Friday the 13th Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

    Friday the 13th Review

    First things first, with this BD release we get both the theatrical cut and an extended cut of the movie presented together on the same disc, but don't go thinking that the longer version is unrated, as it turns out that both takes are rated R. But, the longer cut is most definitely the better one, as it details several new sequences that, against all the odds, actually do add some much-needed tension and suspense ... well, a little bit, anyway.

    There will be no movie quotes in this one, folks ... as there isn't one line of dialogue in this film that is worth repeating.

    Director Marcus Nispel updates the seminal slasher for producer Michael Bay, scrubbing the format down to its time-honoured basics - sex, drugs and violent death - and replacing the low-grade, low-rent, low-IQ look of the beloved fright franchise with a super-slick, highly cinematic and visually involving re-interpretation of uber-mass murderer Jason Vorhees and his kill-crazy quest. With Halloween already having suffered the poison of a reboot, The Omen, Prom Night, The Hills Have Eyes, My Bloody Valentine and even The Last House On The Left going down the same dubiously-intentioned road, Nispel actually has some degree of respect in such fan-reviled matters, in that he turned out a more than decent remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also for Bay. With that he managed to pull off the remarkable feat of paying homage to his source, taking believable liberties and asides where appropriate and delivering a raw and unsanitised vision that felt about right. If anyone, so the theory went, could inject something new and vital into the stale old Friday The 13th brand - it must surely be him, then.

    Whilst his onscreen brother from hit TV-show Supernatural battles mad miners with pickaxes in that other recent hack 'n' slash 80's comeback, My Bloody Valentine, Jared Padaleki crops up here as Clay, the crusading sibling of a girl gone missing after the film's lengthy prologue massacre. Encountering the clammed-up mouths of the locals and incurring the instant animosity of a prime jerk-off vacationing with his wisecracking buddies (who he doesn't seem to like much, either), Clay is the immediate hero-type - un-pushy, quiet and full of resolve. Whereas everyone else his age is a self-absorbed loser, intent on getting high and getting laid, Clay is a man with a mission and, because of this, it is hard to suppress evocations of his small-screen, spook-battling alter-ego as he prowls around yet another mosquito-laden backwater with a bad reputation whilst trying to deal with a familial dilemma. Posting up pictures of his sister all over town, he, alone, believes that she must still be alive somewhere, even if the authorities insist that he won't find a trace of either her or the gang of friends that disappeared alongside her. The pre-title murder-spree that reveals their plight is like a mini movie in its own right - a typically annoying crew of patently ill-matched campers are sliced, diced and cooked - but the pay-off regarding Clay's sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti) is actually a massive new slant in Jason's modus operandi. I won't say exactly how things pan out, but let me just assure you that the old Norman Bates-style mother-fixation heavily influences what follows. But in straining to find rhyme and reason for his monumentally anti-social behaviour, writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (who both collaborated on 2003's Freddy vs Jason mash-up) make that fundamental mistake of not going far enough with their tweaked evolution for the character. Personally, I like the freshly conceived notion of him taking captives and having a base of operations, but if you are going to explore Jason at all then you really have to go much deeper than simply giving him surface traits and mannerisms. What is wasted by this screenplay is the potential to make Jason's own personal mythology more substantial. When Clay calls at an old woman's house in the wilds, asking if she's seen his sister, the crone barks that people “should leave well alone, leave him alone”. The local cops also seem to know a little more than they are letting on, at least initially, and this veil of defensiveness and small-town secrecy is a very intriguing angle that should have been exploited more fully. If the folks around the area are hushing up Jason's activities, that makes them complicit in his deeds and there could have been a vague Dead & Buried angle to be exploited, if that was the case. As the Halloween series wore on (and on) there was even an entry that had a circle of Michael Myers worshippers and protectors that had the nugget of something actually new and interesting about it. But Shannon and Swift are too afraid to probe such dark and unexplored new waters, far preferring to stick to the tried and trusted formula that has made Jason the genre icon that he is, and only tentatively pitching in a random embellishment here and there.

    As it stands, this plot seems to take the elements of the first three original movies - the initial mother/killer shenanigans from Part 1, the burlap sack-mask and yucky severed head devotion from Part II and the hockey-mask from Part III - and use them as stepping stones in Nispel's frenzy of fan-boy nodding. From there on in, it is business as usual down at Camp Crystal Lake and the film could just be any old sequel.

