Monday, January 23, 2012

RANT: FRIDAY THE 13th (2009)

This past Friday the 13th led me to rediscover my love for the perpetual film franchise of the same name. I’ve been watching Jason run amuck ever since I was a wee one. At the time, I was too young and poor to own actual copies of the films, so I was reduced to watching versions taped off of television from ABC’s “Million Dollar Movie” and USA’s “Up All Night." Yes, the gore was heavily edited. Yes, there was no nudity to be found. And yes, even terse lines of dialogue like “thank God” were edited to be simply “thank ___.” But at that time, I took anything I could get. And I wore those tapes out without much effort.

Jason Voorhees, both pre- and post-zombie, was kind of my hero. He was a monstrous force of nature with which to be reckoned. He crushed heads and introduced axes to bodies without prejudice. He cared little for the half-naked nubiles that were helplessly straddled on the floor in front of him—he wanted nothing more than to throw them out the window, or to stab them…you know…down there. The Friday the 13th series was even, in essence, my first exposure to sex (and in a largely overblown way, its consequences). I didn’t have the birds-and-the-bees talk with my embarrassed father, nor did my older brother one day sneak home a badly dubbed VHS tape filled with porn (at least not right away), and my inevitable tour of duty in Sex Ed 101 would come far too late. No sir, I learned all about the ways of female anatomy from The Final Chapter.

The series was simply a large part of my childhood. During middle school history class, I would design my own posters for the existing entries, as well as “what if?” concepts:

Jason Vs. The Army

Jason Vs. Jaws

Jason Vs. Some Weird Thing Covered in White Out That’s Supposed To Be Michael Myers (I was, and continue to be, a shitty artist.)

In art class, after being given molding foam to sculpt anything we wished, other kids looked on in confusion as I created a hockey mask, compete with blood-red triangle. A childhood friend and I used to sleep over each other’s houses every time a Friday the 13th marathon was scheduled to air, even though between the two of us we’d seen the films a hundred times. At a “sidewalk sale” at my local mall (where old storeroom items were sold for next to nothing), I just about had a boner-heart attack combo when finding a poster for Jason Lives.

Despite all this, I would understandably never describe any of the series’ entries as high art—not even the first film, which by default receives more love than it deserves. Slasher movies resulting in legitimately good cinema – Halloween naturally comes to mind – is a rarity. Sure, they’re “good” in the sense that you like them, and they are certainly entertaining...but they weren’t written to push your emotional buttons and make you realize something about yourself. They were written so you could laugh as the fat chick on the side of the road gets a pickaxe through her neck. They were made so you could scream as you realize Final Girl is completely alone, and the masked maniac could be around any corner. Slasher movies are buffalo wings and beer. They’re an option, they’re delicious, but at the end of the day, they’re junk. (But that’s okay!)

Unlike the Halloween or A Nightmare Elm Street series, most Friday the 13th fans do not point to the first film as their sole favorite. In fact, a large portion cites it as among the series' weakest to date (the top honor most likely going to the Jason-less A New Beginning). Although indifference towards the first film is a direct result of the lack of Jason, being that he’s become synonymous with the series as we all know it (and rightfully so), I also wonder if the unlove comes as the result of it merely being the first film, and hence should have tried to break new ground. Less was expected of Parts 2 and 3, which were the same old thing, and hence held to less rigorous standards. As for a fan favorite, I think it’s safe to say the Crispin Glover dance-infected The Final Chapter would be the victor. (It’s my preferred entry.)

Despite the lack of “quality” in each successive sequel, insofar as could be expected of Friday the 13th, you cannot claim that each entry post-Final Chapter was not trying something new.

A New Beginning pissed off a lot of fans by removing Jason from the equation and replacing him with a copycat killer. Luckily, the movie boasts a healthy amount of the red stuff, and director Danny Steiner infuses the movie with a slimy yet effective grindhouse tone. Even with the disappointment that the real Jason sat this one out, it’s a natural continuation of the Tommy Jarvis saga, which began in The Final Chapter. It's effectively directed, and had Jason actually been the killer in the film, I believe A New Beginning would be considered a highpoint in the series.

