‘Friday the 13th’ May Be No ‘Halloween,’ But it is Better Than the Average Slasher Movie

Friday the 13th movie poster

Look, no one is going to mistake any “Friday the 13th” movie for cinema at its best. It started out as a rip off of “Halloween” with a little bit of “Psycho” thrown in for good measure, and it soon became a never-ending franchise which, to this day, still won’t die. We had two of the sequels with the word “final” in them, and each turned out to be a flat out lie. Just when it looks like this franchise has breathed its final breath, it is resurrected once again. Perhaps the world is overpopulated with too many horny teenagers who need to be dealt with in a messy way. In the end, these films touch on our deepest fears and exploit them for all they are worth. We know they’re not good for us, but we can’t help ourselves and want to see what nasty crimes will be perpetrated next.

The “Friday the 13th” movies are essentially the equivalent of a fast food meal, the kind which has an obscene amount of cholesterol in them. You know it’s bad for you, but you keep coming back for more. It’s not just tapping into our deepest desires, but into our willingness to be bad and rebel against what our parents don’t like. Film critics never stopped attacking these movies and continually bashed them to pieces, and yet they made so much damn money on such low budgets. It represented horror being taken to the next level for the children of the 80’s. Our parents hated the movies, and that made us all the more curious about seeing them. Jason Voorhees eventually became as familiar to us as Santa Claus. I remember when “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (LOL) came out when I was in the second grade, and none us had ever looked more forward to a movie none of us would be able to see (nor had we any business to). Yes, these slasher flicks bring back a lot of nostalgia for me.

The original “Friday the 13th” seems much better in retrospect. This is especially the case when you compare them to the sequels, let alone all the endless knockoffs, which came after it. What surprised me is how some of the murders which occur in this movie actually happen off screen. We have no idea they have occurred until we see the carnage put on display right in front of our eyes. It’s pretty vicious what is perpetrated in this film, and this was back when an arrow through an eye actually felt shocking. For the most part, “Friday the 13th” and a couple of sequels felt very real. You have to give the filmmakers credit because none of the slasher movies made today can’t even touch that feeling of reality. We all know we’re watching a movie when it comes to the sequels, but the original was experienced more than watched.

I’m sure we all know by now what Drew Barrymore should have known at the beginning of “Scream;” Jason was not the killer in this one. Instead, it was his mother, played in an over the top performance by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Voorhees is basically what Norman Bates’ mother would have looked like, had Norman not have killed her off. Those moments where she is clearly schizophrenic and acting as if her son is actually telling her to kill people are both chilling and hilarious at the same time. This is far from a convincing performance, but Palmer is so much fun to watch in her deranged state to where it really doesn’t matter.

The cast of actors were basically hired not so much for their acting talent, but because they resemble, as director Sean S. Cunningham put it, those kids who came out of a Pepsi commercial. In many ways, this casting choice helped give “Friday the 13th” a stronger feeling of reality as they are people we recognize from our own lives. They are not models who have enhanced themselves with endless plastic surgeries (those would appear in the sequels). The ladies look very sweet and fetching, and the men look down to earth and not like those guys who spent way too much time at the gym.

“Friday the 13th” also was the movie which started the cliché of how if you have premarital sex with your boyfriend of girlfriend, you would die. The last person left standing was always a virgin, or the one too shy to ask a boy for a date. As a result, many people think there is some highly conservative Christian value system in place in these movies which one must follow in order to survive an experience with a masked maniac. Some will say Carpenter originated this with the original “Halloween,” but he made it clear in the DVD commentary he was not trying to spread religious dogma. Carpenter said the characters got killed because they weren’t paying attention, but ever since the first “Friday the 13th,” it’s been open season on kids who don’t practice safe sex.

There is also the crazy old man Ralph (Walt Gorney) who warns everybody of how they “are all doomed.” Of course, it’s always some crazy guy no one ever listens to. God forbid it’s some normal person people take the time to listen to. But if everyone were to believe this guy, then there would be no movie.

