Today, Friday the 13th of February, 2009, marks the release of a reimagining of beloved American film Friday the 13th (this version directed by Marcus Nispel). This is a cultural event so monumentous that we, here at the L, couldn’t send just one critic. Henry Stewart and Benjamin Sutton talk it out.
As the popularity of slasher movies waned, "torture porn" filled the hole they left in multiplexes; as horror goes, that new subgenre often boasts a relatively complex, almost progressive moral underpinning: Hostel‘s victims are largely misogynistic or boorish Americans-abroad, in desperate need of comeuppance; the Saw series punishes those who don’t fully appreciate the Gift of Life. The Friday the 13th “reimagining,” or whatever we’re supposed to call it, marks a return, if only temporarily, to the simplicity of late-Carter/early-Reagan Puritanism: its victims are punished because they enjoy life, albeit bacchanalianly, through good ol’ fashioned youthful debauchery — beer-swilling, sex and, above all, marijuana use.
Well, for the most part, that is, because even some of the ostensibly chaste characters (the non-pot smokers) eventually fall victim to Mr. Voorhees’ sharp instruments. Ultimately, this Friday the 13th transcends its own virtuousness, positing Jason as some sort of masked Mega-Terrorist. He might hate our sexual and substance-abuse freedoms, but he hates our trespassing even more. And so he defends his homestead, with disproportionate response, against fun-loving Americans who mean him no harm and are dumbstruck by his aggression. What drives him? Blind, violent loyalty to his Mother(land).
Funny that you should close with the doubly-loaded “Mother(land)”, as Nispel baits us with a clear psycho-sexual story (lifted from Psycho), concealing a more timely undercurrent. All the plot pieces are available for reading Whitney (Amanda Righetti) as the object of Jason’s displaced love/fear of his long-dead mother, now internalized as maternal superego.
Another Motherland looms larger in Friday the 13th, and I’d even argue that it’s more accurately about Fatherland — at this point in the Jason story, the total absence of a father has become more interesting than his over-determined mothering.
Camp Crystal Lake in 2009 has become a little chunk of Iraq in Northern New Jersey wilderness where a local tells our hero Clay (a humble man of the earth played by Jared Padalecki) that whatever’s out there is better off left alone. The war against Jason is a never-ending war on terror, and throughout this installment no fewer than three (arguably four) waves of American combatants are sent into the blast zone. Jason, like Iraq, is a problem we still don’t understand so can only throw bodies at. And now in its tenth or so installment, it’s impressive that Jason’s drawn-out ground war can still be engaging, if only very conventionally.
I think you’re spot on with the war on terror allegory. In the press notes, Nispel is quoted as saying: “I said to [the producers], ‘Whatever you do, bring the fun back and find a way to incorporate an underground system for Jason to operate from.'” He added the film needed something scarier than an abandoned summer camp, which apparently isn’t scary anymore, but it fits our reading that Jason operates from a “cave” of sorts, just like those Tora Bora-dwelling terrorists. Jason is even “smoked out” at one point, when fleeing youngsters accidentally set his secret cellar on fire.
Of course, his underground lair also alludes to Silence of the Lambs, even Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. (Nispel directed the recent TCM remake, and cinematographer Daniel Pearl — an ironic name, given the film’s decapitation motif — photographed both the original Hooper film, the sequel and Nispel’s, er, reimagining.) After I settled into this film, I spent most of my time jotting down the embedded movie references. The double wave of victims reminded me of Death Proof, but there was a lot more: Blue Velvet, with the (lame, especially by comparison) PBR shout-out and the severed ear discovery; The Shining, with the external help killed immediately upon arrival; To Have and Have Not, with one of the disposably promiscuous girls’ crude twist on Lauren Bacall’s famous “you do know how to whistle?” speech; and, of course, Fargo, with that wood chipper!
I’m glad you brought up The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (the original, never bring the remake up again, please), because its influence is all over this film. What is Jason here if not a slightly less tragic Leatherface? Another important parallel Nispel picks up from TCM before losing its thread is the indie exploitation masterpiece’s pitch-perfect class politics. Friday the 13th has all the trappings of a cash-grab B-movie throwback, but the fact that Michael Bay served as producer says a lot about its Hollywood boardroom origins.
