Saturday, June 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Friday the 13th (2009)

Although I've objected vociferously to some horror film remakes in the past, I can't say that I had any real strong issues with a remake of Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980 - 1993) mythos. This may simply because several entries in the durable slasher franchise are already remakes of the very same story.

That story goes something like this: Young, irresponsible adults go to Camp Crystal Lake, even though they are warned not to (by the town drunk.) Once there, they smoke weed. They have pre-marital sex. Storm rolls in. Killer rolls in (usually with machete). Killer hacks up all but one of the youngsters, in inventive, gory fashion.

Rinse and repeat.

Now, of course, there are variations on that theme. The killer was Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th; Jason in Part II, and a Jason impostor in Part V: A New Beginning. Camp Crystal Lake was closed (Friday the 13th), turned into a camp for training counselors (Part II), then re-named and re-opened (Part VI), and so forth.

But basically, you always knew that you were going to get your money's worth with the original Friday the 13 films. You'd get to see all the stock high-school characters again: the jock, the bitch, the geek/nerd/stoner and the Final Girl, who would battle it out heroically with the invincible killer. You'd get the conservative vice-precedes-slice-and-dice paradigm (moral transgression results in bloody demise...), the sting in the tail/tale (the surprise ending as the killer pops up ONE LAST TIME!), and the coup de grace (the gory, over-the-top death scene).


In some ways, the original films benefited from low expectations too. By slavishly repeating essentially the same tale (and same stock characters...) time in and time out, fans were conditioned not to expect anything utterly original or terribly surprising. And yet, some of the original films did manage to carve out unique territory, usually through gimmickry like 3-D, a humorous, self-mocking slant (Jason Lives!), or even the surprise addition of the supernatural (The New Blood),

But a contemporary remake of the Friday the 13th mythos promised, among other potential glories, the chance to stitch together something better and more cohesive than the lumpy, patch-work continuity of the scattershot Friday the 13th films. Those old movies swerved merrily from narrative contradiction to narrative contradiction (Jason was revenging his dead mother, who had been revenging her dead son, Jason...). Those movies took three entries to establish the iconic look for Jason (the hockey mask). In the later years, those movies even veered like a drunken sailor from Toronto...I mean Manhattan, to the depths of outer space, and on and on. By the 1990s, and the body-hopping Jason Goes To Hell, the whiff of desperation and creative exhaustion was all over the Friday the 13th movies.

With benefit of almost thirty years of reflection, a good remaker was in the enviable position to stand back, analyze, and then adopt all that was good about the Friday the 13th film series while discarding the bad and the stupid. So it seemed to me like a "remake" might really be that rare thing in the re-imagination sweepstakes: a win-win.

Also, I was buoyed when I read that Marcus Nispel was directing this new Friday the 13th movie. I admired and appreciated his Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake (2003) for what it was -- a gruesomely effective scare machine -- rather than what it wasn't (a brilliant and mad work of art, like Tobe Hooper's classic original). Nispel's re-imagination had charismatic Lee Ermey in a deranged, villainous role, and staked out some original territory that seemed to honor the slaughterhouse spirit of Hooper and Henkel's masterpiece.

So I guess I'm just doubly disappointed that the new Friday the 13th movie is such...dead weight. It's a lethargic, by-the-numbers effort entirely lacking in either suspense or scares. Whenever the young adult protagonists are on screen, the film drags and dips to a mind-numbing flat line. Only during the kill sequences, ironically, does this remake come to life even in the most modest sense. Unlike Nispel's Chainsaw, there's not the slightest atmosphere of dread or inevitability in this picture. On the contrary, Jason does not seem particularly menacing or superhuman. He's brutal and quick (too much caffeine, maybe?) but not terrifying. Even the final subterranean chase sequence lacks intensity. This film just has no...spirit.

It's not that I was expecting Shakespeare, either.

I was not expecting the characters to be believable or identifiable people, and indeed they aren't. They are the same high school stereotypes writ large that have always populated these Friday films, given to endless drinking games and topless water sports. A mean bitch screws her best friend's boyfriend without a second thought; rich jocks believe that they're better than everyone else by reason of family legacy and wealth; and harmless "supporting" minorities (Asians and Blacks) smoke weed and dream about screwing the rich kid's girl before wandering face first into buzz-saws, screw-drivers or other destructive implements.

And I'm okay with that.

Nor was I expecting a deep social context beyond the conservative transgression results in retribution chestnut, and indeed, there isn't one here. Bad, immoral behavior indeed results in skewering, impaling, arrows-through-the-head and so on. The stuck-up Jock gets what's coming to him. So does the boyfriend-stealing bitch.

And I'm okay with that too.

