Friday the 13th (2009) **
In 1974, Tobe Hooper set in motion the six-year process that would define the American slasher movie in something approximating perpetuity with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Four years later, in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween refined the formula, shifting the emphasis, adjusting the proportions, and introducing— inadvertently for the most part— a whole new set of subtextual concerns. Finally, in 1980, two years after Carpenter, Victor Miller and Sean Cunningham put the finishing touches on the domestic model of slasher film, although at the time they entertained no higher hope for Friday the 13th than that it would duplicate Halloween’s profitability. Now hold the spacing of those dates in your mind, and flash forward to the beginning of the 21st century. In 2003, Michael Bay and Marcus Nispel helped expand the young decade’s burgeoning mania for remakes to encompass revised versions of significant 70’s and 80’s horror movies with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre of their own. Rob Zombie came along after a four-year interval with a new Halloween. And now, a further two years down the line, Bay and Nispel return with an updated Friday the 13th. The parallel is so precise that it would be almost eerie were it not for one thing. The original versions of these films were all trendsetters, collectively establishing the pattern for a whole decade of horror cinema. Of the remakes, however, only the first can lay claim to any inspirational authority, and it only in the sense of showing people with no ideas of their own where there was money to be made without any. The other two are mere trend-jumpers, bringing up the rear of a do-over gravy train that’s been rolling since about 1999.
We open on the night of June 13th, 1980— presumably a Friday— at Camp Crystal Lake. A female counselor (Stephanie Rhodes) is being chased through the woods in the pouring rain by a middle-aged woman (Nana Visitor, of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) whom you would take for a mild-mannered figure of soothing calm were it not for the great, big knife she’s carrying around. Cornering the girl on the bank of a flood-engorged stream, the woman begins blathering about how she “killed all the others,” and how this last counselor needs to be “punished” for what she did to somebody named Jason. Over the girl’s protests that she never did anything to anyone, the woman rambles on that Jason was her son and that the camp staff allowed him to drown. There’s one thing Jason’s mother has failed to appreciate, however, as she closes in on her prey. The girl is armed, too, with a machete of ludicrous size (seriously, this thing looks like a frigging Mughal talwar), and as Mom closes in for the kill, her intended victim swings her much more formidable weapon and cleanly severs the attacker’s head. The beleaguered counselor thus escapes her ordeal, but the whole confrontation was watched by a young boy— presumably the supposedly drowned Jason— who now takes up his mother’s locket and severed head, together with the counselor’s discarded machete, and slips unseen back into the woods.
29 years later, five youths hike out to the site of the long-abandoned campground in search of a secret marijuana crop that a friend of their ringleader, Wade (Jonathan Sadowski), told them about. The plan is to harvest this hidden pot plantation themselves, and sneak away with the produce before the rightful owners come back. When there’s no sign of the weed come sunset, the quintet decide to camp out for the night and resume the search the next morning, and Wade takes a moment while they’re all sitting around the campfire to recount a story he heard about Camp Crystal Lake and its environs. You know the one— lady went nuts, killed a bunch of counselors, got decapitated; now her son stalks the woods, killing anyone who dares to trespass upon his territory. It takes only an hour or two after that for the campers to separate into three smaller groups. Whitney (Amanda Righetti, from Return to the House on Haunted Hill and Angel Blade), worried about her cancer-stricken mother back home and maybe just a little spooked by Wade’s story, wants very badly to leave at once, but since the only leaving that’s really practical at the moment is to take a walk with her boyfriend, Mike (Nick Mennell, of The Lost Tribe and Rob Zombie’s Halloween), that’s just what she does. Ritchie (Cloverfield’s Ben Feldman) and Amanda (America Olivo, of Bloodwars and Bitch Slap), meanwhile, retreat to their tent to have sex. And when Wade himself wanders into the woods to take a piss, he discovers that he’s standing right beside the fabled pot plantation. Unfortunately for him, he’s also standing right beside an enormous man with a sack on his head, who promptly hacks him up with a familiarly gigantic machete. This, again, would be Jason, I expect. The killer proceeds to the kids’ campsite, where his prowling leads Amanda to send Ritchie out to educate Wade (for that’s who she assumes the prowler to be) on the inappropriateness of perving on his friends. Ritchie blunders into a leg-hold trap while Jason zips Amanda up in her sleeping bag, ties a rope around her legs, and hoists her up over the campfire to roast. While that’s going on, Whitney and Mike have found Jason’s lair in the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake, complete with Mom’s severed and preserved head mounted in a sort of makeshift shrine. They also find the dead woman’s locket, which contains cameos of both her and the pre-teen (and incredibly ugly) Jason, causing Mike to observe that the woman looks remarkably like Whitney, even though they bear each other no resemblance beyond a similarity of hair color. Don’t ask me why Jason would do this first, rather than sticking around to finish off Ritchie, but he returns home just in time to arrive immediately after the shrine comes to light. He kills Mike, but Whitney escapes to run back to the campsite— where she naturally receives no help at all. Jason pursues, delivers the inexplicably delayed coup-de-grace to Ritchie, and closes in on Whitney before the sudden cut to the main title display.
