Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. 40 years after Camp Crystal Lake appeared on the silver screen, we look back at Friday the 13th and how the perennial slasher series mutated across the years. Read the rest of our Friday coverage here.
In 2009, only Friday the 13th was bold enough to definitively demonstrate why marijuana was labeled a gateway drug. A gateway to being murdered brutally by Jason Voorhees, specifically.
Of course, Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, didn’t mount a reboot just to create Reefer Madness for the 21st Century. In ’09, the 13th franchise had been lying dormant after the prior 3 installments took Jason to Hell, Space, and Elm Street, respectively. The series had, by most measures, run out of juice.
However, the Hollywood logic went that the idea itself remained powerful. A reboot, it was argued, would recapture the old magic and reinvigorate the good bones of the Friday the 13th concept. And to do that, they would take it back to the beginning. Kind of.
As the opening credits roll, the movie takes us back to the climactic events of the original Friday the 13th. Marked by heavy rain, an array of unusual camera angles, and repeated hard cuts to black, we witness Pamela Voorhees (Nana Visitor) — Jason’s mom — fall after a murderous rampage on behalf of her maybe-drowned, maybe-not son. The use of a near-monochrome palette, sparse sound design, and the use of black to change the action’s pace makes this sequence a striking opening. Unfortunately, it’s the film’s most stylistic set-piece by a mile. For the rest of its 97-minute running time, 2009’s Friday the 13th won’t come close to that level of fun.
After the flashback, we join a cadre of backpackers: the hyper responsible Whitney (Amanda Righetti), her understanding boyfriend Mike (Nick Mennell), the intensely horny couple Amanda (America Olivo) and Richie (Ben Feldman), and fifth wheel/GPS enthusiast Wade (Jonathan Sadowski). These are still not our main characters.
Finally, the movie arrives at our main group of college-age victims. This collection of Spring Break enthusiasts have come to Jason’s neck of the woods to take advantage of rich jerk Trent’s (Travis Van Winkle) parents’ Crystal Lake-side vacation home. There is, after all, simply no better place to enjoy swimming, water skiing, and getting a tan in your bikini than New Jersey in mid-March.
Jason (Derek Mears) makes quick work of them after they dare to covet his cush. You read that right — the Jason of 2009? He’s a pot farmer who is absolutely not chill about anyone touching his grade A devil’s lettuce.
Along for the ride are Trent’s girlfriend, the sweet Jenna (Danielle Panabaker); Nolan (Ryan Hansen, being a real Ryan Hansen type); Chelsea (Willa Ford); Bree (Julianna Guill) and comic relief figures Chewie (Aaron Woo) and Lawrence (Arlen Escarpeta). On their way, they also encounter Whitney’s brother Clay (Jared Padalecki), searching for his missing sibling. Clay, joined by Jenna, repeats the error of this sister’s friends: stumbling onto Jason’s home and garden. Much murdering ensues.
If a month-long deep dive into the 13th franchise reveals anything, it is that there’s a wide range of quality possible within the series’ “one bad night at the campground” trappings. There are silly ones, scary ones, and just plain lousy ones. 2009’s Friday somehow manages to exist awkwardly in the spaces between those categories.
Honestly, the biggest hindrance to the remake’s success is that it’s far too self-aware, which frequently (and paradoxically) lapses into self-seriousness. When it doesn’t, it comes across as trying too hard to achieve a level of post-modern silliness. Actors like Hansen and Woo are certainly game for the silliness, but the script from Damian Shannon and Mark Swift gives them nothing. The jokes were stale on the page and no amount of talent proves able to sell them when they’re spoken aloud.
On the scary side of things, after director Marcus Nispel expels all his style in his opening credits sequence, he only seems to have bland framing and angle choices to offer. The movie is more than a half-hour in before we finally meet the characters we’re supposed to care about and root for. By that time, our interest has flagged, any sense of dreadful anticipation worn away. It doesn’t help that the script never manages to make the characters deep enough to care about, or unpleasant enough to delight in their demise.
Jason is also a bit of an issue here. Mears cuts an intimidating figure — he’s a quicker, more feral Jason, a direct contrast to Kane Hodder’s lumbering and near-emotionless interpretation of the killing machine. Still, Mears is hamstrung by a Jason without clear parameters. At times Jason is crafty — killing the power before a home invasion, setting up traps, and silently asphyxiating a victim so no one else will detect him. At others, he seems more like a child — easily confused, obsessed with his mother, and prone to violent sloppiness.
In a lot of ways, the Friday the 13th reboot is like the eighth year of a reality show. The shock of the new is gone and the wackiness of trying to re-seize the zeitgeist has been abandoned. All that’s left is a product too aware of its expectations to surprise, and too afraid of silly past excesses to delight.