    Believe me, there is no point discussing the cast of this movie for, although they are considerably better than their many, many Friday ancestors, they remain risibly written, bleating, blurting clichés to a one. The ethic demographic is horribly adhered to, with a token black guy and his equally unlucky Asian buddy clumsily slotted in amongst the glamour models and the jocks. The poor black character is actually treated with such contempt by the script that the dialogue surrounding his introduction and, indeed, the manner of his death, are amazingly offensive. The writers actually seem to think that they are being clever in recognising the genre stereotyping that they're already committed to, but their sledgehammered style is obvious, infuriating and insulting. The required predilections for sex are all well and good, but this odd bunch are so crazily mismatched in the first place that they simply wouldn't ever be in the same car together, let alone going to the same holiday retreat. Trent (Travis Van Winkle), the snot-nosed control freak whose family home they are staying in, is actually the only interesting character out of the lot of them, but this is simply because he is painted as the bad boy villain of the ensemble, the irrational antagonist to Clay's likeable everyman. His weird mood, his petulance and his pure spoilt-brat attitude are, being charitable towards Van Winkle, quite convincing. Understandably, you want to see all of these kids die, but you sure as hell want to see him die most of all ... and in the most agonising fashion possible. The girls, though, are extremely hot and there is more actual sex in this film than the other Friday entries, but the screenplay is manufactured out of the usual conventions of the form, just dragged out to their natural limits, leaving absolutely no area for diversification or anything new to creep in to allow us any investment of feeling over whether these goons live or die.

    The dialogue is of the lowest common denominator. It is perfectly understandable to swear like a trooper when in a situation of high tension and stress - hell, I swear a lot just in normal conversation - but when you are forced to listen to endless expletive-laden lines in a film the experience swiftly becomes extremely tedious. To ape many a stern mother's observations ... it isn't funny and it isn't clever. Now, a gang of riotous, hormonal teens are almost certainly prone to unleashing the f-bomb with alarming frequency, but when you consider that (A) someone has written this down in a script, (B) the actor then has to read, learn and deliver it in front of the camera, (C) the director and editor have to listen to it all over again, fine-tuning and modifying as they go, you would think that someone, somewhere along the way would have the sense to suggest that maybe, just maybe some of it could be rephrased, if only to break the monotony. Honestly, the swearing in this - a film that never actually has a proper conversation in it anyway - is one of the main reasons why it feels so contrived and juvenile. The writers also think that they are being comically aware of many a male's lack of success with the ladies with two - that's two - sequences actually built around characters settling down for a bit of self-love! This isn't savvy or even remotely amusing. It is patronisingly lame shorthand (in a manner of speaking!) that even the target market would find demeaning.

    Of course, all of this is pure grist for the mill in such fare. Believe me, I totally accept the format, and have done so for practically all of my life as a devout horror fan, but the question that just begs to be asked once again is why “remake” something if you aren't going to add anything new to it, or explore the concept from a different angle? In the case of Friday The 13th, they could simply have made this film as just another instalment, instead of pretending that it was going to reinvent the character and the rejuvenate the story. I can assure you that the film would have gained more respect if it had.

    But, hey, at least you can guarantee some gore, though, can't you? I mean, out of all the elements that go into a flick like Friday The 13th, that one is gospel, isn't it?

    Ahhh, well ... you see, it appears that no-one told these guys.

    Nispel's intentions to forego CG gore in favour of the much more satisfying in-camera makeup and prosthetic FX is admirable, but he still lacks the required amount of gumption with his grue. The kills, despite what the makers say, are not that imaginative at all, and nor is the manner in which Nispel executes them (if you'll pardon the pun). Very quick snap-cut slayings via machete fail to get the juices flowing. A Steve Martin arrow-through-the-head is more likely to elicit laughs than shudders. Possibly the grisliest murder has a thick blade plunged right through the unsuspecting victim's torso and then shimmied upwards, but the episode is so bathed in shadow and awkwardly filmed that it completely lacks any gasp-worthy impact. Another, and actually quite protracted, death sees a screwdriver rammed through a throat, Jason pressing it home with steady remorselessness. But all tension drains away from the scene because, as with all the others, it just seems to lack the essential va-va-voom that typified the big moments in the traditional 80's slay-a-thons. In the DIY victim's case, it probably would have been better if Jason had gone all the way and actually screwed the body to the wall behind it! Even as accomplished and slick as the FX are, you still long for Tom Savini's splashy claret. The gore in the original film now looks positively tame, of course, but there was a glee to its presentation that is missing here. What we need are some crucial stabbings, throat-slittings and spouting-stumps - stuff that the camera can linger on. Jason's bloodbaths have been watered-down so often by the MPAA that, given the much more liberal sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic these days, we should have been able to expect a more brutal and gruesome experience than the one that we are palmed-off with here. The film just isn't gory enough to satisfy today's audiences. Nispel defied my initial concerns about him - or anyone - attempting to remake a horror classic like Texas Chainsaw, and actually turned in a very powerful, respectful and disturbing revamp. On the basis of that film, I then began to believe that he could well be the person to inject some real brutality, resonance and shock-value into this jaded, hackneyed and, fittingly enough, “camp” franchise. And, most maddeningly of all, I can see elements in this that show he really could have unleashed something vital and primal if he hadn't wimped-out to, presumably, the same old studio pressure that has stifled and suffocated almost all of Jason's murder-sprees.

