The Halcyon Days of Camp Crystal Lake

I do try and keep an eye on the horror movie market from time to time—horror is for the most part an impossibly stupid genre, but it also has its subtle charms—and I was surprised to learn that I’d missed this news from a month back:

Paramount has decided to back off on its reboot of the iconic “Friday the 13th” horror franchise, which had been in development for several years at the studio.

Paramount announced Monday that it had pulled “Friday the 13th” from its Oct. 13 release date and filled the slot with the Jennifer Lawrence movie “mother!,” but gave no further explanation. Several sources told Variety that Paramount has put the project on ice for several reasons — its $21 million budget; the disappointing $13 million opening weekend for its “Rings” horror reboot; and the looming reversion of the rights to New Line…

The series launched in 1980 with Jason Vorhees as the unstoppable hockey mask-wearing killer who was drowned as a boy at Camp Crystal Lake. Paramount originally set a 2015 release date, then moved it backwards several times.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect to the whole story is the fact that the franchise had already been rebooted just a few short years ago, in 2009. So this cancelled film would have been the second reboot of the franchise in less than a decade: just another reboot bedpost notch in our nostalgia-laden pop culture milieu.

But there are likely other, more subtle reasons than the ones that Paramount gave for spiking this film. Chief among them is the fact that Jason is not really a horror villain suited for our current horror film landscape. He is not made for the desires and interests of the current moviegoing market demographic. His style, his horror modus operandi, is not tailored to fit the consumption habits of your average horror consumer. He is a relic, an artifact from an earlier movie era, and he does not translate well.

Consider Vulture’s list of the best horror movies from last year. What do we see? Films like The Witch (a topical psychological horror movie set in 1630s Massachusetts); Don’t Breath (a tense cat-and-mouse thriller); Hush (a standard “house-in-the-woods home-invasion movie” with an admittedly interesting twist). Now consider some of the more popular horror franchises of the last twenty years: Saw (which thrived on gore), Paranormal Activity (which thrives on creepy jump-scares), Scream (which thrived on both), Final Destination (which was less stupid and more entertaining than Saw, but still quite stupid and still not very entertaining). What do we see here? Variously: psychological thrills, lots of blood and guts, genre innovation. This is, for the most part, the horror market of the 21st century: a lot of it is quite dumb, but dumb in a distinct and postmilennial kind of way.

Now consider the Friday the 13th series, and its chief villain, Jason Voorhees. How do we sum it, and him, up? Well, for the most part this is what happens: Jason, a mute villain wearing a hockey mask, wanders around the woods and stabs people. That’s really pretty much it. Sometimes Jason gets mildly creative—he’s been known to make use of the occasional speargun or electrical wiring—but overwhelmingly he sticks with his tried-and-true method of stabbing people with sharp objects. He is a very stupid villain and he makes no bones about it. Complex thinking—to say nothing of complex mass murder, a mainstay of modern horror—is beyond him. He just wants to hack. And that’s what he does.

By way of example, consider just a few of Jason’s more memorable kills: in The Final Chapter, he stabs Jimmy Mortimer’s hand with a corkscrew (pinning it to the kitchen countertop) and then whacks him in the face with a meat cleaver; good grief, that kill has less moving parts than a wooden spoon. In Part III, he stabs Edna Hockett with a knitting needle, one that—now here’s a crazy twist—Edna had been using to knit with only seconds before. In The New Blood, he offs Judy Williams by picking up the sleeping bag in which she’s cowering and slamming it into a tree, perhaps the most outlandishly comical horror movie murder of the late 1980s.

Bear in mind that these are some of the more creative kills of Jason’s portfolio; this is him really trying.

As time went on the series did attempt to branch out a bit—Jason X makes creative use of some liquid nitrogen, and The Final Friday utilized a car door in a way I’ve never seen in a movie before or since—but for the most part they stuck with the tried-and-true stab-and-bludgeon formula. Even the 2009 reboot—a movie produced firmly in the era of contemporary horror convention—barely strayed from these tactics. With the Friday the 13th series, what you see is what you get—and what you usually get is an oafish hockey goalie lurching from one keening co-ed to the next, phoning it in, lazily swinging his machete at whatever stoned camp counselor happens to be nearby. This isn’t horror, not really: it’s more like an extended revenge fantasy written by a marginally literate defenseman for the Washington Capitals.

That’s not to say that the Friday movies are unentertaining; on the contrary, they’re some of the most captivating slasher flicks of the last thirty years, due in large part to their utterly glaring lack of pretension and presumption. It’s like a bag of Cheetos: yes, you know it’s total junk, a bunch of pulp and artificial color, and it kind of makes you feel greasy and ultimately dissatisfied after you’re done with it…but you cant stop consuming it, even if you tried! And, really, in what other series can you see Kevin Bacon take one to the throat and Corey Feldman chop a zombie to death with the zombie’s own machete? You think you’re going to find that action in Halloween, or in some existential Clive Barker dirge? Come on!

Still, in the end, maybe that’s one of the reasons Paramount axed the rebooted reboot of Friday the 13th: not just its budget, not just a looming legal fight, but because Jason is, and always will be, a throwback to a simpler and less affected era of horror storytelling. These days most horror flicks go for either the unsettling creep factor or the shopworn gore porn: you can generally take your pick between a pale grinning Japanese ghost-girl or Eli Roth chopping people up with circ saws. Before all this, however, there was Jason Voorhees—a villain who didn’t have time for all of that fancy stuff, who had a job to do and who did it with no fuss, no muss, and no rough stuff. It says a lot about our country that that kind of no-nonsense horror experience is beneath many of the moviegoers of today. We have lost a generation to cerebral pomp and grisly gorefests, at the expense of the kind of Puritan slasher work ethic that once made this country great. As Jason Voorhees himself once said—well, he’s never really said anything. He’s just a big, goatish, silent brick wall killing machine. And you know what? That was enough for us, once upon a time.

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