War of the Remake: Friday(s) the 13th

There’s a telling moment in the first Scream film, where Casey Becker’s character seals her fate by incorrectly guessing the villain of Friday the 13th as Jason. As the voice on the phone points out to her, in the original it’s Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees.

This sometimes comes as a retroactive oddity, given that mentioning the Friday the 13th franchise instantly brings to mind Jason and his machete-wielding, hockey-mask-adorning visage. And this is a deliberate thing on the part of the studio execs. Jason as a villain was incredibly marketable, and after 93, 456 sequels (well, 10 – but who’s counting?), it’s only understandable that the merchandise surrounding such a cash-cow would be just as prominent like its sequels were inevitable.

The biggest problem I have with Friday the 13th, unlike the Halloween series, is that it’s a weak point to argue that the sequels suck in comparison to the masterful original; the original’s pretty terrible too. What it has in its favour is being the original point of one of the most iconic horror franchises out there, but the film itself is little more than a quick cash-in on the success of Halloween.

There are two things worthwhile about the original film, other than spades of unintended hilarity – and that is an early performance from Kevin Bacon, and a nifty twist in revealing that it was Jason’s mother who was running around killing everybody. Now, if you’re not much of a Kevin Bacon fan or already know the twist, this leaves little to enjoy in the film.

Though if you’re a Kevin Bacon hater, I suppose you’ve got this to look forward to…

So, one less-than-stellar originator film that managed to be a runaway success, and a glut of increasingly-crappy sequels later, we enter the recesses of 2009, where some filmmakers are so uninspired that they’ll rehash already-bad material, and we get the remake.

I should mention that while I think the original Friday the 13th is a bad film, I do enjoy it. It’s not good, but it is entertaining. It’s hard for me to imagine that it was ever scary for an audience, and not just because I grew up with all of its imitators and it was nothing new, but if you compare it with some of the other films that were around at the same time (not least of all it’s source of inspiration in Halloween), it’s a pretty clumsily executed and leaden-paced film. It has a pretty high camp factor these days (if you’ll pardon the pun), and it’s not an actively terrible viewing experience, but I’m still a little surprised that it entered the public consciousness so firmly.

The original tells the story that we’ve seen done a million times before – a group of young, nubile, and hormonal teens head out to a cabin in the woods (or in this instance, a summer camp) and proceed to be picked off one-by-one, with the usual caveats that sex, drugs, arrogance or any unwholesome behaviour pushes you further up the To Kill list. Of course, the summer camp has a history, in the tragic drowning death of a camper some years ago, one Jason Voorhees. As the teens start dying, we’re asked to wonder – is Jason back from the grave? Well, no, because Jason was a sled named Rosebud, and we all know that it was his mother.

Jason would only come to prominence in the sequels (and in fact didn’t get his iconic hockey mask until Part 3) and so all we’re given in the original film is a last-minute jump-scare where the drowned-boy version of Jason jumps out at the Final Girl as she floats on a lake, prompting her to ominously intone “he’s still out there…”

I have to admit, when I heard they were remaking Friday the 13th, I was curious as to whether they would keep Pamela Voorhees as the killer or jump straight to Jason. Then I read it was being made by the Michael-Bay-money-earner Platinum Dunes, and that question was answered for me. Jason is marketable. Pamela is not.

It turns out the remake is actually more of a “reimagining” of the first three films (a go-to term that’s quickly becoming an umbrella term for producers cherry-picking ideas and slapping a recognisable brand name on it). Noticeably, Mrs. Voorhees is identified as the killer and chased down and beheaded as-per the original during the opening credits.

We’re then introduced to a group of expendable teens, Whitney – who will become important later on, and her four friends Victim, Douchebag, Expendable-Asset and Slutty McShagsalot. They decide to go camping in the woods, although Douchebag and Expendable-Asset have actually orchestrated the trip to find a large crop of marijuana they believe is in the area. They set up camp, and Expendable-Asset tells them the local story of Camp Crystal Lake and Jason and Pamela, and is of course met with widespread derision.

L-R: Expendable-Asset, Victim, Slutty McShagsalot, Douchebag. Whitney is the arm on the left.