Jason Lives, most would agree, is the most “fun” of the series to date. By then, tongue was firmly planted in cheek and it shows, both on the page and on the screen. For a series in which two of the previous entries took place in summer camps (Jason Lives being the third), we finally have younger kids in the cast, and miraculously they are not completely annoying. Despite all this (and despite the goofy but lovable James Bond-esque opening title sequence), let it not be said that Jason Lives does not live up to its namesake and its reputation. Jason, resurrected from the grave, is back with a vengeance. People are smashed through RV walls, ripped apart, and bent in half. Heads are stabbed and triple decapitations are on the menu. “Fun” tone notwithstanding, the threat is still very real. Thom Mathews (Return of the Living Dead) caps off the Tommy Jarvis story with the best iteration of the character and puts Jason back in the lake for good (haha, not). Director Tom McLoughlin channels Joe Dante and the Amblin Films aesthetic, delivering a hoot-and-a-half of a Friday film. For the first time, characters of all ages (kids! teens! adults! old men!) are included, and it brings an understated legitimacy to the movie.

The New Blood also receives much backlash, though unduly so. Yes, the whole Jason vs. Carrie aesthetic, brought to life by Final Girl’s uncanny ability for telekinesis, was a little absurd, but most fans have been pretty forgiving of that plot point. What they are not forgiving of, however, is the chopped and heavily edited version that finally made it to theaters. Director John Carl Buecher, having previously spent his time in special effects, filled his movie with what could have been the most impressive deaths since Savini’s masterpiece, The Final Chapter. Sadly, except for some recently resurrected and intensely grainy footage, it’s likely these deaths will never be restored for a future edition. Regardless of what the MPAA did to the movie, and not director Buechler, a new direction was explored, albeit unsuccessfully, so the movie is not totally without its merits. Not to mention that the Jason brought to life in The New Blood (played for the first of four times by fan favorite Kane Hodder) was at his most absolutely bad-ass looking—exposed spine and all. 

Jason Takes A Cruise Ship/Vancouver Manhattan comes next. Unfortunately, what sounded like a clever and exciting script was hacked apart for budgetary reasons, and so writer/director Rob Hedden had to sacrifice much of his vision. Originally set to shoot scenes in Madison Square Garden (where Julius was supposed to get his head punched off) and the Brooklyn Bridge – and with a finale in the Statue of Liberty – Hedden was forced to shift most of the action to that god damned cruise ship. (In case you were wondering, 34 minutes of the movie's 96-minute running time "takes place" in New York, and roughly two minutes of that time is actually shot there.) What writer/director Hedden can be blamed for, however, is fucking up the series' mythos by impossibly suggesting that Final Girl and Jason were children around the same time, making Jason either both a zombie killer AND a lake-haunting boy ghost, or Final Girl the oldest fucking high school senior on record. Also, while Jason's immortality and uncanny talent for taking lives have always bordered on absurd, Manhattan takes it one step further and bestows on him the completely ludicrous ability to teleport. At film's end, Jason screams like an elephant and drowns in toxic waste.

It had a really fun teaser poster, though:

Once the Paramount reign of Friday the 13th ended and New Line Cinema stepped in to adopt the rotting mongoloid, Jason then went to Hell, space, and Elm Street. Most would agree none of them were a return to form for the masked killer (though I unabashedly love Freddy vs. Jason).

In 2003, New Line Cinema unleashed the very controversial remake of Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While it certainly was a project motivated by money (what Hollywood films aren’t?), it wasn’t necessarily part of the ensuing remake craze that would soon follow—it was merely the first. It was the catalyst that set into motion the realization that brand names like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween all had street value. The strength of their titles would cut through everything else being released and easily compete for the attentions of the masses.

So what happened?

After the mostly-decent Chainsaw remake hit theaters with great success, every single horror movie with the least bit of title recognition had a remake announced. Iconic titles like Halloween and The Omen, the more obscure like Black Christmas and My Bloody Valentine, and the sucked-the-first-time Prom Night and House on Sorority Row—nothing was safe. The horror genre was raped by the movie gods and vomited on screen with mostly pitiful results.

