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constructinghorror.com: RE-IMAGING A CLASSIC - FRIDAY THE 13th [Jason Meredith]

I’ve always been partial to the Friday the 13th movies. The iconography has always been part of my world, be it posters, action figures or simple naïve sketches in my note books.

Or perhaps it’s because I was just at the right age when Alice Cooper made his comeback with the Constrictor album in 1986. You may remember that album contained the song He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask), which actually became a #1 hit here in Sweden, and after seeing the music video for that song, I rushed to my nearest video store and picked up every Friday the 13th movie that I could put my blood thirsty hands on, and if you’re a teenage kid looking for a few fast shocks, bloody effects, cheap laughs and random glimpses of naked chicks then the Friday the 13th movies are going to have you jumping with joy. Movies scripted right off the generic formula, with only one thing in mind, give the kids a good time and make a few bucks during the time.

Fast forward some twenty two years and I read online that New Line is going to revamp the Friday franchise. Obviously my first reaction is No way! How are they ever going to bring something new to that series? After being killed several times, re-animated as a undead killing machine, drowned at the bottom of Crystal Lake, rampaging through Times Square, frozen and regenerated as a cyborgian death machine in space some hundred years in the future and finally sent to back to Hell by Freddy Krueger, it safe to say that the series has done what it can and should just stay dead. If I want to have more laughs than scares in my horror I could just re-watch Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein.

So how could you possibly re-image Jason Voorhees, the homicidal maniac that stalks teenagers up at Crystal Lake? Just that simple question had me staying on line and Now this project could have gone to anywhere and due to the warm feelings I have for quite a few of the earlier movies I couldn’t stay away from the online updates. Well the first thing you ALWAYS hear when a remake is rumored of officially scheduled is “OH NO How can they remake this. The Original is a Classic, you cant remake a classic” etc, obviously your first obstacle is to keep the fans content, an almost impossible task. Quite a few of the originals and their remakes probably shouldn’t fall under the classic banner, but a lot of them are highly respected among genre fans as childhood memories, gate ways into discovering the genre and memoirs of great times with your buddies. Which in a psychological way, means you’re re-imaging, re-making and re-evaluating all those feelings those movies evoked the original audience the first time around. And then in some way you have to bring it up to date, make it more appealing for the kids of today, as the somewhat slow pacing and cheesiness of eighties splatter movies, quite charming, but dated. The kids of today want fast paced beats with little slowing down in between. It’s not an easy task to take on.

Quite soon after New Line announced that they where truing to get the project of the goround, Michael Bay and his Platinum Dunes stepped up as producers for the project. Something received by genre fans with mixed emotions. Some of their previous revamps like The Amityville Horror where real disappointments, completely loosing the family in despair core of the original, inserting completely uncalled for nudity and sex romps, exposing the silly ghosts way to early and messing up a great original movie. The Texas Chainsaw :The Beginning, was all right, but fell hard on it’s face trying to explain the origin and je ne se qua of Leatherface and the family, a bad move as some horror icons are far more terrifying the less we learn about them.

Dunes later announced that they had hired Mark Wheaton to pen the script, now supposedly to focus on the origins of Jason, which started to bring around the realization that this movie could end up just as bad as the fans feared it to be. Fast forward some six months… Platinum Dunes Co-Producer Brad Fuller reassured fans at a Fangoria convention that the film would not be made to follow Freddy vs. Jason or Jason X, but more of a remake of the first films and then Jonathan Liebesman was presented as a possible director. Liebesman with Darkness Falls on his record and his second feature, the one that probably landed him the gig was the project he’d just completed for New Line and Platinum Dunes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning got genre fans concerned. Both are decent films, but that “origin” part of TCM The Beginning was really awful, and with Friday the 13th the back-story IS the first movie, Friday fans know where Jason is coming from, and don’t need or crave a “psychological reasoning” for his behaviour.

Damian Shannon and Mark Swift where brought on to the writing staff. The guy’s behind the screenplay for Freddy Vs. Jason had some neat ideas and did bring something new to both franchises, could they together with Wheaton possibly come up with a new fresh take on the Friday saga? Unable to stay with the project Liebesman stepped out and Marcus Nispel was said to be in final discussions to helm the remake. Now this got the fans buzzing again, what Nispel did with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was very inspiring, he stayed true to the form, true to the original, true to all that’s sacred about that movie, but brought it back to where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be, more or less discarding all the previous entries that had watered down and made the franchise more or less about comedic murderers instead of pure terror. Also with Nispel on board there was a dammed good chance that Daniel Pearl would be behind the camera, and Mr. Pearl’s imagery in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is outstanding.

