Home » Cinema and Television, March 2009

Fearless Campfire Stalkers: or, Pardon Me, but Your Machete Is in My Neck

4 March 2009 2,058 Views No Comment author: Matt Schneider
"Why did you have to quit Gilmore Girls, you sonuvabitch? The show was never the same after you left!"

"Why did you have to quit Gilmore Girls, you sonuvabitch? The show was never the same after you left!"

I’m not the guy you take camping; I’m a hobbit, a 370-pound, 6’1” hobbit, but a hobbit nonetheless.  Take a hobbit and plop him down in the middle of the woods with mosquitoes, mud, a leaky tent, a matchbook, and a ridiculously undersized sleeping bag; watch him morph instantaneously into an embittered, furious wyvern, replete with blazing eyes, scorching breath, and a 10-pound thesaurus brimming with choice epithets and curses.  That’s me on a camping trip.  Throw in a modest cabin and decent bathroom facilities, and the scorching breath might be mitigated.1

Perhaps it will surprise you that I understand the appeal of camping, of being in touch with nature, of living by your wits.  I love nature; I love hiking, I love the sun, and I love the scent of raw vegetation incrementally moving along its arduous life cycle under my feet, in the bark between my fingertips, in the air I hold in my lungs.2  Of all the things I could justifiably fear out in the woods, either alone or with a group, it’s not the potentiality of being butchered with a machete at the hands of a Reagan-era Norman Bates.

The whole concept of Friday the 13th was a mixed bag to begin with.  Take a bunch of idiotic teenagers to the middle of nowhere, have them drink like fish and screw like bunnies for an interminable length of time, then dice them according to the whims of a psychopathic mum with a very close bond to her (apparently un-) dead son.  Instead of yoking the dread of isolation, the archaic mysteries associated with nature, and the psychological menaces that erupt within a small group when it finds itself besieged, Sean S. Cunningham (the “director” of the first film) and Victor Miller (responsible for the first film’s “screenplay” and “characters”) aimed to do no more than make the audience so perturbed with the hormonal insipidity of its young band of protagonists, they’d cheer when they were butchered.  The original film appeared to be an earnest attempt to generate fear — or at least old-fashioned squeamishness — but by the time the series got to its fourth installment, it had embraced its sleepaway camp value.  The Son of Vorhees was an unstoppable maniac who dispatched his victims with the same élan that Arnold Schwarzenneger dispatched Colombian drug cartels.  He only lacked the one-liners, but, alas, the filmmakers were short-sighted enough to make Jason mute.

Yet audiences (“gorehounds,” they oft-times dub themselves) relished the mayhem, turning out in droves to each sequel to cheer for each increasingly brutal homicide.  Year 2001 saw the last official Friday the 13th entry, Jason X,3 and 2003 brought us Freddy vs. Jason.  Considering that the 1980s saw nine (count ‘em: nine) Friday the 13th films, the production schedule of the prolific series was comparatively scant over the last two decades.  Nearly ten years elapsed between Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X.  The almost six years since FvJ represents a fairly brief drought, though this year’s reboot is hardly a creative rejuvenation.

For 2009’s re-imagining (or reboot, or remake, or re-whatever), the producers brought in a director with a modicum of contemporary genre cred.  Reworking Tobe Hooper’s lauded 1974 original, Marcus Nispel’s 2003 debut feature, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, attempted to do for the evasion of Texan cannibals what Saving Private Ryan did for the invasion of Omaha Beach.4  Unfortunately, Nispel is no Spielberg, so the routine slasher shenanigans of his nitty-gritty-dirt-farm remake was only spiced up by a few delicious character performances (like that of the inimitable R. Lee Ermey) and all the polish a few millions bucks can buy.5

The abortive attempts at realism in that film are scrubbed from his approach to Friday the 13th in almost every respect.  Damian Shannon and Mark Swift’s screenplay perches uneasily on the fence between self-aware parody (a la Scream) and authentic, for-the-shrieks horror.  Nispel never develops a consistent tonal approach, drifting with whatever near-extreme each sequence presents.  The light banter of the pre-credit scenes (never in crowded with impending dread as you’d imagine a horror film to require) gives way to some genuinely shocking, unprovoked sadism, as Jason stalks, ensnares, and dispatches his prey in cruel and surprising ways.  As stupid as the college-age potheads and sex fiends may be, for once there’s a sense that the filmmakers don’t think they deserve their fates.  Nispel wisely shies away from full body shots of his monster, and the cheapness of the elongated sequence is mitigated by the fact that it actually set me on the edge of my seat.

