Monday, July 16, 2012

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

(This post is presented in conjunction with Kevin Olson's blog Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and his ongoing Summer of Slash series.)

In retrospect, you have to ask the makers of the Friday the 13th films what they were thinking when they subtitled the fourth film in the series The Final Chapter. True, they definitively killed Jason (and quite spectacularly at that) at the end of the film, which certainly gave things a sense of finality, but were they honestly planning to just end the series then and there? With so much money yet to be made? Once you've reached the point where a slasher film series surpasses trilogy status and hits installment number four, hasn't any semblance of restraint already been thrown out the window? Am I asking too many questions? The answer to all of these is, of course, no, and after what was undoubtedly a lively session of forehead-slapping at Paramount, the decision was made to move forward. But how to do it? Jason Voorhees, the star of the show, was dead; he'd had his cabeza sliced open like a melon. I'm guessing that the filmmakers' thoughts returned to the very first film for inspiration. As we all know, it was Jason's mother who perpetrated the mayhem in that film, and having someone else be responsible for the killings in part 5 probably sounded like a good idea.

As far as I'm concerned, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (or as it should have been called, Friday the 13th: Just Kidding About The Final Chapter Thing) has always occupied an awkward spot in the series. Coming down off the high of the fourth film, which showcased the triumphant return of Tom Savini to the role of effects maestro, and preceding the sixth film, which introduces a new twist to the Jason Voorhees mythos, the fifth film sort of just sits there. Danny Steinmann's direction is reasonably competent, and the story refreshingly eschews the old "horny teenagers come to a lakeside cabin" setting, establishing a fresh milieu for the carnage to take place in, but to me, it will always have the feel of a stopgap film that was made simply to keep the Friday the 13th brand in the public's consciousness until they could get the series proper back on track. As if to compensate for this, the filmmakers crammed this installment with more murders that ever before - a whopping 22, if you count the two in the prologue (I'll explain in a moment). The film's running time is approximately 90 minutes; you do the math. 

Things begin atmospherically enough, with a pre-credits sequence featuring a brief cameo by Corey Feldman as the young Tommy Jarvis that actually foreshadows the opening of the next film. In this prologue, he witnesses the apparent resurrection of Jason after his wormy corpse is exhumed by a pair of thrill-seeking young men. After Jason dispatches the two grave robbers and turns his attention to Tommy, it's revealed to be a dream sequence. Tommy is actually a young adult now (played quite well by John Shepherd), and he awakens from his nightmare in the back of a van that's delivering him to the Pinehurst Youth Development Center, a home for disturbed young people in a rural, farmlike setting. Here the credits begin, and oddly, the first credit we see, even before the cast, is for Executive Producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. Since Mancuso, Jr. is one of the few people involved with this film with any direct ties to the previous entries, it's almost as if it's meant to be a subtle reminder that yes, this is indeed an honest-to-goodness Friday the 13th film, although it's doubtful that the average viewer of this type of film would have paid attention to such things. A more direct link, and one that would have been more apparent to the average audience member (even if they didn't realize it), was the return of composer Harry Manfredini, contributing his fifth score for the series. Manfredini was the John Barry of the Friday the 13th films, and his outstanding scores gave the films a sense of continuity they might not otherwise have had.

Tommy clearly has issues, but when he arrives at Pinehurst, the film introduces a motley group of young people, many of whom seem reasonably well-adjusted considering where they're staying. The two residents who have the most obvious problems are Vic, a young man with severe anger management issues (as we'll soon see), and Joey, a chocolate-loving fat kid who's been shuffled around from foster home to foster home and seems to be a bit slow, but it's not quite clear why the others are residing there, unless liking sex or stuttering or listening to new wave music is a sign of being disturbed. As I mentioned, this setting is a nice change from the usual one, and it gives the actors a chance to stretch a bit more than usual by playing something besides horny teenagers (although some of them are more up to the task than others). Speaking of horny teenagers, it's often been said that slasher movies in general and the Friday the 13th series in particular are infused with a "have sex and die" motif. It should therefore be noted that only two of the characters in this film have actual sex (although a few others are clearly thinking about it, and one character has a nearly orgasmic reaction while taking a dump in an outhouse), and with 22 murders overall, the sex-to-death ratio is astoundingly low. By contrast, at least six of the victims partake in illicit substances (or are about to), so if anything, there's more of a "take drugs and die" theme.

Also on hand at the farm are Pam Roberts, the Assistant Director; Matthew Letter, the Director; the cook and his grandson Reggie who's just visiting (and takes great pains to let Tommy know this). After we meet the residents and the staff of Pinehurst, we're introduced to a few more characters, these being Ethel Hubbard and her son Junior, a pair of dirty, foul-mouthed rednecks who live nearby and provide some comic relief, and the local law enforcement. Just like with the other films, pretty much everyone we meet is likely to end up dead, so when the characters begin piling up, you know the bodies soon will be, too. Things get off to a bloody start when Joey interferes with Vic's wood chopping chores and ends up axed to death for his troubles. It's the first non-dream murder in the film, and it's not even committed by the movie's real killer; as you can see, confusion is already beginning to set in. An ambulance shows up to collect Joey's remains in a behind-the-flashing-light shot that reminded me of the Leslie Nielsen slapstick comedy series Police Squad (not to mention the Naked Gun films that followed). Roy, one of the paramedics, seems unusually disturbed by the sight of the dismembered corpse under a blood-soaked sheet, and at this point, it should be fairly obvious that he's going to figure into the ensuing hijinks somehow.

