On Second Thought… Reconsidering the ‘Friday the 13th’ Remake

After decades of being in near-continual production, bouncing back and forth between box office smash successes and low-budget flops, following transfers of ownership, appearing in everything from movies to comic books and TV series, having been ended and restarted multiple times and, finally, co-starring in a horror crossover unheard of since the demise of the original Universal Monsters, perhaps it was inevitable for the Friday the 13th series to get rebooted.  Having been literally to Hell and back (to say nothing of outer space), there just wasn’t much new ground left for Jason Vorhees to cover.

Handing the production off to Platinum Dunes, Michael Bays’ infamous production company best known at the time for their inaugural reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the order was placed to reboot the Crystal Lake series.  But after the New Beginning (1985) fiasco — in which a Jason substitute was brought in to stalk the nubile teens of the iconic “Camp Blood” — it was clear that a straight remake of the first movie, starring Pamela (not Jason) Vorhees, simply would not do.

Jason had to the killer.

The resulting film borrowed elements from each of the first four Friday the 13th movies.  The opening minutes of the film rehashed the iconic climax of Friday the 13th (1980), in which the original killer, Pamela Vorhees, was beheaded by original Final Girl Alice on the midnight shores of Crystal Lake, only for her corpse to be discovered by the secretly still-alive Jason.  Next, it took from Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), in which a now-adult Jason (wearing a burlap sack over his deformed face) kills off a group of campers who return to abandoned campgrounds where he resides (two of whom discover a shrine to the rotting, decapitated head of Mrs. Vorhees).  Years later, the film borrows broad-stroke elements from Friday the 13th Part III (1982), in which Jason graduates from burlap sacks to his trademark hockey mask and , and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), in which the brother of a previous Jason victim hunts the Crystal Lake killer down to find his sister and exact his revenge.

To a certain degree, I can understand the acutely negative reaction that the film was met with.  Long-standing Friday the 13th fans didn’t appreciate decades of continuity (fleshed out over no less than eleven films) thrown out in favor of a remake that simply smashed together the best characters and plot points from the early years of the franchise.  Movie-goers in general were already tired of the listless string of recent remakes inundating theaters on a seemingly weekly basis, none of which had been really all that necessary in the first place (with even fewer of them being discernably good).  Remember,  Friday the 13th (2009) was released in the same general window as  Thir13en Ghosts (2001), The Ring (2002), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Grudge (2004), House of Wax (2005), The Fog (2005), The Amityville Horror (2005), Black Christmas (2006), The Omen (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), Quarantine (2008), The Strangers (2008) and My Bloody Valentine (2009).  People’s patience for Hollywood horror retreads was running exceedingly thin.

And as for the critics… well, they never liked the series to begin with.

I can’t help but feel in retrospect that much of the anger directed toward this particular remake was misplaced.  None of the original Friday the 13th movies was really all that fantastic on their own.  One and two feel fresh in the context of the larger (and more narrowly constructed) context of the slasher subgenre as a whole.  Three and four had a lot of polish, but couldn’t help but feel just as formulaic as anything else found in this particular vein of horror.  Five was terrible.  Six was great, but couldn’t be further removed from the more grounded realism and serious-minded scares of the original entries.  All the rest were varying degrees of “bad,” with the utter absurdity of Freddy vs Jason (2003) being the one shimmering light in the otherwise dreary latter half of the long-running franchise.  Taken as a whole, however, the Friday movies were only ever good in as much as they built off of other Friday movies, not in the individual strengths of any one franchise outing.

By cherry-picking the best elements from the best stretch of these movies, their reboot was able to be something that none of its predecessors ever quite succeeded at becoming: good.  The awkward (if original) first movie became the quickly-recapped backstory for the events of the main movie.  The iconic bits from the next three films (a set piece, a costume and a subplot respectively) helped flesh out a new story about a new cast of characters absentmindedly tromping about the grounds of the ruinous Camp Crystal Lake.  The kills were memorable, the characters generally likeable and everything hangs together as well as anything ever did in this particular franchise.

For my money, the first act of the film was the strongest stretch of filmmaking in the entire Friday the 13th series.  After following a group of fun-loving teens backpacking through the woods and setting up camp when it gets to dark to continue, Jason dispatches all of them in the grisly fashion that is his want.  When all of them are well and truly dead — a full 25 minutes into the proceedings — that’s when the title card pops up: Friday the 13th.  The beginning of this movie is the end of another one that we never quite got to see through: the impetus for the revenge subplot that dominates the rest of the movie and a chilling taste of the carnage to come.  Just as Hitchcock did for his seminal Psycho (1960), the film’s opening plot and characters are entirely misdirection: a red herring discarded to shocking effect so that the real plot can finally kick in.

Additionally, this film’s take on Jason is genuinely fascinating.  Rather than a deformed (and implicitly mentally handicapped) killer constantly avenging his mother’s death and revenging his own childhood torment, he’s a deranged survivalist camping out in the woods: a predatory hunter indiscriminately killing anybody who happens to intrude upon his territory.  I find it to be a far more interesting take on the character that opens up far greater possibilities for dispatching his victims (which include laying out traps, injuring some victims in order to draw out others who would try to help them and using a much greater variety of weapons than we generally see him employ).  It’s a valid reinvention of the character that makes him much more entertaining than his usual “run and gun” default from the 1980s.

Remakes are not terrible in of themselves.  It’s just the money-hungry studios looking to score some quick cash make them so.  With the right cast, crew and vision behind it, any number of old properties could be beautifully reinvented for the modern era.  After all, it’s not as if The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986), The Magnificent Seven (1960) or A Fistful of Dollars (1964) were original movies.  When done with the care and consideration that their pedigree deserves, they can be every bit as excellent as the originals: sometimes even more so.  And despite what you may have heard going into it, Friday the 13th easily ranks among them in that regard.

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