Friday, February 13, 2009

CONSIDERING THE JASON VOORHEES LEGACY


UPDATED FEBRUARY 14, 9:45 p.m.


What is there left to say about Jason Voorhees and the whole phenomenon that is the Friday the 13th series? Yes, it was the first real volley of ‘80s movies to exploit the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween and initiate not only a formulaic franchise of its own but also an entire teen slasher genre, usually centered around one minor holiday or another. But what was there ever to say, really? Carpenter’s movie injected a gliding style and a sense of film ancestry into the antics of relentless killer Michael Meyers (allusions to Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks were there to be mined by filmheads who thought it more than the average horror movie back in 1978, not to mention similarities to Bob Clark’s 1974 hit Black Christmas). But the Friday the 13th movies, starting from the first chapter all the way through Jason X (aka Friday the 13th Part 10, in which Jason gets shot into space, perhaps to wreak vengeance in the name of all those monkeys that were sacrificed by NASA) were never more than clunky retreads done on the cheap, minus any sense of film craft or even a single genuine scare that didn’t rely entirely on obvious “Boo!” tactics. (Ronny Yu’s Freddy vs. Jason, an absurd fantasia pitting Jason against good ol’ razor-digit Freddy Krueger of the almost equally endless Nightmare on Elm Street series, finally brought style and fun, if not exactly substance, to the Voorhees line.)

The newest chapter in the Jason story, director Marcus Nispel’s remake/reimagining/reboot/rehash/what-have-you titled, simply, Friday the 13th has not exactly been getting glowing reviews, but at least Paramount Pictures isn’t hiding the movie from critics this time out, and not surprisingly it’s being reviewed largely in comparison to the memory, if not the actual achievement, of the original movies. It seems that many of those who are not particularly kind to the new movie have taken a rosier view of what those original movies were actually like to watch, one dispiriting sequel after another. Mark Olsen, in his review of the new movie in this morning's Los Angeles Times, compares old school Jason to this apparently slicker, louder version:

“The original handful of Friday films had a certain low-rent elegance about them, and this slickly done, dimly lighted, whiplash-edited update loses that too. Not fun, louder than it is scary, not even all that gory, this new Friday the 13th has Jason, all right, but otherwise it's missing nearly everything that made the original films work.


Portrait of Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) courtesy of Chris Walsh Autographs)

Speaking as someone who saw the first eight of the Friday the 13th movies theatrically, I would challenge both the claim of low-rent elegance and that the movies “worked” in any way other than as generators of dread (which is far different from suspense), or perhaps as showcases for the latest in splashy gore. This kind of 20/20 hindsight recognizes that the movies were low-rent, all right, but that's not necessarily a plus here. Director Sean Cunningham and the subsequent helmers brought out to perpetuate the legend of Camp Crystal Lake were never agile or thoughtful about what to do with the camera or how to shape a scene. There seemed to be implicit in the whole Friday the 13th template a disdain for the kind of “low-rent elegance” that propelled, say, the films of Larry Cohen, or some of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures product, or the early grindhouse-oriented work of Jack Hill or even David Cronenberg. Cunningham and company didn’t know what to do with the camera, and they didn’t care that they didn’t know. Their movies were simple delivery systems for what had, in the shadow of Halloween, become a very simple formula—sex and nudity, boorish, dumb behavior on the part of the teens set up for the slaughter, and the inevitable, often painfully illogical appearances (and reappearances) of Jason, the unstoppable killer. The movies only “worked” if what you want from a thriller are just these simple elements and you derive pleasure from waiting for someone to unexpectedly jump through a window or a meat cleaver to come out of the shadows and get buried in some nubile camp counselor’s skull. (That’s dread, in my book. Suspense would be seeing Jason in the shadows and waiting to see how, and if, the NCC could get out of the room alive.) The Friday movies always skimped on the kind of style that generates suspense. What’s really annoying is that, after starting out as a sort of showcase for the talents of makeup artists like Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) and John Carl Buechler (director of Part 7), even the gore started to dry up around the fourth movie. The third picture (released in 3D) had some memorable kills—eyeballs shooting out into the laps and popcorn bags of eager viewers, a crossbow fired into the audience, and most memorable a happy jokester cleaved in two, length-wise, while walking on his hands—but that was apparently a watershed for the series. After that the splatter, which is where what little imagination on display from the first film on was always deposited, began to become increasingly scarce. Films 4-8 (I didn’t see 9 or 10) were dispiritingly dry and choppy (from an editing standpoint) affairs, playing more on sound effects and last-minute cutaways before the payoff, so whatever interest was still there drifted away.

