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Defending 'Friday the 13th' (2009)

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Monday, Feb 16, 2009

Outcasts rarely have a bully pulpit from which to preach. For the most part, those so afar from the maddening crowd are meant to stay there. Yet I find myself in the unique position of being one of those outsiders with a regular gig to spew my own specific point of view. This past weekend, I reviewed Friday the 13th 2009, the remake/reimagining/revamp of the moldy old ‘80s slasher epic. In said article, I stated that the film was a reverential and relentless exercise in horror from a man - director Marcus Nispel - who really understands the core concepts of fear on film. Awarding four out of five stars, I claimed this recent version of the Voorhees story was a “classic” and went on to tackle more imposing problems - like Confessions of a Shopaholic. As you can imagine, the hate has since been hot and heavy.


Over at Rotten Tomatoes, that collection of overall critical consensus, I am currently only one of 34 writers who enjoyed this post-millennial update. The rest of the 117 opinions - meaning 83 negatives for those of you who are math challenged - range from minor dismissal to outright rage. The overall feeling was that, as a scary movie, Friday the 13th 2009 was not very much of the former and barely the latter. Many complained about the failure of the film to match the merit of the original, while the standard anti-terror bias appears in spades. Naturally, I stand by my version of the facts. I enjoyed the movie from the moment it started and loved how Nispel maintained a serious, no nonsense tone throughout. Like the Dawn of the Dead remake, the Texas Chainsaw redux (also by Nispel), and Rob Zombie’s tale of the hallowed Halloween, Friday the 13th is a new kind of modern macabre masterwork.


cover art

Friday the 13th

Director: Marcus Nispel
Cast: Jared Padelecki, Aaron Yoo, Amanda Righetti, Danielle Panabaker, Derek Mears, Travis Van Winkle, Willa Ford

(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 13 Feb 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 13 Feb 2009 (General release); 2009)

Review [13.Feb.2009]

So the question is begged - how come I am so outside the majority view on this film - nay, the SUPER majority perception of this motion picture? Am I really that out of step, or is there something far more sinister and conspiratorial going on. Granted, I guarantee I see more horror movies per year than the average mainstream critic. Looking over the 300+ titles I took on for 2007-8, a good 17% (or about 50) followed the typical genre format. Some were wide release theatrical experiences - Quarantine, The Eye, The Strangers, etc. Others were independent efforts from unknown quantities, while more than a few - [REC] , Let the Right One In - were amazing foreign fare. But the sad fact is that, for every great experience in fear and dread, I spent many a night bored out of my skull. Let’s face it - most horror films suck and suck hard.


This creates a sense of expected anticipation. As I have written about before, the very hit and miss nature of the category creates a kind of unfair if pragmatically warranted predetermination for critics. Most fright flicks are going to be bad, just as most so-called comedies are going to be lacking in the laugh department. Drama is more or less universal. What sends the shivers up your spine, or the jollies through your belly is a totally personal and subjective experience. Oddly enough, it’s a lot like pornography. Some people won’t even recognize XXX material as valid. It’s a stance very similar to how some audiences view horror. As an emotional experience, being terrified is not considered pleasant or positive. For them, Jason and his haunted hockey mask might as well be Jenna Jameson and her lewd, loose virtues. 


And it’s not just among the masses. Most mainstream critics HATE horror films. I know from anecdotal experience. For them, a scary movie is the cinematic equivalent of a hair in your soup, a green-tinged potato chip in your bag of Ruffles, or a squawking brat at a public/press screening. They are things to be avoided, and if forced to confront them, superficially considered and then quickly cast aside. Since the genre doesn’t have the greatest track record for consistent success, such a belief is simple workaday shorthand. It’s an easy way to approach a review - expect the worst and be nonplused when your hunch is correct. After a while, the 400 to 600 words write themselves.


Now many have accused me of suffering from something quite the opposite. Since I see so many horror films, and find so many of them lacking, I apparently appear to latch onto the first thing that doesn’t absolutely disappoint. That would explain my love of the aforementioned remakes. But the truth is that, because of such a vast perspective, I believe I have a keener eye than most on what works and what doesn’t. A critic who sees two or three fright flicks a year has little to base their opinion on - especially the print person who doesn’t seek out and pay for the latest movie macabre when a studio doesn’t stand up and offer a free screening. The reciprocal nature of the treatment and the title is something the studio can blame itself for. If they really believed in a project, they’d put all bad word of mouth jitters aside and preview all of their movies, no matter the genre.


Fans are just as bad. Instead of broadening their scope and seeing more than one kind of horror offering, you’ve got your zombie-philes, your vampire addicts and your ghost geeks. There are audiences who would never ever favor a foreign fright film and visa versa. There are even those who dismiss the classic works of the past for being too tame and cinematically lightweight. Once again, such narrow-minded viewpoints can’t offer a truly considered response. Instead, it has to be viewed like those with an already established anti-horror bias - their opinion is tainted by a tendency toward only appreciating one kind of dread. Naturally, a response could be made that a person proficient in slasher would be the best critic for this latest installment in the slice and dice dynamic. But without a wider view of everything the genre has to offer, any such statement would still be suspect.


Marcus Nispel has made an excellent example of the type. He doesn’t offer up some goofy tongue-in-cheek charade or pretend to appreciate the seriousness of the subject. His Jason is brutal and animalistic and his treatment of the narrative is inventive and iconic. In essence, he delivered exactly what was expected. He doesn’t turn Jason into an abused child looking for an FBI profile to fill out (as Zombie showed with Michael Myers) or an extension of George Romero’s social commentary. Instead, he views the genre basics, breaks out the viciousness, and goes directly for the throat. Those who find this over the top or offensive haven’t seen many horror films. The Hostel series (again, some very potent motion pictures) is far more cruel and craven. Besides, Nispel needs to stay within Sean Cunningham’s original hack and slash objective. Had he turned this into some exploration of Jason’s psyche, the devoted would be chomping at the Inter-nation bit.


Perhaps this is more of a mea culpa than anything else. I truly enjoyed Friday the 13th 2009 and have since paid to see it again. I await the arrival of the Unrated DVD, knowing that Nispel does not disappoint when it comes to digital packaging and added content. I do admit that my overexposure to crappy horror might make me more susceptible to something borderline good/bad, but I don’t think that applies here. I can see and argue the artistic qualities that Nispel brings to all his projects and the overall effectiveness of the film itself. If the original movie was merely 80 minutes of waiting until the wonderfully whacked out Betsy Palmer shows up to wreck her own brand of batshit vengeance, so be it. This movie is all bad-ass Betsy from beginning to end.


So brand me a crackhead or someone capable of only clouded critical judgment. Wonder out loud what it means that you agree with me on certain films but not on this particular bit of slasher superiority. Granted, Friday the 13th 2009 is not Suspiria, or The Exorcist, or Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. No, it’s a serviceable scary film with a bite and a bravura that’s rare within the industry. Hate the movie all you want, but deconstructing the messenger because they disagree with your disapproval seems silly. This is all opinion after all, not assertion. There is a difference. History will bear out who is right and who is obviously influenced by their own particular point of view. For now, I’ll play the outcast. It’s not so bad - especially when you know you’ll probably be proven right somewhere down the line.


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