Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday the 13th: This Review is Not a Remake

Friday the 13th (2009)
Director: Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake)
Producer: Michael Bay (he's very rich, because there is no God)
Writers: Hah!

Jared Padelecki (on some show called Supernatural)
Derek Mears (this dude is scary-looking without the hockey mask)
And bunch of "actors" picked out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog

Marcus Nispel is a director of limited ability. I suppose he's directed enough commercials and music videos so that he understands the basics of filmmaking. What he lacks is any real vision or ambition to do anything beyond delivering a competent entertainment product on time. His limitations were readily apparent in the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The original was as much dark satire as it was horror, and its grainy film school quality gave it the illusion of authenticity. Nispel's remake was a slick, thoughtless mess that failed to capture anything that made the original film so memorable.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the remake of Friday the 13th is really good. Now don't get me wrong: it isn't actually good. It's dumb, and sleazy, and completely dependent on the conventions which drive the slasher genre. What makes it so good is that it's unapologetically dumb, and sleazy, and revels in the conventions of the slasher genre. Nispel is a director who prefers making cookie-cutter films, and Friday the 13th is the granddaddy of cookie-cutter slasher films. It's a match made in heaven, if heaven were filled with death, tits, and pot.

I'm going to spoil the entire movie for you:
Teenagers come to Crystal Lake to smoke pot and have sex. Jason kills them. 6 months later ... another group of teenagers comes to Crystal Lake. Jason kills them.

Actually, there's a tiny bit more going on, but Nispel wisely doesn't waste much time on backstory. The opening 5 minutes essentially recap the events of the original Friday the 13th, where the killer turned out to be (spoiler alert!) Jason's mother. Jason was a deformed, retarded child who apparently drowned at Camp Crystal Lake in 1980. Mom went berserk and started killing the camp counselors, but she got decapitated by the Final Girl. Jason, who apparently hadn't drowned and was living in the woods as a wild child (why not?), witnessed his mother's death and vowed vengeance on all sexy co-eds.

Skipping ahead to the present, a bunch of teens wander into the woods surrounding Crystal Lake looking for their secret marijuana field. The original Friday the 13th had a rather conservative morality that punished teens for drug use and sexual promiscuity. The remake is clearly self-aware enough to toy with the nonsensical connection between weed, sex, and death, but it never makes the vain attempt to rise above its source material. After Jason does his thing, the film jumps ahead 6 months, and another group of teens heads up to a lake cabin for some good clean fun, which includes topless wakeboarding. This group is also slightly more diverse, as it includes the Token Black and the Token Asian (spoiler: of course they both die horribly). At the same time, Jared Padelecki is driving around Crystal Lake looking for his missing sister, who was part of the first set of ill-fated teens.

A major part of producing a decent slasher flick is finding the right balance between sympathetic victims and thrilling kills. If the victims are too sympathetic, then the movie starts to feel unpleasant, or worse, so much focus on the cannon fodder makes the movie dull. But if the victims aren't sympathetic at all, then the movie can't deliver any of the cheap thrills that the audience expects. By sticking closely to formula, Nispel and company avoid the extremes. The teens are all stock characters, so it's easy to tell who to root for: there's the preppy jerk, the cool slacker, the stoner, the slut, the good girl. The characters are amusing enough, but they're never so sympathetic that you don't want to see how Jason offs them.

And Jason does off them in some creative ways. While the machete remains the weapon of choice, Jason also uses axes, screw drivers, fire pokers, bow and arrows, bear traps, wall-mounted antlers, and death-by-campfire.

Halfway into the final act, it became clear that Friday the 13th is not so much a horror film as a sadistic comedy. The audience I went to see it with laughed and cheered more often than the audiences I was with when I saw Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Far more than any mere superhero, Jason truly is the ultimate empowerment fantasy. Stripped of any pretense of morality, Jason gets to indulge his most violent impulses, and the audience gets to indulge in vicarious sadism. As creepy as it is to say, there's some part of our (or at least my) primordial ape brain that finds this violent fantasy to be a lot more entertaining than entitled billionaires pontificating about social responsibility.

On one last note, having blogged about Doomsday recently, here's another movie where the lasting influence of 28 Days Later is evident. That film threw out the hoary, old convention of the shuffling zombie and introduced the fast zombie. In the original Friday the 13th franchise, Jason may not have been a zombie (at first), but he always managed to catch his victims despite never moving faster than a brisk walk. Remake Jason runs after people like Usain Bolt with a machete. With a hulk like Derek Mears behind the mask, the visual is startlingly effective.

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