Tuesday 17 January 2012

Hatchet job

When a lazy filmmaker decides to make a pastiche or genre homage, he designs it to be critic-proof. 'Aha!', our savvy hack will exclaim when a keen-eyed reviewer savages plot, acting and direction, 'that's deliberate! I'm drawing attention to the badness of the works my film is based on!' The conceit seems to be that (a) you're being bold and iconoclastic, as if no-one had noticed those films were stupid before, and (b) making a bad film is an acceptable way of critiquing badness.

It is not; yet sadly Hatchet is such a picture, and writer-director Adam Green is that sort of filmmaker. Hotly anticipated by horror fans for its promise to be 'old school American horror' - unlike those remakes, sequels, and Japanese films - Hatchet failed spectacularly at the box office in 2006, debuting in thirty-ninth place and grossing a grand total of $175,281 domestically. (It later found a much larger audience on home video.)

Nor was it at all vindicated by critics: at 49%, Hatchet's Rotten Tomatoes rating could be called lukewarm at best. Yet I can't help feeling that the trajectory of heightened expectation followed by disillusionment actually represents a sort of weird victory for Green. Recall that the respectable (and a healthy proportion of the non-respectable) reviled slasher films in the eighties, so by being ignored and rejected Hatchet fits right in with the genre to which it's a declaration of love. Hatchet's richly deserved failure becomes unintentional performance art.

We open in a Louisiana swamp at night, where Sampson (Robert Englund) and his son Ainsley (Joshua Leonard) are sitting in a boat waiting for alligators. Englund, a great horror actor relegated to roles in 'all-star horror casts' of late, chews the scenery while telling Leonard he's a 'queer', and Ainsley gets off the boat to urinate. Upon returning he finds Sampson dead and disembowelled and is himself literally torn limb from limb by an unseen assailant a second later. This whole scene is very bad, just like in an old slasher film where you suffered through padding yearning for the inane characters to stop talking and start dying messily.

A pre-credits scene in which random people we'll never see again are eviscerated already gives us grounds to suspect Green really wanted to direct a Friday the 13th installment c. 1982, and we're about to have our misgivings confirmed as Green transports us to New Orleans, where it's always Mardi Gras. Ben (Joel David Moore) has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and isn't enjoying the festival, so he decides to go on a haunted swamp tour with his black best friend Marcus (Deon Richmond). The guy who usually does swamp tours, the Reverend Zombie (Tony Todd, obviously shoehorned in just because they realised they might be able to get him for a cameo), points them to another place where they run into...

... two young women doffing their tops for the camera of softcore producer Doug Shapiro (Joel Murray)! The girls are Jenna (Joleigh Fioravanti) and Misty (Mercedes McNab), and they'll periodically expose their breasts for the rest of the film as if Green had decided to be as brutally literal with the old formula as possible. McNab's recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel makes seeing her topless sort of cringeworthy and embarrassing, but hey. The haunted swamp tour is organised by Shawn (Parry Shen), whose Cajun accent is as overblown as his shifty manner. I suppose that's intentional, though. Fuck you, Adam Green.

The other tour guests are middle-aged couple Shannon (Patrika Darbo) and Jim (Richard Riehle), who are transparent bodycount padding, as well as Marybeth (Tamara Feldman), who we instantly know must be the Final Girl because (a) she seems tense, mature and mysterious and (b) she is the only young woman to not have exposed her breasts to the world at this point in the film. Do I even need to say that the best way to point out that eighties slasher casts were generally hateful, lazily written collections of stereotypes isn't to make your cast that, too? Thought not.

As the tour boat, steered by Shawn, prepares to enter the swamp, a homeless-looking man - let's call him, I don't know, Crazy Ralph (John Carl Buechler) - hollers warnings at them, but Shawn ignores him, and the meat depart into the swamps, where Shawn tries in vain to spook his guests with tales of Victor 'Hatchetface' Crowley, a deformed young man who lived in the swamps with his father (Kane Hodder). One Hallowe'en, ill-behaved children set the Crowley homestead on fire, and Mr Crowley accidentally killed his son with a hatchet while trying to break down the door that kept Victor trapped.

Soon the boat runs aground and begins to sink, and the meat have to go ashore, where they find themselves stranded in the middle of the swamp without knowing where they are. Marybeth, who reveals herself to be Sampson's daughter looking for her dad and brother, leads the group. Before long they're assaulted by a very much alive Victor Crowley (also portrayed by Kane Hodder in Grotesque makeup), who slaughters our meat at an astounding rate, and from there it's pretty much bog-standard slasher territory.

I don't feel comfortable even labelling Hatchet a horror film. It doesn't seem intended to frighten or disturb its audience. Green expects viewers to react with glee to the viscera on display. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy gore, that doesn't quite work for me, but maybe you find limbs flying about the place hilarious and delightful, and who am I to judge? Green also tries to wring a lot of broad comedy from ethnic and gender stereotypes, forgetting that while subverting racism and misogyny may be funny, pandering to it generally isn't.

Among the actors Kane Hodder is the best by far, even if he and the script are both content to make Victor Crowley no more than Jason Voorhees in Louisiana! Speaking of, True Blood makes the swamps of the lower Mississippi more atmospheric than Green even attempts: as shot by the hack Will Barratt, Hatchet is uglier than the setting should allow, but I'm sure that's deliberate. More interestingly, Green totally eschews standard horror camerawork - the kind that gets close enough to the character to make sure we can fear but not quite see what's going on around them - in favour of a much simpler point-and-shoot aesthetic that robs the film of any suspense or terror; but again, Hatchet is not really a horror film.

I'm honestly unsure who or what Hatchet is for. It's an excellent facsimile of an early Friday the 13th film, before they tried to shake up the formula: young people go into wilderness, get naked, die. But haven't we had enough of those films? By 2006, American horror was far from dead: Rob Zombie had already entered the scene, and Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake had been better than it had any right to be. There's a reason the eighties slasher died, and Hatchet mostly reminds us why it should stay dead.

In this series: Hatchet (2006) | Hatchet II (2010)

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