'Friday the 13th' Revisits Vintage '80s Horror

New Line Cinema

Salt Lake City Weekly | February 10, 2009
Quick pop-culture pop-quiz: What iconic item appears exactly zero times in the original 1980 Friday the 13th? If you guessed "a hockey mask," give yourself a few more course credits towards your degree in slasherology. Jason Voorhees -- the unstoppable killing machine who would subsequently turn goalie protective gear into a homicidal fashion statement -- appeared for only a few seconds in the first film, where his crazy mother actually dispatched the collection of nubile counselors at Camp Crystal Lake. Twenty years' worth of Jason-based sequels later, it's understandable that a remake of Friday the 13th would follow the Liberty Vallance rule: When legend becomes fact, print the legend.

In fact, director Marcus Nispel is much more clearly attuned to that guideline than he was in his 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Where Tobe Hooper's original Massacre became legendary for its down-and-dirty, dread-inspiring terror, Nispel announced early on in his version that he would take a different approach when he tracked his camera back through the hole in the skull of a girl who had just blown her own brains out. TCM was a movie that didn't work when you announced loudly that it was a movie. Somehow, inbred hicks aren't as creepy when filmed in slick, Michael Bay-style filtered light.

Here, Nispel doesn't have to worry about violating the spirit of a classic, because the original Friday the 13th was utter crap -- pure low-budget American cheese with a budget for creative gore. But he does prove that he knows why the franchise endures: At its core, it's less about terror than it is about comedy.

This year's model of Friday the 13th -- with a screenplay by the Freddy vs. Jason team of Damian Shannon and Mark Swift -- is less a remake of the original than it is a mash-up of elements from the first three films. A 1980-set credits-sequence prologue quickly dispenses with the Mama Voorhees backstory; an extended 20-minute prologue finds Jason (Derek Mears) picking off a modern-day quintet of young campers. The bulk of the story follows another group of body-bags-in-waiting six weeks later as they head to the hills for a weekend of sex and drugs, interrupted first by Clay (Jared Padalecki) -- searching for his sister, who was one of those recently missing near Camp Crystal Lake -- and later by nature's perfect thinner of the 20-something herd.

With both this film and a My Bloody Valentine remake appearing within weeks of one another, it's clear there's some kind of weird nostalgia going on for the slasher films of the pre-Saw era. There's a simpler dynamic at work, from the boogeyman quality of the masked, pseudo-supernatural murderer, to the implicit moralism in the trope that the first ones killed have been either screwing around or getting stoned, or both (and therefore, we presume, are pretty much asking for it).

But even more fundamental than these is the idea that these films exist as excuses to laugh as much as excuses to scream. Even if Friday the 13th were simply a conventional comedy rather than a horror film, it would still be funnier than 75 percent of the films marketed as conventional comedies. Shannon and Swift provide a lively script -- including an out-of-nowhere but still hilarious nod to Blue Velvet -- with particularly goofy bits for Aaron Yoo as the second batch's resident cutup. And the young cast members generally serve the important functions of being attractive, topless and dead -- generally in that order -- while also being competent actors.

The smartest decision, though, is the structure that allows for not one group of potential victims, but two. Slasher films exist for the rollercoaster release of the murder sequences -- a jump in the seat, followed almost immediately by a nervous chuckle. And this is not an indicator of something deeply disturbed in the audience; it serves its function as a way to confront death and laugh at it. The very look-at-me cinematic theatricality that spoiled Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre works perfectly here, because this genre needs its scares to be over-the-top and obviously phony. Even if it starts to feel over-long even at 90 minutes, this reboot understands why it's fine to print the legend for this particular franchise. On a fundamental level, it's more fun than it is mental.


*** (three out of four stars)

Jared Padalecki, Amanda Righetti, Derek Mears.

Directed by Marcus Nispel

Rated R.

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