None of them missed the boat as badly as 2009’s Friday the 13th. This, truly, was one of the most disappointing movies I’ve ever had the extreme misfortune of seeing in theaters. It was the first time that I remember even feeling embarrassed to be sitting in those theater seats—knowing that I had paid to be there, and before that, excitedly told any chum who would listen that I would be attending the special midnight showing.

Rob Zombie’s Halloween was a complete shit storm from minute one to minute oh-my-god-let-this-fucking-movie-end. I’d cite it as another abysmal experience in the theater, and probably a worse movie than 2009’s Friday the 13th. So why the extreme hate towards the latter? Because Carpenter’s 1978 cheapie classic is just that—a classic. While it certainly didn’t create the slasher sub-genre, it created all the rules that Friday the 13th and hundreds of other imitators to follow would beat into the ground: Fuck and die, do drugs and die, the virginal heroine lives, kill the killer three times, etc, etc. And in Carpenter’s film, this collection of soon-to-be-clichés was wrapped around a story of Halloween shenanigans and evil let loose on suburban streets. It was scary because it seemed real, and it felt like it could happen, but mostly because it was just a great movie. Any attempted remake had a lot to live up to. Zombie “tried” and miserably failed. And while the first Friday the 13th ripped off Halloween’s concept, and though the Sean Cunningham-directed flick was not responsible for the familiar slasher tropes that have since become textbook, it solidified them. 1980’s Friday the 13th was a cheap but enjoyable imitation. It was a little special, but not much. And the concept was sinfully basic.

When the soulless production team of Bay et al. announced the remake of Friday the 13th, every horror enthusiast and their mother knew they weren’t actually remaking the first film, in which the killer is not Jason at all, but his mother. Instead, they were remaking what goes through everyone’s minds when you say the words “Friday the 13th”—Jason, with mask, cutting down teens with machetes in the woods. That’s all you need, that’s all Friday the 13th is, and – despite all the later sequels' attempts to try new things – that’s all Jason Voorhees is ever going to be. You can take the killer out of the woods, but you can’t take the woods out of the killer.

When the remake of Friday the 13th was announced I was excited. By this time, Platinum Dunes had already given the world the aforementioned remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – which was shockingly good – as well as their follow-up project, The Amityville Horror, starring Ryan Reynolds’ beard and abs. Amityville was mostly greeted with a boo-hiss from critics – both legitimate and fans – but I dug it. It was simple, effective, and provided a few scares. While obviously the victim of “needs more dumb shit!” reshoots, it’s still a competent little flick. Then PD’s version of The Hitcher came along, and was anemic in every sense of the word. The script didn't attempt to do one new thing, except change one specific dynamic that was perfect the way it was: the male and female lead characters were swapped so that Sean Bean’s Ryder became fixated on the female lead instead of the male, as it was in the original thriller. Because of this, the oddly homoerotic cat-and-mouse tone of The Hitcher '81 became just another formulaic case of a maniac victimizing a smart’n’sassy girl. Been there, done that. A hundred times.

Still, PD was 2-for-3 in my eyes, and each announcement in regards to the Friday the 13th remake really seemed to indicate they knew what they were doing:

The writers of Freddy Vs. Jason would be writing the script. (Hey, I liked that movie!)

The director of 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be getting behind the camera. (Hey, I liked that movie, too!)

Jared Padalecki, star of "Supernatural,"  would be playing the lead role of Clay— basically a reiteration of Jason-hunter Rob from The Final Chapter. (Hey, I love "Supernatural!" And the kid can actually act!)

The movie was soon shot, set visit reports showed great enthusiasm from all those involved, and the trailer masterfully captured the tone of the original movies, even going as far as mimicking the “death countdown” from thirteen, as the trailer for the original film did 30 years prior.

So how did it all get so fucked up so badly? How did they get all of this seemingly so right and then flush it right down the toilet?

