I’m going to start this review with a basic question: Why are you reading this? Slasher films are notoriously polarizing– either you enjoy them or you don’t, and no review by any critic (“critic” in my case) is going to change that. If you like slashers, chances are you’re either thinking about seeing the latest Jason outing, or you’ve seen it already; if not, you’re not even going to give Friday ’09 a second thought.
It’s for this reason that slashers are difficult to review. Part of my intent in reviewing a film is to influence people to see it or skip it. With a slasher, that’s not possible– the audience isn’t in flux over whether or not they want to see something like a Friday film. They already know if they want to see it. So I’m alternately fighting a losing battle (as it concerns those who hate slasher movies), and preaching to the choir (as it concerns those who enjoy them). My foremost goal in reviewing a slasher, then, is to discuss the tropes of the genre and how well they’re used in the film in question. If there’s one thing that can be said about slasher films, it’s that they’re highly formulaic, and viewing them is highly ritualized. What a critic such as, say, Wesley Morris* doesn’t address in reviewing a movie like Friday ’09 is that the “cliches” of the slasher genre are part of that ritual, and excising those cliches disrupts it. Slashers wouldn’t exist if characters made reasonable choices; if the cast of victims in Friday ’09 were smart, they wouldn’t have split off from one another in a forest where dozens of people have gone missing, and they would have gotten the heck out of Dodge at the first sign of trouble.
But without those bad decisions, you wouldn’t have a movie. This, to me, is a larger part of what divides people on slasher films than content. Moviegoers who will watch something like Saving Private Ryan might not necessarily see Friday The Thirteenth, even though they’re both extremely graphic in their depictions of brutality. Ultimately, it’s not just the viscera, but all the combined trappings of the slasher (stupid choices, gratuitous nudity, hapless and clueless characters, and obscene violence), that make or break the genre for audiences.
The good news for slasher aficionados (yes, I did just put those two words together) is that in Friday ’09, director Marcus Nispel includes each of these elements and proves that when put together, they still work, and work well (mostly). In presenting his own entry in the sputtering, twenty-plus year old franchise, Nispel has made two smart choices. The first is his choice in setting; after taking Manhattan, traveling to outer space, and doing battle with competing franchises, where else is there for Jason to go? Nispel has taken Jason home and brought the series back to where it started– the woods surrounding Crystal Lake. Eschewing devising a new gimmick for the infamous killer, Nispel has instead opted to put Jason back where he belongs. The result is a return to basics, a streamlined redeux of the tried-and-true scenario (a group of young people in a forest get stalked by a serial killer) that made Friday The Thirteenth popular in the first place.
Nispel’s second smart decision is jettisoning the hulking, shambling, zombie incarnation of Jason that has grown to represent the character as a whole, and provided a leaner, faster, more cunning replacement. Derek Mears, the man behind the mask, brings a sort of feral intelligence to his deranged survivalist take on the infamous killer: His Jason has set up tripwire alarms throughout the forest, alerting him to the presence of interlopers, and he uses the system of tunnels underneath the area to sneak up on his targets unnoticed. Mears’ Jason isn’t simply a force of nature that mows down everyone in his path; he’s a hunter, and we’re actually given a sense of the character’s history inhabiting the ruins of Camp Crystal Lake. While such insight dispels the mythology of fear for similar characters, here it only serves to make Jason Voorhees larger than life, and that much more frightening. It sounds crazy, but Mears gives an actual performance here, and it is nothing short of impressive work. (Fun fact: Mears is such a pleasant guy to be around that the studio thought he wouldn’t be up to the task of playing Jason.)
The same can’t be said of the rest of the cast, but that’s to be expected. Part of the slasher tradition includes a cast of characters who are lukewarm at best, and shallow and obnoxious at worst, making their inevitable undoing at the killer’s hands that much more satisfying (and to that end, Travis Van Winkle really scores as alpha-male/obsessive neat freak Trent, providing not only a memorable and entertaining jerk but also strong competition for “best scream” in the entire Friday series). To their credit, a couple of characters here and there actually had me feeling bad for them as they met with Jason one by one, which is more than can be said for most other Friday characters.
But slasher fans don’t pay the price of admission for the victims. They don’t partake in the slasher experience for story or for slick direction (and here I’ll just say that the film is shot really, really well; it hardly looks like a slasher film, until of course people start dying). They see the Friday films for Jason, to cheer as he effortlessly dispatches everyone and anyone unfortunate (and foolish) enough to cross paths with him. If that’s not your thing, I won’t be able to convince you otherwise. If it is, then this movie is an invigorating shot in the arm to an ailing franchise that desperately needed it– but again, you don’t need me to tell you to go see it the first opportunity you get.
*As a note– I like Morris, though I part ways with him on many films. Here, I just don’t think that he really understands (at worst) or cares for (at best) what makes slashers tick.