The franchise needed this.
It has been 20 years since Jason took Manhattan. Six years since Jason appeared in a motion picture, and eight since he headlined his own movie. And that last movie of his ended with him as a cyborg crash landing on an alien planet. All of the juice had been wrung from the character of Jason Voorhees, and for many observers – myself included – it seemed like the Scream series and a nation’s obsession with damp dead Japanese girls had finally brought to end that big retard’s killing spree.
The only answer, the folks at Platinum Dunes decided, was to start over. And they did… mostly.
What’s perhaps the most amazing thing about this new Friday the 13th is that it’s a direct sequel to the first film. The movie opens on Friday the 13th, 1980 – the date of the original film’s release – with Alice the camp counselor cutting off Mrs. Voorhees’ head. It then proceeds to act like a mash-up of Parts 2, 3 and 4, bringing together some of the most iconic elements of the series (pre-zombie) into what I describe – in the best way possible – as a generic Friday the 13th movie.
That sounds like a slam, but it’s not. When I say to you ‘A Friday the 13th movie’ it’s likely that what pops in your head is not a cyborg in space or a zombie fighting Carrie or a boat cruise to Manhattan, but rather a guy in a hockey mask killing teenagers in the woods. And that’s what this film is. When your favorite band makes a couple of really experimental albums and then comes back to their roots, making an album that sounds like they did when they were touring the clubs as nobodies – that’s what this movie is. It takes the franchise and the genre and strips it down to the most basic elements, trusting that despite endless iterations and self-aware parodies, the basic tropes of the slasher film still work.
And for the most part they do. But there’s one trope that the people at Platinum Dunes have left behind: that of a hulking, retarded Jason. This version of Jason Voorhees is huge but lean, fast and smart. He’s a survivalist, having lived out in the woods on his own for almost thirty years. He has made the woods around Camp Crystal Lake, the site of his mother’s murder before his very eyes (or eye, as the case may be), his own. He’s set up traps and trip cords; he’s discovered an old mine system that runs under the place and has made it his lair. There’s a fierceness to this Jason, and a primal cunning. He uses a screaming teen as bait to try and pull in more teens to murder. This Jason may be deformed and mentally damaged but he doesn’t come across as particularly retarded. He’s running on rage, but he never allows that to cloud his thought process, and thanks to the work of actor Derek Mears we can actually see that thought process in action. As someone who has been a longtime fan of a series whose protagonist was simply a force of nature, this level of nuance is welcome and exciting. There’s something happening under that mask for once.
The other characters are slightly less nuanced. I will say this for the main group of teens, though: most of them are not terribly annoying. It’s traditional in slasher movies to have a cast made up of characters who you not only don’t like, but for whom death seems too good. In this Friday the 13th I found myself feeling sort of bad for a couple of these kids, surely a landmark in franchise history. But of these kids there is one stand out, one actor who is so fucking great in creating a complete douchebag that I want to give his name its own paragraph:
Travis Van Winkle.
All of the kids are going to his dad’s cabin on Crystal Lake, and he’s alternately OCD about keeping the place clean and a complete dickwad alpha male. But Van Winkle’s moments of glory come in the third act, when Jason mounts an assault on the cabin; without giving too much away I will say that we have a contender for the scream queen of the decade award. The biggest complaint I would have about him and his role is that while his death is pretty cool, it’s lacking just a little bit of extra oomph to make it truly iconic and worthy of the character he’s created.
The kills themselves have a slight tendency to lack as much oomph as I might like. There are plenty of kills in the film, and there are two that I think edge into the pantheon of great Friday kills, but this Jason is more concerned with dealing with kids than making the kills crazy or inventive. Most of the kills are brutal, quick and to the point. The new film is walking a line – it wants to be realistic and step away from the fantasy the series edged into in later installments, but it also wants to create memorable, fun kills. The violence is there, and I enjoyed all of them, but I do believe Platinum Dunes have left themselves some room to top the kills in Part 2.
What will be harder to top will be the nudity. I feel like a real lech even bringing this up, but nubile nakedness has long been associated with this genre – which is, essentially, a complete exploitation genre – and the new Friday the 13th sets a standard for the series. There’s an extended sex scene that… well, it’s amazing to see how far we’ve come from the days when the MPAA tore Part VII to pieces. I had previously believed that the best breasts in the series award went to Part V‘s Debi Sue Voorhees. No more. Congratulations to Julianna Guill and to the assets which God gave her.
There are many who look at Platinum Dunes’ previous output of gritty, nasty films and worry that they’re going to miss the point of Friday the 13th and turn Jason into a torture master. They don’t. They get it, and this film is 100% a Friday the 13th movie, just with a bigger budget and actors who aren’t completely low rent. At the same time this looks like a Platinum Dunes film – slick, stylish, well shot. This isn’t Steve Miner shooting in a Los Angeles forest for two weeks. And I think that’s a good thing; movies like Friday the 13th are first and foremost for the people who go see them on opening night. They’re for 16 year old kids trying to get a hand job out of their date. It’s easy for us, the nerds and obsessives, to feel like we own these movies, but Jason Voorhees is a pop culture character and he should be presented in a way that appeals to the generation buying movie tickets now. If you had been a 30 year old horror fan in 1980 you might have scoffed at what Sean Cunningham did in the original Friday, saying that he’s no Mario Bava. But it worked for those kids in the seats then, and it’ll work for the kids in the seats today.
But for those of you who are, like me, inveterate fans of the series and unable to let go of what came before, Platinum Dunes has kept us in mind. There are some pretty great easter eggs scattered throughout the film, little nods and winks to what came before. My favorite is the presence of a wheelchair in Jason’s lair; unremarked upon in the movie, real fans will have to resist the urge to applaud when they see it. There’s reverance shown here – probably more reverence than any previous film in the series has bothered to show.
The stalk and slash formula is older than many of the people who will be going to see this film this weekend, but Marcus Nispel, Damien Shannon, Mark Swift, Mark Wheaton and Andrew Form and Brad Fuller have managed to make it look and feel fresh. This is a 21st century Friday the 13th, a movie that has all of the elements of tradition with none of the post-modern irony but still looks and feels like a modern movie. And the new Jason – the best Jason ever – makes this movie so much fresher than a film based on overworn cliches has any right to be. This is an exciting new start, and real fans of horror movies and the Friday the 13th franchise have to be excited that Jason Voorhees once agains proves impossible to kill, whether it be on film or at the box office.