Few horror movies in the last 10 years have been as polarizing as Adam Green's Hatchet (unless you count Hostel or The House of the Devil or Rob Zombie's Halloween remake...come to think of it, has there been a horror movie this decade we can all agree on?). Yes, it quickly developed a fervent following -- fans who declared themselves members of the "Hatchet Army" and wore t-shirts proudly labeling them as such. The movie has plenty of supporters (even ones with loud voices, like Brian Collins of A Horror Movie a Day and Badass Digest, who has called it one of his favorite movies of all time). So why is that in my own dealings with horror fans, I'm generally looked down upon for liking Hatchet as much as I do?
Perhaps it's because of the film's marketing campaign, which declared it a return to "Old School American Horror" in an age of remakes and imitation J-horror, setting expectations sky high and touting the movie as a masterpiece before it was ever released. Or maybe it's the way the movie infuses comedy with the horror, leaving viewers to wonder how much they're meant to take seriously and how much is just a goof. Plus, when you start adding jokes to anything it tends to split reactions even more. Such is the subjectivity of humor.
Take, for example, the film's nudity. Of course there are topless girls; any slasher fan knows that at some point, pretty girls will take off their shirts. Green knows it, but he's come up with a motivation for those moments that is plot driven: an amateur Girls Gone Wild-type producer, played by Joel Murray, and his two female "stars" are among the group on the swamp tour, so every once in a while he'll point his video camera at them and they bare their breasts. Think about that -- at the same time that he's offering up an "explanation" for the nudity, Green is critiquing the exploitative and arbitrary nature of these nude scenes. The "actresses" get topless because their "director" tells them to. In this way, Murray's character is a stand-in for every horror movie director who ever called "action" on a nude scene.
I take issue with the "dumb characters," criticism, though, as Hatchet's characters are certainly as well developed -- if not more so -- than practically any slasher this side of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Joel David Moore makes for an unusually sympathetic lead: he's not the conventional horror hero, with the long face and gawkishness of what would typically be the second or third-tier "geek" character. That he's smarting from a recent heartbreak only endears him to us more. Deon Richmond goes a little bit broad as his best friend, but comes across as very loyal and sweet (there's commentary there about the role of African Americans in horror, too, but Green is wise not to get too political with it).
Tamara Feldman's Marybeth is frightened and vulnerable, and it's an iteration of the character I like more every time I watch the movie. She would eventually be replaced by Danielle Harris in the sequels; Harris is great, but she's playing Sarah Conner in T2 -- the one who has already seen some shit. Feldman is playing Sarah Conner 1.0, and she's very good in the part. Much as I like Danielle Harris, it makes me sad that Feldman did not continue with the role. If nothing else, it's neat to watch the way that Hatchet plays games with the traditional "final girl" role and reveals its endgame very slowly.
Everyone's great, though. Patrika Darbo and Richard Riehle are like sweet grandparents that you really hope won't die horribly (they do). Joel Murray, Joleigh Fioravanti and Mercedes McNab all play the type of shallow, shitty people you expect to see in a slasher movie, but they do it with such excellent comic timing that they elevate the joke. They don't wink at the camera (one of the things I like about Hatchet is that it doesn't wink), but they still know exactly the parts they are playing and exactly the movie they're in. And while the stunt-cast genre stars like Robert Englund, Tony Todd and John Carl Buechler don't have much to do (a fact that would be rectified for two of them in the sequel), their very presence lends the film an implicit seal of approval -- we get to watch as the torch is passed. Hatchet doesn't just coast on these "greatest hits of horror" elements. It works overtime to justify them.
There's a scene in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (still my favorite in the series) that remains the scariest in that long-running franchise: a character is attacked by Jason and while, being hacked up, screams "He's killing me!" It is real and it is awful, made even more awful by the fact that death in the Friday films rarely has any real consequence. Characters are usually killed before they know what's even happening -- or, worst case scenario, have just enough time to bug their eyes and almost scream before they are dispatched. Yet here is a character who understands exactly what is happening to him as it happens. He doesn't even scream for help, either, because he knows that he is sacrificing himself to save someone else. It's maybe the only moment out of all 10 horror films in the franchise that actually manages to be horrifying.
On more than one occasion in the movie, Green pays tribute to that scene in Friday IV by making the characters aware of their own deaths. It happens right in the first scene, which Joshua Leonard (he of Blair Witch fame) is essentially disemboweled while screaming "It hurts!" The cartoonishness of the gore effect is funny; the reaction is not. What are we to make of a scene like that? I have to assume Green is a fan of Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, a movie that's brilliant at mixing wacky comedy with brutal, punishing violence. The sequence creates in us a total disconnect between wanting to laugh and feeling truly awful for the guy, reminding us of the unpleasantness of death within the framework of a genre that typically allows us to laugh off death as just an effects display.
The second such moment is even more difficult to take, seeing as it recalls not the most horrifying moment from the fourth Friday the 13th movie but from Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. In a movie filled with horrible violence and graphic atrocities, the scene in Private Ryan that I can never watch again (and a big part of the reason I don't return to that film) is when Adam Goldberg's Pvt. Mellish begs for his life as a German soldier pushes a bayonet into him. It's still the hardest death scene I've ever watched, and while the similar moment in Hatchet -- Parry Shen begs for Victory Crowley to "wait, wait, wait" before a shovel takes his head off -- doesn't carry the same weight, it's still awful in a way that few horror movies have the courage to be. There is what Tom Holland would call HUMANITY in that moment, and it's way more difficult to watch a real human being be murdered than most of the one-dimensional douchebags who typically serve as slasher fodder. Humanity makes a difference.
My love of Hatchet snuck up on me. I thought it was fun, then I started to really like it and now I love it. It's not a movie I save only for Scary Movie Month, but one I watch year-round. It seems relatively simplistic at first. On my initial viewing, I found it to be little more than a reasonably entertaining throwback to the kinds of horror movies I've always liked. It's only been on repeat viewings that I've begun to unpack the film's sophistication. The repeat viewings are the key -- not because they make the movie better (they do), but because I want to keep watching the movie at all. This is a horror movie I feel like returning to more than most. I like spending time with the characters, even knowing that they are doomed. I like the mix of humor and genuinely unsettling horror. Mostly, though, I like the sense of the fun that Green is clearly having with his first real at-bat as a director. He loves horror movies, and Hatchet loves being a horror movie. It never shies away from genre conventions, instead embracing them and sending them up. It's a movie that affectionately goofs on the type of film it celebrates being.
Green would go on to make movies that were tighter and more slick, but the rough edges are part of what I love about Hatchet. It recalls early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi in its infectious enthusiasm and joy in being a horror movie -- spraying this much blood has rarely been this much fun. But the film has more on its mind than being a geek show, and doesn't get enough credit for its intelligence. Yes, it brought back practical effects. Yes, it pays tribute to '70s and '80s horror. But it also says something about what scares us and why we love these movies in the first place. It's a movie with a lot of brains, even if they're splattered all over the trees.