A Storytelling Autopsy: Friday The 13th 2009
What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009). Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this unenumerated entry in the franchise still haunts us.
(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)
(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)
To be clear, FRIDAY THE 13th (2009) does not qualify in any sense as a remake. It is not, at this stage, a "reboot", either, until additional sequels actually get made. As it stands, FRIDAY '09 occupies the same conceptual space as those late-in-the-game re-recorded greatest hits albums that dinosaur rock bands sometimes are encouraged to release. Outside the opening moments, the most recent member of the franchise makes no attempt to retell the story of the original, choosing instead to Frankenstein together elements of the second, third, and fourth films into a patchwork quilt.
The prospects of a “true” remake of Sean S. Cunningham's seminal FRIDAY THE 13th were never very good. Although easily the most successful in the franchise (choose your methodology- the original always comes out on top), the 1980 film has almost none of the elements that the general movie-going public has come to associate with the title. No Jason (outside the ending chair jumper scare), no hockey mask, very little (and restrained, at that) nudity, a modest body count (by modern standards), and absolutely no victims that the audience is meant to root against. FRIDAY '80 is a non-cynical work from a time when genre filmmakers had less of a defensive, antagonistic relationship with viewers. It's unthinkable that Cunningham's film would have ended with Alice raising up Mrs. Voorhees' machete, quipping, “Say hello to your son... in HELL!”, and swinging at the killer's head.
Things have simply changed.
Any long-running movie series inevitably finds itself forced to change in order to remain relevant. DR. NO, as great as it is, wouldn't work for the young audience accustomed to the harder edge of CASINO ROYALE. The modern DARK KNIGHT RISES fan is likely to turn his nose at Tim Burton's campier 1989 take on BATMAN. After boating to New York, swapping bodies, going where no psycho has gone before, and fighting a dream demon, Jason Voorhees, looming as large over the horror genre as Bond and Bruce Wayne over spy flicks and comic book adaptations, desperately needed a modernization.
Enter Jason Voorhees 2.0: a marathon-running, hostage-taking, kerosene-stealing, generator-repairing tunnel rat. Each of these character traits hope to address a well-established criticism that the franchise had endured for nearly three decades. Jason walks, his victims run, but he always catches them? Now he runs with athletic perfection. How does he manage to be seemingly everywhere at once? He uses a network of underground tunnels. Why, in each film, does he stalk the Final Girl but not act on killing her until the final reel? She reminds him of Mom. How does he keep from freezing during those long winters? A working generator. Each of these solutions is serviceable, if somewhat untidy, but not a single one is really necessary. In fact, as we'll see, they're counterproductive.
FRIDAY THE 13th, as a concept, works best as a campfire story brought to screen. Urban legends are not rational. They follow the logic of dreams and nightmares. Offering up “plausible” answers to illogical issues undermines the greatest strength of the series and the basis of its universal appeal. No matter who you are or where you come from, a simple ghost story told in an unfamiliar setting, far from home, in the dark, will always prove effective. By attempting to “fix” the series, FRIDAY '09 ends up sailing far off its best trajectory in service to reparations that none of the fans requested.
Therein lies the biggest contradiction of the film: on one hand it wants to return the series to its origins, and on the other, improve on a wildly successful formula. While no one would ever suggest that any artist should ever aspire to merely repeat what has gone before, in this case the elements clash and end up separating like water and vinegar. A welcome reprieve from high-concept gimmicks comes at the price of unsettled storytelling, creating a film with magnetic poles, elements both attracting and repelling the core audience.
Intriguingly, FRIDAY '09 opens with a lengthy pre-credits sequence that might as well function as a miniature sequel in its own right. It's quickly established that a group of college kids has ventured into the woods around Crystal Lake to harvest an abandoned crop of marijuana. Especially interesting is the early attempt to recapture the camp fire/urban legend aesthetic of the first two films; none of the characters has first hand knowledge of the crop since the source came from “a second-hand source”, which might as well be “my brother's roommate...”. It's not long before the story of Mrs. Voorhees' rampage and her son's possible survival are recounted... around an actual campfire... with marshmallows, no less.
