Opening Friday, February 13th
Directed by Marcus Nispel
When Sean Cunningham directed a little slasher film in 1980 called Friday the 13th, he ignited a blood-drenched phenomenon that pervaded pop culture and, through eleven films, introduced audiences to Jason Voorhees. This hockey masked bogeyman was stabbed, drown, set on fire, awash with toxic waste, jettisoned into space, dragged to hell and pitted against Freddy Krueger. He’s achieved life after death numerous times and has now successfully overcome his greatest hurdle yet: Returning for a Platinum Dunes-produced franchise reboot.
It’s a chapter in his long cinematic history that gets so much right that it easily makes it into this writer’s top five favorite Friday the 13th films (we can talk geeky here, this is Jason after all). The most technically proficient entry to date, this is one redo – in a spate of modern failed “re-imaginings” – that embraces all that we love about the franchise, and it manages to break some new ground. It’s a rush, plain and simple. And Jason is undoubtedly back in a big way.
Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (using elements from an earlier draft by Mark Wheaton) create a story that can be arguably looked at as a sequel. If it were not so modern with the inclusion of cell phones and GPS devices, one could say it fits somewhere around parts three and four, while borrowing heavily from them enough to technically be labeled as a “restart.” Regardless, it’s a fresh tale insofar that there are new characters fueled by new, rather lightweight, motivations.
It briefly begins with a flashback to Mrs. Voorhees’ demise on a stormy night. Flash forward two decades or so and we’re introduced to a group of 20-somethings hiking through the woods of Crystal Lake to find a crop of weed (a running theme in Dunes’ films, it seems, after Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Mary Jane piÃ±ata). In no short time, these over-sexed, Night Ranger-listenin’ victims are dispensed with in brutal fashion, save for one, as we come to learn. The energy in this opening sequence – which is a long one – is tonally on the mark. Witty and funny with a few mean-spirited flourishes (way until you see this film’s spin on the sleeping bag murder).
Picking up six weeks later… Cue a fresh crop of party-goers led by Travis Van Winkle’s Trent – one of the best douchebags to ever grace the screen. He’s opening the doors to his lakeside home to his rowdy friends, much to his chagrin. Meanwhile, a chiseled fella named Clay (Jared Padalecki, faring better acting-wise than his Supernatural co-star Jensen Ackles in that other slasher remake) is making the rounds circulating flyers and trying to find his missing sister Whitney (Righetti). His search takes him to Trent’s front door where he befriends Jenna (Panabaker) and together they head off into the woods to continue his cause. From there, the Jason antics ensue and the bodies drop.
Friday the 13th retains and amplifies the “sex ‘n drugs” combo that has increasingly come to the fore in franchise. Except I don’t recall ever liking the participating characters as much as I do here. They’re an entertaining lot with divergent personalities, I’ll give them that, and they’ve got an amiable rapport. And from the group there is actually one character (who shall go unnamed) I was actually sad to see fall beneath the blade of Jason’s machete. That’s a first. Still, seeing them go remains a thrill and director Marcus Nispel, Shannon and Swift devise a number of strong kills, however, none as outrageous as what we’ve seen in the past entries.
As for Jason, fans will have a new interpretation to wholeheartedly embrace in the towering, hunched Derek Mears. This guy’s a brute. An expert marksman. A survivalist. A freight train allotted choice moments to exude ideal menace, whether he’s throwing canoes aside to find his prey or slowly plunging a screwdriver into a victim’s throat. Jason is scary again. He’s real. Not the meandering zombie so many audiences remember him as in the latter half of the franchise. This Jason doesn’t hesitate and Mears’ performance -which floats some creepy nuances – is all of our favorite Jason “moments” distilled into a single bad-ass. Full disclosure here, this film did an effective job of making this writer fear for Jason’s life at the end, because, naturally…I wanted to see him return for more films.
My gripes with Friday the 13th are few and include never being able to fully see Jason’s face. The sack he wears over his head (an intimidating guise) is pulled off for a quick reveal yet it’s way too fast. And now being a fan of makeup FX artist Scott Stoddard’s updated look for Jason, seeing his mangle visage would have been a welcome payoff. Also, for all of the jump scares, far too many involved Jason suddenly appearing behind his victim. The dude is imposing, no doubt, but it works once. There’s also a very questionable decision made on behalf of the hero (or heroine?) that might have you scratching your head. Purists might balk at the film’s refusal to follow the “final girl” formula, then again, I didn’t find this to be a criminal decision.
Nispel and cinematographer Daniel Pearl present a slick-looking entry. They’re absolutely in love with lens flares and nearly capture a certain ’80s look to the daytime photography. Composer Steve Jablonsky, meanwhile, sets a proper mood music that thankfully isn’t the “doom and gloom” of his work on Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here he’s a bit livelier and spices up his score with some subtle touches of John Carpenter. Harry Manfredini’s “ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma” is sparingly used. To be fair, I didn’t miss it all that much, but when it’s called into play, you can’t help but grin.
Following a second screening (where I thought the film played even better than the first time around), I got into a conversation with one fan who enjoyed it but lamented some things he would have liked to have seen. Minor details. Why wasn’t Jason invincible? Why didn’t they have this? Or that? My argument was that this film was a perfect warm up. A reminder of just how a much fun a Friday the 13th film should be (admit it, we’ve lived through some dark days after Jason Lives). Platinum Dunes and company could have fallen into the trap of overloading it. Producing a film that was merely a “greatest hits” – which is not what I want to see. They nailed the balance, as far as I’m concerned, blending old and new sensibilities. And yes, this just might leave the fans wanting more but they should take heart in knowing that if the Friday the 13th has come this far, there’s a good chance Jason will come back for more.
I hope he does.