Do few genre filmmakers “get it” that when a true artisan comes along, their presence can be initially perplexing - especially when he or she is being asked to reinvent a classic of macabre cinema. So many fail - David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s awful The Eye, for example - that anyone managing to survive said re-imagining is rare indeed. That’s why Marcus Nispel is such a welcome anomaly. Not only has he been charged with reviving the fortunes of two “archetypal” motion picture monster franchises - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th - but he’s managed to make the recognized classics all his own. In fact, some might argue that his updates are just as good (or better) than the originals.
Nispel is an interesting career case. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, he came to America at age 20 to start a production company. Concentrating on commercials and music videos, he worked for artists as diverse as Faith No More, Simply Red, Elton John, and No Doubt. He won four MTV Video Music Awards and saw his Portfolio Artists Network expand their advertising reach with clients like Coca-Cola, Nike, Mercedes and UPS. In 2003, Michael Bay was looking for a new face to take on his planned redux of Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse epic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nispel, who had first tried to get into feature film directing with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (he left the project over “creative differences”), was initially seen as an odd choice. Instead of going with a recognized horror name, Bay and company thought the cinematic novice would do the material justice.
They were absolutely right. With his trademark de-saturated color schemes, emphasis on atmosphere and tone, and a gore-drench brutality that the original completely lacked, Nispel made the story of Leatherface, his cannibal clan, and the unlucky teens that dared tread into his personal slaughterhouse domain an electrifying, terrifying experience. While paying homage to what Hooper and his beer-swilling buddies accomplished back in the Me Decade, he updated the premise for a blood and guts oriented post-modern crowd. Even cynical critics who normally dismissed fright flicks as the bastard step-children of the motion picture artform couldn’t deny that Nispel had forged something powerful and slightly sadistic out of what could have been a campy bit of nostalgia. The film became one of the Summer’s surprise hits and led to a less than successful origin story prequel.
For his part, Nispel went on to a pet project of his -Pathfinder, an adaptation of Nils Gaup’s 1987 film Ofelas. A contender for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the original’s narrative was moved Westward, with Native Americans and Vikings taking the place of the Tjuder and Lapp tribes. With lead Karl Urban fresh from his turn as Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a directorial dedication to authenticity and history, studios clearly thought Nispel could deliver something spectacular. As the April 2007 release date came and went however, it was clear that this tale of murder, revenge, and cross culture clashing would do little but die at the box office. For his part, Nispel took the failure in stride, sitting back and studying his options (like the long rumored adaptation of American McGee’s Alice for horror heavy Wes Craven).
So it was quite shocking to see Nispel’s name featured in the initial teaser material for the proposed update of the Jason Voorhees legacy. It appeared like a step backward, a desperation move by a filmmaker who failed when moving outside the fear factory. In addition, the Friday the 13th franchise, while fun and very much tied to the introduction and explosion of home video in the 1980s, was not the kind of “classic” that Chainsaw was. Perhaps from a purely cultural standpoint, but Sean Cunningham’s crude slice and dice definitely wasn’t finding a spot in the Museum of Modern Art (where Hooper’s film now sits). Indeed, it looked like for all intents and purposes that Nispel, finding no success to separate himself from murder and mayhem, came crawling back to the scary movie to save his career.
In truth, bringing this director back was a godsend. Of all the films that need careful reconstructing, Friday the 13th is definitely high on the list. It’s an oddball mystery, a tawdry take on And Then There Were None where we don’t get the joy of figuring out the killer’s ID until the fiend shows up and says “Hello.” Betsy Palmer is brilliant as cook turned psycho Pamela Voorhees, and her machete battle with last girl Alice is amazing in its broad scoped camp cravenness. But before that, we have to suffer through endless minutes of stalk and shock, with little suspense preparing us for Tom Savini’s autopsy level make-up F/X. Today, the hockey masked hacker known as Jason is considered a true horror icon. But that status definitely comes from the other 10 films the character has starred in. At first, Friday the 13th was not about the deformed boy. It was about his batshit mother.
Nispel’s decision to redefine Jason as an animalistic predator is just one of the new film’s novel approaches to the material. This new Friday the 13th thwarts convention as easily as it embraces the standard slasher formulas. The opening 25 minutes are all film craft and corpses, Nispel showing off in ways that both shiver the spine and tweak the brain. By the time the title shows up, we’ve already experienced the death of his mother, the rise of Jason, and the set-up for the next part of the plot. Nispel’s greatest asset, and the one element that differentiates him from all other post post-modern horror filmmakers is his level of seriousness. He never treats the genre like a joke, or a lesser level of cinematic artistry. He sets up his scenes like old school masters would and he works the audience like regaled names in the category’s past. Sure, there’s still a by the numbers corpse grinding involved, but getting there is an exercise in polished, professional cinema, nothing more or less.
Indeed, the reason Nispel should now be number one on any studios classic horror remake list - an inventory now containing such noted names as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and The Evil Dead - is that he won’t kowtow to fanboy lusts or messageboard mandates. He won’t cater to memory or excessive obsession. Instead, he will play the narrative exactly the way the material requires. As a matter of fact, the next update he should attempt should be Sam Raimi’s breakthrough demons in a cabin romp. The Evil Dead would be perfect for Nispel’s ominous ambience and sensational splatter rampaging. He would use the wilderness as an effective foil to the foolishness happenings within, and when the creatures start to emerge, he could really turn on the terror. Just like Leatherface and his family, Nispel could even make the entire thing into some sort of redolent look at society circa 2010 (or whatever date the studios decide to set).
Because of his complete confidence in his own vision, because he can take even the cheesiest chestnut from the macabre mindfield and turn it into something stunning, Marcus Nispel should be instantly tossed to the top of the horror heap. He should never have to worry about working. He should have a laundry list of potential projects to choose from. Even when he fails - and Pathfinder is nothing short of subpar - he shows a spark and originality that few filmmakers possess. Remember, both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th were predisposed to fail. Devotees just knew that anyone tackling these titles would come up incredibly short. That Nispel managed to match - and in the case of Jason’s journey, best - the previous offerings says something about his gift for gruesomeness. Clearly, when it comes to horror, he “gets” it. Any producer looking to jumpstart their genre franchise should “get” him as well.