Unlike a lot of jaded viewers, I’m still a sucker for jump cuts, sudden soundtrack swells, and other assorted fakeouts that are the norm for the horror genre.6  For ten of the film’s first twenty minutes, Nispel employs those cheap shocks in highly predictable ways, with Steve Jablonsky’s industrial-flecked score  mercilessly hammering away as Jason pounds his machete relentlessly into collegiate skulls.  Were his pitiless slaughter left unexplained, his ferocity might have been sustained by the narrative; were he not saddled with that iconic hockey mask halfway through the movie, Nispel might have been encouraged to keep his boogeyman in the shadows, working his mordant mojo from the sidelines like the predator the prologue makes him out to be.  I might not have thought the film any better, but it might have at least scared the bejesus out of me.

Unfortunately, the proper story introduces Jared Padalecki as an older bro searching for his missing younger sis around Crystal Lake.  He crosses paths with a preppy band of machete fodder, each of whom fulfills a stereotypical niche before being picked off, leaving the Final Sibling(s) to stand and fight.7

Crippled by a most bogus ending,8 the thoroughly insulting finale hearkens back to the final moments of the atrocious first film, failing to capitalize on the assets the film had working in its favor.

Rather than a boogeyman who despises randy teens, the new Jason almost resembles an evil woodsman — not unlike the robbers of olde, who would waylay travelers and slit their throats in the dense thickets of the forest.  Some of the cinematography  is  beautiful, capturing the haunting elegance and decay of the woods.  The way Jason’s lair is set up (he’s got a lair!), he is master of these woods.  As his Domain, he won’t tolerate trespassers or poachers — or even dumb kids who would disturb the placid waters of his lake with a gas-guzzling motorboat, skiing while blasting ear-splitting rock music.  In a way, the modern Jason functions more like the hillbillies of Deliverance or the vengeful ghosts of Hooper’s Poltergeist: these people Just Don’t Belong Here, and their obliviousness doesn’t justify their punishments, but it affords a cosmically unfair (yet comprehensible) explanation for why they must die as they do.

Nispel and his team are clueless about these parallels; they completely miss what (sporadically) makes their incarnation of Jason so terrifying, and emphasize Jason’s mommy issues.  At best, it’s a stretch; at worst, it’s implausible, even within the realm of a universe where a beefy man-child annihilates trespassers with various sharp objects, and (apparently) tends a naturally-occurring crop of marijuana.  Yes, once this Jason finally dons his mask, we’re treated to many scenes of him running and/or striding after his victims, drawing his machete from his sheath with a mighty shhhinnngg! and generally existing for no other reason than to make young, attractive people bleed but good.

Like his TCM remake, Nispel’s Friday the 13th is gritty, but it can’t compete with the grittiness of the original, half-million dollar production.  Instead, it pairs a slick production design with serviceably icky (if not realistic) gore effects and an odd hybrid of more naturalistic performances with gaudy parodies of type.  Taken as evidence of focus testing, today’s slasher audience wants “hardcore” violence, but nothing over-the-top; they want boobs and hip representations of recreational drug use, but they don’t want the filmmakers to pass judgment on sexuality and bong-bangin’.9  Same formula, but not even a new package — the film’s aesthetic is in keeping with a vogue that has been in place for nearly a decade.

