Nispel: Friday the 13th (2009)

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Transplanting the Friday the 13th franchise into the new millennium was always going to be a challenge. Like so many great films, the originals thrived on limitation, since in the absence of lavish budgets and sophisticated digital effects they were forced to fall back upon space as the main venue and object of horror. More than any other 80s horror franchise, Friday the 13th evolved spatially, with each new instalment finding a way to reconfigure Camp Crystal Lake, until Jason X literally sent us into space with only a virtual recreation of Jason’s old stomping-ground to connect us to the earlier films. Indeed, part of what makes the franchise so astonishing is that every single film manages to make good on this spatial evolution, since while the quality of the actors, screenplay and direction may vary from instalment to instalment, every release nevertheless manages to extend Crystal Lake in new and unexpected directions.

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At the same time, the original cycle was well served by the censorship demands of the 1980s, which ensured that even the most sexually ambitious films couldn’t show a fraction of what is permissible at a multiplex today. One of the paradoxes of eroticism is that it depends upon indirection and deflection, and the first couple of films in the cycle seem to have hit that sweet spot at which they were able to show just enough to stimulate the viewer’s fantasies without actually demystifying and deflating those fantasies by actually depicting them. As a result, while the original films – and The Final Chapter in particular – may not be especially sexually explicit by today’s standards, they are enormously erotically explicit, exuding a seething and almost unbearable orgiastic ambience that often seemed to turn every encounter or conversation, no matter how trivial, into a form of foreplay. The Final Chapter, in particular, often played more or less as softcore pornography, especially in the pervasive sense that its characters weren’t ultimately having sex for the sake of having sex but simply to defuse the unbearable erotic tension that suffused everything. It’s not hard to see, then, why The Final Friday became such a key influence on Eli Roth’s development of torture porn horror in the 00s, since the sex scenes tend to periodically manage the sexual ambience in much the same way that the kill shots manage the suspenseful ambience. In both cases, however, it is management, rather than containment, and part of what made these early films so erotic was the way in which they managed to suggest that no sex act could ever fully contain sexual desire, just as no single murder, however grisly or brutal, could ever satisfy Jason’s lust for flesh.

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Of course, it doesn’t really makes sense to suggest that The Final Friday was simply nascent torture porn, since torture porn tends to operate by divesting extreme violence of its suspense and extreme sexual content of its frisson, masochistically and almost puritanically seeking out a new form of pleasure for a world in which hinting at the limits of what might be visualised no longer carries any real erotic weight. Returning to Camp Crystal Lake in 2009, then, poses a certain quandary: how to retain the erotic focus of the earlier films (or at least not diminish it) while staying true to the developments in horror that have taken place in the interim? One of the great paradoxes of the franchise is that while its various narrative threads may exhibit some of the most dramatic and irregular time lapses to be found in any 80s serial, the films themselves were also the most regular in their release and distribution – on average, one every eighteen months – creating an odd distention of the decade that was bound to resonate as the decade itself came into vogue once again thirty years later and directors scrambled to position the late 00s as part of the long 80s. If it was important for a reboot not to lose sight of the franchise amidst contemporary developments, it was equally important that it didn’t simply turn into an exercise in slavish 80s adulation, even or especially because some of the later films – especially Jason Takes Manhattan – seemed so aligned with the glitzy nostalgic version of the 80s that preoccupied the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

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It’s a tribute to Friday the 13th, then, that it plays as a completely legitimate addition to the franchise, an innovative spatial evolution of Camp Crystal Lake and a thoroughly engrossing horror film on its own terms. More than any other reboot of the 00s and 10s, this is a sequel rather than a remake, to the point where it often goes by the name of Friday the 13th Part 11 on DVD, especially in boxed and special editions of the franchise as a whole. Although it is named after the first film and often plays as a homage to the first film, it also offers a completely independent story, opening with a brutal and quite bravura prologue that turns this into the only film in the franchise – from Jason Takes Manhattan – to move beyond the ninety-minute mark. Whereas most other films in the series open with an encounter between Jason and an individual, here we’re presented with a miniature film-within-the-film, as a collection of teenagers camp out at Crystal Lake only to be taken out by its resident serial killer on their first night. After all but one is butchered, the film proper begins and presents us with two competing narratives – on the one hand, another group of teenagers who have come to stay at their ringleader’s lake house; on the other hand, a solitary teenager, played by Jared Padelecki of Gilmore Girls, who turns up to try and get some answers about his missing sister, one of the party of teenagers targeted in the opening scene, as well as why the police have given up on the case.

