Saturday, 21 February 2009
JASON AD 2009
So at last it’s here - the long awaited reboot/reimagining/remake of the seminal slasher Friday 13th! And while it’s cleaning up at the box office, this film seems to have sharply divided horror fans right down the middle as cleaning as a machete blow from Jason himself…
Now it’s fair to say we’re currently living through a period of Hollywood remake hell. Recent years have brought us a plethora of needless remakes from the competent but pointless new version of The Omen to outright atrocities like Neil ‘I should have known better’ LaBute’s The Wicker Man. So when it was announced that Friday 13th was getting the remake treatment, many were quick to cry foul. And when it was revealed that Michael Bay was to have a hand in the production and Marcus Nispel, who has previous form in the remake game, was to direct, a lot of fans were bracing themselves for the worst.
However, for me these announcements actually gave me some hope for the project. Bay’s involvement at least guaranteed a decent budget and for all the flaws of 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Nispel demonstrated a confident feel for the genre. While his film falls squarely into the superfluous remake category, it was well constructed with a decent pace, suspense and a gloriously grimy, grungy atmosphere.
Of course it couldn’t hold a candle to the 1974 original, but that film is a truly unique piece of cinematic savagery that no director could ever possibly hope to match. Even director Tobe Hooper couldn’t ever replicate its intensity in his other works. It really was a case of catching lightning in a bottle. But Nispel gave it a shot and gave it his best. He wisely didn’t attempt to catch the same gruelling documentary feel of the original and instead retold the story in a more conventional horror idiom. If the original is like finding yourself trapped in a deserted house which you discover is really haunted, Nispel’s remake was like going on a high end ghost train ride.
Now the original Friday 13th ranks alongside the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the Great Horror Movies Hall of Fame but it is a very different kind of bloodbath. Although it is an undoubted genre classic, it isn’t the unique cinema experience that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is.
Although it’s often written off as a Halloween knock off with extra added gore, the 1980 film is more accurately a splatter version of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. And in terms of its construction, it’s a horror rollercoaster ride. So considering what Nispel delivered with his previous venture in the remake field, to me at least, he seemed an ideal candidate to helm a new version of Friday 13th. If he could bring the same high production values and direction to the table, then surely we’d get the remake we’d all like to see…
Or would we? Judging from the mixed critical reactions, it would seem that for a significant proportion of viewers simply recreating the original with a modern gloss is simply not enough. Now before getting on the actual review of the movie, let me lay out what I wanted from this remake.
Firstly, although generally the announcement of a remake makes me groan, I actually thought the idea of remaking Friday 13th was a reasonable proposition. And here’s why – remakes can be divided roughly into three categories. The first is what I’ll term the ‘Blasphemy!” camp, where studios decide that it would be a great idea to redo a classic and fail to realise that some films are unique. Films like Wings of Desire, Psycho or The Wicker Man are classic because of their originality of vision and construction and you’d be an idiot to try. You can’t top perfection which is why even the most coke addled movie exec would shy away from attempting a remake of the likes of Some Like it Hot, It’s A Wonderful Life, The Sound of Music or Casablanca. And even if you do manage to turn out a decent new version like, for example, Zack Synder’s Dawn of the Dead, everyone will say it’s not a patch on the original and still wonder why they bothered.
The second camp is what I’ll call ‘the Retold Tales’. These are the endless versions of well known stories – you can remake Frankenstein ad infinitum. Now we are not just talking about multiple adaptations of a same literary source here. Generally when studios decide to do another version of a novel generally they refer back to the original adaptation rather than the literary source. If you hunt through the archive and have a gander at my review of James Whale’s Frankenstein, you see how the 1931 film creates the template for all subsequent cinema adaptations of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale. Similarly the 1939 Basil Rathbone version of The Hound of the Baskervilles sets out the blueprint for all following Holmes films.
Some stories you can tell over and over again. Naturally this will yield mixed results but you can end several films that may lay claim to be the best version. For example which of these are better - the Siegel or Kaufman version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Which vision of The Thing do you favour – Hawks or Carpenter? Or which of the three editions of The 30 Steps?
Now the third category is the most nebulous - “The Recurring Formula”. Here we have movies and whole series of film that all feature the same basic plot outline and/or the same character. The good illustration of this category is the canon of Mummy films. The original 1932 Karloff picture created the bare bones of the Mummy concept and storyline, it was then semi-remade, or rather what we’d called rebooted these days as The Mummy’s Hand which gave us the classic bandage wrapped horror. Now it’s subsequent Universal sequels are all basics further remakes. The later Hammer Mummy cycle repeats this trend of sequels being essentially a new film from the same template. And nearly all other Mummy flicks, bar the handful drawing on Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, are pretty much reworkings of the formula perfected The Mummy’s Hand.
Now it’s into this category I’d place the new Friday 13th. As great as the original is, it isn’t a complete and original cinematic vision which places it safely out the ‘Blasphemy’ camp. And we are not dealing will a “Retold Tale’ either as the Nispel version doesn’t recreate the plot of the first movie. Now the first Friday does have a cracking plot – the whodunit element really adds to the suspense and lifts the film from being a knock-off of Halloween to standing alongside it as a seminal slasher. And it’s the strength of the story that would qualify as remake in the second the category. But they couldn’t retell the original story without risking alienating their prospective audience. Partly this is because the original twist ending that it’s Mrs Voorhees carrying out the slayings is now just too well known, but more importantly, in the public consciousness the formula for a Friday 13th is firmly established - for the average cinemagoer Friday 13th = Jason + hockey mask.
