These are Crazy Times: An Apology (of Sorts) to Friday the 13th

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I was riding my bike home from work last week when I was hit by a goddamn car. That’s a thing that happened. I’m totally fine. My bike is kind of messed up, but I think I can fix it. C’est la vie. But shit things are shitty, aren’t they?

Anyway, onward. After my recent review of the original Friday the 13th, I got an urge I never thought I would: the urge to watch the whole series. This is a complicated thing, believe it or not, and I see it as at least partly a function of the bizarre, awful times we’re all living through right now. Maybe I’m over thinking it; maybe I just wanted to face up to my childhood demons. Regardless, there’s a lot of baggage here what needs unpackin’.

A lot of it has nothing to do with silly ’80s (and ’90s) slashers. Right now a goddamn maniac is in the White House. Those of you outside the US may be tired of hearing about this. Let me assure you, you should not be. This is a situation with absolutely dire consequences for everyone, and if you’re tired of your Yank friends griping about politics, you’re woefully unprepared to face a world in which the US is controlled by an idiot puppet of another, largely hostile, hyper-conservative superpower.

“But Jeff, I came here for a smarmy review of a dumb horror movie.” Seriously, nothing is scarier than the reality we’re all facing right now. And not to make this all about me, or downplay the scale of this Trumptastrophe, but on top of the very real shitstorm that is American society, I’m at a new job in a new place thousands of miles away from my wife, and that sucks in a million ways. This isn’t a sob story, just a statement of fact. (I really like my new job, as it happens, but the rest of the situation is shit.)

All this negativity, as I’ve heard others say, is totally unsustainable. I’m nostalgic at the best of times; now, with things spiralling into uncharted depths of shit, I pretty much exist in a quantum state in which at any given moment I may or may not phase out of the present and back to some indeterminate point from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s. I am the Schrödinger’s cat of stupid Internet pop culture criticism and, like, time travel? It’s the only defense mechanism I have.

So, over the course of the past month or so, I’ve watched every film in the Friday the 13th franchise. (This despite my very real rage over the snake thing.) The only ones I didn’t watch this time were Freddy vs. Jason, which I saw in theaters and which seems to be kind of outside the main narrative (such as it is), and the 2009 remake, which I rented back in the day and also is shit. And while Rome is burning and our idiot puppet Nero tangos with Putin, I am happy and bewildered to report that Jason Voorhees has provided a hell of a lot more sincere entertainment than I ever imagined he could. On top of it all the whole franchise has a weird innocence that marks it, more clearly than anything, as a product of a pre-alternative facts era. (Obviously governments have always lied to their people, but right now we’re facing a level of idiocy previously unknown. Also, fuck everything.)

The thing I find so surprising is that these movies are not really horror in any appreciable sense, and they become less so as you progress through the series. They’re closer to comedy, and that requires a total recalibration of my thinking about them.

Now calm down, I’m not really arguing that we classify Friday the 13th as comedy. But it does seem to me that, with the exception of the very first film, there is very little attempt to elicit fear. There are tons of lame jokes, and often the punch lines are the kills. (Jason X, while stupid, is aiming for laughs almost from the beginning. Also, I actually kind of liked it.) Having realized this, I can say that, while none of the Friday the 13th films are good in any meaningful sense, they are all pretty enjoyable, cheesy, stupid movies that really help one to forget about the real-world horrors going on right now. They don’t even show you the gore! Nearly every kill throughout the whole series cuts away at what would be the gory moments, and all we see are the remnants of Jason’s victims (and even then we don’t see much). The only really gross scenes involve Jason himself and his many fake-out deaths, and those are so silly as to lose any gross-out power they may have had.

None of this is to say that the Friday the 13th films are actually funny. For the most part the jokes are groaningly cheesy. But in many instances they’re trying to be funny, and that makes all the difference. And the difference it makes comes down to how afraid I was of Jason Voorhees when I was a kid, and how little reason there actually was to be afraid of him. Now that I’ve viewed all of his films, I can almost see Jason as a Carrot Top-esque comedian, trying to get a laugh with the bodies of promiscuous teens as his lame props. In only a couple of instances does he actually succeed, but I appreciate the attempt. A for effort, Jason!