Another six weeks go by, and we’re introduced to yet a third cast of characters. Nauseating rich prick Trent (Travis Van Winkle, of Transformers and Left in Darkness) has brought his girlfriend, Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), and five of what I take to be her friends into the country for a stay at his father’s vacation house in the woods around Crystal Lake. Meanwhile, Clay Miller (Jared Padalecki, from Cry Wolf and House of Wax) also comes to town, searching for his missing little sister; maybe you remember her— pretty brunette, early 20’s, answers to the name of Whitney? Clay and the other kids cross paths at a convenience store where he’s negotiating for permission to hang up missing person flyers and they’re gassing up the Escalade and stocking up on munchies. Jenna pays enough attention to the conversation between Clay and the clerk to pick up on and sympathize with the guy’s mission, but Trent’s sole consideration is that Clay is holding up the line. What did I say? Nauseating… rich… prick. After leaving the store, Clay has words with a local cop (Richard Burgi, of Hostel, Part II and I Married a Monster), gets rebuffed by an old lady who is the closest thing this version has to a Crazy Ralph (latter-day John Waters regular Rosemary Knower), and makes a mostly fruitless attempt to get information out of a borderline-retarded handyman (Kyle Davis, from Resurrection Mary and the 2007 version of The Hitcher) at a nearby farm. The latter young man is in the habit of sneaking into the woods to partake of that marijuana growing out by the campsite, and thus it is that he becomes the first of Jason’s victims in this third segment. The junk scattered about the barn where the nitwit does most of his work also yields the inevitable hockey goalie’s mask to replace the killer’s flour sack, which gets irreparably torn during the struggle.
Meanwhile, the party at Trent’s place doesn’t take long to disintegrate under the force of the host’s obnoxiousness. Nolan (Death by Engagement’s Ryan Hansen) and Chelsea (Willa Ford, of Impulse) escape early, finagling the use of Trent’s truck to drive down to the lake at the price of a solemn promise not to so much as touch his powerboat. Under the circumstances, I believe we can forgive them for breaking that vow the very moment they arrive at the pier. Jenna goes off with Clay when his asking around brings him to the door of the vacation house, touching off another heated exchange between him and Trent. Chewie (Aaron Yoo) is banished to the toolshed (“Jesus— poor people call this a house!”) for supplies when he accidentally breaks a leg off of one of the chairs in a moment of canabistic buffoonery. Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta) tokes himself into oblivion in the den with Chewie’s Brobdingnagian bong. And Trent himself retires to the bedroom in company with Bree (Julianna Guill) to demonstrate what a faithful, upstanding boyfriend he really is (and what a faithful, upstanding friend Bree is, for that matter). In other words, the stage is now set for Jason to pick the partiers off, one and two at a time. There’s an unexpected wrinkle to what happens next, however, for Jason did not kill Whitney after all. Evidently he too detected the nonexistent similarity between her and his mother, and he’s had her locked up for the past month and a half in a warren of tunnels beneath Camp Crystal Lake. That gives us two possible final girls, together with a possible final boy. Place your bets, everybody…
I’ve developed a fascination of late with the sheer amount of creative energy that today’s Hollywood devotes to advancing the science and art of derivativeness. Consequently, the Nispel-Bay Friday the 13th interests me far more than its eminently modest merits would normally warrant, for it goes about its rehashing in a way that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. Anyone who is more than passingly acquainted with the 1980’s Friday the 13th series will recognize at once that the new version incorporates at least an element or two from every episode prior to Part VII: The New Blood. A New Beginning and Jason Lives contribute only the redneck halfwit and the concluding disposal of Jason’s body in Crystal Lake respectively, but the first four installments are mined quite extensively. This is more than just a composite remake, however, for Friday the 13th cycles through the compiled material in very nearly the same sequence as the several films that it recapitulates. Watching it is a lot like