The conventional wisdom goes that horror films tend to reflect the eras in which they’re released, whether it’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reflecting the worries of the Vietnam era or the abundance of slasher sequels in the 1980s mirroring that decade’s excesses. It’s just a theory, but an interesting one to apply to Friday the 13th, a bizarre hybrid of remake, continuation, and reimagining of the 10-film horror franchise that became so mired in self-parody that the only way to revive it was to attempt a fresh start. It’s no accident at all that the new film was directed by Marcus Nispel, a former music video director who also helmed 2003’s amped-up and dumbed-down reinvention of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel excels at making horrible new movies based on genre classics, and the new Friday the 13th starts to make (slightly) more sense when you realize it’s not even trying to be a sequel; it’s just an idea, a flat and hackneyed concept that ropes in the disparate elements of the source material. Nispel doesn’t know what to do with them but hold them up and childishly exclaim, “Look what I found!” The film is a reflection of nothing more than the fact that the filmmaker has a cursory knowledge of the existence of the original films and is content with making a movie as pointless, uninvolving, and downright stupid as a copy of a copy of a copy would have to be.
The film’s lengthy prologue opens at Camp Crystal Lake in 1980, meaning right off the bat the film is asking the viewer both to remember and incorporate the original story as its basis while forgetting it ever happened so that the new story makes sense. Through a blurry, jaggedly edited credit sequence, screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (who share a story credit with Mark Wheaton) dispense with the basic plot of the original film, which is that a woman named Mrs. Voorhees (Nana Visitor) tracks and murders the counselors at Camp Crystal Lake who accidentally let her son Jason drown. She’s down to the final girl (of course) when the girl grabs a machete, beheads the woman, and runs off. But Jason, who is not dead but does suffer from some kind of facial deformity that’s never explained, is hiding in the woods watching, and he rescues his mother’s locket and the blade as her disembodied voice somehow order him to “kill for mother.” Cut to the present, when a group of young campers — a nice couple, a horny couple, and a geeky sidekick — whose names no one needs to pretend to know are hiking through the woods near Camp Crystal Lake. The sidekick and the horny guy are intent on finding a rumored field of marijuana nearby, so the group makes camp and prepares to scout the area the next day. It’s unclear whether Nispel took to heart the fact he was making a Friday the 13th film so much that he decided to give the non-murder scenes all the expositional weight and dead emotion of a freshman-level one-act play, but that’s exactly what happens. The dialogue isn’t even real enough to be considered serviceable, especially the sidekick’s weirdly detailed monologue about the wonders of GPS locators. (In another violation of the Chekhov’s Gun rule, the GPS locators are never factored into the plot again in a meaningful way.) It’s only a matter of time before the kids split up and Jason, now a hulking psychopath with a sheet wrapped around his damaged face, starts picking off the campers in a boring, knock-over-the-dominoes method that tries to be a painfully self-aware throwback to the originals — the whispered “ki ki ki, ah ah ah” soundtrack —as well as a typically gruesome update courtesy of Nispel, whose Jason isn’t above setting beartraps for people or trapping one girl in her sleeping bag and hoisting her over the campfire, roasting her alive. Jason’s maternal mandate to kill any and all interlopers apparently came with tacit instructions to have fun with it and not just go cutting people up willy-nilly with his trusty machete.
Friday the 13th also continues the tradition of mixing in healthy amounts of gratuitous sex, whether it’s a couple screwing shortly before being killed or a girl waterskiiing topless, also shortly before being killed. Nispel doesn’t shy away from the unnerving parallel between sexual fervor and horror as practiced in slasher films, which is to say he doesn’t seem to mind blood-smeared breasts and severed corpses nearly as much as you’d want. There’s also a perverse duality in a film genre in which women are nothing more than objects to be screwed while a masked man prowls the woods penetrating them, and their men, with a long metal blade. If Nispel were just a little more talented, or maybe just more self-aware, he’d be able to comment on that, or at least have fun with it. But instead it’s just another horror flick that fetishizes the wounded body.
Six weeks after Jason’s run-in with the campers, Clay (Jared Padalecki) is going to homes and business in the Crystal Lake area to see if anyone knows the whereabouts of his sister, who was a member of the unfortunate camping party. He butts heads at a gas station with a group of impossibly stereotypical “college students,” led by the jerky Trent (Travis Van Winkle), whose girlfriend, Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), warms to Clay’s plight and wants to help him. Nispel’s cast is amazingly wooden, turning in performances that are either so high-concept in their awfulness that no one will ever understand their true nuance or just the usual level of bad acting from pretty people who have at one point appeared on the CW. The “college students” are all on their way to Trent’s folks’ cabin on the lake, where Clay comes knocking again to see if anyone there knows about his missing sister.
That’s about as detailed as the plot allows itself to get. From there on, the characters kill time drinking and having sex in the woods before inevitably crossing Jason, who dispatches them with everything from a hunting bow — Jason must target practice all winter just desperately hoping kids show up — to ice picks to really whatever’s lying around. There’s absolutely zero shock value, or bitter fun, or trace of suspense in anything. The script is too awful to keep the characters from being anything besides cheap place-holders, and Nispel’s heavy-handed use of the weird industrial-breakdown grit he seems to love so much makes the film look like an even duller retread of his take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The sound design is right in line with modern, slick horror films, which is to say it’s incomprehensibly stupid. For instance, when Clay sweeps his flashlight beam across the camera’s frame, there’s an unthinking whoosh accompanying it, as if Nispel is afraid to let any kind of genuine atmosphere creep into the film or to build suspense from an honestly terrifying premise, that of being stalked by a merciless killer. The one tense moment in the film comes toward the end and lasts maybe seven seconds, when the remaining not-yet-victims peer through the cabin’s windows in an attempt to spot Jason, who’s kind of wily and good at hiding. Nispel dials back the pointless thudding of the soundtrack, and the complete quiet is more unnerving than any smash cut Nispel could hope to create.
That inability to connect on even a gut level is one of the many reasons the film is a failure, but it’s not the biggest. Overall, Nispel just doesn’t know what to make of his movie: As both a continuation and refutation of the originals, it’s just plain head-scratching. It’s not smart enough to be a revival, and it’s not clever enough to satirize its source material. It’s not suspenseful enough to work as a thriller, and it’s not well-written enough to allow for character development, however small. It’s not a sequel, and it doesn’t stand on its own. The entire thing is a muddy, ungainly mess that cashes in on whatever camp value remains in the oldest of the original films and turns them into nothing more than a springboard for another bland horror movie about a nameless brute with poor socialization skills. The film is a masterful exercise in futility, in the sheer pointlessness of trying to bring back a franchise that rightly played out years ago. As one of the characters says of the ruined Camp Crystal Lake, “It’s like it was dragged here from another century.” Nispel should have left it there.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Didn't We Just Leave This Party?
Film Reviews | February 13, 2009 | Comments ()