Appropriation of Fear—A Review of Friday the 13th

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The Friday the 13th teenagers, including those in the franchise reboot that opens this week, are a superior breed of dumb. The kind of dumb that makes someone who knows a killer is on the loose say, “I’m not afraid!” and then leave the safety of a house to trek out into the woods with only a wok for a shield.

It takes a special kind of idiot to be a victim in a Friday the 13th movie. The teenagers in these schlock slashers (“schlashers?”) are not your run-of-the-mill horror movie fodder, the kind who make clichéd too-scared-to-think decisions we all shake our heads at, like running up the stairs instead of out the door.  No, the Friday the 13th teenagers, including those in the franchise reboot that opens this week, are a superior breed of dumb.  This is the kind of dumb that impels a woman to go skinny dipping while taking a break from looking for her lost dog at an abandoned sleepaway camp (See: Friday the 13th Part 2).  Or in the new film, the kind of dumb that makes someone who knows a killer is on the loose say, “I’m not afraid!” and then leave the safety of a house to trek out into the woods with only a wok for a shield.  When characters like these die gruesome deaths, it is not a tragedy.  It is inevitable.

By stocking itself with characters like this the new Friday the 13th is, in its own way, staying true to the spirit of the series, which began in 1980 as an obvious Halloween knock-off and now returns in 2009 as an obvious Halloween remake knock-off.  The director, Marcus Nispel, also directed the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and all of these movies share a visual aesthetic of rot and decay; the locations are caked in dirt and grime and rust, as if the sets from the original movies have lain fallow for decades and the crews of the remakes returned to shoot them in whatever condition they found.

In Nispel’s Friday, a group of young, attractive dopes have come to a house near the now-abandoned Camp Crystal Lake for a weekend away from college.  Also in the area is a guy named Clay (Jared Padalecki), whose sister went missing in the second of the film’s two prologues.  The first consists of a flashback to Friday, June 13th, 1980, where a “deformed and retarded” boy named Jason Vorhees watches his mother’s murder while she tries to avenge his murder at the hands of some negligent camp counselors (believe it or not, this actually makes more sense than the story given in the original films).  It’s hard to imagine that a deformed child living on his own in the woods and subsisting on a diet of roadkill and puddle water could eventually grow into a 300-pound linebacker, but that’s exactly what happens by the time Clay and company start messing around on Jason’s turf.

The original Friday the 13th, taking a page from Carpenter’s Halloween, relied heavily on shots from the killer’s point-of-view, e.g. Jason spying on the camp counselors who would quickly become his prey whenever they decided to venture out into the rain in their underwear (in their defense, they were playing strip Monopoly).  Nispel largely dispenses with the technique, preferring instead to unnerve the audience with a series of gotcha gags.  During scare sequences the camera stays very tight on the characters’ faces as they slowly wander around looking for Jason (as a general rule, HE’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU) keeping crucial information from us until the killer pops out at the last possible moment.  The shock moments are enhanced by a soundtrack of metallic shrieks that assault the audience in much the same manner that Jason dispatches his victims. It’s effective, if not especially creative—but who’s expecting a remake of a knock-off to be creative anyway?

Though the movie is set in the present day, there isn’t much updating done beyond a flurry of product placement shout-outs.  A cell phone would be a useful gadget to have under murderous circumstances but the movie explains away their absence with a character’s complaint about a lack of signal (they do not, surprisingly, mention what brand of phone they have).  Despite their avid participation in the modern consumer culture, none of the characters have seen a Friday the 13th, or indeed any horror movie, and so there are very few jokes or meta-textual commentary; this is a straight-ahead slasher movie.  Perhaps the appeal to filmmakers of remakes goes beyond the obvious box office advantages brand recognition brings: being based on older movies frees them to trot out all the old genre hallmarks without punctuating each one with an ironic wink.

Or maybe these characters would say something pithy about their situation if only they could muster the brainpower.  One critic walking out of the press screening explained to another that Jason is a fascinating character because “he punishes immorality.”  Maybe.  I prefer to think he’s punishing stupidity.


Matt Singer covers the world of film for the Independent Film Channel. He's also a regular contributor to their website, IFC.com. His personal blog is Termite Art. More from this author →