At least for this habitual viewer. I chalk my sustained interest in les affaires de Jason up to nostalgia (I groaned through the first two with my best friend Bruce during college) and boredom, as well as the silly hope that this time maybe the movie would be as good as the 30-second radio ad. Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed the 3D effects of Part 3, even as I realized how dumb the movie was. (This is a very similar reaction to the one I had last month watching My Bloody Valentine 3D, which was least more of an actual sequel than a remake of the minor 1985 Halloween/Friday the 13th knockoff of the same name. The 3D there, as it was for the third Jason pic, is the best of its kind, but the new movie is still silly as hell and quite a lot dependent on people doing dumb things, as well as filmmakers not playing fair with their slasher version of Three Card Monte.) And I had a personal connection that compelled me to see Part 7-- the movie featured the charming up-and-coming scream queen Elizabeth Kaitan, a friend of my best friend’s wife whom I met on several occasions when I first moved to Los Angeles. (She ends up getting thrown out a second-floor window, as I recall.) Friday the 13th Part VII also featured, all things being relative, the most clever kill of the entire series—Jason stumbles upon a group of campers, and when one decides to hide in his sleeping bag Our Hero picks up the bag with the victim inside and swings it like a very large sack of potatoes against the trunk of a large tree. Splat. Seven movies is a long haul to trudge for such few “pleasures” as these.

But, after taking a break from parts 9 and 10, and not at all expecting the hallucinatory jolts and genuine fun of Freddy vs. Jason, I will make my way this weekend back to Camp Crystal Lake for the “new” version, which, according to Olsen, is basically a mishmash of three or so different Friday the 13th films (though telling them apart these days is a talent I’m not sure I still possess). It’s still habit, I guess, though my hope that they’ll get it right this time is almost as nonexistent as the Jason series’ credentials as film art, or even as an upstanding member of the horror genre. My personal connections still remain, however. There are hopes that the recent financial success of movies like My Bloody Valentine 3D, and perhaps this new Jason epic, will kick-start plans for a proposed new chapter in another horror franchise helmed by a good friend, one which I have every reason to believe will provide ample justification, beyond the lure of big box-office receipts, for its existence. That’s a good reason for me to plunk down my $10 (student discount) and hope for the best.

But today is also my best friend Bruce’s birthday. He turns the big 5-0 on this Friday the 13th, and though I can’t be with him to celebrate this momentous event I’d like to think that by taking in the new Friday the 13th movie this evening I’ll somehow be forging a connection to him through the memory of a slew of terrible kill movies that we enjoyed for so many years, not because the movies themselves were ever much good, but because of the fun we generated for ourselves, as horror film aficionados and fans, by watching them together. Happy birthday, Bruce. May your day be not accompanied by the strains of the familiar screeches composed by musician Harry Manfredini for the Friday the 13th series (“Hunt-hunt-hunt-hunt… Kill-kill-kill-kill…”) but by Bernard Hermmann and John Williams and all the other greats who have provided orchestral accompaniment for all the nifty scares we’ve shared together in our 31-year past. And here’s hoping that, this time out, there’s one genuinely earned shiver in this latest in an apparently undead series of horror films, one that might take a stab at repairing the reputation of the slasher film or at least providing a good time for those of us who still find reason to attend.

(The good folks at Movie Geeks United have found plenty to say about the Friday the 13th series. You can listen to or download their celebratory podcast, packed as it is with interviews from lots of key players in the series, including Betsy Palmer, by clicking here.)

UPDATE: You can read my review of the new Friday the 13th movie by either scrolling up to the next post or by clicking here.

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12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great write-up...really dead-on in your assessments. And thanks so much for the shout out to Movie Geeks! Love your writing, man...would love to welcome you on the show sometime to talk film.

Jamey

Kevin J. Olson said...

Dennis:

Great write-up. You touch on a lot of the issues I have with the series; issues that are not that big because the series doesn't deserve such thought, but issues that for a die hard horror fan like myself, nag at you. You say:

"The movies only “worked” if what you want from a thriller are just these simple elements and you derive pleasure from waiting for someone to unexpectedly jump through a window or a meat cleaver to come out of the shadows and get buried in some nubile camp counselor’s skull. (That’s dread, in my book. Suspense would be seeing Jason in the shadows and waiting to see how, and if, the NCC could get out of the room alive.)"

You touch on the essential element of what makes the hack-and-slash films of the 80's so awful: there's no suspense. "Black Christmas" got it right, then "Halloween" ripped that idea off and made it better (it's said that on the set of "Black Christmas" Clark and Carpenter were discussing a sequel to the film that would take place during Halloween, woops, Clark should have kept his mouth shut), and of course Ridley Scott took the idea and put it in space with "Alien".

All of those films had both suspense and dread (especially "Alien").

Of course as an Italian horror aficionado (read: snob) I do have to point out that they all stole from Mario Bava's "Bay of Blood".

Anyhow, I'm getting ready to post a short something on the blog in response to the remake of "The Last House on the Left" and I found myself complaining quite a bit, but when it's all said and done I just know I will not only see that remake, but the "Friday the 13th" remake, too.

Great stuff as always.

Flickhead said...

Low rent? Yes. Elegance? No. Jason should sue.

I haven't seen the new version -- that's definitely something I'd save for home viewing -- but there's no chance it could be any worse than the original(s).

