It’s easy to mock the predictable conventions of the slasher movie — as the “Scream” series did so brilliantly — or to go into high dudgeon over the violence in those films — as Siskel and Ebert did back in the 1980s. You may not like slasher movies — in the same way that you might not like musicals, Westerns or Meg Ryan films — but as with those other genres, there are good ones and there are bad ones.
The new “Friday the 13th,” I’m sort of surprised to report, isn’t bad. If you’re a slasher fan, you’ll enjoy the variety of homicides on display and the jolting moments of suspense as one unsuspecting teen after another gets bumped off. Those who have never liked this kind of movie, however, won’t have their opinion changed by this one.
Writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift (with a story assist by Mark Wheaton) reboot the Jason Voorhees legend right off the bat, starting the movie with Mrs. Voorhees confronting the last surviving counselor at Camp Crystal Lake over the drowning death of little Jason, before the plucky nubile girl turns the tables on her tormentor and beheads the lady with a machete. The still-living Jason emerges from the shadows, rescues Mom’s head, and we shoot ahead to the modern day.
The next 10 to 15 minutes are a perfect little distillation of the genre: Five hiking teens set up their tents at the old Camp Crystal Lake, they split up to enjoy sex and/or drugs, and then out pops Jason to dispatch them.
If only the rest of “Friday the 13th” were so briskly compact. Six weeks after the hikers get theirs, Clay (Jared Padalecki) shows up looking for his sister, one of the quintet of campers. Also arriving at the lake are frat-boy fascist Trent (Travis Van Winkle) and a group of his college cronies.
Director Marcus Nispel’s idea of updating the movies for the new millennium is to toss in one African-American and one Asian-American collegian to mix with these refugees from HotChicksandDouchebags.com, although neither person of color gets to have sex. One of them almost gets intimate with the L.L. Bean catalog, but the less said about that, the better.
While it’s admirable of the new “Friday” to expand the action from the camp to all of Crystal Lake and its environs, it raises questions: When kids show up at the camp, we know Jason is going to kill them; it’s his schtick, after all. But why does he dispatch two water-skiers at this particular moment when it’s obvious that their boat has been docked and used in the same part of Crystal Lake for years?
Gore fans may find Nispel’s sense of restraint annoying — the director often cuts away from murders at their point of impact, although there’s one that definitely pays homage to Kevin Bacon’s arrow-through-the-neck moment in the original movie. There’s still enough blood to earn an R rating and allow the film to rely on more than just the BOO! jolts so often offered in PG-13 horror.
As ever, “Friday the 13th” is no actor’s showcase, although Padalecki — after the “House of Wax” remake and several years on TV’s “Supernatural” — has a gift for keeping a straight face through these sorts of proceedings. I always wind up feeling sorry for the actresses cast as the sluts in these movies, since they’re contractually obligated to flash their breasts before being gruesomely offed, while the “good” girls get to stay dressed and possibly even survive. (As if the movie’s gynophobia wasn’t already apparent, there’s a wood-chipper that Nispel films like the dentata-iest vagina imaginable.)
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the film ends in a sequel-friendly manner. So I guess it’s a testament to this new “Friday the 13th” that I didn’t leave the theater dreading such a prospect.