Whitney and Victim go for a walk, while Expendable-Asset briefly gets in the way of Douchebag and Slutty McShagsalot living up to the latter’s name. Slutty McShagsalot’s subtle way of suggesting to Douchebag that she’s ready and willing is to strip off her bra behind Expendable-Asset’s back and rub oil over her boobs. I’m not sure if this is meant to be a comical moment, that Expendable Asset just can’t understand why Douchebag is so distracted, but I do know that the filmmakers clearly believe it a pivotal and powerful artistic moment in their repertoires to film Slutty rubbing oil into her chest like a badly-acted pornstar.

Anyway, Slutty and Douchebag get busy in the tent, while Whitney and Victim come across Camp Crystal Lake and discover the plausible presence of someone named Jason. Expendable-Asset comes across the fabled marijuana crop, and is so overjoyed that he forgets to remember he’s expendable. Jason turns up and expends him. Slutty thinks she hears something outside the tent and makes Douchebag go investigate (and I just love that the film clearly invites the male audience members to sympathise that Douchebag was only moments away from finishing up and that clearly Slutty’s concerns are not as important as his orgasm – Michael Bay knows how to attach his name to well-written women). Douchebag goes looking for Expendable-Asset and discovers his body amongst the weed crop, then runs back to camp to find Slutty strung up in her sleeping bag over the campfire. As he races to help her, he gets caught in a bear-trap, which mangles his leg.

Meanwhile, Whitney and Victim investigate the cabin, only to discover a locket with a photo of Jason’s mother in it. Victim points out that Whitney and Pamela Voorhees look a little similar, so he suggests she keep it. Then, a machete starts bursting up through the floorboards. Victim is victimised, and Whitney runs off. She finds Slutty and Douchebag back at camp, just in time to see Slutty fall out of her sleeping bag all good-and-crispy. She runs to help Douchebag out of the bear-trap, only he makes the fatal mistake of looking over her shoulder, and of course Jason is there, ready to cleave his head in twain with his machete. Instead of killing Whitney, Jason kidnaps her because of the passing resemblance to his mother.

…and then we get the title card of the film.

That’s right, the first 20 minutes of this film are actually a throwaway plot. The characters, who are given – well, not character per se, but at least a hobby or two – are all killed off, save for Whitney. I suppose this is meant to introduce us to Jason, and to let us know that he’s the villain of this piece, as well as getting some creative special-effects kills in (much as it doesn’t play out very well, I’ll give them points for the sleeping-bag-over-the-fire as it’s a nasty concept), but it really serves to show just how little meat there is to the story of a Friday the 13th film. It’s all about getting Jason into the shot, killing a character or two, and getting some boob-shots in there too.

So on to the rest of the film:

We met a NEW gang of expendable teens – Trent, Jenna, Bree, Nolan, Chelsea, Chewie and Lawrence. Trent is actually a crossover character from Transformers, Trent DeMarco. No, I didn’t remember who the hell Trent DeMarco was in Transformers either, but same character, same actor, that means that Optimus Prime and Jason Voorhees now share the same universe.

Also along for the film is Clay, brother of Whitney who has come out to the woods to find her. Clay is played by Jared Padalecki, and he’s the most talented actor in this entire film. I’m not sure if that’s praising Padalecki or damning the film further.

Rather than give you a plot summary (it essentially mirrors the opening 20 minutes of the film, only in Trent’s summer house as opposed to a forest near Camp Crystal Lake) I’ll tell you how the characters are defined:

  • Trent is a rich-boy arsehole. He’s unlikeable, but to his credit, he’s meant to be unlikeable.
  • Jenna is Trent’s apparent girlfriend – she’s much nicer to Clay then any of the others, so we’re meant to sympathise with her, but she’s really rather bland and insipid.
  • Nolan is Dick Casablancas from Veronica Mars – same actor, pretty much an identical character, and isn’t developed at all to see anything of a difference.
  • Lawrence is black and a stoner. He makes one “joke” that supposes a pretence on his part of being offended by stereotypes, only to buy straight into them. Then he gets stoned later in the film, and that is his character.
  • Chewie is asian and a stoner. Supposedly a “funny” character who wisecracks all the time, but the ways this “comedy” misfires meant that his imminent death was the one thing that kept me interested in the film.
  • Chelsea is Nolan’s girlfriend.
  • Bree has breasts.

And they’re our characters!

