This February the 13th (a Wednesday, unfortunately) marks an important and disappointing anniversary for slasher fans: 2019 means it’s been ten years since the release of Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th reboot. In other words, ten years since we’ve seen Jason on screen.
We know the details. The 2009 film, written by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, pulled in around $91 million at the global box office, enough to warrant talks of another film. A direct sequel, also penned by Shannon and Swift and apparently set during the winter, failed to gain any traction, and was ultimately ignored. Next, after Paramount acquired sole distribution rights in exchange for Interstellar, they decided not to go with Nick Antosca’s script, another reboot of the franchise set in the 80s. The closest we got to seeing Jason back on the big screen was from Aaron Guzikowski’s (Prisoners) script, which actually reached the pre-production phase with Breck Eisner (The Crazies) set to direct. In the final hour, Paramount/Platinum Dunes pulled the film in February of 2017. Platinum Dunes producer Brad Fuller gave a bit of an explanation as to why in 2018.
Finally, and most famously, a legal battle now persists between original screenwriter Victor Miller and Horror, Inc (director/producer Sean S. Cunningham) that, for now, locks up any possibility of a Friday the 13th film in the near future. (Although Vertigo is working with LeBron James’ SpringHill Entertainment to get a reboot off the ground.)
The whole situation is unfortunate, to say the least. There’s never been a hotter time to strike for the Friday the 13th franchise. Based in large part on the mass-appeal of Friday the 13th: The Game, the popularity of NECA’s Ultimate line of action figures, and the overwhelming success of the latest Halloween installment, it’s crystal clear that the public needs Jason stalking campers and counselors on the big screen sooner rather than later.
However, in the meantime, it might behoove us to look back at the franchise’s most recent offering. There’s another factor that seems to have gone largely overlooked when arguing for bringing Jason back out of the lake; 2009’s Friday the 13th was actually damn good. Ten years later, it’s time to admit we took it for granted.
To nobody’s surprise, Friday the 13th was panned by many critics upon its release; worse yet, many hardcore fans of the franchise could hardly contain their fury. Longtime enthusiasts claimed what they saw wasn’t their Jason, that the movie wasn’t scary, that it missed the tone of the franchise, and that looked more like a music video than a horror movie. Those picking at the lowest of the hanging fruit called it just another studio cash-in.
Truth is, this is the case for literally every Friday the 13th film in the franchise, and not just the ones with Jason in the title. Original director Sean S. Cunningham has made no secret of the fact that his film apes Halloween. It’s no pastiche, it’s a ripoff. All the sequels were ripoffs. We love them because they are objectively the same ingredients blended in slightly new ways. The fact that they’re comfort food you devoured as you developed your primary nostalgia instincts makes them great, not any impressive technical or emotional accomplishments.
Marcus Nispel’s Friday the 13th is aware of this history, and rather than exploiting it, his film remixed the canon, updated the ingredients by modernizing the setting and characters, created an imposing Jason, and re-envisioned slasher-movie stakes in the modern era, all while injecting moments of fun homage to tickle our nostalgia bones.
For what it’s worth, Friday the 13th 2009 is a strange and interesting beast. Nispel and Platinum Dunes took on a near impossible task: how do you remake a classic horror film, but replace the ‘whodunnit?’ main villain with its more popular and iconic centerpiece from the sequels? The answer, of course, was to reboot the series entirely.
Nobody ever called the 2009 film a sequel, but continuity was hardly a staple of the original franchise, and any semblance of a connected narrative was severed after Jason took Manhattan. Thus, ever since Jason Goes to Hell, Voorhees’s celluloid killing sprees have been mostly episodic. Goes to Hell, Jason X, and Freddy vs. Jason are each something like the next one-off episode in the “terrifying misadventures of Jason Voorhees.” The 2009 film benefits from this precedent.
By 2009 we didn’t need a sequel, and if anybody wanted one, which film is the desired predecessor? That’s kind of the beauty of the franchise—there’s no one iconic film. Rather, the reboot has the freedom to take elements of the first four entries and remix them into the latest episode in the series. The fact that we’re reminded of Pamela’s death as briefly as possible is actually beneficial to the ‘09 film. As the film opens, we see a brief bit of expository world-building. Anyone new to the franchise is immediately caught up to speed. Veteran fans are reminded of Jason’s origin, and the contemporary timeline is explicitly established. At this point, any hint of continuity is eschewed in favor of several novel moments of suspense, titillation, and gore.
We’re then treated to one of the best slasher set pieces the entire franchise has to offer. Before the title card, even, we get a mini Friday episode featuring some of the most brutal and inventive moments in the series. Thirteen minutes in, Derek Mears’s Jason appears for the first time, his visage obscured by a sack. He’s tall like Ken Kirzinger (Freddy vs. Jason), but heaves like Kane Hodder. He kills a dude in the woods in one swipe, bear traps another guy before killing him, hangs a woman over an open fire in a sleeping bag, and carves up another character through the floorboards of his cabin. The last thing we see before the title is Jason running, full-force, machete at the bottom of its great winding arc. This Friday is different, new, angry, and scary.