It begins with the script. You’ll never (ever) have me bemoaning the idea that characters in a Friday the 13th movie should have development coming out the ass, because I don’t need that. If I want character development, I’ll go see a movie that doesn’t end in “Part 12.” What I want, desperately, is for the characters not to be truly annoying. If I have to spend 90 minutes with these people, I’d rather not spend that time resisting pulling my own face off and begging Jason to show up and vivisect all of them at once. Writers craft scripts like this and then grin at you and say, “the kids feel like real kids!” If Friday the 13th’s kids are based on real kids, Planet Earth is doomed.

Most of the deaths are incredibly lazy and border on that unfun Hostel bullshit, taking the deaths out of fun Friday the 13th territory and instead making them look merely unpleasant and simultaneously boring. Case in point: a character wanders around a dark garage looking for god-knows-what, spending almost five straight minutes talking to himself. The music is mounting and you know Jason’s about to pop up and give this kid a death we all hope is glorious. So what happens? Jason DOES pop up, but instead of something amazing and clever, he shoves a screwdriver into the kid’s throat. It’s not fun, but boring—and uncomfortable. That’s not why we’re here. We've come for titillation, not revulsion.

As far as Jason’s killing capabilities go, I’m a little more lenient than some other fans. If Jason wants to shoot an arrow into some girl’s skull, that’s fine – in previous entries, I’ve seen him throw spikes directly into people’s faces from afar with deadly precision, so I won’t complain about the method – but to then flash to Jason’s old room and show us that he once won a trophy for archery in his youth? Who fucking cares? You mean the writers thought they were clever enough to “explain” why Jason is good with a bow-and-arrow, yet when it came time for him to find his hockey mask for the first time – in a moment that should have been iconic – they write a scene where he literally finds the fucking thing on the floor?

Come on guys, really?

Speaking of bullshit, what is with these kids and their utter masturbatory obsession with smoking weed? Yeah, I get it. Teens smoke weed. Teens have always smoked weed, and will always smoke weed. You know who else smoked weed? My parents. And yours. We're not doing anything new here, people. But talk about beating your audience over the head with it: The movie opens with kids hunting for a pot field, and then later, more kids come along and smoke weed and laugh, because OMG, weed is fucking hysterical. Since when did weed become synonymous with Friday the 13th? Did these writers accidentally rent Friday instead when writing their script? (That’s a terrible fucking joke, I know.) 

Listen, the original Friday the 13th entries are horrendously dated, I’ll freely admit it: There are no cell phones. Kids dance "the robot" and have gigantic hair. The guys wear shorter shorts than the girls. For an entry or two, punk was “in.” But you know what none of these kids ever did? Made a huge goddamn production out of the fact they were smoking weed. And do you know why? Because despite how goofy the Friday the 13th kids of yesteryear might seem to the current masses, they were – and are – fucking cooler than kids today. They didn’t take out their bongs and pipes and do puppet shows. They didn’t go “awwww yeaaaah!” when someone took out an ounce and waved it around like a Polaroid. They didn’t say “this is some good shit!” or laugh “I am so stoned!” They passed the joint, smoked, and played some acoustic. That was it and that was all, and that’s all we ever needed.

I understand PD felt the need to pander to their audience and remind us that we’ve all smoked weed before and we should all remember how cool and fun and hilarious it was when we did. (This generation, after all, is the reason Adam Sandler and Larry the Cable Guy rule the box office. Clearly, our taste is spiraling downward at a rapid rate.) But here’s a news flash for you: my friends and I weren’t total douche bags about it. We smoked and listened to Cypress Hill in solitude. We sometimes wrote in journals. We relaxed and didn’t harp on the fact of what we’d just done. Talking about smoking weed while you’re smoking weed: Is this something kids honestly do? Do they narrate their entire lives this way? “Awwww yeah, I’m gonna eat these Honey Combs and the milk’s gonna fill my belly!” It honestly feels like PD is elbowing me in the side as I try to watch their film. "Remember when you smoked weed, buddy? Remember?"

