[16 February 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
In the almost 30 years since he first leapt out of Crystal Lake at the end of 1980’s “Friday the 13th,” the hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees has spawned 10 sequels, been struck by lightning and become a zombie, been to hell and back, visited Times Square and flown into outer space.
Offscreen, Jason has received an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, graced lunchboxes and video game consoles and become so recognizable that he is known the world over on the same first-name basis as Madonna, Mickey and Bruce.
One of the first challenges facing the makers of the new “Friday the 13th” picture that opened Friday was how to take what had become a larger-than-life icon and bring him back to his humble roots, hacking and slashing his way through vanloads of horny teenagers on the infamous grounds of Camp Crystal Lake.
Their eventual solution was simply to trust the hunter-with-a-machete bluntness that had made Jason so popular in the first place and forget about all the self-reflective irony, pretzel-like plot twists and extreme depictions of lovingly rendered torture and suffering that have permeated the horror genre since the release of 2004’s “Saw.”
“‘The Exorcist’ is my favorite horror movie of all time, and I would never dare try to remake it,” says “Friday the 13th” director Marcus Nispel, who also helmed a redo of 1974’s classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 2003. “But then there are movies that people want to see again and again, and there are some characters that people just can’t get enough of. And Jason Voorhees is one of them. When I worked with the screenwriters, they kept referring to Jason as our anti-hero. It was really the kids who were their villains. We empathize a little bit with this character, because he expresses the ‘Freaks and Geeks’ outcast in all of us. He’s like ‘Carrie’ at prom night.”
Like director Rob Zombie’s 2007 revisionist remake of the slasher classic “Halloween,” which delved deeply into the tortured psyche of the murderous Michael Myers in an attempt to explain why he did what he did, the new “Friday the 13th” makes clear that Jason (played by Derek Mears) doesn’t kill for the thrill: There’s a purpose to his madness, no matter how twisted it happens to be.
Unlike the “Halloween” remake, however - and in a drastic departure from the recent wave of gore-drenched, R-rated horror films that have generated a new genre known as “torture porn” - “Friday the 13th” is devoted entirely to giving the audience a haunted-house ride instead of sending them home with nightmares. (It was the top film at the North American box office over the weekend, reportedly setting a new record for a horror opening with estimated sales of $42.2 million, distributor Warner Bros. Pictures said Sunday.)
Producer Brad Fuller, an executive at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes company, which caters exclusively to cranking out horror pictures, says he wanted “Friday the 13th” to be a throwback to the slasher-film heyday of the 1980s, when the horror genre didn’t take itself quite so seriously.
“We started working on ‘Friday the 13th’ right after we had finished ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,’ and we looked back at the movie and felt we had gone too far,” Fuller says. “It was just TOO sadistic. We told Michael Bay we couldn’t make another movie where we’re sitting in a basement killing people for two hours. We have to make them more fun.”
Like the recent “My Bloody Valentine” remake and the upcoming reimagining of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (with Billy Bob Thornton set to play the dream-demon Freddy Krueger), the new “Friday the 13th” embraces all the cliches of the popcorn-horror flick instead of trying to go beyond them. In a way, the movie marks a return to a gentler, kinder brand of horror, one that isn’t all that concerned with reflecting the mood and fears of the popular culture.
Instead, “Friday the 13th” - right down to the gratuitous sex and nudity - is specifically designed to be enjoyed best in a crowded movie theater on a Friday night.
“I’m 43 years old, and the way I learned about breasts was watching ‘Friday the 13th’ and movies like ‘Porky’s’ and ‘Hot Dog’ in the 1980s,” Fuller says. “But my son doesn’t ever get to see that in movies anymore. So we really wanted to go for it with this one. I hope everyone feels the way we do.”
Fuller’s glee may make “Friday the 13th” sound like a piece of exploitative trash, but most horror films were never made with aspirations to hoity-toity art. Even Alfred Hitchcock originally made “Psycho” with the drive-in circuit in mind. The list of exceptions is long, of course (“Frankenstein,” “The Exorcist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Jaws”). But what makes the majority of scary movies of interest to film historians is primarily what they tell us about the era in which they were made.
Horrormeister Wes Craven (“Scream,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “The Hills Have Eyes”), who produced the upcoming remake of his 1972 shocker “The Last House on the Left” due in theaters March 13, says he can still remember the outrage that the original film generated among critics.
“Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who got ‘Last House on the Left,’” Craven says. “He gave us four stars out of five. Everyone else thought we were demented or perverted or a threat to American national security. It was ridiculous. But films like that one and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ hit the audience of their time really hard. They were the product of the Vietnam era, just like the torture-porn stuff like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ are a product of theirs.
“Torture is the ultimate obscenity, and to make films about it seems wrong,” Craven says. “But there’s a sense of ‘I am surviving this’ that goes on with those movies. You can look at horror films as a mirror where you can’t avoid the reality, and a lot of the audiences for these movies are teenagers who will likely be the ones fighting the wars that are now raging. Those things are not abstract for them. There’s something going on when they go to these movies, as if they were testing themselves against them.”
Now that the torture-oriented pictures are showing signs of burnout (“Saw V” grossed a healthy $112 million worldwide last year but is widely reviled by everyone who saw it), the studios are increasingly dusting off proven hits to serve to a new generation that may not be familiar with the original films. And that surge, too, could be interpreted as a sign of the times. Remakes are nothing new, but the sheer number of horror redos in production - including new versions of “The Birds,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wolf Man” and the 1987 cult-classic “Anguish” - is unusual even by Hollywood standards.
“We’re living through a time of incredible anxiety and a lack of knowing what’s coming next,” Craven says. “That filters down all the way to the studios. They don’t know what kind of original material is going to work, so it’s just a safer bet to go with a remake, especially if there’s been enough time. There’s an entire generation of moviegoers who thinks ‘You mean Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?’ and hasn’t seen these films.”