For slasher fans, the film will be very comfortable; for a general audience thirsty for more horror with the aura of instant reliability, the whole exercise is designed to simulate a fundamental rethinking and freshening up of a stale franchise while delivering the same old crap.  Fans might think they’re adventuring into the woods to face the mysteries of the dark, but they’re actually at home in their hobbit-holes, toking up and watching the grass grow.  Part of me is somewhat impressed that a franchise nearly 30 years old is deft enough to update its tropes according to new market demands while still catering to the old, established customer base.  Considering the glut of mimics that ran rampant through the cineplexes of the 80s, I guess I have a grudging admiration for the fact that Friday the 13th is still standing.  Somehow, it has inadvertently tapped into something very primal in the human psyche that keeps it relevant to moviegoers decade after decade.  It’s not fear, that’s for certain.  Whatever shocks open the film, it quickly descends into mindless hackery.

No, the real appeal of this franchise is clearly the human addiction to ritual.  The woods used to be a scary place.  Now that’s where we go to drink and swap embarrassing stories; it’s where we go to let our hair down and hang out, away from the stress of modern life.  Dark forests used to be a haven for outlaws, criminals, and otherworldly forces of evil; travelers were anxious to get to the safety of the next walled town.  Now, one of our most popular, enduring franchises uses these ancient tropes to recast them as ordinary.  We attend showings of these films to participate in sacrificial rituals with more enthusiasm than most communicants summon for the Eucharist.  Jason’s mask is a totem of solidarity amongst genre fans, and the predictability of one of his films — right down to the Is It a Dream? ending — lends modern life a kind of security.  Right now, people are more afraid of losing their jobs or their houses than being split down to the gizzard by a madman with a two-foot blade.  The daily grind got you down?  Family troubles?  Terrorists on the loose?  Come hang with Jason at Camp Crystal Lake.  Forget your troubles and imbibe the simple pleasures of rustic carnage, splendidly rendered and moronically conceived.  Mommy kiss your boo-boos and make them go away.  You just have to kill them all — vicariously, of course.  Vicariously.

Edited by Daniel Davis.


  1. I like comfort, I like meals you can toast in the microwave or fry up in a pan in under five minutes, and I like sleeping on a big mattress with layers of cozy, fuzzy blankets.  If I could build a fully-appointed home in a hill comprised of labyrinthine, wood-paneled passageways with picturesque oval windows looking out over a scenic prairie and spend my time reading books in a rocking chair on a patio with fragrant pipe smoke wafting up from the marble ashtray by my side, I cannot imagine that I would want for more.
  2. But I do like having the option of getting in my car and returning to my easy chair and DVD player when the bugs get a little too pestilential, or the rain starts pouring so hard I feel like a bloated sea sponge.
  3. A.k.a Super Shredder in Space!, a.k.a. Jason Meets Cronenberg, a.k.a. Friday the 13th Part God-knows-how-many.
  4. The no-name workhorses at the helm of the previous Friday the 13th flicks weren’t exactly top-tier auteurs, although a few of them contributed a few other infamous action or horror movies to the canon of unwatchable 80s nostalgia garbage.  The best Friday the 13th movie to date is probably Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason, which doesn’t properly belong to either series, but it’s a worthy successor to a long tradition of crowd-pleasing monster mashes that has been neglected in recent years.  FvJ isn’t a great film, or even a particularly good one, but it successfully delivers a far-fetched dark fantasy tailored to the desires of fandom in a way that the Alien vs. Predator films have utterly failed to do.
  5. Clearly, his camera crew got a workout, too — the chase sequences weren’t particularly fresh, but you got the impression everyone on set was a bit winded after filming them, and that level of energy was infectious, if scant little compensation for the general mediocrity of the production.
  6. Hence, the American remake of The Grudge actually spooked me, while the vast majority of everyone else snorted with derision.  Just because it sucked doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary to little wusses like me.
  7.  …For the Right.  To Paaartaaay… Er, survive.  The right to survive.  Yeah.
  8. Which prompted me to ask the most important question, “What the feck?” aloud to a mostly empty theater.
  9. I guess somebody, somewhere along the line must have read The Dread of Difference, or figured the modern genre audience has at least heard of Robin Wood or gender studies’ fascination with the slasher flicks.

Leave your response!