Of all the actors in this film, let alone the entire series, Kevin Bacon is the one who came out of it with the most successful career. “Friday the 13th” may not show off his best talents, but he does have one of the coolest death sequences in horror movie history. Bacon also gets to have one of the sweetest love making scenes any horror movie could ever hope to have. His character and his girlfriend actually do make love. It’s not one of those humping and pumping moments you can find in so many other movies where one person is doing all the work and the other is not having enough pleasure. It makes their inevitable deaths feel kind of sad. Even if we really wanted to see these two get bumped off, we don’t look forward to it.

Sooner or later, we were bound to see this movie because people couldn’t stop describing the more graphic moments in it. I remember my brother telling me about the scene where Kevin’s girlfriend does finally get it:

“You see her looking into the shower stalls and no one’s there. But while she is looking, you can see in the background the shadow of an ax being raised up. When she turns around, you can see the ax going into her face!”

My reply to this at the time was:

“Whoa! Cool!”

Then you have the unforgettable Harry Manfredini music score which basically sounds like Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score on speed. Never have woodwind instruments been as thoroughly pummeled as they are here. This is not to mention the “chi, chi, chi, ha, ha, ha” sound (it’s actually “ki, ki, ki, ma, ma, ma”) which is so clearly identified with this undying franchise. When you hear it, you know Jason is not far away with a rusty machete in his grasp.

Cunningham is no John Carpenter, and he is a better producer than a director, but he does keep the suspense quota of “Friday the 13th” at a high level and generates a number of good scares. This one does not focus so much on the killings as it did on the messy aftermath. While you did see characters gutted in the most painful places imaginable, there were a couple of others you kept wondering about until you saw their bloodied corpses. The later sequels would get a little more creative with the murders.

* * * out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘X-Men: First Class’ Represents What a Prequel Should Be Like

X Men First Class poster

X-Men: First Class” is a huge improvement over the previous entry, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and it’s also the best film in the series since “X-Men 2.” It’s breezy fun, the special effects are terrific, and the emphasis on character this time around makes for a more involving prequel. With Wolverine shoved to the side, this fifth movie and the second prequel in the long running franchise, many other characters get their chance to shine.

The primary focus of “First Class” is on Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as we see the significant events which shaped and brought them together. But while Charles’ upbringing was a privileged one, Erik’s was unbearably tragic as he and his parents were imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp. Erik’s ability to control magnetism becomes evident early on, and this talent soon gets exploited by scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) who commits an atrocious act in front of him. From there on, the driving force in Erik’s life is one of bloody revenge.

Prequels are tricky because we are naturally inclined to be against other actors taking over roles previously portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Then there’s that cynical feeling of studios taking this route just to save money. It was deemed after “X-Men: The Last Stand” that a fourth movie with the same cast would have been far too expensive to make. Of course, with a reported budget of $160 million, “X-Men: First Class” doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. Moreover, does anyone remember “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd?” Did you think audiences were going to be fooled by a Jim Carrey-less prequel? Anyone remember “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?” Heck, does anyone remember the first “Flintstones” movie? I remember seeing it, but the plot details escaped me once I walked out of the theater.

But what’s great about “X-Men: First Class” is the cast doesn’t need to worry about living up to the actors who inhabited the same roles before them. They get to approach these classic characters in a different light, and this frees them up from any restrictions which could have been imposed on them. Characters like Mystique and Dr. Hank McCoy are given more depth and complexity than ever before, and many surprises are in store for the audience as the script invests a lot of emotion in these characters including those bad mutants we rooted against in the past.