One of the earlier movies had a funny bit: a subjective camera in the eye of Jason's victim. Jason walks across the frame, Bond-style with faux 007 music in the background, and whirls his knife toward the camera, with blood oozing down. Would you know which one that was? With any luck, it's the one with Crispin Glover, which would almost justify me renting it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Flickhead: I seem to vaguely recall that Bond-esque moment, but I'm going to have to consult a higher authority on all things Jason than myself, because as I said, after seven or eight of these movies they all tend to blur together and it's hard (at least for me) to tell them apart in my memory. I think the Crispin Glover episode was part four, the one in which little Corey Feldman shaved his head to do final battle with Jason. Bond bit or not, it's weird enough to consider a rental! I'll look into that for you, though.

Kevin: Suspense is so much harder to do, ain't it? And thanks for mentioning Bava's A Bay of Blood, which I certainly should have included in the post along with Black Christmas. One look at that and you know right away how deep the roots of the '80s slasher phenomenon really run. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on Last House on the Left, a movie I dread (there's that word again) revisiting but no doubt will when the time comes.

Jamey: Whoo-hoo! I'd love to come on Movie Geeks United and chat it up with you guys. Just let me know when and where! (Peet had nothing but nice things to say about his experience, and it was a really fun interview to listen to, by the way!)

Kevin J. Olson said...

Dennis:

The Bond bit is from the fourth film entitled "The Final Chapter". I remember reading that Tom Savani agreed to come on and do the effects for the film as it was his understanding that they were finally killing off Jason for good. Naive on his part perhaps, but nevertheless his make-up work, and the fact that it's different than any other in the series, is as you say, worth the price of a rental alone.

Another bizarre moment in the series, in part VII (Jason Takes Manhatten) there is a moment when one of the teens is on a rooftop boxing with Jason! All of the axes, pitch forks, knives, drowning, and whatnot were not enough to kill Jason, but I love how this dude is kicking the utter crap out of Jason with jabs and uppercuts, only for him to tire out before he can punch him off the top of the building...


Anyway, that too is at least worth a watch on the tivo should it be on sometime this weekend.

Flickhead said...

Thanks for the Jason Bond info.

Meanwhile, if I recall correctly, Jason X (?) was fairly amusing -- Jason's frozen body thawed a zillion years in the future on a spaceship full of Maxim models posing as rocket scientists. It made me a lifetime member of the Lexa Doig Appreciation Society.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I think I'm gonna have to rent Jason X, Ray. It sounds just bizarre enough to warrant a look. I was thumbing through Leonard Maltin's book today and he (or whoever wrote it) had a very funny line re Chapter 10: "Not to be confused with Malcolm X."

blaaagh said...

Wow! What a great article, and a bracing reminder of how lousy those sequels were. Nice on Liz and her role in part 7--she really deserved better roles!--and I'm in complete agreement about the superiority of Part 3 in 3D, humble as it may be.

I still want to see MY BLOODY VALENTINE in 3D! A 20-year-old castmate said tonight, "Dude, it's awesome...it's complete crap, but it's so extreme that it's funny" or something to that effect. Sounds good!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Dennis for the column. I saw it last night,
had some good chair-jumper moments and a few
nods to the 'old' films. Then I watched 7 & 8 at home,
it's a shame they cut out so much of 7. And since I'm waxing nostalgic here, saw Part 8 at the Valley River Twin in Eugene which was torn down & now an Olive Garden. Ahh, the good ol' days :)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blaaagh: I'm sure you'd enjoy My Bloody Valentine in 3D. It's no less absurd than any other slasher novie, but technically it's pretty impressive, and that's what this whole remake is about. If you go expectin the acting or direction (or the thinking) to be any better than usual, you're in for a disappointment. I just wish there was a chance it'd still be playing up there in April!

Anonymous: Ah, a former (or perhaps current) Duck! (As a former resident of the Emerald City, have our paths ever crossed?)
Jason Takes Manhattan (Part 8) must have showed very near the last gasp of the old Valley River Twin. (Is it me, or did that theater, buried as in was in that little hill, always look like a World War II bunker?) The Cinema World is gone now too, isn't it, deferring to that new complex inside the Valley River Center? As I think on it, I think the only theater in Eugene that was operational back in the '70s and early '80s, when I was there, that is still open is the Bijou. (I'm not counting the McDonald, which is still open but used as a concert hall and live theater.) I'm seriously thinking about renting Jason X based on Flickhead's description above. As for the new movie, I saw it last night too and really, by Friday the 13th standards it's practically a masterpiece, but it still hews to the formula in all the significant ways. I'll try and write a little update in the post itself.

GoJoe said...

Actually the gunbarrel spoof is from the sixth installment, JASON LIVES...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oet_niMqMWw

...should anyone be interested in a more sympathetic take on the series, I recommend the DVD boxset reviews at Film Freak Central...

http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/dvdreviews/fridaythe13boxset1.htm

...as another who grew up with these films -- though I didn't look old enough to get away with sneaking into theatrical screenings until part five -- I find the attention to detail in these pieces quite fascinating.

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