AGAINST THE GRAIN #1: Friday the 13th (2009)

“Against the Grain” aims to give different takes on films that critics have either praised or slammed. It’s not something that everyone at SquabbleBox will agree with, but it is an honest opinion. First up, a visit to Camp Crystal Lake and a critically slashed remake.

2009’s Friday the 13th is as good a Friday the 13th movie as we’re ever likely to get. There are numerous reasons for this, including an actual budget well-spent, and a rather vicious Jason, so it’s far from the unmitigated disaster everyone makes out. To understand why it’s such a great entry in the unkillable franchise, we must examine the history of the series itself, and what exactly this film aimed to achieve.

Friday the 13th was directed by Sean S. Cunningham and written by Victor Miller, two exploitation filmmakers trying to score a hit. It was released in 1980 to cash-in on the success of John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween (1978), a movie that is considered the beginning of the end for the truly horrific horror film; evolving into a new kind of genre  – “The Slasher.”

Cunningham’s film consists of a simple, yet effective plot (with a twist) that was used in Halloween. Person goes around killing teenagers and making real-life teen audiences scared to become liberal, pot smoking, free-thinking hippie  “communist” types, and become virginal, Republican American citizens instead.

The film takes place at the now infamous Camp Crystal Lake, where in 1957 camp councillors are murdered by an unknown assailant. Skip ahead 23-years later and Crystal Lake is reopened for business. However the very same killer is going to make sure that the camp stays closed, permanently.

The film struck a nerve and featured more gore than Halloween, attracting young movie-goers who wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Along with a twist that no-one suspected, and the now-familiar shock in the final moments, Cunningham’s movie was unoriginal but revolutionary in its grisly technique. For those who haven’t seen Friday the 13th, and are interested in exploring the slasher genre, it should be high on your list.

A sequel was inevitable. Since the first killer had lost their head, a new one was introduced in 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2. Jason Voorhees was born.

Without spoiling too much, Jason was a killing machine, but a killing machine that teenagers could relate to: He was a simple, deformed local child who was bullied and allegedly drowned in Crystal Lake while the camp councillors were having sex instead of looking after the kids. Jason grows up a feral child, not knowing or truly understanding society’s morals or death itself. All he knows is survival and a hatred for “normal” people, who treated him like an outcast and almost killed him. When he witnesses his own mother being beheaded at the lake by a teenager, that’s it. Jason’s had enough. He will kill anyone who enters his domain…especially horny, pot-smoking teenagers.

Jason is the most loved and sympathised serial killer in film history, especially amongst social outcasts or victims of bullying. He’s the underdog, in a way.

His instantaneous success brought on another sequel, this time in 3D, and it introduced an image so famous that even non Friday 13th fans will instantly recognise it: The scene was set for Jason to put on his 1950’s Detroit Red Wings hockey mask, and the rest was history.

In 1984, one of the biggest lies in cinematic history came about with Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter, in which Jason was supposedly killed.

Just one year later, executives decided to breathe new life into the franchise by setting up a new killer, who would continue the massacre and keep the cash rolling in for Paramount. Unfortunately fan and critical reaction was so negative that they decided to bring Jason back from the dead in the rather brilliant comedy, Part VI:  Jason Lives.

This marked the beginning of a new era for Friday 13th, one which felt so much more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon than something to be truly afraid of, like most serial killers on film – Jason had become a walking joke. Our masked villain (or should I say hero?) continued his slapstick hack n’ slash for a further five sequels, including a confrontation with an even bigger walking joke, Freddy Krueger, in 2003’s Freddy vs Jason. He even slaughtered teens in space for the so-bad-it’s-good Jason X.

