It’s one of the rare times when the fans got it wrong. The faithful, ever vigilant in their protection of their beloved macabre myths, pounced all over Marcus Nispel’s remake of Friday the 13th as if it were the anti-Antichrist of scarefests. They lamented its decision to deconstruct the entire Voorhees fright folklore, turning Jason and his equally mental mother into cogs in a killing machine set-up that saw none of the original series classicism. Of course, much of this kvetching was pure revisionist history. The Friday films were never masterworks. Indeed, they played like preplanned facets of a well-honed formula, slice and dice offered up in convenient, precise, 90 minute running time packages. But Nispel wanted to amplify the one thing the previous 10 installments lacked - pure visceral brutality. And he did so magnificently.
True to the tenets of the Voorhees family tree, Friday the 13th 2009 begins with Jason witnessing his mother’s decapitation. Fast forward a few years, and he’s a murderous recluse living near the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake. When a group of teens arrive, looking for a hidden marijuana patch, the machete wielding maniac does what he does best. Soon, a young man named Clay Miller is traveling into the area, looking for his missing sister. He runs into yet another college age collective out to have a good time and party hard. Little do they know that Jason is still around, hoping to add to his already ample body count. As he hacks his way through the unwitting young people, Clay still hopes to find his lost sibling. And our slasher, spurred by a sense of loss for his long dead mom, has a secret. It involves an underground lair…and a hostage.
While they have never been known as a director’s series, the Friday the 13th films definitely live and die (no pun intended) by who is sitting behind the lens. The first film had the solid work of Sean Cunningham behind it, and while Steve Miner showed some flash with Parts II and III, it was Joseph Zito who gave the series its potent punch with The Final Chapter. Sadly, since then, there were more misses (Danny Steinmann - Part V and Rob Hedden - Part VIII, specifically) than hits (Tom McLauglin’s excellent Jason Lives, Ronny Yu’s remarkable Freddy vs. Jason). So anyone who argues for the sanctity of this dynasty is clearly functioning on sense memory, not it’s more ‘common’ component. Besides, none of the arguments made against Rob Zombie’s equally impressive Halloween remake (messing with Michael Myers as a character, too much FBI profiler BS) are present here. Nispel knows the Friday fabric, and he weaves a wicked frightmare out of it.
This is a director who completely understands the basics of menace, dread, and terror. He sets up his locations with recognizable consistency, allowing us to put ourselves in the place of the victims. There is a familiarity and a foreignness to the situations, a way for the individual to escape their fate and an inevitability which literally chills the soul. Because of the approach, because Nispel pulls no punches and proceeds with unbridled drive, this Friday the 13th seems more “realistic” than its predecessors - and this may be another aspect of the film that old school fans didn’t like or really appreciate. The original movies were masquerading as morality tales, the sins of sex, drugs, and debauchery repaid by a vengeful spirit in a hockey mask. Here, Jason is a cold blooded killer, not some symbol of victory over vice.
And the newly released Blu-ray version of the Friday the 13th 2009 “Killer Cut” amplifies all this. In the extended sequences within Jason’s lair, we see him frantic over flashbacks to his mother’s death. As the decapitation replays, our tormented homunculus trashes his retreat, showing off the years he spent trying to compensate for the trauma he experienced. There are also longer looks at the initial murder and little Voorhees’ reaction to same. While it’s easy to see why this material was removed from the original theatrical version (as well a subplot which shows how Whitney, Clay’s sister, initially escaped from Jason’s clutches, only to be recaptured later on), this new cut illustrates how dense the Friday the 13th scenario really is - as well as how versed Nispel is in same.
Sure, during the picture-in-a-picture trivia track, the director argues that his only two suggestions were for an underground hideout and the elongated prologue (a genius move, considering the expectations viewers had about what would be different about this take on the franchise), and there is still a need to supplement the slaughter with the MPAA excised gore (the Blu-ray is R-rated, only). Yet there is an undeniable cruelty to this Jason’s actions. He is less about the gimmick and more about the mayhem than previous incarnations - with, perhaps, the exception of Final Chapter Voorhees and his Part VI “zombified” counterpart. Sure, the murders here are inventive, but there’s no flare to the mouth or gardening sheers to the eye sockets. Instead, Jason burns, vivisects, and smashes his prey with surprising sadism. Before, our hooded anti-hero was someone to cheer for. Now, he’s truly something to fear.
And that is perhaps Nispel’s gravest cardinal sin - at least to those who are reliving their Saturday Night sleepovers within the Friday the 13th “double dare” horror melancholy. By reinventing Jason into something he always was - a terrifying visage of corporeal destruction - and taking away the camp and the kitsch, the 2009 movie stays true to the basics of the slasher genre while avoiding its more ‘juvenile’ trappings. This film still sets up a random group of victims and then finishes them off, one by one. Yet anyone hoping the update would be something more akin to the more irreverent revivals of the last few years was, indeed, sadly mistaken. For them, this will be a dire trip into territory a limited genre purview can only imagine. But for true aficionados of fright, for those who have longed for Jason Voorhees to be taken seriously as a spree killer, Marcus Nispel truly delivers. Friday the 13th 2009 is indeed the ‘classic’ the other installments in the franchise claim to be.