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Last time we saw Crystal Lake, in The Final Friday, it had become a tourist destination, but by 2009 it is utterly deserted. While the film may rotate through a few stragglers and hangers-on in the opening scene, it’s clear that the township and surrounding area has fallen into desuetude, just as Jason has moved from the cult media icon of the early 90s to a folk legend more appropriate to the late 00s, with traces of the urban legend that was such a big trope in 90s slasher films as well. The fact that Friday the 13th is now drawing upon films that the original franchise helped shape also gives the ruined campsite a distinctively haunted and hauntological vibe, with Cabin Fever feeling like a continual point of reference in particular, which is perhaps why it feels as if we’ve come full circle and are now seeing a slasher film influenced by the way in which torture porn emerged out of slasher cinema in the first place. To a large extent, it’s Padalecki’s investigation that opens up that cross-section of the Crystal Lake community, as he travels from resident to resident over the course of the first act, gathering their various folkloric recollections of Jason into a peripatetic wandering vibe that often feels drawn from some of the quieter, more investigative moments of I Know What You Did Last Summer, just as Padalecki’s own attempts to figure out what happened the previous summer cement the film as a return, rather than a reboot or remake. From A New Beginning onwards, the franchise has tried to figure out how to integrate an investigative or procedural element into the suspense without it playing as straight comedy, and Friday the 13th is the first time it really succeeds, just because the distance from the original film and the decay of Crystal Lake tends to produce the sense of deep time against which procedural narratives of this kind really tend o flourish.

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In part, that languorous sense of time is also a function of the most mobile cinematography since the first couple of films. Using the increased portability of the digital camera as a pretext for dissolving Jason into the mise-en-scene as never before, it often feels as if Jason might actually vanish or dematerialise altogether if he didn’t compensate with the most kinetic movements he has ever displayed, all of which seem designed to extricate himself and his point of view shots from the camera, even if those very attempts draw upon, extend and even consummate the fluid mobility of the camera itself. Running, dashing and sprinting from one victim to the next, he tends to emerge abruptly and then abstract himself just as rapidly when he has got the job done, with the result that there are not really kill shots so much as kill sequences that segue fairly naturally into torture porn tableaux, orchestrated around long, agonising and distressing depictions of screaming, pleading and other forms of bargaining. At moments, there is almost a gruesome giallo feel, or at least a giallo prescience for the ways in which quietness can texture gruesomeness, which works to offset the unbearable split-second shock that became such a hallmark of 00s horror, and which can tend to dilute suspenseful involvement if it is not as monitored and managed as carefully as it is here.

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Of course, the teenagers are also empowered by the advent of digital technology, just as the roaming cinematography seems to speak to a world in which an utterly new communicative possibility has been grafted on top of the familiar Crystal Lake topography. With SmartPhones, GPS and iPods – the first victim is actually listening to his iPod as Jason approaches – the landscape feels in danger of losing some of its visceral immediacy, so it’s an ingenious move for the film to respond to this new communicative topography with an alternative, underground topography, in the form of Jason’s lair, a space beyond reach of even the strongest mobile signals. While Jason has seemed like a subterranean dweller for a long time, Friday the 13th puts a new twist on the motif by elaborating an entire survivalist compound, an elaborate network of huts, mazes and tunnels that are rigged up with all kinds of traps, alarms and other security measures that play like a city kid’s worst nightmare of what a redneck might do to keep them off their property. As might be expected, it all converges on Jason’s makeshift dungeon and torture chamber, where he is holding Padalecki’s sister – the only victim in the franchise to date who has not been killed by Jason on sight – and as the action moves there the film often feels more like an escape film than a slasher film. Recovering the looming, labyrinthine spaces of the first half of the cycle and the subterranean, infernal spaces of the second half of the cycle, Friday the 13th manages to dovetail both with the demands of torture porn without ever compromising the topography of Crystal Lake too much either, since above ground things are as suspenseful and naturalistic as they have ever been. Whereas the earlier films proceeded towards night, here it feels as if the action is moving further and further underground as we move towards the inexorable climax, or at least towards a new kind of night that is capable of defying the twenty-four-hour flicker of the social media devices that the teenagers always seem to have on hand. In that sense, Friday the 13th also perfects and allegorises the subterranean palette that formed such a distinctive part of this wave of 70s and 80s reboots as directors of the 00s and 10s searched for a new vocabulary for articulating the possibilities of underground, grindhouse cinema for a digital era.

