"Friday the 13th"

Bodacious ta-tas (some of them female) and rococo killings: The venerable slasher series relaunches in 'roided-up 21st-century style.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 13, 2009 11:19AM (EST)

So I went to see the new "Friday the 13th" movie the other night, which is at least the 12th movie to trace its ancestry back to a 1980 film of the same name written by Victor Miller and directed by Sean Cunningham (although, actually, its pre-release title was "A Long Night at Camp Blood," and if they'd stuck with that one, schlock-movie history might have been different). So if you think about it, there's no way they're not making a sequel to Marcus Nispel's new remake or remilkshake or "reimagining" or whatever it is, because that next movie will literally be the 13th "Friday the 13th" movie, and who could resist that?

Where was I going with this? Oh, right. The movie. I've seen it. I'm ready for your questions. Yeah, in the back. Is this really a remake of the 1980 "Friday the 13th"? Well, no. I guess it's an attempt to relaunch the franchise and all that (and by my count, the third such relaunch), but as any halfway serious online horror geek will confirm, Nispel's movie is closer to being a remake of "Friday the 13th Part II" and "Part III," the early-'80s pictures that present the unkillable-killer-in-outmoded-hockey-mask mythology in its mature, not to say classic, form. That's right; the inimitable Jason Voorhees appears only at the very end of the original film and doesn't don the mask until the next installment.

Next question: What's that? Does German-born director Nispel grasp the distinction between cranking out yet another "Friday the 13th" movie and remaking one of the greatest American horror films, as he did in making "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in 2003? I really can't see that he does; dude spent most of his career making crappy music videos before moving on to movies that look and feel like crappy music videos. But if you're suggesting that this movie is way more defensible than that one, I'm right there with you. This "Friday the 13th" is glossy, good-looking garbage, acted out by a cast of big-chested androids (male and female alike) and with the original series' rough edges smooved over. It's reasonably entertaining, at least if your idea of a good time is a rockin' topless water-skiing scene that ends with the semi-nude vixen impaled through the skull. It's not taking a genuinely terrifying and funny Americana classic and pooping all over it.

I'll repeat your question so everybody can hear it: Does Jason come up with hella new awesome kills? First of all, keep working on the '80s lingo, friend. It's not quite there yet. You know, I want to be charitable on this point, but how many ways can an immortal crazy dude kill people with hardware? Jason seems hugely 'roided up in this movie, as played by hulking stuntman Derek Mears, but I guess he's got to compete with star Jared Padalecki, who plays a sensitive guy looking for his sister who went missing some weeks ago at the long-abandoned Camp Crystal Lake, blah blah blah, and who has (Jared's character, not his sis) the most massive pecs I've ever seen this side of the Mr. Olympia competition. I mean, seriously. There's a roster of top-popping silicone honeys in this movie, and none of them can compete.

Ahem. Back to your question. I'm not, like, a full-fledged connoisseur of this stuff, but if I haven't exactly seen cops impaled through the eyeball and hung on the front door before, or a semi-nude starlet (a different one!) hung on a trophy deer's antlers, I feel like I've seen that kind of thing. Nispel and his collaborators have given the Jason franchise some 21st-century style, a multiracial cast (including a doomed black guy and a doomed Asian guy) and a sleek design aesthetic that rips off a bunch of other movies, from "Jaws" to "The Silence of the Lambs," but they're still working in an incredibly constrained genre, where innovation is limited to gross-out gags and technical tweaks.

Actually, as technical innovations go, there's some cool stuff in this movie. Here of course I must risk the wrath of the spoiler cops, whose vigilance is even sillier than usual when you're talking about a movie whose every movement is as foreordained as Kabuki theater performed in a Calvinist church. Perhaps to engage the chronic attention deficit of his audience, Nispel essentially repeats the same story three times, at different speeds. He begins with a lightning-quick reprise of the pre-Jason history of Crystal Lake, then whips through a crackling, stripped-down, one-night yarn about a group of present-day weed-seeking backpackers who wander into Jason's turf (one of them being Mr. Pectorals' missing sister. If you want creepy thrills, there's a sleeping-bag sequence in that section of the film that may fuel a few nightmares).

Then and only then, maybe 20 minutes into the film, do we get the opening credits -- and then Nispel eases into the main story, about a motley collection of college kids partying at the lake house of an arrogant rich dude named Trent (Travis Van Winkle), whom nobody likes. They don't realize yet that evil has been rousted from its long slumber and handed a Tony Esposito mask, or that evil in this case is a totally unsatisfying blend of deformed human being and night-flying supernatural entity. Of course douche bag Trent will eventually get his, courtesy of Jason, but I don't remember anything about how it happens, which seems like a major failing.

Last question? Yeah, eager beaver with the glasses, right down front. Am I arguing that this is a neoclassical "Friday the 13th" movie or a more rococo one? I'm so glad you asked that, but I wonder whether the entire audience is familiar with your terms. Personally, I've always been fondest of horror series when they start to decay and eat themselves and are revealed as a yawning abyss of postmodern meta-whateverness instead of a series of pseudo-dark, po-faced thrill killings.

OK, I might not entirely mean that; Wes Craven's first "Nightmare on Elm Street" will always be the best movie in that series. But when it comes to sequels, I'm positive I'd rather watch the over-the-top Grand Guignol silliness of "Nightmare on Elm Street 4" -- in which Freddy turns people into cockroaches and eats human-head pizza -- or the intellectual gamesmanship of "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" than whatever the proposed 2010 series relaunch is going to look like. I recognize that this might be a perverse creed, but let me state it clearly: Self-parody in horror movies is never a bad idea.

That said, Nispel's movie tries to split the difference a little. Some of this "Friday the 13th" is pretty baroque, in that Jason inhabits an underground cave complex, uses electricity, eats food and sleeps in a bed, and even displays intriguing inklings of human emotion. But the overarching impulse here is back-to-basics, and the basics of this franchise are tits, rock 'n' roll, pot humor, potty-mouth humor and a lot of pointless killings. You'll have to make your own decisions about whether those are good or bad things, people. I'm not the arbiter of your damn morality.

Look, this will make a lot of money in a few weeks and then disappear to DVD. It's fine for what it is, which is sugar-frosted, violent crap. But it's nowhere near the ambitious, delirious, self-aware crapness level of 2002's "Jason X," in which Jason was defrosted in the 25th century and then transported back to Crystal Lake in a sequence that blatantly rips off Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris." That movie knew that it represented Western civilization in the toilet; this one thinks it's having fun. Is that clear enough?

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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