Friday, June 19, 2009

Revisiting Friday the 13th '09

You would think that after years of the series' various producers doing everything they could to keep Jason out of his wheelhouse - sending him to Manhattan, into space, pitting him against Freddy, etc. - that returning to basics with a reboot would be an automatic win. But when the Friday the 13th remake was released in theaters back in February, reaction among the fans was largely hostile and now its on DVD, ready to be re-evaluated. Did the filmmakers fumble the machete or were fans' expectations just set too high? A little bit of both, I believe.

When it comes to Friday the 13th, getting back to basics isn't quite as easy as it sounds. After all, a true remake of the original Friday would've had to have told Pamela Voorhees' story, not Jason's. And while that may be where the series started, the perception among moviegoers is that Friday the 13th is all about Jason. Jason's mother is just a footnote in the series and no one wants to see a whole movie about a footnote. The approach that Platinum Dunes took - to riff on Fridays 1-4 - was definitely the wiser strategy. But even then, the problem becomes one of coping with Jason' half-baked mythology. The Friday movies stepped ass-backwards from one sequel to the next into making Jason an icon and so trying to re-introduce Jason and also stick to the lore of the series is trickier than it sounds.

The biggest problem is that as a character, Jason makes no sense. Did he drown in Crystal Lake as a child or did he survive? Is he just a deranged backwoods maniac or is he supernatural? These are questions that you kind of need to know the answers to before making a reboot of the series but they're not easy questions to address because any answer is going to lead to a nonsensical story. If he's supernatural, the origins of that have to be explained. If Jason survived his drowning, why did he not reunite with his mother before she took revenge for his death? If there's an answer for that, we've never heard it. The "he survived" option is what PD went with, though, as when the remake opens we see a flashback to the young Jason witnessing his mother's death at the hands of the Final Girl who survived Pamela Voorhees' wrath. Even though that's more or less what the original series had always asked us to accept, it was easier back in the day to just go from Mrs. Voorhees being killed in the original to Jason coming back to avenge her in Part 2 with no explanation attached. But as fans never bothered much with the logic behind that, it seems wrong to fault PD's remake for sticking to the same story that fans have been ok with for almost thirty years.

Then there's the introduction to the iconic hockey mask, which was a completely casual moment in the original series as Jason appropriated the mask from a victim in Part 3 but yet the expectation for this remake was that there had to be a better discovery of the mask than "he just finds it". I disagree - I think any explanation would've inevitably been silly or obnoxious. The trend I most hate in modern movies - modern genre movies especially - is the drive to over-explain everything. While the hockey mask could've been given a slightly more ingenious intro, I'm ok with how it was handled. And for attentive viewers, there's a brief glimpse of sporting trophies in Jason's bedroom - hockey and archery trophies, specifically - that give a hint as to why Jason would be drawn to donning the mask (and the archery trophy explains his new-found handiness with a bow and arrow - a skill that drew criticism among fans, although given Jason's aptitude for all sorts of weapons, I don't know why mastering a bow and arrow should be considered beyond his abilities).

The remake took the most heat for introducing new elements to the series that seemed to be a sign of the new film's producers and screenwriters not "getting" Jason. Why does Jason now utilize a series of underground tunnels to get around and why is he holding a prisoner for weeks on end? I agree that these are curious choices but given the kind of foolishness the series has been party to for years, I don't think the remake over stepped itself too much. I prefer the "no tunnels, no prisoners" Jason but that said, I felt like this was still Jason (it helps that Derek Mears is the best Jason performer since The Final Chapter's Ted White). The tunnels are justifiable as a way of Jason being able to move from place to place without drawing attention to himself and as for taking a prisoner, well, as a reboot maybe this is how he learned that there's no room for sentimentality when you're a murdering maniac - it only throws you off your game.

As for the kills, I think there's more good moments here than its been given credit for. As a fan, I like that there's a mix of styles - there's the over-the-top kills, the slow and nasty kills, and the out-of-nowhere kills. That, to me, shows an awareness of the series. But I also think that director Marcus Nispel dropped the ball in staging several kills that should've been crowd-pleasers but yet fall totally flat (like the death of the cop) because what's happening isn't filmed to its best advantage - the angles are wrong, the lighting is too dark, etc. But while Friday '09 could've been more rousing in this area, I felt like it didn't embarrass itself either. I mean, I don't know what your standards are but for me, any Friday that has a chick burned to death in a sleeping bag suspended over a campfire, that has a topless chick hiding in the water under a dock get impaled by a machete through the top of her head and then be lifted out of the water to gratuitously show the audience her breasts one last time before prying the character off the machete blade, and that has a dude get an axe in the back and then has Jason flip the suffering dude over, driving the axe up through his chest to complete the kill, can hold its head up in the company of the other Fridays. That's just how I roll.

Is there room for improvement in the sequel? Oh yeah, plenty. Should the people at Platinum Dunes be the ones to make those improvements? That's questionable. But next to the other entries in the series, Friday '09 seemed better than most to me. I understand that this might not have been the remake that some fans wanted to see but there's a feel to that first film - in its pacing, its acting, its cinematography - that the other Fridays were never able to get back to. There's something elusive about the original and trying to understand it is like trying to touch your own reflection on a lake - it just shimmers and separates. For its part, the remake is content to just splash around.


Wings1295 said...

Great review of the movie! I was taken aback a bit on my first viewing, but the second viewing was better. I enjoyed it much more for what it is.

And I didn't mind the tunnels. I took it as a good way to explain how Jason can get from point A to point B quickly, appearing like he teleported. Tunnels! Makes sense, to me!

Can't wait to get the DVD so I can watch this one again. :)

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, Wings! I think that sending Jason running through tunnels was a questionable move but I can live with it. You know, he can be everywhere at once because he's, well, Jason. I don't think anyone was ever pissed because Jason's ability to get ahead of his victims stretched credulity too much. I suspect that they'll just forget about the tunnels when it comes time for the sequel.