Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: Friday The 13th (2009) is a remake/re-imagining/regurgitation of a slasher franchise that never earned higher than a C- on any but the most lenient of curves. It was released by Platinum Dunes, the production company that gave us “modern” versions of The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, all of which are more notable for their ability to plasticize sweat, grit, and gore than for generating actual scares. Metacritic has Friday The 13th at a 34 rating (just one point lower than Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen), and our own Tasha Robinson could barely work up more than weary contempt in her review, calling the film “an insistently pointless series reboot” and slapping it with a D.
Curiosity factor: The reviews didn’t matter; I was going to see this sooner or later. I own all the original Friday The 13th movies, plus Freddy Vs. Jason, and I’ve watched all of them multiple times, generally while drunk. It’s not that I think any movie in the series is actually good; apart from a few moments in the original film that almost capture the eeriness of being out in the woods when the sun is setting, the series is just a lumpy stew of gore effects (often edited down to nothing by censors), occasional skin, and lots of padding. Jason Voorhees doesn’t have Freddy Krueger’s smarmy cruelty or Michael Meyers’ spookiness. He’s just a lug who walks around stabbing things, and in spite of the mythology around the character, there’s nothing interesting going on behind the mask. To make a good Friday The 13th movie would mean altering the basic model so drastically that you’d be better off just starting from scratch.
But I honestly love all of them (even Jason Takes Manhattan, in which he doesn’t), and it isn’t an ironic love. At least not entirely. I like crappy movies, and I especially like crappy horror movies; I find them comforting, because part of me used to be terrified of them. So when the first new Friday The 13th in eight years hit theaters, it was only a matter of time. And hey, it’s not like there was going to be that sharp a quality drop from Jason X, right? I’ve seen most of the Platinum Dunes output, and they’re all vaguely watchable, in that relaxing, “I can go down to the corner store, maybe get a jog in, leave this playing, come back, and I won’t have missed anything” kind of way. My only expectation was that the Blu-ray (nothing highlights the murky cinematography of fake murders like 1080p) would play, and then, one hour and 46 minutes later (yes, it’s the “Killer Cut”), it would stop. I’m happy to say, those expectations were largely met.
The viewing experience: I’m not sure exactly how to judge the 2009 Friday The 13th. I can’t honestly tell you whether it’s the worst of the franchise, because the positive feelings I have for the other films are so personal and subjective that I can’t separate opinion from experience. I wasn’t drunk while I watched this, although I wished I were plenty of times—which is probably not a good sign.
There’s an attempt at a story here, one that straddles a weird line between too much and too little incident. The original Friday The 13th had Betsy Palmer as Jason’s mother, running around killing camp counselors because she was messed up over the accidental drowning of her son. The idea that Jason actually wasn’t dead didn’t really get confirmed until Part 2 (there’s a jump scare at the end of the first movie with a young, mucky-looking Jason attacking the Final Girl, but it’s best to pass that off as a dream sequence); the question this raises—why was Mama Voorhees so pissed-off, given that her spawn was still breathing?—never gets answered. I always assumed she was just so crazy that she pretended he was dead even when he wasn’t. (“They killed him, they killed my Jason, and someday, I’ll have my revenge!” “What’s for dinner tonight, Ma?” “Tuna casserole. Which you would enjoy if your life hadn’t been snuffed out by their carelessness!” “Aw, Ma…”)
None of this was ever much more than an excuse, a shrug, and a wink to cover any backstory requirements (ignoring Jason Goes To Hell, of course, when things got complicated); but the new version manages to make that excuse even more threadbare. I was curious when I heard Nana Visitor had been cast as Mrs. Voorhees, because she’s an interesting actress (best known for her role as Kira on Deep Space Nine), but she’s barely in the film. She gets a couple of awful lines in the opening black-and-white sequence, then her head gets lopped off. The sequence is a real winner, too, as it breaks up the action every few seconds for a cut back to the credits:
After Mama loses her head, little Jason comes out of the bushes—I’m sure all those counselors your mom butchered really appreciate you showing your face now, kid—and takes a locket off the body. And that’s basically all we get for character development. Jason grows up to be a mute, hulking serial killer, living on the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake and swiping supplies from the local pot dealer. But deep down inside that pit of endless, murderous rage (and make no mistake, this Jason is seriously pissed off) is a little boy who wants his mommy back. And when a handful of idiot teenagers come by, and one of them (Amanda Righetti) just happens to look like the picture of young Mommy from Mommy’s locket, well, it’s hardly a surprise when he slaughters her friends but spares her life and keeps her chained up in his underground lair, right?
