Friday the 13th may be the most celebrated yet maligned film franchise in history. It’s the undisputed world champion of slasher movies, with a huge fanboy following, yet constantly derided by critics and looked down upon outside of the horror community. The basic premise of the Friday the 13th films is this: A brutish maniac named Jason Voorhees wears a hockey mask while he murders teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake. There’s not much more to it than that.
In the first movie (1980’s Friday the 13th), Jason’s mother Pamela is the antagonist, killing teens in some sort of warped retribution for her son’s drowning death many years ago. She dies at the end of the movie (ummm…Spoiler Alert, I guess?), and the sequel picks up with a very-much-alive Jason avenging his mother’s death and carrying on the family tradition by knocking off more teens at the camp. After a couple more movies, the producers realized that they were making the same movie every time out and Jason’s rampage finally came to an end when he was killed in 1984’s exemplary Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
After attempting and failing to sell audiences on a film featuring a new psycho killer who dressed and acted exactly like Jason (1985’s gleeful, campy romp A New Beginning), Jason Voorhees rose from the grave for 1986’s Jason Lives, the sixth film of the franchise. How did this dude come back from the dead? Well, he’s immortal, of course. This is the point in the series where Jason went from being just your regular, everyday psychopath to being an unkillable, supernatural force. The only way the teenagers were able to hold him off until the next movie was by chaining him to the bottom of Crystal Lake.
More movies followed, with Jason even taking a side trip to New York City in 1989’s Jason Takes Manhattan (a film full of squandered potential – where’s the big NYC bloodbath we were waiting for?). Jason is finally killed for good…well, sort of…I guess…in 1993’s Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday. Afterward, he still shows up in a couple of movies that break whatever continuity this series had left: one that takes place in the future on a spaceship, and a crossover film with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger. Then they just stopped making Friday the 13th films because well, it’s been 11 movies and how much more can you really do with the flimsy premise?
That’s where this film comes in. Thanks to The Age of The Reboot, 2009 brought Jason Voorhees back to us again! Helmed by German director Marcus Nispel, the 2009 Friday the 13th is a terrifying hybrid remake/homage to America’s most venerable slasher movie series. It’s not quite a remake of the 1980 original yet it’s definitely not a direct continuation of the series, either. Instead, it’s The Big Reboot, (Hollywood’s favorite way to make money) using already-established characters to tell the same stories over and over again to appeal to new generations and lovers of nostalgia! But was there any way this movie could actually be good? The original Friday films were mindless and campy: teenagers having sex in the woods until a hockey mask-wearing killer bursts in and slices them up. Could Jason Voorhees really be terrifying again? The answer to both questions is yes. In my opinion, 2009’s Friday the 13th is a much better film than the original and maybe the first movie in the series that is genuinely scary.
As the film begins, the killing spree and death of Pamela Voorhees (which was the plot of 1980 original) is interspersed among the opening credits. After that, we are in the present day, where we meet a flock of young campers who are hiking through the Crystal Lake area to find a crop of marijuana in the woods. My initial impression was that these five young adults were the main cast of the movie. Based on my knowledge of slasher films, I had even picked out Whitney as the Final Girl (it was quite easy because there was only one other female hiker, a girl who bared her breasts, and no girl who takes her boobs out ever survives in a slasher flick). But just as we are getting invested in these characters, Jason turns up and starts disposing of them rather quickly.
These opening 20 minutes of the movie are a master class in terror, made even more terrifying because it’s so unexpected – I just wasn’t ready to have the apparent protagonists of the movie killed off so swiftly within the first half-hour. Jason butchers all of the hikers except for Whitney, and as he prepares to deliver the death blow to her, the screen cuts to the title card: FRIDAY THE 13TH. Nearly 25 minutes into the movie and we’re just seeing the title pop up onscreen? This has got to be a record or something, even if it were a Bond film. Blood, sex, drugs, and terror galore and we are just getting started.
Then the ‘real’ story of the film begins, with Whitney’s brother Clay (Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki) on a door-to-door search for his sister who went missing six weeks ago. His quest intersects with a group of young people who are headed out to a summer cabin for fun, sun, and lots of weed and sex. As Clay gets closer to the truth about what happened to his sister, Jason makes mincemeat of the young partygoing crowd. In most of the previous Friday films, it was just teenagers getting picked off one by one. Here we still have the requisite teen debauchery, but with an added layer of mystery during Clay’s search since we really don’t know what happened to Whitney at the end of the opening sequence.
Jared Padalecki is serviceable as the earnest, concerned brother (Jared plays ‘earnest’ very well), and all of the young actors manage to inject some life into what otherwise could be one-dimensional roles. I have watched many a slasher movie where someone is getting hacked to bits by the killer and meanwhile, I’m trying to remember just who the fuck they are. Even though some of them have limited screen time, I could feel the distinctiveness of the characters coming through. And you have to care a little about the characters in a slasher movie or else you’re just watching gore for gore’s sake. Don’t get me wrong, that can still be fun, but it’s not real horror unless you’re emotionally invested.
I especially enjoyed Danielle Panabaker as the sweet yet bland New Possible Final Girl, Aaron Yoo as The Slacker Stoner (who also wins the award for ‘Longest Survival of an Asian Man In A Slasher Movie’), and Travis Van Winkle as The Cocky Asshole Stud.
