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Hearts and minds…and arms and legs and entrails…

The grisly return of the slasher-splatter film

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Hatchet

Written and directed by Adam Green. Produced by Corey Neal. 84 minutes. Released in 2007. $26.97 from Starz Home Entertainment.

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    Review by Ray Young

  •     Lost in the woods, a group of people, mostly soft, young and sarcastic, cross paths with a faceless, unstoppable nut job with a grudge and an axe to grind—preferably in their skulls, as far as he’s concerned. Sporting a lumpy John Merrick physique, he hacks them up and uses their blood to express his inner Jackson Pollock. It’s the scenario of any number of movies made in the gruesome wake of Friday the 13th (1980)—an artless movement Roger Ebert coined ‘the dead teenager genre’—resuscitated for the new millennium in Hatchet.
        The ad tells us it’s ‘Old School American Horror,’ but not that old. As one who grew up watching the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, I’ve always found the machete-wielding slashers of Friday the 13th and its ilk hollow and anonymous and never truly scary. However, their influence runs deep among a vulnerable generation of gore junkies who don’t know Karloff from cauliflower.
        “We didn’t want to get back into the ‘80s,” claims writer-director Adam Green in the DVD commentary. “[Instead we asked ourselves] how do we recapture the fun and spirit of what those movies were.” Well, those movies were crap but they made a fortune. Budgeted under $800,000, the first Friday the 13th grossed over $40 million and begat a dynasty. Those numbers could make a believer out of anyone.
        Hatchet opens on a pair of hillbillies presumably hunting a killer gator in a Louisiana swamp. Once they’re disemboweled, Green shifts to a tour boat of disparate thrill seekers chugging down the same waters: a doughy middle aged couple, a pair of twenty-something slacker dudes, a soft-core video photographer and his hot models, a grossly annoying tour guide, and a sullen young woman with a secret. In no time they’re on the menu for the evil spirit of a mentally challenged freak who died years ago in a fire.
        His is essentially the same flashback used to explain the antisocial behavior of hockey-masked Jason in the Friday the 13th series and Freddy Krueger in all the Nightmare on Elm Streets. In order to avoid complete redundancy, Green devotes more energy than his predecessors to fleshing out the script’s characters and pre-slaughter comedy. Young, eager and passionate, he does so with varying degrees of success.
        He was wise to cast some seasoned pros: Patrika Darbo, Richard Riehle, Joel Murray, Tony Todd and Robert Englund are recognizable faces who elevate the early comedic parts from the wearying ‘Yo-Dude’ school of ‘dissing’ that’s run contemporary teen movies into the ground. This doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of that: Perry Shen, Deon Richmond and Joel Moore form a rainbow coalition armed with snarky comebacks, while Joleigh Fioreavanti and Mercedes McNab juggle one-liners and jiggle the requisite eye candy.
        The most interesting passenger is a distracted woman played by Tamara Feldman. She’s got a score to settle with the monster who snuffed her father and brother, those hillbillies from the first act. The most complex character in the film, Green has her appearing suitably dowdy and frazzled. Interviewed in the DVD’s ‘making-of’ documentaries, Ms. Feldman is vivacious, intelligent and quite beautiful. Hopefully her career will flourish—the mainstream would welcome her instantly.
        She’s eclipsed in Hatchet by the impetuous killer (played by genre star Kane Hodder) and his messy slaughter. Bodies are torn apart, limbs fly and blood splatters between the drops of the swamp’s recurring rainfall. It’s a wet and sweaty place where death scenes are labored over, with the director and makeup effects supervisor John Carl Buechler referring to them as ‘kills.’ It’s the first time I’d heard the term, the steely vernacular indigenous to the G.W. Bush era, and a frightening image of militaristic morality popped in my head. As it rolled off their tongues, I wondered if James Whale or William Castle ever plotted ‘kills’ in their pictures. And then I realized I’m just too old for this sort of thing.