The tendency is to read any given rebirth of horror movies as symptomatic. Cultural diagnosticians look to their gleeful nihilism as a key to the woes of the culture at large. But whereas truly great films give rise to a plethora of valid interpretations, there's only so many ways to parse a grotesque manchild gone berserk. Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, and other times a pipe is something even more boring and obvious. In the fickle marketplace, it's all about the tobacco.
This new “Friday the 13th” smokes like sawdust. Dried and packed by the same producing team that desecrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it's a frivolous remake of a frivolous original. Unlike that aforementioned classic — a masterpiece of elemental gothic weirdness and one of the great pieces of outsider art from the 20th century — the 1980 version of “Friday the 13th” brought little more than a location to the summer camp slasher genre it helped to popularize. Its POV horror, showing the victims from the killer's perspective, was antiquated even in the early '80s, and “Halloween” had perfected “gotcha” horror two years earlier. Indeed, if not for that iconic hockey mask, we probably would let every actual Friday the 13th that goes by dissolve into the weekend like any other day.
The new producers seem at least to recognize this to a point. While we witness Jason randomly finding that mask in an attic, the arbitrary nature of this accessory — the nonchalance with which it is picked from the floor, dusted off, and slipped on — feels like a swing and a miss. Still, Jason Voorhees spends an awful lot of time mugging. Though punctuated by those loud bursts of sound familiar from shock cinema, he rarely sneaks up on the audience. Instead, he lurks in the background behind a victim and lingers, letting that maleficent presence sink in. The result is something between the haunted-house “gotcha” horror of Halloween and the torture porn of modern American filmmakers like Eli Roth. The choice seems to be between fear and nausea, and too often this film settles on neither.
Like other horror films, a great deal of the film's exposition is dedicated to getting you to hate its characters, leaving one or two sympathetic corollaries that it can hold off killing until the end. “Friday the 13th” completes at least one part of that puzzle. These are vapid and wholly reprehensible people, redeemed only when utterly objectified, as in the stray bit of topless water-skiing. You hate them because they are bad people rather than because they represent any brand of badness peculiar to our own cultural moment. Yet you never end up rooting for the hulking Jason, too abstract a figure on which to pin any volition. Victims are ticked off like so many undone and quotidian tasks, and your only real desire is for Jason to go ahead and finish what he's started.