Jason begins as the classic working-class monster, come to terrorize the trust-funded Ivy Leaguers. He lives in a mine, perpetually destroys luxury goods (most notably a snazzy speedboat) and favors simple tools for his kills (in one key scene he uses a screwdriver while a suburban garage-style buzzsaw glints in the background). In that very same scene, though, Friday the 13th loses its class compass. The screwdriver offs Chewie (Aaron Yoo) moments after he voices a surprisingly coherent monologue on upper-class excess. He seems to be speaking from a place of relative poverty, but Jason sees no difference between obnoxious frat boy Trent (Travis Van Winkle) and this sympathetic teenage tag-along. And incidentally, can someone please come up with an Asian-American character who isn’t a racist cliché?
It’s that sort of thematic inconsistency that kept this movie from succeeding as anything other than an inoffensive genre exercise. The best recent horror movies, like Vacancy, Baghead and The Strangers, work well not just because they make efficient use of the genre’s trappings, but because they had a clear guiding hand behind them: dare I say it, an “auteur” (or two), with a set of sophisticated themes to work through.
In contrast, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre revisit was so forgettable because, among other things, it didn’t have that sort of individual force holding it together. (I want to keep talking about this film!) In that case, Nispel, Bay, et al. mucked up not only a masterpiece of atmosphere but, as you said, a film with a sharp political thesis: capitalism’s relation to cannibalism, made literal. In Nispel’s version, this idea got lost, of course, amid the filmmakers’ desire for hole-in-the-head POV shots. It was bland filmmaking-by-committee, intended solely to jolt.
From a critical standpoint, remaking Friday the 13th was a much surer bet for them, because they’re revisiting not so much a classic film but a classic pop culture phenomenon; there isn’t really a lot to live up to. The movies were trashy then and they’re trashy now — how could it be worse than Jason in Space? As such, this movie holds its own among the original first few installments from the 80s — not that that’s saying much, of course. (Early on, one of the victims is lurking around Jason’s cabin — which, hey hipsters, bizarrely included a ukulele — and he says, “look how old this shit is. It looks like it was dragged here from another century.” No, just another decade.)
In many ways, this movie was pleasantly old-fashioned — in its efficiency, its repetitious cycle of debauchery and death, its lack of a heavy metal soundtrack — though it did conspicuously boast a few by-test-audience-demand tweaks for contemporary audiences: a lot more breasts, a lot more bong hits and a few ethnic stereotypes for comic relief: Chewie, as you mentioned, as well as Lawrence, The Black Guy (Arlen Escarpeta, who was born in Belize). Lawrence is essentially a minstrel, a black character meant to entertain white audiences: he accuses the Caucasoid characters of racism, sure, but it’s all in good humor, so they can have a chuckle and forget about it. And he can get back to smoking his bowl, natch.
Your point about Friday the 13th being an inoffensive film — a statement I completely agree with — speaks volumes on the state of horror cinema. How did a genre predicated on violating the ethics and expectations of its audience arrive at such a stalemate? (Maybe the torture porn subgenre that you mentioned in opening has some latent revolutionary possibilities, or maybe not.) Friday the 13th is so thoroughly status quo that it offers a surprisingly lucid vision of contemporary America. Rich white men like Trent’s super-rich dad have failed us, but the new model of masculine authority (exemplified here by Clay) is basically a brown-haired version of the previous blond archetype. (Both, interestingly, are completely non-sexual: Trent mid-coitus: “Your breasts are stupendous. Sublime nipple placement.”) Seriously, if not for their contrasting hair colors and Trent’s creepy resemblance to Tom Cruise, the jousting alpha males would have been indistinguishable.
Similarly, the film’s racial stereotypes are enabled by our current, supposedly “post-race” situation. Race is either ignored as with Chewie (who, by the way, is named “Chewie” for chrissakes!), or it is underlined to be laughed off, as with Lawrence. Perhaps this is what’s at the root of Jason’s longevity as a horror archetype: his story offers a convenient platform on which to pit a malleable evil against the day’s normative character types. After all, the first group Jason decimates in Friday the 13th is entirely white, while the second is “multicultural.” America may have changed a whole heck of a lot since 1980, but Jason’s brand of horror remains uncompromisingly inclusive.