If I have learned anything from the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th it’s that the slasher movie is dead. What was once a thriving genre in the 1980s has in the past few decades been reduced to a parody of itself. Was it all worth it? The need for this derivative, explicitly violent, overly sexualized bastard stepson of cinema? Let’s find out.
Slasher movies began with Halloween. Although not the first of its kind, it was the landmark film that put this madman in a five dollar mask shtick into the mainstream. Other films about masked murderers and terrified teens followed. It was an easy gimmick. So much so that the genre was run into the ground within only a few years. “How many GREAT slashers movies came out during the genre’s supposed heyday?” Not many.
In the 90s, Wes Craven’s Scream breathed life into the genre by making it self-aware. Again, a rash of slasher movies followed. Except for this time they were snarky and cynical—I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend. The genre went into hibernation in the early to mid-2000s. Torture porn films like Hostel and Saw became the new kids on the block. After that, found footage like Paranormal Activity became a yearly Halloween tradition.
Today, if we’re talking mainstream horror, we’ve reached what I call “The Blumhouse Era.” Named after the successful production company of Jason Blum, which consists of low budget high concept horror films like Insidious, Sinister, and recently, Get Out. Even arthouse horror flicks are hitting the mainstream thanks to social media and video streaming.
Ten years ago, films like It Follows and The Babadook would never be seen by mainstream audiences. Now, thanks to services like Netflix, they’re films everyone has seen. Again, “Did we as a society ever need slashers?” We don’t need them now. Before I answer this question, let me talk about a film that came out in a bizarre transitional period for the genre. Of course, it begins as many poorly realized projects do… with Michael Bay.
In November 2001, Brad Fuller and Michael Bay started a production company, the innocuously named Platinum Dunes. The idea (as far as I can tell) was to produce b-movie stories with Hollywood budgets. Most of the films Platinum Dunes has made are horror remakes; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Hitcher (2007) and so on. The only unique films they’ve done have been The Purge series and Ouija: Origin of Evil. Of course, both of these were collaborations with Blumhouse.
It sounds like the reason Platinum Dunes was started was to capitalize on the trend of remakes that hit Hollywood in the 2000s. How else can you explain the overabundance of slap-dash “reimaginings” of classic horror films? This was all for money. If you don’t think so, look up Platinum Dunes on Wikipedia and see how long it took them to release a film to positive reviews. I’ll save you the trip. It took 13 YEARS from the release of their first film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Meaning their first well-reviewed film was last year’s Ouija: Origin of Evil. Again, a film that probably wouldn’t have been worth anyone’s time if not for Blumhouse. Most of these Platinum Dunes films were doomed to mediocrity. Good for a quick buck and nothing else. Friday the 13th (2009) was no exception.
The film begins with a rushed redo of the final scene from the original Friday the 13th. Pamela Voorhees (Nana Visitor) is threatening a camp counselor (Stephanie Rhodes) with murder as her young son Jason (Caleb Guss) watches from afar. The counselor chops off Pamela’s head and Jason is traumatized. What makes no sense in this scene is the lack of motivation. In the original film, Pamela went after the counselors because they were too busy having sex to save her son from drowning. The later films mucked that up by having Jason survive but at least it worked in the confines of the original film.
In this film, Jason is alive so why is Pamela killing people? The rebirth of Pamela as a killer was born out of revenge in the original film. Jason was a tragic character. Pamela was a grieving mother. There was emotional weight. Now there’s nothing. Why do we care about anything on screen if there’s no emotional reason for any of it occurring?
Why not cut this scene and have the characters discover Jason’s origin by other means? You could have an old coot talk about the legend of the Voorhees family, a campfire story, newspaper clippings. It’s not like any of these ideas are any less cliche. My point is you should start subtle and build to the horror. I have no problem starting the film out with a kill but have it be mysterious. What’s going on in those woods? Instead, this film is in your face with brash simplicity. Give audiences a little credit.
Thirty years later, a group of teens visits Crystal Lake in search of a weed farm. I figured this would be our cast for the film but no, they are all immediately wiped out in gruesome fashion by a now adult Jason (Derek Mears) wearing a bag over his head a la Friday the 13th Part II. In a way, this film is more a remake of the second and third Friday the 13th than the first.