It doesn't take much longer for the murders to begin in earnest, starting with a couple of leather-jacketed greasers who seem like they could have stumbled out of The Outsiders. While one of them tries to fix their broken-down car, the other goes off to take a crap in the woods, seemingly without toilet paper (something which is inconceivable to me). Needless to say, they're both quickly dispatched. The killer isn't shown in either of these murders, nor in several of the subsequent killings, indicating that the filmmakers were trying to create some kind of mystery as to the killer's identity. Clearly, we're meant to wonder whether or not Tommy is actually behind them. To be perfectly honest, it's been so long since I saw this film for the first time that I can't remember if I ever bought into it. Meanwhile, Tommy is tormented by visions of Jason, and during his first breakfast at Pinehurst, he lays out one of the fellow inmates using some fighting skills he's apparently picked up during his years of institutionalization. The next night, one of the ambulance drivers from the beginning of the film is killed along with his waitress girlfriend (who still has time to show us her boobs in the scant few minutes she has onscreen), and we're off and running.

At this point, the killer begins to move in on the occupants of Pinehurst, which of course means they have to start splitting up into manageable groups. Whether it's two lovers who sneak into the woods to get it on, Matthew heading off to look for them after they fail to return, Pam taking Tommy and Reggie into town in the requisite unreliable vehicle or the other kids heading off to their respective rooms, the killer is now able to take care of them much more easily. Pam (this episode's Final Girl, or is she?) eventually returns  to Pinehurst with Tommy and Reggie in tow for a climactic confrontation with "Jason," who ends up falling onto a spiky piece of farm machinery. "Jason," of course, turns out to be Roy, the ambulance driver. We're told that Joey, the axe victim from the beginning, was Roy's estranged son, and the sight of Joey's dismembered corpse was apparently enough to send Roy around the bend. Why he decided to dress up like Jason is a bit of a mystery (multiple personality disorder?), but realistic psychology isn't one of the series' strong points. It is kind of a nice touch when Tommy, who's been seeing apparitions of Jason all along, is confronted with what he believes to be Jason in the flesh; Shepherd's portrayal of Tommy's confusion and doubt is pretty believable. The film ends with a predictable double twist in which a hospitalized Tommy first dreams he kills Pam and then, upon waking, advances on her from behind, wielding a butcher knife and wearing the hockey mask. The finale of part 4 seemed to indicate that Tommy would become a killer as a result of his traumatic experiences, and we're basically given the same idea here.

One thing that definitely set the Friday the 13th films apart from other, more run-of-the-mill slashers was their insistence on utilizing graphically elaborate makeup effects. The original Friday the 13th, while obviously inspired by Halloween, brazenly displayed the blood and gore that John Carpenter's film kept mostly offscreen, and this tradition mostly continued through the series, regardless of what the MPAA actually allowed to wind up on screen. Beginning with the legendary Tom Savini in the first film, each subsequent film employed a talented team of makeup effects artists who generally delivered much more than just simple gags using blood tubing and shoddy dummies. Once Jason took center stage, it also became the job of the makeup artists to showcase his twisted visage. It's disappointing, then, that the effects in A New Beginning are merely adequate, and occasionally shoddy. Perhaps the quality suffered because there were so many murders to orchestrate, but the result is that only a few of them exhibit anything above average. The road flare in the mouth that one of the greasers receives and Junior's meat cleaver decapitation while zooming around on his motorbike are probably the major highlights. There's also a fairly nasty scene in which a guy has his head squeezed by a leather strap that's wrapped around a tree and tightened with a stick. Regardless of their quality, most the murders that are shown are cut away from so quickly that they lose much of their impact. In the case of one throat slashing, there's an optical zoom away from the wound and into the victim's face that seems like it was done in post-production. No doubt, the MPAA took issue with the number of killings in the film and demanded even more edits than usual. Also, given the fact that the killer isn't even Jason, there's no grotesque prosthetic makeup necessary.

The major problem with A New Beginning is the fact that, if you strip away the killer's borrowed hockey mask and Manfredini's superb music, the movie isn't really any different than any other generic 80s slasher flick. Perhaps you care a little more about the characters than usual, but not enough to make much of a difference, and the murders happen in such rapid succession during the last half of the film that it's difficult to keep track of who's alive and who's dead. Ultimately, we miss the presence of Jason, and despite the film's success, the makers seemed to realize this. Jason would be back the next time around.

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