So Friday the 13th 2009 rolls around and as I walk into the packed theatre, at least twenty years older than everyone else there, I think to myself, how much is this going to suck? Why am I doing this to myself and my platonic love of the original Friday the 13th. What I am not going to like about this movie and more than anything else, what are they going to tell me that I didn’t want to know about origins, back-story and new exploits of Jason?

Well the buzz that was in that movie theater resonated throughout the entire movie and finally exploded with the cheers and applause that thundered throughout the room as the end credits with out a doubt proved that this movie is a keeper.

Watching Friday the 13th on the big screen in a room full of kids is possibly one of the most fun times I’ve had at the cinema in ages. It plays true to all the rules of generic horror and delivers exactly what you’d expect it too. A tight paced action plot interweaving the laughs, the nudity and the shocks at great precision. Not once during the movie did I feel that familiar tedious feeling when the beats are too far apart. It’s a great big roller coaster ride of death and mayhem, and I’m glad that I saw it in the forum I saw it, because watching generic horror with the right crowd is a great way to watch it function to perfection. The kids where screaming at the deaths, jumping with the shocks, wolf howling at the nudity, yelling “don’t go in there” at all the right spots, squeezing into each other every time the tensions started to build, making it very clear that the team behind this movie knew exactly what they where going after. Giving the kids a great night out.

Story wise the movie plays out surprisingly well, there’s a quick sepia toned three minute sequence interwoven with the production and actor credits that recaps the back-story, Momma Voorhees [Nana Visitor] making her last stand and Jason picking up the machete to keep up her good work. I take a sigh of relief here as there’s the back story, there’s no way that they can go back and re-tell that in some other way. It’s on screen, and rapidly played out in a decent way to bring old fans nodding with recognition and new fans quickly into the story. Fade to black and back where we are put right into D.P., Daniel Pearl’s wonderful low angle, washed out colors as a bunch of kids ponder through the woods some twenty years later. Here the next batch is set up Five kids you know are going to get it, but the ferocious tempo and aggression that kicks in here is unlike anything I’ve seen in ages. What I found stimulating here is that within a few minutes the filmmakers actually create empathy for three characters in two simple scenes, hence unsettling the audience, we’re accustomed to going into a Friday movie with the intention of seeing Jason Voorhees chop and slash his way through his victims, not root for the kids! In a simple set up Whitney [Amanda Righetti] and Mike [Nick Mennell] wonder off for an mandatory rumble in the woods, but wait, before they get far from the camp Whitney starts putting forth exposition; she’s feeling guilty because she’s not at home with her bedridden ill mother. We already know that she’s got her mind on other things as the first time we see her Mike asks her “where are you right now?” as the gang walked through the woods. Anyhow, Mike comforts her and tries to get her to enjoy the weekend as they wonder off into the woods, only to soon find an apparent abandoned cabin… In the next scene Amanda [America Olivio] and Richie [Ben Feldman] start to tease each other, building up for the obligatory teenage shag as Wade [ Jonathan Sadowski] (sporting a Star Wars T-shirt just to make it clear that he’s the geeky one of the gang) just tries to make conversation and is really in the way. But when he’s made aware of this fact doesn’t dick around like the stooges usually do. There’s no tongue in cheek one liners, or haw haw nudge nudge messing about. He gets the message, packs his shit up and walks away to let them get on with their business! He walks through the woods listening to Night Ranger’s classic power ballad Sister Christian, singing along, enjoying life and we like this dude, we really do. In a comic tension builder, I say tension builder, as we know that not too far behind the laughs there’s a shock awaiting, as Wade finds the mother load, the marijuana crops that they where looking for, we laugh with Wade and bond further with him. Guess what, just as you start to realize that you like him BLAM, there’s Jason. A few fast edits later Wade is dead and the carnage gets started. In a high paced rush Jason chases down the kids one by one and puts an end to their lives. Amanda and Richie, balling away in the tent are interrupted and obviously Richie goes out to see what it is. He finds the body of Wade and runs back to the camp where he pounds his foot down into a bear trap, forcing him to watch Amanda burn to death in her sleeping bag strung up over the fire by Jason. Then back at the cabin in the woods, there’s a great nod at the second movie as Mike and Whitney find the head of Pamela Voorhees, just before Jason breaks through the floor dragging Mike to a certain death. Whitney runs back to camp and finds Amanda’s body and Richie stuck in the trap, as she tries to release him, Jason rushes up behind them, planting his machete deep in Richie’s head, before Whitney screams and the title Friday The 13th slams onto the screen. The audience screams out aloud, cheers the rush and takes a well deserved breather after this extremely intense twenty two minute set up sequence. So far I was surprised. I liked it, it was intense, it was entertaining, and it was violent. Jason showed no mercy at all, he didn’t even take time to stare at his victims; he just moshed right over them like the killing machine he once used to be. And then there’s the few hints of empathy that unusually aren’t found in a generic horror movies that had me nodding approvingly. The main body of the movie kicks in, and we are introduced to the new meat, and the remaining 75 minutes play out like a genre fan’s wet dream. In retrospect after watching the movie I start to realize that everything I thought I might dislike with the movie is in fact just the things that make this movie work. The filmmakers have to bring things up to date, they can’t stay in the same old territory that previous movies at the end of the life line took place, even if they had wanted to. I see this clearly when comparing Friday the 13th to movies like Marcus Nispel’s earlier The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Rob Zombie’s Halloween reworkings. They have to up the tempo, make the killings more brutal, make faster transitions from the laughs to the screams. The imagery has to be more aggressive. The core audience has grown up with internet, rock videos and a much less innocent world than when we grew up. These kids are used to fast pacing, violent images thrown at them every time they turn on the tube, gritty rough on-line imagery. And that’s just what the filmmakers have taken hold of, both the above mentioned movies and this re-imaging of Friday the 13th all pack a harder no holds barred punch, look grittier, move faster and don’t mess around when it comes to death. It is harsh and realistic, it’s painful and distracting, and in a very positive way they all try to go back to the basics that once made all those movies considered classics; focusing on the characters going up against the antagonist, making us identify with them so that the fight for survival is the primary theme.