The trip to the decrepit camp is, without a doubt, the most frightening sequence in the franchise since FINAL CHAPTER. The murders at the campsite are more effective than any we've seen since NEW BLOOD. The dark- almost nihilist- atmosphere is a very welcome departure from the tone of FREDDY VS. JASON, X, or GOES TO HELL. There's real menace here... and a palpable sense of danger. Victims have their heads split, are burnt alive, and actually suffer from their wounds. This isn't the clean, almost antiseptic murder spree of TAKES MANHATTAN. Even the final girl, retreating on all fours, is unable to escape as Jason brings his machete down---
If FRIDAY THE 13th '09 had ended right there, the only complaint from fans would have been its length. The pre-credits sequence, minus the thinly staged recreation of Mrs. Voorhees' decapitation, is a near-perfect distillation of all the things the audience identifies as crucial to the complete FRIDAY THE 13th experience.
The remainder of the movie, which also attempts to blend iconic elements of the first four films, is less successful. Not that it fails completely, but it's here that all of those attempts to ground the story into a hard reality come into play. Jason's kidnapping tenancies, underground tunnels, and mechanical proficiency may not derail the film, but they ultimately work against its effectiveness by distracting the viewer from the story's forward momentum. Every time the film detours from its main plot in order to explain away a built-in illogicality, the film loses all of the tension it has built up and must then regain. A perfect example of this is the scene where Clay and Jenna explore Camp Crystal Lake looking for Whitney, only to stumble across Jason. A wonderful suspense sequence-- and a clever one too, reversing the common theme of Jason spying on his victims-- has a good chunk of its scariness undone the moment Jason turns on the flood lights. Since we've never seen this side of Jason before, it feels alien and strange. The viewer inevitably finds himself more interested in Jason's mastery of generators and wiring than the survival of our heroes. And that's a problem.
Still, there are excellent scenes abound: Chewie's cruel murder is perhaps the series' most brutal death, Nolan's shocking arrow-to-the-head never fails to draw breath, and the suspenseful lead up to Chelsea's offing are all standouts. When FRIDAY '09 fires on all cylinders, it threatens to eclipse most earlier entries and wind up at the top of most fan's best-of lists. But its missteps, such as the awkward and forced sequence where Jason acquires his trademark hockey mask, are damaging.
The film's biggest flaw, without question, is its anticlimactic ending. From the moment Jenna dies onward, the movie's momentum wanes. Jenna's death comes unexpected and sudden; too quickly, since she served as the audience's surrogate and the only character that comes off as wholly likable. We don't spend enough time with Whitney to really feel any connection with her. Clay broods earnestly enough, but his single-minded search for his sister leaves him without a purpose once he finds her-- sure he wants to live, but how is that different than any of the others? Following the final two survivors into a barn to face off with Jason, we feel no dread that either of them might not make it. While the movie has shown a willingness to kill off a traditionally “safe” character, we don't really care about Clay or Whitney enough for the final showdown to have any emotional heft.
And then there's that groan-worthy line: “Say hello to Mommy... in hell!”
As if tired of itself, the film limps to its final scare in the most perfunctory fashion imaginable, turning the first film's landmark chair-jumper into a strangely idle, eye-rolling denouncement of everything that came before. For a film that went so far out of its way to firm up a more realistic take on the subject, in the end we get a standard resurrected Jason leaping from the depths of Crystal Lake. In essence, the movie is declaring its own intentions to have failed. Reality doesn't work for FRIDAY THE 13th, but by the final moments of this film, surreality can't, either. No one wakes on a hospital cot. No Final Girl breathlessly whispers, “then... he's still there.”
Take a moment and compare those two cited line: “then... he's still there.” and “Say hello to Mommy... in hell.” It about sums up the difference between the original classic and this mishandled, sometimes powerful but often confused “remake”. In one case, the audience is left shaken and creeped-out by the violent, haunting experience they've witnessed; in the other, they're already on their feet with half-empty popcorn bag in hand, heading for the theater exit. It's a question of substance, and lack thereof.
FRIDAY THE 13th (2009) had the unfortunate task of replicating the success of one of the genre's most influential titles. And, in all honesty, it is better than almost all of the later-day slasher movies that studios both small and large have offered. If the same film were released under a different title, with a killer with a different name and mask, it would be celebrated as a return to form for the stalk-and-slash subgenre. But when compared to the original source, it takes a significant beating. Had the filmmakers trusted the early series' dynamics of heightened, surreal storytelling-- nightmare logic, urban legend set-up, and campfire lyricism-- the result might very well have ushered in a new era of FRIDAY THE 13th supremacy. By choosing to tether the movie to a more plausible sensibility, it effectively chained the new film to the bottom of the lake.
The good news is that we all know how well that works out.