What else does this movie get right? As much as I don’t want to compare this version to the original 1980 film, I’d be remiss if I didn’t. The original was a gory-for-its-time suspense film. We didn’t know who was killing these kids at camp, and it was kinda fun to try and guess who the murderer was…until it was revealed to be Pamela Voorhees, a character that appears out of nowhere and wasn’t mentioned or even alluded to until she just shows up randomly in the third act.
The rest of the film consists of a lot of characters walking around in the dark for long periods of time, yelling out ‘Bill? Marcie? Ummm…Bill?’ over and over again until they are killed (mostly) offscreen while overly dramatic music plays in the background. The Friday the 13th remake has much better music (okay so the music during the chase scenes kind of rips off the Halloween score, but you can’t have everything), more tension and suspense, and some iconic murder sequences. In this film, we may know who the killer is from the start, but his entrapment of Whitney and Clay’s determination to find her adds a level of tension that was missing from the original.
Considering that the film is only 97 minutes long and the first 25 minutes are taken up by the brilliant extended opening scene, that compresses all of the main thrust of the plot into just over an hour’s time. There’s no time to spend five minutes watching a girl wander around the woods calling out for her missing boyfriend. Instead we get what we came to see in a Friday movie: young people being stupid (lots of crazy marijuana and alcohol-related hijinks!), nudity and sex (I counted three topless chicks and two naked dudes, as well as a sex scene that was more intense than most actual sex that I’ve had), gore (a shout-out to Chewie’s death scene, expertly filmed and brutal as hell), and lots of Jason Voorhees (he is particularly menacing in this film).
The movie does have some negative aspects: the ending goes on just a little too long, there is some hackneyed dialogue (“Jason! Say hi to Mommy…in hell!”), and a few of the characters don’t get enough screen time (in particular, Lawrence survives for the majority of the film yet all I remember him doing is smoking weed and preparing to jerk off…oh wait, I remember he said he was an aspiring rapper…we didn’t even get to hear him rap). But these digressions do not detract from the overall experience.
While preparing to write this piece, I rewatched the movie with my 16-year-old son Ahmet. He has a casual familiarity with the Friday the 13th series and I was interested to see his take on the remake. In his words, “Oh wow! Jason runs in this one! He definitely seems more human than he did before. The underground tunnels are a cool idea.” Afterwards, I asked him if he thought the movie was good and if it was scary. He replied that it was ‘sort of scary, a lot more than in the other movies…but that’s not saying much because the other movies were mostly stupid’. So there you have it. If you can ‘kind of’ scare a post-Millennial, you’ve succeeded as a horror film.
Going back to my son’s critiques, there was some backlash when this movie was released because Jason runs in the movie, instead of his usual slow and steady walk. There were also complaints about the underground tunnel system that Jason built to move around the woods. Apparently, there is a sect of the Friday fandom that can only appreciate Jason Voorhees if he is portrayed as a lumbering monster who lacks the mental capacity to dig holes in the ground. For those purists, there are 11 other movies to enjoy. However, this is something new and it shouldn’t be expected to adhere to all of the old Jason stereotypes.
The whole idea of a remake is to take an established story and update and reinterpret it for a new audience. In my opinion, this film succeeded in that and then some. However, when I attempt to view this movie from outside of the perspective of the Friday the 13th fandom, asking myself ‘Is it simply a good horror film?’, I run into a roadblock. If you knew absolutely nothing about the Jason mythology and you were presented with this film, you’d probably see it as a well-made slasher flick and nothing else.
Fans of the series get to see the Voorhees story being told in new and exciting ways, but it may not be remarkable as a stand-alone film. Does Friday the 13th tell The Epic Tale of The Ages? It’s just a deformed guy in a hockey mask who attacks a bunch of people in the woods. Sure, he’s avenging his mother’s death and there’s the whole backstory of him being deformed as a child due to some teenagers’ negligence, but it’s hardly an intimate and intricate character piece. The backstory exists only to give the antagonist some sort of motivation.
Come to think of it, how does a drowning incident cause physical deformity anyway? This already-weak backstory is falling apart the more I look into it. The online Friday community tells me that Jason was born with “severe disfigurements and mental handicaps” but I don’t remember that being brought up in this movie. If he was already disfigured when he had the childhood drowning incident, what was Mrs. Voorhees so pissed about then? She went on a murder spree for no good reason and that’s one of the worst social faux pas you can make. Looking at the Friday Wikipedia page for some answers, I see that Mrs. Voorhees believed that Jason died in the drowning and that’s why she went on the rampage. She thought he was dead and all the while he’s hiding in the woods just a few feet from her? You know what, I give up on trying to understand this mythology.
The movie ends on a confusing cliffhanger as a presumed-dead Jason leaps out of the lake to attack Whitney on the dock. Was this real or a dream or simply an homage to the ending of the original film? It looks like we will never know. This film made $92 million at the box office and a direct sequel was announced with a planned 2010 release date. Then the sequel release kept getting delayed due to studio skittishness and copyright issues until 2017 when Paramount Pictures officially canceled the project.
The franchise is currently in the middle of a copyright dispute between original screenwriter Victor Miller and original film producer Sean S. Cunningham. No matter who wins the dispute, eventually we will see a new Friday the 13th movie but it certainly won’t be a continuation of the 2009 film. So that leaves this movie as a sort of curiosity – a gruesome and provocative stand-alone horror flick at the tail end of the biggest slasher franchise in film history.
All of that being said, 2009’s Friday the 13th remake is a success. It’s stylish and spine-chilling and a welcome addition to the series.