Of course the movie isn’t without flaw, there are a fair amount of problems with the movie that could have been better, but in the bigger picture the pros out did the cons this time around, making it a great movie all in all.

Let’s take a few minutes to breakdown some of the themes and traits that make Friday the 13th an effective horror movie.

• Effective tone setting opening sequence.
The opening flashback and twenty plus minute frenetic mosh pit that opens this movie is without a doubt one of best hooks that I’ve seen for ages. Both pacing and story wise it set’s up such a tone for the film that there’s no way you would want to leave now. Unless you where scared shitless by the tour de force, but then again that’s what we are here for isn’t it. No time is wasted, credits roll over the flashback, and the title is held back until there is a breathing space to bash it onto the screen. It also shows loud and clearly that the filmmakers aren’t here to mess up your perception or relationship to the franchise, they are here to deliver a hard and violent punch to your senses and they deliver big time.

• Character Investment & Development gives Empathy!
It’s been many a year since I actually gave a damn about the characters in a generic horror movie, and I was surprised to find myself rooting for several characters in this movie. The initial portrayal of Wade is great. From the bat you start liking him and I’m sure that the choice of him wearing a Star Wars t-shirt and listening to 80’s power ballad band Night Ranger (something you wouldn’t find to many teenagers of USA today doing) is a nod to the fans of the original installments, those in the audience like me in there late thirties, early forties that still enjoy a good horror flick and where around to experience the originals. A kind of head’s up, this could have been YOU when you where a kid and saw that first installment.

Then there’s Chewie [Aaron Yoo] who in with just a few short scenes and lines creates something that’s almost instant empathy. He gets to ride the cramped space in the back of the jeep. Ok this doesn’t do much for his character, but it will add up to value later, then he breaks out Miss Lucile, his bong, we laugh at him, realizing that he’s the comic relief of the group. He seconds this after sore looser Trent refuses to pay the penalty after loosing a party game and Chewie himself takes the penalty. Again instead of letting Trent put the punishment on his team mate Bree [Julianna Guill] we appreciate the chivalry of Chewie when he downs the stinky sneaker full of beer. Later when he accidentally breaks a chair and is scolded by the now completely unlikable Trent we pity him. As he wonders off down to the shed in search of tools to mend the chair we laugh with him as he makes fun of Trent, we cheer him on as he gets back on Trent by drinking from Trent’s parents liquor reserve. The more we like this character the funnier he gets, he toys around with the equipment in the huge shed, throws judgment on the obviously wealthy Trent and family and when he’s stood face to face with the Hockey masked Jason, he cracks one last humorous line, “Here you can have this, it goes with your outfit” and hands out the hockey stick he’s been playing with to Jason. BANG the humor is shattered and Jason sadistically kills Chewie as the audience pleads for his life. We plead for him as we have empathized with him.