The thing about formula derived movies is that it’s the way you tell ‘em that counts. Or to put it another it ain’t what you do, but the way that you it do. It doesn’t matter how hoary the formula is provided you can use it effectively or inventively. For example, Alien uses the same formula as 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space but to wildly different results. So all I really expected from the Nispel version was a good solid rendering of a Jason rampage, well shot and directed with plenty of kills and thrills. I wanted to see the formula treated in a serious rather hokey manner. I wanted to see inventive kills and most importantly to Jason to be a threatening figure. What I didn’t want to see was the formula broken with needless reimaginings such as recasting it in a torture porn mould. I didn’t want any oh-so post modern semi-ironic humour. And I definitely didn’t want a long examination of Jason’s backstory that destroys the character …. Rob Zombie I’m looking at you!
And thankfully the movie lived to all these expectations! I really had a blast with this flick. It takes plot elements from the first few films in the original franchise and weaves a solid story from them. Its dynamically shot and builds a great atmosphere, with the locations really giving us the sense of being out in the wilderness – the original’s screenwriter Victor Miller stated that an important element for any Friday 13th story is that characters should be isolated.
More importantly Nispel executes the formula perfectly; the film moves at a cracking pace and you’re never left waiting long for the next slice of action. – avoiding that the perennial pit fall of slasher movies. The characters may be slight but they are well sketched in and have a few more dimensions that the usual shreddies that populate such movies. And their performances are good too, Travis Van Winkle plays a perfect prick and Jared Padalecki makes a sympathetic hero.
Now it’s true that the movie is pretty predictable – indeed trawling various reviews on the net it’s probably the #1 complaint. However with a formula-based film of course it’s going to be predictable and partly that’s the point. We go to Jason movies to see him slice and dice, in same way we settle down with a Sherlock Holmes to see him solve a mystery. The formula doesn’t really make a big deal of the game of guessing who will survive - the real surprises in a Friday film are he carries out the kills, not which order it happens in. In this new version we get a fine mix of kills that are both inventive and pay homage to the franchise’s past classics. And although if you are familiar with the slasher genre, you’ll have no trouble guessing who’s for the chop next, the movie does manage to throw in a few surprises in when they happen.
Of course the real key to the formula is the portrayal of Jason himself. Derek Mears throws himself into the role and really brings the character to life with his subtle body language. Some fans seem to have had a lot of problems with the version presented in this film, but personally I really liked the leaner and fast moving Jason. I also had no problem with him laying the odd trap as it gives the character a sense of intelligence and cunning. Some fans though have felt it was adding Jigsaw elements to him. Now if he’s been creating elaborate Dr Phibes styles kills, fair enough but the occasional man trap fits in with the concept of Jason as the ultimate hunter of humans.
Similarly I didn’t have any beef with Jason having a network of tunnels under Camp Crystal Lake. Jason may have started life as just another masked psycho but now he’s a truly archetypal monster with more in common with a fairy tale ogre than Norman Bates. And as such it’s appropriate that he has a lair beneath the earth. For me these new additions add a just the right amount of freshness to Jason, without damaging the character concept and ultimately enhance his menace.
The most contentious issue of the new Jason however is that fact that he took a hostage. Now there are those who have denounced this for as sheer heresy, but I felt in the context of the plot it provided a genuinely unexpected twist. And while I agree on principle that Jason wouldn’t take hostages, I wouldn’t say the abduction is this movie was entirely contrary to his character. It’s well established that Jason has a powerful connection with his mother so it does make psychological sense that he would kidnap a girl who he thinks resembles her. And it’s no more illogical than Ginny being able to impersonate Pamela Voorhees in the finale of Friday 13th Part 2.
All in all, this Friday 13th was a great deal of fun and promises a bright future for the franchise. Now it’s not really that scary – but hey I’m a desensitised bastard and in the packed theatre where I saw it people were jumping and screaming like crazy. And in all honesty I didn’t expect it to really give me the chills. But it did deliver the thrills and kills I wanted. And I did have a few niggles with it. To start with there’s the usual dumbness of the characters but that’s such a very common failing in horror movies it doesn’t really count. Secondly I would have liked more use of the Manfredini’s iconic ki ki ki … ma ma ma music, but I understand why they didn’t use it more – you really don’t want the soundtrack telegraphing Jason’s presence all the time and wrecking the he pops up from nowhere moments. And finally, it could have been bloodier. But considering that Jason is the MPAA what nunchucks are the BBFC, I’m not surprised they kept the gore brief. But I understand that the DVD will feature an unrated cut the splatter left in. (Incidentally the production blog here intriguingly announces that the DVD release will feature an alternative version of the film …)
Overall I’d count this remake a real success. It’s not the perfect horror movie but it’s a terrific Friday 13th movie and paves the way for future instalments. My only real criticism of the movie is that it perhaps just played too safe and I think the formula could stand being a little more edgy, with a little more character developments and a little unpredictable. But I do respect the fact that Nispel and co. chose not to take too many risks and stuck very closely to the classic elements of the original films. However I do wonder whether the alternative DVD cut mentioned above will rectify this. As it stands though, this is a movie (or perhaps I should say ‘the theatrical cut’) not only honours the spirit of the franchise but has Friday 13th written all the way through it like a stick of rock. It’s a solid addition to the canon and a great start to a whole new saga…
PS On the way I earwigged the following mind-mangling exchange …
Girl 1– I’m glad we didn’t see this at Halloween!
Girl 2 – Why?
Girl 1– Because that’s when he comes out isn’t it!
Girl 2 – Err I think you’re thinking of Michael Myers from the … well, from the Halloween films…
Girl 1– Oh so that wasn’t Michael???
Girl 2 – No, that was Jason. Michael’s a different film series. The clue’s in the title…
Girl 1– Oh I see … I was wondering why they’d turned into a redneck….
PPS Paramount & New Line – YOU STILL SUCK!!!