2 out of 5
Directed by: Adam Green
At the time of Hatchet, horror film was at something of a relative low point. There will always be some standpoints, but Saw had brought torture porn into the cultural zeitgeist, and Platinum Dunes-style hollow remakes were happening as well. It was a confusion of vacuous, over-violenced stuff that kinda sorta knew its teens-in-jeopardy formula for a typical slasher, but couldn’t quite land on many enduring, notable version of that.
Writer / director Adam Green had dropped a couple of impressive, low-budget horror-tinged thrillers, and word on the street was that his next project, Hatchet, was it, gathering up a love of classics from the genre, casting it through a self-aware lens, and liberally dousing it all with a grand dose of splatter for an ultimate, good-ol’-time slasher.
I’d been through enough “this is the best horror movie of all time!” hype trains to know to temper my impressions, but I remember a keen sense of disappointment when getting to see Hatchet. Not so much in Green, maybe, as the movie pretty much level-set for mediocre from its cringey outset, but moreso from the horror community at the time, and / or maybe my place in it; like, is this what I’m supposed to enjoy? Am I not understanding the genre?
To be clear, there are some things about Hatchet I enjoy, and some things I honestly love. I love Kane Hodder’s killer, Victor Crowley. Hodder’s presence in movies has always been notable – lesson to anyone who thinks silent killers in masks can’t have personality – but the insanity he brings to Crowley (and that I’ll presume Green elicited from him for the role) is awesome. The makeup adds to it, yes, but just the way he goes batshit and riffles through the most possibly garish options for kills is a hoot, and the movie immediately picks up once he’s on screen. And the gore gags are great. The cheeseball way Green cuts to blood splashing on trees and whatnot; the visceral camera spins that allow us to get right to the grisly goods – it is that promised good ol’ time. Yeah, they kinda run out of steam at a certain point, but Green seems to sense this, making sure to inject some of the more “mundane” kills with extra comedy.
And I enjoy some of the conceptual riffing / genre tributes Green does here, going overboard with the naked teens angle by having a pseudo porn director (Joel Murray) constantly direct his two stars to take their tops off for filming during the “haunted swamp tour” that serves as our gateway to Victor Crowley-land – although more on this momentarily, ’cause it’s a good idea with mostly deplorable execution – and the juxtaposition of goofy, cheery music during some scenes is funny.
However, self-awareness isn’t a license to indulge, and Green has two modes of characters: completely shallow joke characters, or completely shallow oh-we’re-not-supposed-to-think-they’re-shallow characters, and this lends itself to an incredible amount of cringe that was there when the movie released, and hasn’t aged well at all. Lead character Ben (Joel Moore), who enlists his friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) to come along on the aforementioned haunted tour, is our “everyman” – a type Green would trot out again in his similarly cringey Holliston TV show. This “everyman” is getting over a breakup, and though this is lampshaded by talking it up as cliche, that doesn’t prevent Green from trying to inject mundane observational humor into the mix, that you’ve probably heard in any given PG-13 teen comedy ever, i.e. “She wants space? What does that even mean?” That the writing isn’t necessarily funny to me isn’t an outright sin, of course, but it’s the way this is layered with grody ignorance – these are the expressions of the type of dude we all know, who talks up a big game about, say, equal rights for women because he thinks it’s a way to get into some girl’s pants. Who jokes about how stupid men are so he has an “excuse” to ogle tits. That’s the paradox of the porn director thing. If you want to go full bore cheeseball, I think that can work, but our movie opens up with a Marilyn Manson song and lots of shots – lots of shots – of Mardi Gras girls baring their boobs and men cheering them on. All in good fun, I suppose, but it’s kinda sorta exactly the kind of Girls Gone Wild-behavior Green thinks he’s lampooning with the porn character. Wee, isn’t this dumb, but let’s look anyway, isn’t it kind of cool, nudge nudge, and that pervades how this stuff is shot and presented.
And I’m not just getting preacherly about tits. This mentality extends similarly to those character types. Green wants it both ways – to take them seriously, and to accept them as tropes. So we get some embarrassingly dumb humor – a “what’s the number for 911” joke, sure – that’s presented in this way where Green is wanting us to laugh at the trope of the dumb horror teen blond, but then also to share in others’ evaluation of, within the movie, as a dumb blond.
This makes the tone of the movie particularly unenjoyable to me, and essentially on par with those vacuous Platinum Dunes flicks, made worse because they’re being written by a dude who thinks if he makes some self-deprecating jokes and then makes a blond joke that it differentiates him from the jock who just skips to the blond joke. I understand this is a very subjective take, and if you are swayed by that Mardi Gras opening and then laugh out loud at the dude bro humor that follows in short order, you will likely have the opposite take. For me, though, it’s the kind of stereotypical stuff (sorry, I’m having trouble getting outside of my bias, here) that grates, and it’s only barely saved by Hodder, and the gore, and when Green isn’t trying to be “clever” and just sticks to crafting some fun killer lore, and making some casual jokes, or applying his sense of humor in a more slapstick, Evil Dead fashion.