Jason’s killings are among the most stomach-churning in the entire series. In particular, a woman is trapped in a sleeping bag and burned over a campfire. I have to hand it to the filmmakers, that’s scary. But then, other dumb teens are killed by spike traps in Jason’s cabin like a scene out of Saw. Since when is Jason a master hunter with the mental capacity to plan ahead? Oh, and on a quick side note, one of these teens is Ben Feldman (Ginsberg from Mad Men) who was almost thirty when he did this film. Just a fun tidbit for my fellow Mad Men fans.
Six weeks later, we are introduced to the REAL cast. Okay, so it was a fake out. I’m okay with that except now the film has two false starts. Which means the film doesn’t get going until almost twenty minutes. The characters are terrible but the acting is fine. Danielle Panabaker (who I remember for Sky High) is good as the lead character Jenna. Also, Jared Padalecki from Supernatural is fine as Clay, a sad biker looking for his lost sister—one of the characters attacked by Jason in the film’s second beginning.
Clay crosses paths with Jenna’s group on their way to Crystal Lake to hang out at Jenna’s boyfriend’s (Travis Van Winkle) parent’s cabin. I won’t go too in-depth on the other characters as they are a blur. I didn’t even realize two blonde women in the film were two different characters. There’s also a stoner kid, Chewie (Aaron Yoo), who Wikipedia makes a point of saying “Aaron Yoo’s performance as the marijuana-smoking Chewie was praised by critics who gave the film both positive and negative reviews.” Nice work, Chewie.
This is where most Friday the 13th films meander. All the characters are settled and we wait for exciting things to happen. One benefit to this story is Clay’s search for his sister keeps the momentum going. I’m not invested but it’s a helluva a lot better than watching these dumbshits exchange terrible first draft dialogue.
Eventually, Jason appears, finds a hockey mask, and kills the teens in gory fashion. A very by the numbers slasher film. Jason is as blank a slate as he’s ever been, mindlessly hacking teens with no buildup or tension. Derek Mears looks great in the costume but Jason is too often shot in the dark with quick edits. You never get a sense of his presence. He’s just a guy who clocks in, kills, and clocks out. He’s more a robot killing machine than a person.
*Note to self: write a script about robot killing machine in the woods.
Later, Clay finds underground tunnels that lead to Jason’s lair where his sister, Whitney (Amanda Righetti), is being held captive. “Tunnels? Lair? Captive?” I get that they’re trying to reinvent Jason as a more cunning killer but why build elaborate traps and hold people hostage? I think they allude that Whitney reminds Jason of his mother, but they don’t really go into it cuz stories suck. It’s way more important that we see Jason as John Rambo.
Jason has motivation but not enough to explain why he’s gone to such great lengths to get revenge. “Did his mother make traps around camp?” “Did he build these tunnels to hide or better his ability to sneak up on people?” I’m actually interested but given no explanation. The more I think about it, I would have been okay with a smarter Jason if we learned more about him. Apparently, that stuff isn’t as fun as blood and boobs. Blah, blah, everyone dies but Clay and Whitney. They dump Jason’s body into Crystal Lake and he jumps back up for one last jump scare.
I can’t believe the Freddy vs. Jason writers wrote this film. I mean, that film was no masterpiece but at least it was fun. This film is all turn off the lights no smiling for ninety minutes. It’s a well-made film from a production standpoint but terrible from a creative standpoint. Then again, it worked out for Platinum Dunes. The film was solid at the box office for its opening weekend and made a profit.
But no one talks about this film outside of the die-hard fans. That’s because it came out just as torture porn was passing the torch to found footage. If not for the built-in label, no doubt it would have been a bomb. Slasher films were becoming a dying breed and the gates were opening for a better breed of horror films. Which leads to the answer to my original question. “Did we as a society ever need slasher films?”
I think horror films, like any film, reflect the times. So I think for the late 1970s and 1980s, slasher films made sense. In the 70s, they were part of the rebellious spirit of anti-studio director-driven films. In the 80s, they rebelled against the tightly wound family values of Reagan’s America. In the 90s, Scream was a cynical stab at a genre that had become a parody of itself, and in the late 2000s, the light faded.
I’m sure many will disagree with me. Which is totally cool. Maybe I could be persuaded with the right argument or film as an example of this sub-genre still being great. I know in recent years there have been slasher films like You’re Next and Hush that people love. Though I love those filmmakers I don’t feel like those films are breaking any new ground. Of course, there’s the case of homage slasher films. Which are fun but again I think the genre could benefit by pushing itself more. Maybe that’s asking too much. For films to continually reinvent themselves time and time again. After all, there are certain trends and tropes people will always love, it’s comfort food. I could change my mind about all of this someday. But until then I’ll be right here. TGIF everyone.