The brother sister card has been played out previously in the series, but I feel that it is a brilliant move to hold on to Whitney instead of having her killed off in the opening sequence. From that spot where it is revealed that Whitney is caged down in Jason’s underground lair, you start consciously or even subconsciously start routing for her and her brother Clay [Jared Padlaecki] to reunite and get out alive. This is due to the fact that you have invested time in Clay’s quest to find Whitney, we’ve taken part of his search, we’ve seen him back away from conflict with Trent at the gas station, and we know that he’s a good guy going about his own investigations after the local law enforcements concluded theirs. We supposed that Whitney was dead, because that’s the norm in the Friday universe, so the reveal creates empathy towards these two characters. It works so well that you hardly flinch when Jenna [Danielle Panabaker] who has assisted Clay on his quest, gone against her terrible unfaithful boyfriend Trent, left her friends and safety behind, eventually dies on the blade of Jason’s dreaded machete in the final act.

And as you may recall, Mike and Whitney found Pamela Voorhees necklace in the old house in the opening sequence. Mike says to Whitney, “Hey she looks just like you!” So even if you did stop to ponder why Jason holds her captive, he relates to her as his mother and therefore can’t quite come to kill her just yet. There’s your answer.

• Homage’s and reference to previous installations.
The movie is filled with tributes to the previous movies, and thankfully the filmmakers don’t dwell on them, they go by in a flash of the eye, and if you know them you’ll get them. There’s the final scenes of the Friday the 13th 1980 original already in the pre-credit flashback sequence, there’s Momma Voorhees head and the bag headed Jason as in the first sequel Part 2, the classic mount of the Hockey mask from Part 3. There might only be four or five other horror icons that are so recognized by their iconic costuming. And when that mask is found and placed over Jason’s face the crowd goes wild. The musical keys ki ki ki ma ma ma, the through the window attack from The Final Chapter, the final glimpse of Jason’s disfigured face, and so on. But the power of the usage of iconic moments and references to the franchise history is gracefully used sparcefully. There is no long tedious, check this out we know our history moments, they are all elegantly woven into the texture and narrative.

• Generic horror audience participation.
This is the kind of movie that you need to go and see on the big screen. That’s where these movies belong. I’m really glad that I decided to go to the opening night, because if I’d have seen this at home in a few months time when the longer “uncut” DVD hits the streets I’m quite sure that I’d have enjoyed it a lot less. The audiences’ worried whispering as a protagonist enters that dark room, the squealing as Jason shows up on screen before the protagonist sees him, the screams as he strikes his deadly blow, the murmur of “did you see that” and “crap, that scared me” after each thump, the whistles each time there is nudity on screen is all part of the experience. The way that the audience participates as a communal victim, screaming, laughing and anticipating the next big scare, the shared experience winds up the crowd as they feed of each others reactions. It is what makes these movies fun, where as at home in the secluded safety of my living room I wouldn’t get that additional experience to the film.

To summarize I’d just like to reflect over the first weekend’s earnings. Friday the 13th was made on an estimated $19.000.000 budget, and already on the first night of business it had made something in the region of $19.4 million, just above production budget. By Sunday night of opening weekend the movie had brought in approximately $42.2 million, the largest takings for a horror movie debut, breaking the record for a horror movie on opening weekend held by the 2004 film The Grudge.

And I have to say that I honestly disagree with the critics that have gutted this movie. Yeah at a glimpse it may seem shallow and just a rehash of old tricks, but if you really know what makes a good horror movie work, if you really know how the generic horror genre formula works, then you will watch this film and see that there are some really re-vitalizing ingredients put into the pot here. There’s the character empathy of the originals, there’s the homage’s to the originals, there’s the contrast between the jokes and the killings, the jokes are really well written and the killings are really harsh, the movie goes from one extreme to the other. Then there’s the respect for the genre and the fans of the originals.

In an age where everyone can watch movies at the leisure of their own home theatres with projectors and surround sound systems, a screening for press and media is never going to be as exhilarating as watching this kind of movie in it’s correct element; a theatre full of kids there for the sole purpose of having a few scares, laughs and a great time. Something that a room full of non-specific reviewers never will experience. Because they are not there to be entertained, they are there to pass judgment on a second parties work and craft. And if you don’t understand the formula it’s going to be lost on your ignorance. In my opinion, the Friday the 13th remake is a sincerely entertaining movie, that with out a doubt will go on to spawn at least one sequel and make great earnings at the box office. It’s generic horror at its finest, and damn is it one hell of a great roller coaster ride to Crystal Lake and back.