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While that integration of torture porn into the Crystal Lake universe undoubtedly reinstalls the fear factor for a new generation, it also runs the risk of removing the eroticism of the earlier films, since torture porn as a genre tends to be relatively austere, puritanical and joyless. To avoid the horror turning into too much of a grind, then, the film needs to artificiality reinject joy back into the story, which it does largely through drug use, since Friday the 13th also plays – somewhat improbably – as a stoner comedy for long stretches, a move that often feels distantly indebted to a running joke in the Scary Movie parody franchise in which the slasher corpus of the 80s and 90s was reimagined as a series of blissed-out, trippy stoner films. Not only is a storied marijuana plantation the reason why the first group of teenagers come to the woods in the first place, but the main characters always seem to be discussing, anticipating or smoking pot – “the stoned American foraging for food” – as Crystal Lake is gradually envisaged as a giant pot field, defamiliarising even the most familiar and hallowed parts of its topography in an unsettling and hallucinatory way, just as Jason’s rampage only really starts to kick in once the stoners are fully wasted, giving the final act the sickly, nauseating atmosphere of a trip gone bad.

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At the same time, the focus on pot is just part of a wider comic taste for douchiness, prompted partly by the fact that this is by far and away the richest and most privileged collection of teenagers that the franchise has featured so far. While Crystal Lake may have decayed as a campsite and township, it’s clear that someone has profited off the available real estate, since we’re no longer in a hut, lodge or farm but instead housed in the rich jock ringleader’s father’s lake house. Whereas the teenagers of Parts 1-3 revered the woods and the teenagers of Parts 4-8 refused to revere anything, here the ringleader is continually demanding that the other teenagers revere his family’s property, possessions and status. Incessantly berating them about what they touch, where they go and how they behave in his lake house, he often feels like a comic counterpoint to Jason’s own paranoid security measures, while the film as a whole tends to oscillate between these two zones of spatial exclusion, with the most dramatic death – and the disposal of the most memorable character – taking place in the lake house’s shed, which also happens to form the outermost boundary of Jason’s survivalist space as well. Yet even this “shed” is bigger than any of the previous cabins combined – “poor people call this a house” – and only seems to expand once Jason turns it into his base for scoping out and invading the house.

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For the first time since The Final Friday, then, it feels as if we’re actively rooting against the characters (so to speak). In fact, the film as a whole is quite continuous with Part 4, especially in the way in which Jason and the douche ringleader seem to be competing for who can incorporate the greatest number of teenagers into their own brand of antisociality. Where Friday the 13th does departs from The Final Friday, however, is in the nature and texture of its sex scenes. On the whole, these are far more explicit than anything to be found in Part 4, but any titillation is offset by the fact that every character in the film only seems capable of experiencing pleasure in an oneiric, solitary, self-isolating manner. In possibly the best sex scene of the series so far – and certainly the most explicit – the douche ringleader turns his conquest into a mere adjunct to his own masturbatory solipsism, comically undercutting the voyeurism of witnessing him and his girlfriend together and giving even his most over-the-top moments of sexual bravado a wry impotence and absurd sense of anticlimax. It feels right, then, that this oneiric quality culminates with yet another tribute to the shower sequences in Psycho that formed such a prominent part of the first films in the franchise, except that here the shower turns into yet another space for masturbatory self-isolation rather than the harbinger of any genuinely erotic – let alone orgiastic – communion between any of the characters. Once again, social media seems to empower and disempower the characters at the same time, since while it may have removed the erotic flux that previously lured Jason, the oneiric solitude that it brings has also seriously diminished their capacity to act as a group, a possibility that was definitely there from the very beginning of the franchise but is taken to its logical conclusion this time around.

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All in all, then, Friday the 13th – or Friday the 13th Part 11 – is a completely legitimate addition to the franchise. On the one hand, it spatially evolves Crystal Lake in ways that are commensurate to the twenty-year lag since the end of the franchise proper, but at the same time it is as sensitive and alive to the imagery and preoccupations of the franchise as if it had followed straight on from The Final Friday. At the same time, it draws upon Jason X in the way in which it gestures towards a more vulnerable Jason as well, not only because there is something quite prudish and sentimental about torture porn as a genre, but because the earlier Jasons never needed an elaborate swathe of artillery or a minutely appointed survivalist compound to survive. In effect, those accoutrements were already a part of Jason’s body in the first place, a situation that reached its logical conclusion at the end of Jason X, when he combined with the spaceship to form Uber Jason. This time around, however, Jason seems confined by machinery rather than enabled by it, especially in comparison to the digital know-how of his teenage victims, culminating with a gruesome sequence in which he is tethered to one of his survivalist machines and then deposited at the bottom of the lake once again. Whether or not Part 12 ever comes to pass – it’s been on the drawing-board for the last couple of years – there’s no doubt that Part 11 represents both a fitting continuation of the franchise and a fitting conclusion if it turns out to be the last film, and it’s that combination of serial openness and serial foreclosure that makes it such a pregnant and haunting reflection upon the series as a whole.

About Billy Stevenson (694 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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