Plot rundown – Trent is an arsehole to Clay. Clay and Jenna go looking for Whitney. Chewie and Lawrence get stoned. Chelsea and Nolan go wake-boarding. Trent and Bree hook up (with significant amounts of dialogue going to Trent’s admiration of Bree’s breasts). Clay and Jenna run into a redneck who the film sticks with, just long enough to see a vivid display of the Hustler magazine he’s reading, and then for him to be killed by Jason. Nolan gets an arrow shot through his head from literally nowhere – it just happens, there’s no build-up of suspense, it’s not played as a jump-scare, there’s just suddenly an arrow in his head.

The boat he’s piloting then gets upped to full speed as his body slumps on the accelerator, and he runs over Chelsea who’s bobbing in the water. She then has a long and protracted death scene, which ends with her hiding under a jetty only for Jason to machete her head through the boards. Chewie goes to a shed and gets killed by Jason. Clay and Jenna get menaced by Jason and then run back to the house to warn the others. Lawrence hears that there’s a maniacal killer outside and instantly goes to get killed look for Chewie. He also dies. Then Bree dies. Then Trent dies. Then Jenna and Clay find Whitney. Then Jenna dies. Then Jason dies. Then Whitney dies as the film ends because Jason jumps up to get her.

In comparing the original to the remake (sorry – “reimagining”) the obvious difference is that the original is a fun movie, while the remake is an absolute chore. It’s not a distasteful movie (well, no more so than any Michael Bay-produced film – the blatant sexism/misogyny is still pretty rampant though) it’s just an absolute labour to watch.

I did like that they managed to incorporate some elements of the first three films – but then I realised they chose the most obvious elements – 1) teens dying, 2) a girl briefly pretending to be Jason’s mother to placate him, 3) a hockey mask instead of a cloth wrapped around his head.

The original had a cast of expendable teens too, and to be fair they weren’t given all that much to work with as characters, but they were at least pleasant people to be stuck with for the length of the movie. I don’t know why it’s happened, but there’s a real trend in modern horror movies to have all the characters be whiny douchebags. In the remake, the sole saving grace is Jared Padalecki as Clay – he’s not the brilliant a character, but at least he has some motivation and is a pleasant fucking person. Maybe – just maybe – Jenna too, but even then she’s so robbed of any character beyond being a “nice” girl that she’s just boring.

Beyond those two, every character in this movie was painful to watch. Now, with Trent, he was meant to be an arsehole, and that would be fine if that character trait stuck out at all but he’s just at home with the herd! Nolan and Chelsea probably escape unscathed as they were literally on screen long enough to die, and Lawrence isn’t maliciously awful, just a pain in the arse, but by far the worst has to be Chewie. Aaron Yoo is probably a nice guy, but he has not once played a character I didn’t feel was completely contrived and an absolute irritation to behold. He’s so gratingly, jarringly unfunny that by the time he got killed, I was thanking the movie for it.

This pretty much sums up Chewie.

I also actually feel sorry for the girl who played Bree, as it’s obvious the sole worth of her contributions to the piece were her “amazing breasts” (actual quote) – they give her no other character, other than being maybe the long-lost-sister of Slutty McShagsalot. I know that the horror genre isn’t the best place to look for strong characters, but to write a character who has no place in the film save for her breasts is particularly distasteful in my eyes.

And it’s a shift in characterisation I don’t understand – for me, a horror movie should make you want the characters to live (with maybe an odd Trentish exception here and there) and be scared when they’re in peril. It’s what it should aim for anyway. In the original, while we didn’t get to know the characters in any great depth, we still didn’t want them all to die! Not so here, where the only one I had any remote sympathy for was Clay. It’s a bit sad when you watch the special features on the DVD and see the actors all giving the usual spiels about how they loved working on the movie and that they were “so excited” by it – all the stuff we’ve come to know they’re contractually obliged to say in interviews about the film – but some of them do seem to genuinely be that stoked to be in a Friday the 13th remake, and it’s sad that their energy is so misplaced.

There isn’t really much else to say about these two – the first film is clearly the superior, and even if it’s not remotely scary these days, I can say that it is highly enjoyable (especially if you switch the DVD language to French, a discovery I must credit my housemate Mel with). It’s cool to see the start of such an iconic series, even if it is a little muddled as to why it’s such a success. If you’re a horror fan, steer clear of the remake; it really goes to show how little substance there is behind the hockey mask, and the iconic sense of the series is just tired now. But if you want to see Bree’s Amazing Breasts then that’s the film for you.

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