watching the first four films of the original series in fast-forward! A three-minute abridgement of Friday the 13th is followed by a 20-minute condensation of Friday the 13th, Part 2, and then the main body of the film incorporates The Final Chapter’s outsider on the hunt for a missing sister into the premise for Friday the 13th, Part 3. The difference, of course, is that this time the sister is alive to be found, and Clay does eventually make contact with her. Hell, the remake even duplicates the switch from bag-head Jason to hockey mask Jason at its analogue to the Part 2-Part 3 divide! What I find so remarkable in all this is what it says about why and for whom the new Friday the 13th was made. Historically, the rationale behind remakes has generally been to update a successful character or premise according to the tastes of a new generation of viewers with different expectations for what the movie-going experience should offer. But Friday the 13th doesn’t make any sense by that model. The old series didn’t finally come to an end until 2003, with Freddy vs. Jason, so it hardly seems like a reintroduction would be needed in the first place. Furthermore, the specificity with which ideas from the old movies are reused here suggests that the intended audience for the remake were those who had followed the series in its previous incarnation, and that these fans were assumed to want nothing more from a new Friday the 13th than an extended series of callbacks to its predecessors. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that someone who came to Bay and Nispel’s version in ignorance of the eleven films that it supposedly wipes from continuity would find the remake a somewhat confusing experience, like a clip-reel of highlights removed from their intended narrative context.
That insistence upon pandering to old fans is especially frustrating because it gets in the way of the remake doing anything interesting with the handful of original concepts that it introduces to the franchise. Not until Part VI did the old series begin developing anything like a coherent vision of who and what Jason Voorhees really was, and it chucked that vision enthusiastically overboard in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday, anyway. Consequently, the remake offered an open opportunity to redesign the killer from the ground up, to make Jason a character instead of just a really big guy with a mask and a machete, suitable to be played by any anonymous stuntman more than six feet tall. Writers Damien Shannon and Mark Swift (who also scripted Freddy vs. Jason) come very close to doing that, too, basically turning Jason into Madman Mars. Shannon and Swift envision the killer as an unhinged survivalist hermit who, having staked out his plot of territory outside the reach of modern society, now defends that territory with a combination of lethal force and craftsmanlike ingenuity. This Jason has a house. He has booby traps and crude early warning devices planted all over the forest. He has a Viet Cong-like tunnel network riddling the earth beneath the whole of Camp Crystal Lake, which implicitly explains his ability to pop up without warning just about anywhere he wants. He takes prisoners, even if only prisoners who supposedly resemble his mom. He has a fucking pot plantation! This is a Jason I want to get to know, because there’s actually something to him. But more often than not, this material gets short shrift because the remake is too busy giving nostalgia handjobs to people whom the old series ushered into adolescence, and sometimes the writers go so far as to allow their callbacks to undermine the new characterization. For example, there really isn’t much room in this revised Jason’s personality for the old Jason’s mother fixation— and there’s no room at all for his childlike elevation of Mom to the status of personal deity, liable to resurrect or reincarnate herself at any time— and yet here both of those things are nonetheless. The remake spends so much time hacking its way through the gang at Trent’s vacation house in the expected manner that there’s barely any left over for Whitney’s captivity, which, as the unexpected major departure from precedent, is the plot thread that really ought to be getting the attention. In relaunching a series that had never been especially good in the first place, Bay, Nispel, Shannon, and Swift had a more than fair chance of improving on the source material, but instead they let themselves get caught up covering the same old ground over again.