Yeah, I remember. And since you're nagging me with a question, I've got one for you: How come every single character in your movie is fucking retarded? I mean, were you seriously going to just masturbate in the middle of the living room since no one was around at the time, Black Kid? The fuck is the matter with you? I remember a lot of dumb shit from the older Friday the 13th movies: a girl serenading her man as he takes a shit inside a disgusting outhouse, and another girl flashing her own tits in the mirror and shouting, "it's showtime!" I do not ever recall a character looking around, and after noticing that everyone is suspiciously missing, prepping for some out-in-the-open masturbation.

In general, all of Friday the 13th 2009 feels like a cheap parody of the original series.

Multiple references to smoking weed? Check.

Multiple scenes of absurd reasons to be naked? Check. (And seriously, do real people go water skiing topless, or randomly take their breasts out and show them to someone else?)

Multiple deaths containing at least one iota of originality? Uh…

Not helping matters is the lifeless film score by Steve Jablonksy. A graduate from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions (a company in which Zimmer mentors other composers to successfully recreate his own huge and epic sound that could be heard in every major action movie during the mid-90s), Jablonksy is PD’s go-to guy. Unfortunately, the composer sees fit to keep “ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma” and toss the rest—unaware of how effective, scary, and unusual Harry Manfredini’s original music truly was. While I’ve always recognized the success of the original Friday flicks in conjunction with Manfredini’s score, the recently released soundtrack collection from La La Land made me realize just how brilliant of a composer he is/was. This isn’t music you can hum, like Halloween, Phantasm, or Jaws. Notes are all over the place and hardly repetitive – more Herrmann than Carpenter – and the collection of harsh strings, harps, and low brass is no less than masterful. It’s a superior film score that deserved just as much respect as Jason himself, but given the complete lack of understanding as to what made Jason a great character, it would seem Harry’s score never had a chance. (For an example of how to do this the right way, see Graeme Revell's score for Freddy Vs. Jason, which effectively marries Manfredini's Friday stuff with Charles Bernstein's Nightmare stuff, all the while writing his own original compositions.)

My only kudos I have for the film is entirely dedicated to Derek Mears as Jason. A long time fan of the series, he understood that – despite what people think – Jason Voorhees really is a “character,” and as such, he should be played by someone who is going to do more than just walk. Mears did a great job bringing some life to Jason, but it’s a shame he didn’t have a stronger script to ensure an appropriate level of quality. If so, future trips to Crystal Lake would have been ensured. (Friday the 13th had a great opening weekend, but bad word-of-mouth caused a severe drop off afterward, thus killing any current plans for an immediate follow up.)

No, I don’t care that Jason runs in the film (because he did in Parts 3 and 4). No, I don’t care that he’s somehow rigged electricity in his childhood home (because he managed to finagle a working toilet in the middle of the woods in Part 2). However, I DO think it’s ridiculous that the movie would purposely establish one backwoods character owning a wood chipper and show him throwing stuff into it, leading us to assume that Jason is going to grab some poor soul and throw them in...which never happens. I DO think it's ridiculous to establish that the town of Crystal Lake knows that Jason is running around in the woods, yet aren't that concerned about it, so long as he doesn't bother them. I DO think it's ridiculous that Jason would chain up a random girl and even go as far as to feed her for a week, all because she resembled his mother. And I DO think it's ridiculous that an abandoned summer camp would be infested with a series of underground tunnels that Jason travels with ease. Why are they even there? Did Jason dig them himself? Were they perhaps left over from the old mining days? If only the writers had taken two seconds – had written ONE line of dialogue – to explain this little development, being that a large portion of the third act takes place primarily within these tunnels.

Instead they opted to explain why Jason is so handy with a fucking bow-and-arrow.

Good work, nerds.

To those at Platinum Dunes: this isn’t Don Corleone we’re talking about here. Nor Indiana Jones, John McClaine, or even Batman. It’s Jason fucking Voorhees. Put a mask on him, dump him in the woods, give him some unannoying kids to kill in clever ways, and add a twist of lemon for freshness. You’re not reinventing the wheel here. You’re only keeping it turning. That’s all we ever wanted. And you totally blew it.

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