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Review: Friday the 13th

'Friday the 13th' (2009)
They nearly did it. The first 20-25 minutes of the new Friday the 13th threatened to tear the roof off my lowered expectations for a reboot of a devalued franchise that began nearly 30 years ago. After a tentative flashback, the set-up in the present day was classically simple, the action flared up in mean and bloody outbursts, and Jason's appearance was note-perfect. I was starting to tense up, feeling the weight of gut-level dread in the pit of my stomach.

Then came a narrative pause, after which the movie never quite regains its footing.

Oh, Friday the 13th delivers the goods, in the same sense that Domino's delivers pizza. By now, anyone who goes to see "a Jason movie" knows what to expect. Before the screening began, in fact, audience members were betting how the first victim would be dispatched: In the bathroom! Swimming! Having sex! Wandering alone in the forest! We expect a high body count, creative 'kill scenes,' some nudity, some tasteless jokes, dumb behavior by good-looking teenagers, and a plucky yet tough heroine as the 'final girl.' Jason must wear a hockey mask, wield multiple weapons of mass destruction (including a machete), and appear suddenly behind his victims, looming out of the shadows, just before he strikes.

Director Marcus Nispel, producer Michael Bay, and their numerous writing, producing, and behind-the-scenes colloborators provide all that's expected, as well as some changes (which I won't spoil). For all their apparent willingness to try out new ingredients, though, they don't tamper too much with the recipe. While the film maintains a serious edge -- with the expected and welcome comic relief -- it never delves too deeply into darker territories.

The original Friday the 13th may have been a shameless rip-off of John Carpenter's Halloween, but director Sean S. Cunningham tapped into a primal fear. It's scary to think that you might be killed by a stranger for no apparent reason. The prospect of a bladed weapon, be it an ax, an arrow, or a hunting knife, tearing into your flesh is frightening. No less unsettling is the idea of facing a murderous creature when you're at your most vulnerable: completely naked, as Hitchcock and Spielberg understood.

I feel foolish now for hoping that Friday the 13th would dare to explore some of the more sinister aspects of its basic premise, but the early sequences led me to believe that Nispel would be able to pull off what he did in his remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That was a movie where I knew (basically) what was going to happen and yet found myself dreading the outcome, feeling the inexplicable, involuntary clenching of stomach muscles and shortening of breath.

Nispel uses some of the same tools here -- driving and metallic soundtrack, claustrophobic setting, a steady and intensifying pace -- to somewhat lesser effect. In spurts, it's incredibly effective. You can pick out scenes that work quite efficiently as adrenalin delivery machines standing on their own. But it feels more like a collection of set-pieces, strung together almost at random. The momentum doesn't build to the point of being a thriller, yet neither does the violence erupt unexpectedly from the drama, as in Cunningham's original.

In other words, we know what's coming, we're glad when it arrives on time, and it's pretty much what we expected.

Along the way, Friday the 13th provides traditional teenage treats in the form of undressed women (topless camping, topless water-skiing, fully-naked sexing), pot smoking / stoner humor, and even overly-ominous warnings about venturing into the wrong part of the woods around the legendary Camp Crystal Lake. (Remember Crazy Ralph?) It would be fairly difficult, though not impossible, to conjure up new ways for Jason to kill people. Instead, the film uses old methods with slight variations and in different settings. I think they've all been used before in one or another of the Friday the 13th movies, but I'm certainly not an expert.

The gore is sometimes explicit and in a couple of instances looks and sounds extremely painful; while most of Jason's kills are quick, those exceptions draw things out. Early indications in the film to the contrary, Friday the 13th doesn't end up relentlessly pushing ratings boundaries, at least in the theatrical release version.

Plot-wise, the movie begins with a brief flashback to June 13, 1980, and then unreels in the modern day. Jason's origin story is covered in a campfire conversation. As in Friday the 13th Part 2, he's still described as the grown-up young boy who saw his mother hacked to death after she went crazy and killed a bunch of camp counselors. Though elements are borrowed freely from the sequels -- Jason didn't wear a hockey mask until Friday the 13th Part 3, for example -- the new version is clearly intended as a reboot of the series rather than a remake or a direct sequel.

This is a body count flick, not a movie about the characters that happen to inhabit those bodies, so character development is not a prerequisite. The cast is composed of likable, good-looking, anonymous young men and women whose roles are interchangeable. Jared Padalecki, the ostensible lead, plays Clay, a motorcycle-riding good guy looking for his missing sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti). He meets up with good girl Jenna (Danielle Panabaker) and her friends, who are spending a weekend at the luxurious lakeside home of her would-be boyfriend, Trent (Travis Van Winkle). Trent is far too much of an uptight asshole to have such laid-back friends, but he has a role to play in the narrative as a kind of one-man deus ex machina factory. Comic relief is provided by the reliable Aaron Yoo (as "Chewie") and Arlen Escapeta (as the stereotypical "black guy" in a horror movie), while Julianna Guill, Ryan Hansen, Willa Ford, and America Olivo provide additional eye candy. Derek Mears portrays the legendary Jason.

Better acting might have helped the film escape the clutches of a third act letdown, which includes several groan-inducing moments, but who am I kidding? It's been said many times that we get the movies we deserve, and the new Friday the 13th is exactly that, no more and no less.


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