It's not that I wanted something original or new in Nispel's film, and indeed, there's nothing original or new here. Instead, Nispel ransacks the best of the Friday the 13th lineage for the most effective imagery and storyline. He repeats the Jason bursting-through-window-shot from the climax of Part II, and the Jason-jumps-out-of-the-water jolt from the 1980 original. He repeats Jason's Mother Fixation from Part II, the Mrs. Voorhees decapitation from the 1980 film, and he even sort of revives the Jason-hunter/sister-seeker character from The Final Chapter. We also get to see the potato sack replaced by the hockey mask, as we did in Part 3D.

And I'm absolutely okay with all that too. Again, I expected a clever director to plunder and re-purpose the best moments of the previous ten films and incorporate them into this "unifying" tale of Jason. Why else remake Friday the 13th?

But what I'm not okay with, I suppose, is the fact that this entire enterprise appears to lack enthusiasm, energy, zeal and pace. What I'm saying is that I just wanted to feel..excitement. The rush of adrenaline. A little surge of fear generated by the fact that a fast-moving, machete-armed titan is pursuing some nubile young flesh in the dark woods.

But this film, much like Zombie's Halloween (2007), can't seem to function on the fundamental, most important basis of any slasher film: It simply does not frighten. It doesn't arouse or animate. At least in the case of Zombie's film, the remake narrative had something to offer in substitution for scares (Loomis's tabloid agenda; an exploration of Michael's white-trash background; etc.). Not exactly a fair trade, but at least the movie wasn't sleep-inducing. By comparison, Friday the 13th's narrative is a colossal dead zone. This 2009 film eats up time, but squanders it. It is brutal, but not bruising.

The thrill, alas, is gone.

And that's the one ingredient I hoped this remake would retain. An acknowledgment that the sturdy slasher form -- for all its ritualistic repetition -- can still eke out a few simple scares, still galvanize the blood. With the right director at the helm, our blood -- and Jason's blood - could surely pump anew, could surely be stirred. After all, these modern campfire stories survive for a reason: they speak trenchantly to our fear of the dark woods; to our subconscious need in a "safe" law-enforced society to face down predators; even to our belief that those who transgress against us will pay for their wrongs. And that those who are resourceful, brave, and moral will survive and endure. Even in the face of True Evil.

But this film just seems closed off to all such possibilities. You won't find any stimulation here. You won't find any fear here. You won't find anything to trouble your slumber, or make you fear a hike in the woods alone. The flaccid Friday the 13th makes me want to suggest a new, Horror/Hippocratic Oath for Remakers: First, Make Your Movie Scary. After that, genuflect, pay tribute, innovate, or surprise till the cows come home. But first, Do Our Psyches Harm. Scare us. Rattle us. Please...

In the final analysis, there are only two significant ways in which this Friday the 13th updates the franchise mythos for the twenty-first century. First, genuflecting to a cinematic epoch in which commerce is more important than entertainment, the discussion around a creepy campfire here focuses not so much on Jason and his legend, but rather on explicit product placement and beer brands. (Heineken of Pabst?)

And secondly, the very first breasts unveiled on screen...are fake. They are ugly, unnatural breasts, as egregiously phony, enhanced, and artificial as Jason's mongoloid-al make-up.

I remember the days when the tits were real, and so was the titillation.

5 comments:

  1. That really is sad to hear. I had been honestly hoping for more. I came to the series somewhat late, but did at least have the pleasure of viewing parts VII & VIII in theatre. Even that late in the game, I found the crowd jumping in their seats, being engaged and involved, and having the good time of going to see a familiar friend and get the blood pumping. So I suppose it's disappointing to hear that what was in the ground essentially hasn't left. Still - as ever, I appreciate the thoughtful and thorough look.

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  2. Dammit, this is the review I've been trying to write for the past two weeks. Curse you, Muir!

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  3. Hey guys! Thanks for the comments -- and curses! :)

    You know, F13 had a pretty low-threshold for success...and still fell short. There wasn't even one good "jump scare" in the movie.

    The whole thing feels like it was made on auto-pilot; and I didn't sense any real love for Jason, his universe, the franchise, or even the genre in this Nispel film.

    And that bums me out to no end.

    best,
    JKM

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  4. I am glad you mentioned the fake boobage. :-) Honestly, though, that was a symptom of a greater problem I had with this movie. That sex scene in the tent was just a few pubes shy of a porno, IMO, and did not have the healthy attitude of normal kids making out on a camping trip that is so essential to caring whether they get killed at all.

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  5. I agree with you, Kim.

    Exhilaration was missing, but so was a sense of fun. It seems ridiculous to term the original Friday the 13th films "innocent," but there WAS something almost innocent about them.

    This new film is slick and cynical, though it just may be the times. The sex film late in the film just made me think -- wow -- so all young women are whores now. Okay...

    Is that just the movie, or is that our world?

    JKM

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