Okay, actually, it is; I guess you could give the filmmakers points for originality. Of all the things the original Jason is, “kidnapper” ain’t one of them. But this development just raises more problems. Like, does he really think this is his mother? And if he does, why is she chained up? And if he doesn’t, why isn’t she dead? It isn’t impossible to justify, but it’s an odd narrative choice that just gets tossed out there like it’s supposed to mean something. Righetti’s disappearance does get her brother, Jared Padalecki (from Supernatural) into the story; he comes looking for her a few months later when she doesn’t come home, and becomes the closest thing to a hero the movie has. While he’s stumbling around trying to find his missing sibling, he bumps into a group of assholes and stoners at the corner store, the standard “Why the hell are these people friends?” assortment that gives us a higher body count, plus more nudity and a couple of pot/bong jokes. We get two different groups of victims here, which is fine, but there’s nothing to distinguish them, and the time jump adds nothing but improbability to the narrative.
Ha! I wrote “narrative” while discussing a Friday The 13th movie. These choices could’ve been interesting—changing Jason’s character, re-using the mommy fixation that made Friday The 13th Part II dangerously close to compelling, introducing the passage of time after the initial massacre—but they’re executed so flatly and half-heartedly that it’s unclear why screenwriters Damian Shannon and Mark Swift even bothered.
Speaking of the writers… developed characters have never been a Friday The 13th series strength, but these are lousy by any standard. Padalecki is blandly solid, Righetti screams and cowers convincingly, and there are a couple of funny moments with Aaron Yoo, but beyond that, I’m not sure I could pick any of these people out of a lineup. Writing a movie in which the majority of the cast serve as walking targets takes the fun out of characterization (whether Susie is struggling to overcome a crippling addiction to paint-thinner doesn’t matter much when she’s destined to end life as a human shish kabob), but you can at least put a little effort in; as it is, we’ve got a couple of live sex dolls, a couple of nerds, a jerk, and a trio of heroes who are defined by their lack of negative qualities, rather then by anything inherent to themselves. Pac-Man had more going on than this.
And if we’re going to have hollow men (and women), do they have to be so annoying?
The best part about the above clip is that Captain Jerkward’s (Travis Van Winkle) girlfriend, Danielle Panabaker, is immediately sympathetic to Padalecki, even apologizing for the comments of her dickish boyfriend. So why the hell does she stick with the creep? It’s a standard movie convention that asshole guys often have really nice girlfriends, but while I’m willing to accept that such things happen from time to time in real life, it’s absurd here; it’s hard to understand why any of these people are spending time with him. (Apart from the fact that his parents have a lake house, of course.) Panabaker teams up with Padalecki on the sister hunt, but that’s really the only action she ever takes; she’s even more superfluous to the plot than the rest of the cast, existing only to provide a tenuous link between the two stories.
Making the absolute dearth of characterization even more apparent is the brutality of Jason’s kills. Violent, often absurd deaths are the series’ reason for being, but by and large, those deaths were never particularly sadistic; the audience was supposed to ohhh and ahhh and squirm a little at the effects, but everything was in good fun. This new Jason, though, is a complete bastard—his attacks have a nasty, grind-your-face-in-glass vibe, like the death of poor Aaron Yoo, which seems to go on forever, or the way the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake have been strewn with rusty bear traps. The worst death has Jason trapping a girl (who had the audacity to enjoy having sex with her boyfriend) in a sleeping bag and hanging her over a campfire to slowly roast alive.
None of these people exist beyond their predictable good looks and screams, which makes the nastiness of their ends that much harder to take. We’re not experiencing real terror, because we don’t care about what happens to any of them, so the edge to the violence stands out in isolation from the rest of the film. Where’s the fun in that? Either make an honest-to-god horror movie that actively works to unsettle its audience, or else do some goofy stuff with sharp implements and coeds. Friday The 13th isn’t consistently frightening enough for the former, and it’s too nasty (and sort of misogynistic—notice how nearly all the women end up stripping down right before they die) for the latter.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time: Let’s say 25 percent. It’s got the basic structure I love so much (meet the morons! Then watch them die), and it certainly looks pretty enough. I’m a fan of nudity, and a couple of the kills, sadistic or not, made me laugh hard. For instance: Jason takes out a guy driving a boat with an arrow to the head, and then the boat hits a girl—who’d been skiing topless, natch—in the water. Head bleeding, she swims away to hide under a dock, and then Jason stabs through the boards of the dock and into her skull. Most everything else sucks on toast, but there’s an awful kind of genius right there.