Last month’s Friday the thirteenth was a typical one, full of accidental injuries, unfortunate computer failures, and job rejections throughout campus and beyond. And in the spirit of predictable misfortune, our movie theatres were greeted with yet another version of Friday the 13th. There have been over ten remakes or sequels since the 1980 original, including The Final Chapter (1984) and Jason Goes to Hell: the Final Friday (1993). The Friday the 13th franchise has become the veritable Land Before Time of the slasher genre – with one notable difference: we know the dinosaurs eventually died, but we can’t seem to get Jason out of our lake house.
The Friday the 13th originals served the vital cultural function of warning horny teenage camp counselors not to bang each other when they’re supposed to be ensuring children don’t drown. The original depicts an angry mother who seeks to avenge the drowning of her son Jason by systematically murdering the (completely unrelated) next generation of counselors at Crystal Lake.
After Mommy dearest gets decapitated by the final remaining counselor, the next film comes out and reveals a big, bloody misunderstanding: Jason wasn’t dead at all (woops), but now he’s really pissed off and continues in his mom’s shoes. He kills the next group of kid-loving, bright eyed young hotties…except for one, who shoves a machete in his shoulder. But Jason survives, so in the next movie he gets an axe in the head. But Jason survives. And so it continues until the sequels run dry and the franchise must find new ways to strike fortune on the unluckiest day of the year.
And so we have the remake.
The 2009 remake condensed the first three films, but put the main story in the much sexier setting of a rich kid’s parents’ lake house. The murders take place during a weekend bash full of underage drinking, skinny-dipping, excessive marijuana consumption, and steamy premarital sex. Like the originals, it featured large-breasted, barely-legal girls getting stripped of their clothes and, finally, their skin. And like the originals, it effectively made the image of a well-used goalie mask terrifying rather than sporty or practical.
Yet the subtle differences in the film are quite revealing about the evolution of horror movies as a whole. The original movies often placed the audience at the whim of the terrifying killer. The suspense here lies not in the possibility of running into the killer, but in turning around to find a potential victim who will be dismantled before the viewer’s eyes. The heavy breathing and unstable camera angle breed terror and, at the same time, identification with the killer, implicating the audience in the scene through the camera’s voyeuristic, sadistic gaze.
In the new remake, identification with Jason comes rather from gentle sympathies generated in the backstory. The first-person perspective is usually that of the gasping, terrified, often female victim. The film’s obsession with the heavy breathing of a woman before her demise is a perfect synecdoche for the sadomasochistic fantasies of the horror film. The hyperventilating gasps sound both helpless and erotic, building up to the wild, guttural scream that accompanies penetration by the phallic knife.
One notable scene takes place under a dock after a murderer intrudes on a couple’s skinny-dipping session. The girl’s breath is silenced when she is stabbed in the head through the wooden cracks and lifted out of the water by the knife that killed her. As blood streams from her head over her naked breasts, she is displayed before the camera as a fetishized object of desire and repulsion.
The new Friday the 13th generates various types of fear, sexual arousal, and repulsion — all in startling excess. The overlap of seemingly opposite forms of excitement is central to the slasher genre and, like Jason himself, images like these just don’t die.