February 19, 2009

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Friday the 13th (R)
A new group of oversexed college-aged youngsters faces off against a machete-wielding, hockey-mask-wearing killer at Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th, a reboot of the horror series.

Opening scenes taking us back to a newish version of the end of the original Friday the 13th lay out the situation of Jason Vorhees thusly: his mother killed a bunch of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in retribution for their not preventing the drowning death of her son. Except Jason wasn’t dead and witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of the surviving counselor. So he picked up the machete and carried on the tradition of killing anyone who stumbled into the now dilapidated and abandoned camp.

In the present day, a group of youngsters stumble into the camp grounds to spend a weekend hanging out by the lake, having sex and searching for a rumored crop of marijuana. Because this requires everyone to split up, a fully grown masked and machete-wielding Jason is able to make quick work of the bunch, impaling them and generally killing them in horrible gory ways, until only Whitney (Amanda Righetti) remains. Just as he is closing in on her, we cut to…

The even-more-present day, where Clay (Jared Padalecki), Whitney’s brother, has showed up in the Crystal Lake area to search for his missing sister and an even shinier, even more oversexed group of youngsters shows up to spend a weekend at the lake. But these kids aren’t camping, they’re hanging out in the rich boy’s family vacation home, which makes some of them hateable enough that we’ll cheer on their deaths. The most memorable characters in this group are Trent (Travis Van Winkle), the snotty rich boy who is a flaming shmuck, and Nolan (Ryan Hansen, the lovably frat-boy-ish Dick Casablancas on Veronica Mars). But don’t worry about remembering the other people’s names — Jason and his big knife are still on the loose, so the cast is pared down fairly quickly.

Friday the 13th falls down for me for two reasons — it’s isn’t gory enough and it isn’t scary. By gory enough, I don’t necessarily mean that I have a blood lust for seeing more beheadings or some other spectacular method of killing. But if you’re going to a slasher movie, you want to see slashy-ness. You want horrible, “Oooh!”-causing scenes of death, many of which by their nature will be moderately comic. Otherwise why show anyone dying at all? Why not put it mostly off screen and go for the whole terror-of-the-thing-you-don’t-see effect? Friday the 13th doesn’t kill anybody in a new and memorable way. It doesn’t, really, do anything to tweak the faceless-crazy-person-killing-sexy-people formula.

The alternative, then, is for it to be scary. But it isn’t and here, I think, is why: (SPOILER ALERT for those who know nothing about the previous movies in the series) Jason doesn’t die. In more than a dozen movies, he never completely finally dies. He went into space in the future, in one movie. What is the point of a villain who can never be defeated? It’s the possibility of getting away that can really infuse fear into a crazy-killer-on-the-loose story. Maybe you can outrun him, maybe you can pop out and stab him. But if you know you can’t even wait him out (I mean, he went to space), where’s the suspense? It’s just a matter of time, so why bother rooting for characters?

This is a fundamental problem of this kind of series, one that will take great cleverness and innovation to overcome, neither of which will be found here. C-

Rated R for strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, language and drug material. Directed by Marcus Nispel and written by Damian Shannon, Mark Swift and Mark Wheaton (from characters by Victor Miller), Friday the 13th is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.