13 February 2009

THE KINDLY MR. VOORHEES

I had hoped that the new Friday the 13th would be up to the standards set by the same filmmakers' remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - it isn't - and that it would therefore be the finest entry in the Friday the 13th franchise - it isn't that, either. Where Michael Bay's production of the Marcus Nispel-directed TCM was significantly better than it had any reason whatsoever for being, their attempt at F13 is only just about as good as it absolutely has to be. Which is admittedly better than most of the densest sequels in the original run of films could claim.

Some reviewers of this new film, indulging in a kind of manic nostalgia, would have you believe that the biggest problem with Friday '09 is that it betrays the, I don't know, the cheap purity of the '80s films or some such. This is an intriguing approach if only because it is so dreadfully wrong: though some old-school slasher films meet that description just fine, the F13 movies had not a trace of honesty or purity in their bones. From head to tail, the series was desperate and tawdry, the most unashamed lowest-common-denominator cinema of an entire decade. Don't get me wrong, I love the Friday the 13th movies in my own way - even the unforgivable fifth film, A New Beginning, do I love - but not because they are at all good, nor because they wear their cheapness honorably, nor because they are effectively grim and powerful. They are among the gaudiest movies in their whole misbegotten subgenre, and only in flashes do even the best of them approach something like genuine dread.

That said, the biggest problem with the new film does indeed lie in its deviations from the standard template set in the hardiest stone by its predecessors, not because that template is so durable as all that, but because its so inflexible that attempting to smarten up the scenario, as screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (both of Freddy vs. Jason) do, ends with the insurmountable fact that smartness and slasher aren't really two s-words that belong in the same zip code.

We'll return to that. For now, the film itself: the new Friday opens with an exceptionally long pre-title sequence, even for a series given to lengthy openings, in which a group of five kids are going camping in the New Jersey woods. Scratch that, it begins on June 13, 1980, with hectically-cut black-and-white footage of Mrs. Pamela Voorhees (Nana Visitor, forever known to the geek set as Kira Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) re-enacting the finale of the original Friday in which she recalls how her deformed boy Jason drowned while the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake were preoccupied with screwing. Then we skip ahead 29 years, to find those five young people out in the woods, all of whom are given first names with admirable haste for a slasher movie: Mike (Nick Mennell) and his girlfriend Whitney (Amanda Righetti), Richie (Ben Feldman) and his girlfriend Amanda (America Olivo), and Wade (Jonathan Sadowski), single except for his GPS explaining where exactly they're going. Unbeknownst to everyone else, that "where" turns out to be a giant grove of marijuana bushed happily blooming in the middle of the forest, and Wade and Richie have come with the express purpose of reaping a fortune, nevermind the spooky stories they've all heard about the killer wot stalks these woods.

Ah! that they would have listened, and even more that they had not been engaged in stealing illegal drugs and having premarital sex! For while Whitney and Mike are out exploring the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake, finding an unabandoned house with creepy trinkets and Mrs. Voorhees's mummified head, the others run afoul of a certain man in a burlap bag (Jason is played this time by - quelle surprise - a stuntman, Derek Mears). He slaughters the lot of them in due manner, with Mike and Whitney returning right in time to get caught.

This opening sequence is perfect, in the very particular manner that any Friday the 13th might be perfect. My hope for the film had been that it would be 90 minutes of F13 boilerplate done up by genuinely good filmmakers - and yes, I will defend Marcus Nispel as quite a good director, and criminally under-utilised cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl is greater still. And this hope was wholly requited by those opening 15 or 20 minutes, which are wholly impoverished of imagination, save for the particularly nasty death meted out to Amanda, but are impeccably made even so, with Mears proving as capable a Jason as has ever graced the silver screen - as good a physical actor as Kane Hodder, but not so inexplicably gigantic. The filmmakers approach the matter of this opening with the solemnity of ritual theater, which is all that slasher movies are, really; and for those of us who aren't instantly turned off by the cheerful immorality of the subgenre (nor do I judge those who are), watching Nispel and company rework slasher tropes in a wholly new visual style is as bracing in its own way as it was to see Christopher Nolan make a realistic version of Batman.

That part of the film never, ever goes away, and while the new Jason is therefore not quite like the old Jason, I find that I like him very, very much; I like the way Nispel handles the gore; and I like how very much of the movie plays as a variation on the them of Friday the 13th rather than a simple remake. But problems crop up, and they ultimately come close to wrecking the whole edifice. The plot proper kicks in when Trent (Travis Van Winkle) brings several of his friends to his folks' fancy-ass cabin on Crystal Lake: his stereotypically Final Girl girlfriend Jenna (Danielle Panabaker); Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta), the token black kid; Chewie (Aaron Yoo), who like to drink and be gross; Nolan (Ryan Hansen) and Chelsea (Willa Ford) who are horny and die; and Bree (Julianna Guill), who I swear to God wasn't in the first couple of scenes until she just sort of appears and flashes her eyes and boobs at Trent. Jenna, knowing that she is many tiers of humanity better than everyone else, agrees to go off with Clay (Jared Padalecki) to help find his missing sister - none other than Whitney from the opening sequence, as it happens.

The main part of the film plays like a medley of Part 2, Part 3 and The Final Chapter (AKA Part 4) and this much about it I found agreeable. It bears repeating: as long as the film stays safely within the bounds of revising the ancient elements of the series with newer, better eyes, it's fascinating and even decent. The problem comes when the film starts to bog itself down in the hints of a backstory. This is a more human Jason, which is great during the killing sequences (he seems to be a surmountable threat, and so there's actually a whisper of tension), but strange and weird when it comes to establishing how a grown man with the intelligence of a child lives and kills in the woods around Crystal Lake. I shouldn't wish to bore you all with a point-by-point retelling of all the little things that point to a Jason-myth that we're not entirely privy to, but it's horribly distracting, and not brought to any kind of reasonable conclusion. One of two things ought to have happened: either those hints should have been kept out entirely, leaving the Jason of history, a killer who kills because that is what he does; or that backstory should have been highlighted, used in a meaningful way rather than keep pointing out that, this Jason, there's something about him that's mysterious. I can't help but feel as though the filmmakers didn't exactly want to make a Friday the 13th movie, so they kept dropping hints about a deeper plot than just "teens that fuck, drink, and smoke, they gonna die". Which is fine and all, but it is a Friday the 13th movie, and if you want to reinvent the wheel, reinvent it. Don't just say, "there's a strange wheel deep in the woods", and not expect the audience to be a bit pissed off at how much wheel psychology was left on the cutting-room floor.

6/10

Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

3 comments:

Josh Elder said...

Testify!

One direction or the other, Tim. They tried to have it both ways and they just couldn't.

Still, it was pretty damn entertaining for all that.

javi75 said...

"I will defend Marcus Nispel as quite a good director"

Have you watched "Pathfinder"? Maybe you're blaming the script for that one?

Villain612 said...

Of all the 3 big franchises (Friday, Halloween, Nightmare) - this was the best remake of the bunch. Its not great, but its not bad either. I'd put it at about the 4th best entry in the series.

One thing I will credit this remake for is that the filmmakers understood why the original Friday series worked, and they delivered that for the fans, unlike Rob Zombie who didn't understand what made Halloween effective, which is why his remake doesn't register.

My only real qualm with the film was the hostage taking scenario. It was dumb and completely antithetical to the character of Jason Voorhees.