    But what I will say is that Jason, in the trimmed-down form of Derek Mears, is a lean, mean predator now, who trades bulk for speed, muscle for smooth athleticism. On-screen for a lot of the time, certainly more so than I had expected, Jason is not the mute-brute he once was. There still may not be any dialogue issuing from behind his flour-bag or his hockey-mask, but he is given a lot more to do than merely thrust heavy blades into idiotic teens. Nispel and his pair of screenwriters have given him some hunting skills and a sort of survivalist attitude. He has a lair - a warren of tunnels that ripple out beneath the old Camp Crystal Lake from which he can spring up from at any time via concealed trapdoors - and a sense of territoriality. In this way, he is now much more akin to the cannibal scum of The Hills have Eyes (Mears actually played the grungy Chameleon in the awful Wes Craven 2007 produced sequel) than to Michael Myers, Leatherface or his old chum, Freddy Krueger. The idea is that he is really only butchering those who don't belong on his patch or those who dishonour the cabins that he regards as sacred. Of course, Nispel and his loyal cast are keen to proffer this explanation, but the film only partially brings this across. We don't get any sense of how this disfigured kid survived his apparent drowning - it is talked about in the flashback intro with Nana Visitor's Mama Vorhees giving us a snarling resume of the original film's premise, but never shown - and carved out an existence in the woods, growing large and murderous and yet remaining concealed from prying eyes despite building and excavating his own Viet Cong-style bunker. Mears is one of the biggest fans of the character and even declined more career-strategic parts in other films in anticipation of landing this gig. Having read interviews with the stuntman turned actor it is perfectly clear that his love of Vorhees-lore is second to none, which makes it seem all the more unfortunate that his particular incarnation fails to make more of an impact. What is cool, however, is that this guy isn't the indestructible maniac that we are overly familiar with, with him actually having more in common with Part II's more humanistic bogeyman.

    But, at the risk of going out on a limb and actually making a serious statement about the reality of a gang of people being besieged by a madman - especially a gang of teens - I have to say that even the likes of the mighty Jason wouldn't stand a chance against the youths of today. Whether he kept on coming back from the dead for more or not, a squad of partying delinquents would waste no time at all in kicking seven shades out of him, taking that machete off him and ramming it where the sun don't shine. So, I suppose that what I'm trying to say is that nowadays this concept just doesn't work any more. Basically, the film can't scare us, because the reality of the situation wouldn't either. A sniper on a rooftop - yes. A suicide-bomber heading towards you - definitely. A lumbering force of super-nature wielding a mangy blade should terrify us and certainly did once, but now it is old-hat and remarkably shorn of visceral intimidation. Well, it is here in Nispel's hands, anyway.

    This new batch of nubile young fodder are staying in a house that is just axe-throwing distance from the original camp, yet the moron whose parents own the place knows nothing about the area's less-than savoury past. We glean nothing about how Jason's captive has actually survived her ordeal of several weeks. I mean does he feed her, have they conversed in any way, had he always kept a mask on in her presence and, if so, why? And why has the old camp not been torn down anyway? All of these questions, and many more will not be answered in Nispel's watered-down slasher. But, weirdly, I've seen this movie three times now - naturally rolling my eyes at its incessant crassness and mourning the absence of anything shocking - and yet, incredibly, I've been entertained on each occasion. What definitely helps is the wonderful cinematography from pop-video supremo Daniel Pearl, the man who, incidentally, lensed the original Texas Chainsaw for Tobe Hooper back in 1974 as well Nispel's own remake almost two decades later. With awesomely atmospheric deep-focus frames and scintillating tracking shots that really do place you in the environment, this is the best looking Friday The 13th movie, without a doubt. Composer Steve Jablonsky has scored big with his music for Michael Bay, with the two Transformers movies, as well as the remake of The Amityville Horror and Nispel's Chainsaw redux under his belt already and, here, he delivers a good, solid, jolt-heavy score. There's not a lot of actual music other than broodingly creepy undertones and eerie synth-loops, but what there is suits the mood and accentuates the striking visuals even if, overall, the score remains unmemorable.

    So, at the end of the (Fri)day there are definitely some ideas in this revamp that are worthwhile, but they needed more time and attention to be fully explored. As it stands, Marcus Nispel's Friday The 13th fails to strike the new ground it promised to do and merely romps it way through very familiar turf and never once lets Jason move out of his comfort zone. As I said earlier, both this film and the rehash of My Bloody Valentine were damp squibs at the flicks but, as much as it irks me to say so, they find their largely un-ambitious feet on home video and come over as decent entries in what is, admittedly, a very low-brow market. With expectations dropped and an acceptance that Hollywood very rarely breaks with tradition, there is still some mean and moody fun to be had with this. For a vast number of people, and this includes the majority of stalk 'n' slash fans, the small screen provided their first and most lasting exposure to this genre, and the curious template of these movies is at its most cosy and satisfying in this medium. Thus, however cinematic Nispel's adaptation is - and, I'll say it again, it is wonderfully filmed - the whole thing is small-scale in theme, style and production, the story limited by necessity, trapped by tradition, and yet far more accessible and agreeable on disc.

    But, unlike his Texas Chainsaw variant, it is apparent that Marcus Nispel's heart just isn't in this one, despite the enthusiasm he exhibits in the making-of's and promos to be found on this release.

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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