I’m not saying that the series lost its appeal, it was just good for totally different reasons – it was a cartoon; it wasn’t designed to make you look over your shoulder at night, it was intended to show you how imaginatively Jason could kill someone, and the more annoying the victim was, the greater the pleasure for the audience. Vorhees was a hero defending us from the annoying stereotypes of society. The deaths were inspired and occasionally amazing. I mean, who doesn’t think Jason PUNCHING a man’s HEAD CLEAN OFF isn’t awesome?

Nowadays, sadly, this comical hack n’ slash hero/villain combination is all that remains of American horror, and 99% of slasher films. However, it goes without saying that these films have wonderful entertainment value. It’s just a shame that this kind of picture spread so far that it completely took over, and was even parodied by Wes Craven in his 1996 hit, Scream.

When I heard that Michael Bay was rebooting the Friday series, I wasn’t too pleased. But when Brad Fuller (Co-Producer) started to explain their vision, I got more and more intrigued: They wanted to explore the character of Jason, make him more believable (while still maintaining a hyper-reality) as a feral child who witnesses his mother’s own demise, and bring in a real actor behind the mask instead of a stuntman. They were taking Jason back to his roots, a wise decision. Unfortunately the film got slammed by critics and fans alike. Due to this, I avoided the film like the plague until one day the DVD landed in my lap, and it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The film starts with the longest intro I’ve ever seen in this genre; it must have lasted 20 minutes (eat your heart out, Scorsese). The prologue was well-done, and sets up Jason’s back-story. It also gives us some staple “kids in the woods, smoking pot with some guilty pleasure silicone T&A.” Jason looks mean, and can actually run, which makes him far more grounded in reality, and in my opinion, scarier.

When the film really starts we get one likeable character, who is looking for his missing sister (introduced in the pre-title sequence), played by Supernatural‘s Jared Padalecki. He’s someone who you are actually rooting for, and you genuinely feel for the guy, especially when all hope looks completely lost. His sister isn’t a likely contender for Survivor of the Year 2009.

The rest of the characters are sadly stereotypical and unlikable, and you know right from the word go that they are all doomed. No surprises, nada, nothing. The kills are surprisingly dull after seeing a woman’s face get dunked in liquid nitrogen and shattered in Jason X. Things could have been a tad more imaginative, and the remake certainly doesn’t top Tom Savini’s bravura make up effects from the original. The really annoying people don’t get much special treatment either, which if you’re going for the whole “obnoxious people dying” thing, you should really go overkill and not hold back.

Some of the biggest criticisms from the mainstream press included the fact that the new Jason could sprint, was an expert marksman with a bow and arrow, and that the kills were pedestrian. The latter is true, but I really enjoyed this version of Mr. Vorhees compared to the others (yes, even over Kane Hodder). With this Jason, the character had drive as well as an inhuman menace, and he still seems to teleport like classic Jason. He also had some added emotion; just look at the scene where he kills that woman in the bathroom, look at the hatred and disgust in his eye. That’s intense, and proof you really need a good actor no matter what character you’re playing. Derek Mears made the part his own.

The running and marksmanship are simple logic. If you’re surviving in the woods for most of your life, you’re going to need sharp hunting skills. Jason’s underground lair added a bit more hyper-realism to the proceedings, as well as an explanation for his ability to cut-off victims with ease. The running, drive and energy are unique to this Jason. I really felt a sense of hypocrisy with fans complaining that the kills were nothing new, yet when they got a Jason that could move fast, suddenly they complained.

The film is partially ruined by a stupid “shock ending,” which has been done to death, and could have been handled a lot better.

Despite such flaws, it really is one of the best Friday 13th films, if not the best (the original will always hold more love). It gives you everything you expect and a little more. Certainly a more solid reboot than a lot of Michael Bay’s current horror franchise rapes. Remember his version of The Hitcher? Shudder.

A solid slasher flick for 2009.

FOOTNOTE: I heard that they were going to do a sequel set in winter, but they axed it (pun intended completely). I would have loved this if it veered away from teenagers and went with FBI agents or Lumberjacks. Best Christmas film since Die Hard, period.

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