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05 June, 2010

Returning to Crystal Lake: Remaking FRIDAY THE 13TH

Once again, Hollywood has proven that there is a total dearth of originality in the film industry, by remaking a film that was hardly original when it premiered 30 years ago. Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13th, while a breakthrough film for American audiences, was familiar ground for fans of Euro-Horror, especially the Italian Giallos. F13 freely borrowed elements from the work of such directors as Dario Argento, Antonio Margheriti, and Mario Bava, most notably Bava’s terrific REAZIONE A CATENA ~aka~ A BAY OF BLOOD. This 1971 film features several thematic similarities to F13… the isolated rural setting, the escalating body count, the inventive means of killing the various victims. F13 adopted these conventions, translating them into forms more familiar to American audiences. In many ways, FRIDAY THE 13TH is the quintessential American Giallo.

F13 also owed much to two North American films from the ‘70’s. A talented young director named Bob Clark, who previously made DEATHDREAM and CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, created the Slasher genre with 1974’s Canadian import BLACK CHRISTMAS, the best of his early films. Clark, who would become famous with Comedies such as PORKY’S and A CHRISTMAS STORY, had a talent for Horror that few appreciated at the time, primarily because he never had a budget to match it. In that respect, BLACK CHRISTMAS was the perfect film to showcase that talent: Cheap to produce; not reliant on special effects; and a better script than his previous outings. The caliber of the acting was also much improved, as he was able to move away from some of his stock performers he had been using since his earliest work.

This film went far in establishing the look and feel of the modern Slasher film, as well as several of the conventions that would become hallmarks of the genre. A small, isolated group, young, attractive, cut off from contact with the outside, menaced by a hidden killer from within what should be a safe and comforting shelter… all would become familiar to fans of the Slasher genre, and all started here.

The second film that inspired Cunningham, even more directly, was the surprise 1978 hit HALLOWEEN. Produced by Moustafa Akkad, and the directorial debut of soon-to-be Horror Master John Carpenter, HALLOWEEN introduced fans to a new concept in Horror, the Unstoppable Slasher. These nightmare creations, more than psychopaths, less than monsters, were relentlessly evil, indestructible, silently emotionless killers. Their only motivation, their only drive, was to kill. Not out of hunger, not for greed. They’re unstoppable killing machines, with absolutely no humanity whatsoever. No motive, no remorse, nothing to moderate the pure… EVIL of the monster. Michael Myers wasn’t some crackhead knocking off a liquor store to get his next fix; he’s not a mobster killing for profit. His only motivation is to kill. No food, sex, or rest. Just… Kill.

With F13, Cunningham took elements of both, and added a unique twist: the location. Camp Crystal Lake defined the franchise from the beginning, even before there was a Jason Voorhees. In truth, Crystal Lake was responsible for the “death” of the boy Jason, and the derangement of his mother Pamela, the killer in that first film. Crystal Lake was a prominent feature of each of the sequels until FRIDAY THE 13TH VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, easily the nadir of the series. This symbiotic relationship between Jason and Crystal Lake was explored in detail in Ronny Yu’s 2003 film FREDDY vs. JASON.

Recently, director Marcus Nispel helmed a return trip to the place where it all began. FRIDAY THE 13TH, the remake, was released on the 13th (a Friday, naturally…) of February 2009, and is now available on Warner Home Video DVD [DVD Review: FRIDAY THE 13TH (2009): The Killer Cut, see below]. Nispel, who directed the successful, if inferior, remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), beat out Jonathan Liebesman, the director of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006), for the honor of helming this film. Platinum Dunes, the company responsible for that recreated franchise, partnered with New Line Cinema, who acquired the rights to the original series from Paramount following the dismal showing of the aforementioned FRIDAY THE 13TH VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN. New Line produced three films, JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993), JASON X (2001), and FREDDY vs. JASON (2003) [DVD Review: FREDDY vs. JASON, see below], and while the first two were inexcusably bad, the third went a long way towards redeeming the franchise. Combined with New Line’s blockbuster NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise, and it’s star slasher, Freddy Krueger, the saga of Jason Voorhees underwent a renaissance, as well as a deeper exploration of it’s roots.

One characteristic of the recent ‘reinventions’ of some of our favorite horror franchises—HALLOWEEN, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES—is that the reinventions somehow can’t resist filling-in the ‘dark places’ in the originals… the unanswered questions, the voids in the narrative that we were allowed to fill in with our imaginations, creating scenes far more frightening than the filmmakers were capable of. They feel the need to answer every question, to expose every ‘dark place’ to light, and in the process ruin what made those original films so unique and memorable.

Those who viewed the Rob Zombie-directed 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN were given every possible insight into the creation of Michael Myers, the killer—but the result was the destruction of Michael Myers, the inhuman, unknown, unstoppable Slasher. As I discussed in my review of the film—

“Where in the 1978 film Michael Myers had been an enigma, a cipher, (he was even listed as “The Shape” in the credits…) here Zombie gives depth and humanity, albeit flawed, to Michael by exploring in great detail his troubled childhood and incarceration. What was only alluded to in the original is played out over the entire first act here, bringing us into Michael’s world, and letting us get to know him. It is not an equitable trade.

“Part of what has made the original HALLOWEEN such a classic of the genre was that mystery, that air of the unknown that cloaked Michael Myers. When Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Loomis, describes Michael as a being of pure evil, it’s easy to understand, and believe, the good doctor. When Malcolm McDowell says the same thing in his performance as Loomis, the words sound hollow and overwrought, and we wonder whom he’s trying to convince.” [DVD Review: HALLOWEEN (2007) Unrated Director's Cut, 23 February 2008]

That first paragraph could be used to describe any of these recent remakes. All are guilty of that, and true to form, Nispel’s F13 doesn’t resist the urge to delve into Jason’s psyche, though to a much lesser degree than Zombie’s HALLOWEEN redo. Steve Miner’s (the director of FRIDAY THE 13TH, Pt. II…) Jason Voorhees, more than any of that generation of slashers save Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger, was a supernatural creature, an evil spawned by Hell and birthed by Crystal Lake. He killed because that was what he was—a killer. No motivation other than his own nature was required. That’s something that could be said for the other original Slashers… Michael, Freddy, Leatherface… their nature was to kill, and their creators wisely decided to remain silent on the state of their subconscious.

Not only is it unnecessary to attempt some manner of on-screen psychoanalysis on the likes of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, the humanization of such characters destroys that which makes them unique: Their inhumanity—the fact that they are inhuman, unnatural, unstoppable forces of evil, incarnate on Earth for the sole purpose of spreading death and terror. Without that to set them apart, there is no difference between them and Norman Bates—just deranged psychopaths, scarred, traumatized human beings, giving in to their twisted urges. The supernatural aspect of the killers who cannot be killed is gone. The characters are no longer the monsters of our formative years; they are now simply the garden-variety serial killer, albeit more prolific. The filmmakers ramped up the gore and violence, but in the process they lost the ability to instill terror in the audience. You can shock them with violence, and gross them out with gore, but only by creating something beyond normal criminal behavior do you create the sense of horror that keeps audiences coming back for thirty years. In thirty years, Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and Cunningham’s F13 will still be classics of the Horror genre. I doubt the same will be said about the remakes.

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