James McAvoy is excellent as the young Charles Xavier, and he looks like he had lots of fun making this prequel. Whereas Patrick Stewart’s Professor X was wise and mature, McAvoy’s is just getting started in his career and comes across as quite the ladies’ man. I also admired that while Charles is incredibly intelligent, we find his ego getting the best of him. So sure of all the things he is knowledgeable of, McAvoy does great work in making Xavier well-intentioned but not as open to mutants being themselves in the real world.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto remains one of the most fascinating characters in the “X-Men” universe. While he’s been the series’ chief villain and a megalomaniac, Magneto is simultaneously an anti-hero and has even been seen as a hero in the comic books. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him considering the horrors he was exposed to in his youth, and it makes his future actions understandable, if not excusable. No wonder actors have so much fun in this role; you never know for sure the direction Magneto will end up taking. All you can say is, whatever he ends up doing, it will be to his benefit more than anyone else’s.

With movies like “Fish Tank” and “Inglourious Basterds” under his belt, Michael Fassbender is the perfect choice to play the young Erik Lehnsherr before and after he becomes Magneto. Fassbender has given performances deep with complexity and feeling; looking like the good guy at one point and then later turning into one seriously twisted individual. As Erik, he is great at showing the different layers to this character who is forever caught in a horrific moment he can’t get out of.

But one character who really gets expanded in “X-Men: First Class” is Raven whose shape-shifting abilities earn her the nickname of Mystique. Rebecca Romijn played Raven in the first three movies as a villain, and her character never got much in the way of psychological depth. Jennifer Lawrence, however, gets more to work with as we come to meet Raven at the time her allegiance to her “brother” Xavier begins to wane.

In Lawrence’s hands, she makes Raven/Mystique a strong female role model, one who is determined to be open about who she is and not be ashamed of it. While hiding herself in human form, as she is encouraged to do so by Charles Xavier, Raven’s frustration at appearing in public as someone other than herself is beginning to take its toll. Lawrence is riding high on some incredibly strong performances, and she continues to show how far her acting chops can stretch.

With Bryan Singer returning to this franchise as a producer, I’m sure he had a good hand in getting this particular entry focused more on character development. Each character is shown to be suffering through conflicted emotions as to what path the mutant race should follow, making them no different from the humans who deal with many of the same issues. Mutants are seen as the next stage in human evolution, but the haunting question of whether this will be to humanity’s best interests or detriment always hangs in the air.

But the person who deserves the most credit for “First Class” is its director, Matthew Vaughn. Coming off of the gleefully rebellious “Kick Ass,” one of 2010’s best movies, he manages to bring a lot of inventive energy to a franchise in desperate need of it. Vaughn also makes the special effects benefit the actors instead of just overwhelming them. What made the first few “X-Men” movies so special was the amount of emotion they generated, and the same thing is definitely the case here. It’s our connection with these characters which makes the action set pieces all the more exciting.

If there are any problems with “X-Men: First Class,” they come in the last half as the filmmakers become overly concerned about bringing the characters in line to where they are at in the first “X-Men” film. This was also a big problem with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” even though that prequel was much more convoluted. It would have been nicer to see the friendship between Charles and Erik get expanded instead of just ending this one with them taking opposite sides. Then again, perhaps it still could be expanded on in future installments.

Kevin Bacon, always a terrific actor, is perfectly detestable as the movie’s most irredeemable villain. At the same time, I wished the writers had expanded on his character more. Compared to the others, Sebastian Shaw threatens to be a little too one-dimensional in his actions. If Sebastian had more complexity to him, it would have made the transition of power between him and Erik all the more believable and compelling.

Other strong performances come from Rose Byrne as Dr. Moira MacTaggert and Nicholas Hout as the highly intelligent yet shy Dr. Hank McCoy. On the other hand, while January Jones is amazingly beautiful as Emma Frost/White Queen, her one-note delivery of dialogue is one of this film’s major detriments.

“X-Men: First Class” is a prequel done in the same spirit of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” and it’s proof you don’t need Wolverine present to make a good “X-Men” movie. This is a reboot which works to everyone’s advantage, and I am eager to see what comes next.

By the way, don’t bother staying through the end credits. There’s no post-credits sequence, so take care of that urine ache ASAP.

* * * ½ out of * * * *