Thursday, June 19, 2008

Revisiting a horror "classic"

Inspired by Friday the 13th, I decided to give the eponymous slasher "classic" a second shot. See, I had seen it as a kid and hadn't been very impressed, but it was on TV and I figured it must have been heavily cut. Maybe the uncut original would hold some surprises. After watching, though, I can honestly say I remain underwhelmed. Even assistant director Steve Miner has admitted "When we made Friday the 13th, all we did was rip-off Halloween," and it shows. Starting with the blatantly derivative title (the only other decent holiday to name a horror film after; eventually they were scrounging around with everything from April Fool's Day to New Year's Evil), the movie does what all bad knock-offs do: it copies superficial elements (like the killer POV shots and promiscuous teens) but neglects the characterization and palpable sense of menace that Halloween did so well. While Halloween and to an extent Psycho (which Friday parrots the score of) are credited with giving birth to the slasher film, this is the movie that really started the genre as we know it. Here for the first time are the utterly two-dimensional cardboard characters and the grotesque gore effects that came to define '80s horror. Halloween has virtually no blood, but here FX maestro Tom Savini devises all manner of gruesome killings, including then-unknown Kevin Bacon getting an arrow shoved through his neck. The story is simple, and does attempt to establish a back story in the way that Halloween did. In 1958, two frisky camp counselors are knocked off by an unseen presence; flash forward to the present, when a new group of dopey teens come to Camp Crystal Lake to work for the summer. Locals warn them about "Camp Blood's" dark reputation, but of course they're too concerned with getting laid and smoking pot to worry about the stories of murder and a young boy's drowning. Soon, a killer is picking them off one by one in all manner of inventive ways. The movie has a decent sense of style, but considering that we don't care about any of these kids, there's absolutely no tension or terror. Predictably, the most boring character (Adrienne King) survives, and Alice does her best to barricade herself in one of the cabins before foolishly tearing down the barrier for what she thinks is a rescuer. It turns out to be-- spoiler alert!-- Pamela Voorhees, mother of the drowned boy, Jason. Pamela is determined to keep the Camp from opening again, still angry over her son's death because of the counselors' negligence; instead of watching him, they were "making love!" (Interesting choice of words for two randy teens going at it.) Betsey Palmer's performance as Mommy Dearest is the only interesting one in the movie. (There's even a special credit for her hairstyle-- which is truly bad.) When Mrs. Voorhees talks to herself as Jason-- "Kill her Mommy, kill her!"--it's genuinely creepy. But after-- oh no, another spoiler!-- she's dispatched via decapitation (how did that dopey 18yo learn to wield a knife like that?), the film fizzles out. The infamous "shock" ending-- with Alice leaning out of a canoe, blissfully setting the audience up for the surprise of grimy Jason's emergence from the water-- is followed by a painfully lame hospital room scene. None of the doctors know what Alice is talking about when she describes her encounter with the thought-dead son. "That means he's still out there!" cries Alice, in a shamelessly obvious set up for a sequel. (The filmmakers claim they never intended to establish Jason as a new killer-- but c'mon. Really?) Friday the 13th is nothing more than a formulaic dead teenager flick that managed to tap into the decade's hunger for blood and guts. Why people are such huge fans of it-- inspiring an upcoming remake-- is beyond me. I'll take Michael Myers over nutty Mrs. Voorhees any day.

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