The ‘09 prologue is a microcosm for Friday the 13th et al. Jonathan Sadowski’s Wade; stoner, joker, and storyteller recounts the legend of Jason to his friends in a moment that pays homage to Paul’s “Jason’s out there” speech from Part 2. More importantly it honors the very theme of the series (if there’s any to dredge from the lake): Friday the 13th is a campfire story. What if there’s a man in the woods with a machete? What if he’s that sound outside our tent? The legend continues because different storytellers are allowed to put their spin on the Jason mythos—this is true of the films themselves and the way we talk about them to our friends and horror website readership. It’s not high-art, but we connect to Friday the 13th because it’s indicative of American folklore. 2009’s Friday prologue does this expertly.
In a broader sense, the fact that there are essentially two Friday episodes in one film serves as another nod to the nature of the franchise and its numerous sequels.
The rest of the film is an admittedly mixed-bag (some of the dialogue isn’t so great and the moment when Jason finds his iconic hockey mask is a tad underwhelming), but there’s more to like than otherwise. An 80s-era reboot might have been fun, but Friday 2009 looks like it was set in the late-aughts. It is as much of its era as the original films were of theirs. The characters’ clothes, the men’s swoopy hairstyles, and the inconsequential moments of downtime are all indicative of 2009. In the 80s the characters played strip Monopoly. In 2009 it’s beer pong. The cast is made up of caricatures, but they’re all either relatable or gleefully hateable. Aaron Yoo’s Chewie is hilarious and endearing in what little screen time he’s given, while Travis Van Winkle’s Trent survives almost the entire movie, there for us to despise all along. Jared Padalecki’s Clay is an empathetic hero, and Danielle Panabaker’s would-be final girl has enough of a presence to make us mourn her when she dies in the final scenes of the film.
Most importantly, though, we get a Friday the 13th that features an intense and hulking Jason courtesy of Derek Mears. He’s truly frightening. Some of his kills are drawn out in teeth-clenching agony. He rams a screwdriver into Chewie’s neck for a full thirty seconds. Other films in the franchise rarely took this kind of time with their kills. Mears’s Jason makes sure the job is done. Axe to the back? Better body slam him so it goes all the way through. Rip Trent in half with the machete? Better impale him on a tow truck for good measure. The kills are riffs on the hack and slash methodology that become de rigueur for the franchise, but they update the style and presentation for modern expectations. Honestly, what more could you want?
I’m not alone in this thinking. While the most ardent detractors of the film maintain their distaste, the film has earned itself a positive wave of revisionist spin in recent years. Age has been kind to this particular Jason. Only three years ago, BD’s Trace Thurman gave the 2009 reboot the edge over the 1980 original in his feature, ‘Friday the 13th (1980) vs ‘Friday the 13th (2009)’, citing the latter film’s direction, script, scares, and final girl(s) as superior to the original’s.
Writing for Collider.com in October 2018, Haleigh Foutch argued, “In the age of meta-horror, it’s hard to find a straight up slasher, and few remakes have ticked the boxes as well as Friday the 13th.” She includes the film on a list of near-unanimously well regarded remakes/reboots that includes Evil Dead, The Crazies, and Dawn of the Dead.
And on January 8th, the Friday the 13th: The Franchise Twitter account tweeted: “The prologue of the #Fridaythe13th 2009 is some of the best Friday the 13th fans have ever witnessed on film. Fun and engaging characters and a cunning, brutal #JasonVoorhees”. The comment received a number of positive responses, and echoed the sentiment of several fans.
Admittedly, this is only a snapshot of the newfound embrace of the reboot. Again, countless people still hate the film, and it’s unlikely that their opinions will sway, but it could be argued that the middle has shifted positively in the ten years since its release. This could be a result of the absence of content in a decade. The old adage applies; distance makes our hearts grow fonder. For a small crop of fans, it’s as if the wait we’ve had to endure for a new movie has allowed (or forced, depending on your perspective) us to take another look at the reboot, and a number of people have gained an appreciation for the film.
Legendary critic and noted Friday the 13th hater Roger Ebert called the 2009 film “about the best Friday the 13th movie you could hope for.” Noting that “its technical credits are excellent. It has a lot of scary and gruesome killings.” His compliments are backhanded, of course; he’s teasing us, but he’s not far off. The film is the effective modern conception of the Jason mythos. It’s time to let go of the grudges so many people held against Platinum Dunes’ Friday the 13th. Fine, “your” Jason doesn’t set traps or hunt victims. If you prefer that Jason, keep telling that version around the campfire. But the contemporary American folklore begs for evolution.
This February 13th will come and go, and the active longest stretch between Friday the 13th films will hit ten years, a franchise death-curse that only extends with each passing day. When the franchise inevitably returns, it will almost certainly ignore the events of 2009’s Friday the 13th, and it should. That future interpretation of Jason should reflect its time. Maybe it’s set in the 80s or maybe it’s 2020, but his story will be told again through the campfire filter of folklore; new but familiar. Ten years ago we got a movie that did exactly this.
You can’t please everyone. But if you’re in the camp that finds Nispel’s Friday the 13th to be overlooked and underappreciated, or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, you don’t have to hide anymore, you’re in good company.