Tuesday, June 2, 2009

On DVD: "Friday the 13th" (2009)

Marcus Nispel’s new Friday the 13th isn’t so much a remake, or even a (buzzword warning) “reboot”; it’s more like a remix, grabbing and sampling and recycling bits and pieces from the first four Friday movies (1980-1984), smoothing out the rough edges, populating it with pretty people and slicking it up into a 2009 “product.” It does its job, efficiently and effectively, but it doesn’t do much to convince the viewer of its own need to exist.

The structure of the screenplay, by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (whose script for Freddy Vs. Jason helped drive a six-year stake into the series), is just plain odd. It begins with an opening credit sequence on June 13, 1980, which is basically a recreation of the ending of the original Friday the 13th—Mrs. Vorhees, who has murdered several camp counselors (off-screen and before this film begins), is decapitated by the last living counselor, though in this version, young Jason looks on from the bushes. We then jump ahead to “the present,” as five young potheads go camping in the woods nearby, looking for a stash of weed; after Jason goes to work on them, we then see the title—at the 24-minute mark, so if any of us did notice it was missing from the opening credits, we’ve long since forgotten.

Anyway. We jump ahead a month, where we find Clay Miller (Jared Padelecki, from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural) looking for his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), one of those five campers from the post-credit, pre-title (is that right?) sequence. He crosses path with a group of (mostly) jackass teenagers, led by douchey Trent (Travis Van Winkle), who is bringing his horny, pot-hungry friends up to his parents’ cabin off Crystal Lake. The remainder of the story concerns Clay’s search for his sister, with the help of likable Jenna (Danielle Panabaker), intercut with Jason (Derek Mears) picking off her friends one by one.

I’m not sure exactly why Shannon and Swift abandoned the camp counselor construct that served the original Friday films so well; not to slam too much logic into an unwelcome home, but Jason (and his mother) killing horny counselors at least made sense (sort of), as a pair of copulating teens were to blame for his drowning. Here, Jason appears to just kill anybody who wanders into his field of vision, which begs the question: if Trent’s cabin is close enough to Jason’s turf for him to kill whoever shows up there, why weren’t Trent and his parents killed a long time ago? Seems like that’s a bad piece of real estate, especially in today’s market. “Toxic asset,” indeed.

The picture also includes much of the defiance of logic that we’ve come to expect in a slasher film—people who call out to reveal their location (“Ritchie? Ritchie, stop fuckin’ around!”), a guy who goes out alone to find his missing friend, and yeah, go ahead and reach into that hole in the wall, that’s a good idea. However, they wisely dispense with the notion of the lumbering killer; this Jason is fast, efficient, and crafty. Some of the other changes don’t work; the weed subplot is dopey (pardon the pun), and the film is harshed (haw haw) by a tiresome strain (too much?) of pot humor. Look kids, I know the Apatow movies made some bank, but everyone can’t pull off the pot jokes (they even bring in a JV Seth Rogen for the first sequence); one scene, in which a hillbilly victim smokes some weed and licks a Hustler magazine, is so repulsive, you want to take it out yourself. Shannon and Swift also frequently pull out the lazy screenwriter’s ploy of having characters constantly talking to themselves (I counted three: the aforementioned loathsome hillbilly, pothead “Chewie,” and the punchable Trent, whose external monologue includes the immortal line, “Where are you, gun?”).

I’ll give director Nispel this much, however: he can certainly put a set piece together. I was one of the few people who didn’t loathe his Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake a few years back (it’s not match for the original, of course, but on its own terms, it’s an blunt, atmospheric, serviceable picture), and while his slick, commercially-savvy style negates the grubby, snuff-y, low-budget aesthetic that made the original film so creepy (same goes for the Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left remakes), it has its own advantages. Nispel is skilled at building an atmosphere of dread, even if the payoffs are fairly pedestrian; the kills themselves are frequently more gory than genuinely scary, which was a frequent (and often valid) criticism of the original series.

The dialogue and performances are fairly natural, at least for this kind of movie; Padalecki and Panabaker have a nice chemistry, Van Winkle makes for a thoroughly hateable auxiliary antagonist, and it’s always nice to see Ryan Hansen (from Veronica Mars) getting some work. There is also—and this no small achievement in this age of PG-13 horror—a nice throwback quality to the bad behavior on-screen; it earns its R rating for “strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, nudity, language and drug material.” But it’s ultimately a forgettable exercise; much of it is cheeseball (particularly the big line during the last kill, which is a real groaner) and it never transcends or reinvents the clichés of the Dead Teenage Movie. Ultimately, it’s just kind of crassly commercial, an apparently successful attempt to wring some more green out of a long-beaten dead horse.

Friday the 13th is a marginally satisfying slasher film, with enough nods to the original series to satisfy fans and enough atmosphere and shock editing for younger, Hostel-trained audiences. But it never really manages to re-invigorate the material the way that the filmmakers clearly hoped to, and it fails in its attempts to interject humor or humanity. It has its moments, but manages to deliver precious few genuine scares.

"Friday the 13th" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, June 16th.

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