boat that the production were to use for the majority of the shoot was taken away due to scheduling conflicts and the producers were forced to find a replacement as soon as possible. Filming took place early in 1989 in Britannia, a small town thirty kilometers north of Vancouver for approximately seven weeks, before relocating to New York City for one week. Daggett was not the only actress that the studio wanted to feature naked in the movie, something that they felt their core audience demanded. Sharlene Martin, who would play the obligatory bitch Tamara, is killed by Jason whilst showering and the producers were eager for some T&A. Martin, far removed from her obnoxious character, was uncomfortable about peeling off her clothes but Hedden, who wanted his cast to be at ease during the shoot, stripped off and stepped into the shower to show her how easy it was. Unknown to Hedden, director of photography Bryan England had left the camera rolling and when the producers saw the next set of diallies they were shocked to see their director standing naked.
To recreate New York in Vancouver, Hedden and his crew worked overtime by transforming abandoned tunnels under the city into a subway, laying down tracks and building a fake subway car. For the climax, in which the sewers are flushed out with toxic waste, the production moved to the gymnasium of an old school, in which they constructed large tanks that held 5,000 gallons of water that could be released easily. There was one sequence that could not be shot in Vancouver: Rennie and Sean trying to escape from Jason by running through Times Square. But when Hodder stepped out into the street he was greeted by thousands of die hard fans who were shocked to see their hero loose in New York. Mancuso Jr. had allocated the production a further $25,000 to film for seven days in New York and the hype that surrounded Jason’s surprise appearance helped to generate a buzz around the movie. One aspect of the film that fans were less than impressed with was the ending, in which Jason drowns in the toxic waste and reverts back to a scared young boy, something that even Hodder felt was an anticlimax.
The editing would be handled by Steve Mirkovich, who had previously collaborated with John Carpenter on Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness. Mirkovich’s son, Timothy Burr, had been brought on the set for several weeks in Vancouver when the actor hired to play Jason as a boy was unable to cope with the various underwater scenes. Resident composer Harry Manfredini had been replaced by Fred Mollin, whom he had shared credit with on The New Blood and had scored the TV series. The original cut of Jason Takes Manhattan came in at just over two hours, forcing Hedden to remove much of the dialogue and character scenes, instead focusing on the action and suspense. The movie was released by Paramount on July 28th 1989 and would earn just $14.3m at the US box office, whilst critics were quick to point out that, despite the film’s title, very little of the movie actually takes place in New York, with the Washington Post stating: “The on-screen body count is 19 and Jason Vorhees doesn’t even get to New York until the last 20 minutes of Friday the 13th: Part VIII – Jason Takes Manhattan.”