Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Film review: New 'Friday the 13th' is slash-by-numbers

Julianna Guill and Derek Mears (lurking in background) in Friday the 13th.

By John Thomason

If ever there was a movie directed on autopilot, it’s the new Friday the 13th.

Opening Friday (the 13th), this horror picture – not a remake of the 1980 schlock classic so much as a revisit – is so stripped of wit, suspense, terror, personality, character and distinction that surely no human hand could have been involved. It feels written, shot, acted, produced and edited and marketed by a focus-group machine, its various elements snapped together off a conveyer belt.

Is anybody surprised? As with the recent remakes of Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and others, the only reason for its existence is to ratchet up the bloodletting and nudity, making the gore more graphic and the sex more salacious than the comparatively conservative 1970s would have allowed. But in the case of Friday the 13th, unlike these other examples, the re-makers weren’t working with high art to begin with.

There was no social commentary or innovative filmmaking in the original Friday the 13th: just stupid young people doing stupid things and getting hacked up for it. But the characters this time around are modern morons, new but hardly improved. They’re not like those squares in the original film whose idea of fun was a game of strip Monopoly.

These kids – well-connected with hot cellphones and GPS -- play beer pong, guzzle alcohol out of dirty sneakers and dance to booty music, unaware that they’re bringing their collection of college clichés to the same campsite Jason Voorhees terrorized some 29 years earlier.

Like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog or a 90210 casting call, the characters comprise a multicultural melting pot of “diversity:” There’s the team leader, a brooding, humorless type (Travis Van Winkle); his sensitive girlfriend (Danielle Panabaker); the village slut (Willa Ford); the dunderheaded jock (Ryan Hansen); the token black guy (Arlen Escarpeta); and the token Asian (Aaron Yoo). They’re joined by another brooding, humorless type (Jared Padalecki) that the first brooding, humorless type instantly hates for no particular reason.

This motley crew shares nary a brain cell among them, folding under the weight of their own stereotypes until most of them wind up penetrated by any of a variety of pointy objects (and needless to say, there’s no artfulness to the slayings, as there would be in a film by Brian de Palma or John Carpenter; just excessive blood). These are people who would never pick up a book if their lives depended on it, but when it comes to abandoned tool sheds, they’re endlessly curious. Every creaky set of stairs, they go up 'em. Every foreboding old cottage, they ransack.

The movie contains the same offensive morality of its genre forbears, too: We know the kids are about to get sliced and diced whenever sundry vices – weed, sex, liquor – are engaged or discovered. Like Marcus Nispel’s direction and Damian Shannon and Mark Swift’s screenplay, they go through motions we’ve all seen before and can predict, step by step, note by note, false scare by false scare.

In the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr eloquently described the characters in the original Friday the 13th as “corpses-in-waiting.” The same can be said for this latest group, but it needn’t be that way anymore. Movies like this negate the gains made in more progressive, humanistic slashers such as Wolf Creek and Cabin Fever, in which the filmmakers gave us flesh-and-blood people we can care about.

By reverting to the walking, talking pieces of meat from the pre-Scream yesteryear, there’s no reason to bat an eyelash when the next victim becomes mincemeat. Friday the 13th plods along as if horror films have never been deconstructed before, ensuring that the resulting abomination of recycled tropes is as instantly dated and discardable as any of the “proper” Jason sequels.

The film does throw one curveball. Its prologue follows another group of campers as clueless and one-dimensional as the ones we’ll meet later. After they’re chopped to bits – the mystery is not if they’ll die, but who will die first – we’re treated to the title card: Friday the 13th. It's sad to realize that the wretched short film you just watched is only the beginning of an even more wretched feature.

John Thomason is a freelance film critic based in South Florida.

FRIDAY THE 13th: Cast: Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Travis Van Winkle; Director: Marcus Nispel; Studio: Paramount; Venue: Most commercial houses, opens Friday

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