In practical terms, watching the Friday the 13th series now did two things for me: it allowed me to exorcise some childhood demons (never mind that it was the source of the demons in the first place); and it helped me plunge headlong into a stupid, apolitical time, remembered vaguely from my own life but not critically examined until now, before the horror of identity politics had fully asserted itself. (Or at least, again, before I was aware of it.) These are not the drippy gore-fests I always assumed they were; they’re just silly, fun, horror-lite romps. And since the ’80s and early ’90s are already where I spend all my mental time these days, revisiting Jason’s escapades lined up pretty perfectly with the bad life decisions that structure my daily existence. Win-win!

PS: My favorite retro-kitsch blog Dinosaur Dracula recently released an episode of their “Purple Stuff Podcast” all about Friday the 13th. I haven’t listened to it yet, but now that I’m done with this post I plan to. You should too–everything Matt from DD does is great.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

HOPE YOU LIKE MY FACE BECAUSE YOU WILL BE SEEING A LOT OF IT

HOPE YOU LIKE MY FACE BECAUSE YOU WILL BE SEEING A LOT OF IT

The Autopsy of Jane Doe features the awesome and under-appreciated Brian Cox as a mortician who has to perform an AUTOPSY on an UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN. Those words in the previous sentence are in caps because they TELL YOU THINGS that you MIGHT have ALREADY GUESSED from the TITLE. It also features a compelling, mostly stationary, and entirely naked performance by Olwen Catherine Kelly, known (I assume) for having the most Welsh and also Irish name in contemporary film. Beyond that, there’s this guy, aka “Horror Movie Protagonist Type 2.” The three of them get up to some crazy hijinks involving, you know. Autopsies.

I know my flippant dismissal of popular films probably gets old. But try as I might, I can’t be too enthusiastic about a movie with Law and Order-like dialogue, a predictable plot, and an ending that simultaneously accomplishes nothing and was broadcast almost from the beginning simply by virtue of this being a Scary Movie. It is true that I like Brian Cox a lot and he’s good here, as always, and joking aside, Olwen Catherine Kelly’s motionless performance is eerie and somehow impressive in a minimalistic kind of way. But everything else is so terribly familiar that I’m finding it hard to even finish this review. I’d much rather focus on the name Olwen, which is just the best, because Wales is awesome. (Apparently Ms. Kelly is actually Irish, and Ireland is also super, super awesome, but Olwen is very much a Welsh name. In the Mabinogion, there’s a story called “How Culhwch Won Olwen,” and it’s important because King Arthur is in it, and SORRY I FORGOT THIS WAS A HORROR THING.)

There’s not a great deal I can tell you without spoiling things. The premise is, an unidentified female corpse is found buried in the basement of a house which also happens to be the scene of a multiple homicide. The local coroner (Cox) is tasked with ascertaining the cause of death of the beautiful and strangely unmarked body, with the aid of his son, a young guy who doesn’t want to be a coroner but also does? I don’t know, pointless details. Most of the movie, as the title indicates, is the autopsy itself, and the further it progresses the more Spooky Stuff starts happening. (Capitalized because this is an official film category, you understand. According to me.)

Jane Doe’s body presents something of a puzzle: perfect on the outside, except for her clouded, corpsey eyes, beneath the skin she’s clearly suffered multiple and major traumas. As things progress the coroners start to wonder if maybe Jane Doe wasn’t the victim of some kind of human sacrifice, as occult elements creep in and the Spooky Stuff escalates. (It always escalates. I’d like to see a horror film that goes in reverse order, with like a ghost ripping off someone’s head at the beginning, and then by the end he’s just sort of making tea and muttering about kids staying off his lawn.) Of course initial impressions turn out to be wrong, some people die, then there’s the ending. And as horror fans know, endings count for a lot. And this film really, really misses the landing.

The premise is really interesting, and in retrospect, it kind of reminds me of Rue Morgue’s awesome (and apparently unsung) short film The Facts in the Case of Mr. Hollow. Both rely on a post-hoc piecing together of a violent, supernatural mystery. But the similarities end there: Mr. Hollow is stylish and satisfying and makes me want to open a supernatural detective agency, while Jane Doe is just typical. Not terrible by any stretch, but utterly forgettable, which might be worse.

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