The following review contains significant SPOILERS for an insignificant film that’s three decades old.
Welcome to the cinematic shit show, circa 1985.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is the series’ fifth installment, and man, is it ever odd.
That it exists at all is a moving testament to Paramount Pictures overcoming any moral qualms or embarrassment about nekkid teens and death delivering such impressive returns. This sounds like a joke, but according to Peter M. Bracke’s exhaustive overview of the series, “The critical and moral backlash against the slasher film was beginning to take its toll, not just on [producer Frank Mancuso, Jr.]’s professional reputation but Paramount’s public image.”
Given the financial straits of twenty-first century studio filmmaking, Paramount’s discomfort on this point seems positively quaint today. It’s like Sony discarding the Bond franchise because of criticism of its paper-thin female characters. Can you imagine willingly labeling the fourth part in a cheap-yet-lucrative series “The Final Chapter” in 2017? Stockholders would revolt, and the public would stage the de rigueur “How stupid do you think we are?” Twitter riot.
Even apart from the studio’s bait-and-switch – a very unsatisfying case of “the same yet different” – on the face of it there’s very little to recommend A New Beginning, particularly in the context of a year as rich with filmic horror as 1985.
It isn’t nearly as brazenly subversive as slasher peer Freddy’s Revenge.
It’s not effectively made or intelligent like Fright Night.
It’s not ahead of the Scream self-awareness and meta-mockery curve like Return of the Living Dead (or the following year’s Friday the 13th: Jason Lives, for that matter.)
It hasn’t gained resonance in the ensuing years like the über-bleak Day of the Dead.
All of which begs the question, “Who cares?”
I do, but I don’t know why. I can’t even discern why I return to this film so often: is it to wallow in prurience or to behold it with smug, ironic distance? Or is it just a byproduct of an obsession with cinematic patterns, variations on a theme, a love of the fun that goes with parsing the minutiae of paint-by-numbers filmmaking?
Whatever the case, before exploring the specific folly of A New Beginning, here’s a little context for those of you who’ve managed to avoid the series (congratulations, by the way):
Friday the 13th (1980): Effective low-budget (and low-concept) murder mystery with nicely over-the-top death scenes, a generally likeable cast, and a sublime final scare. Kevin Bacon smokes a joint…you won’t believe what happens next!
Friday the 13th Part II (1981): Apart from a budgetary increase and a slight tweaking of particular details, this is the best kind of play-by-play rehash of a successful film – which is to say, the body count is higher and the recreation of scares positively slavish. If you willingly bought a ticket, you wouldn’t be disappointed.
Friday the 13th Part III (1983): If you get the chance to see a genuine 3-D presentation of this one (not that red-and-blue anaglyph crap), take it. The in-your-face gimmicks are bold and consistently amusing. In 2-D it’s, well, flat.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984): Everybody loves this one, and it’s easy to see why: Little Corey Feldman, Crispin “McFly” Glover himself, a hot pair of twins, moment-of-death exposition (“He’s killing me!”), and dogs committing suicide from fear. Plus, Jason gets put down, son.
Which brings us up to date. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is now known (and generally disparaged) as “the Friday the 13th without Jason Voorhees.” This creative decision feels adorably naïve today, a concession to the “realism” of a series that had delivered the promised “Final Chapter” only one year earlier. (And I’ll refrain from including mountains of anecdotal information attesting that this point alone was sufficient to send scores of young, pre-interweb slasher nerds to their Underwoods to craft letters of polite indignation. Imagine the cheek: A Friday the 13th without Jason! Between this and the Myers-less Halloween 3, the air was thick with low culture injustice.)
Aside from the quirk of being Jason-free, what’s probably most interesting about Part V is the canny way it leans – and leans hard – into the criticisms that had dogged the series from the beginning. During production, it was given the winking code title “Repetition” – not merely a strategy to avoid gawkers on the set, this moniker serves as a mission statement for the entire venture; any pretense is completely stripped away. If you thought the original Friday the 13th was repulsive because it appealed to the baseness of would-be viewers, consisting of little more than poorly sketched characters who exist to fuck and be killed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you thought the previous sequels were conceptually barren and morally bankrupt, A New Beginning effectively destroys the Silent Majority Outrage Scale, turning all of these objectionable elements up to eleven.
A few weeks back The Ploughman mentioned Howard Hawks’ conception of a great film as “three good scenes; no bad scenes.” This series contains no great films (though a case could be made: time and reputation have resulted in the original being somewhat undervalued) but none of the other Paramount-produced Fridays can claim to be quite so aggressively stupid, insensitive, sadistic, offensive – take your pick. Even worse, the MPAA – determined to avoid a repeat case of The Final Chapter’s hardest-of-Rs courtesy of Tom Savini – made sure that young boys and girls would be denied the heady thrill of elaborate gore set pieces: the kills in A New Beginning are largely bloodless, neutered, and forgettable.
Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) has problems. In addition to once being played by Corey Feldman, he seems to be suffering from a full-on case of Jason-induced PTSD. He’s the kind of kid for whom we would’ve reserved the term “troubled youth” in 1985.
Good news: Jason is dead and Tommy’s getting some help (at a facility that’s somewhere between halfway house and summer camp) from the guy who gave Indiana Jones his fedora (Richard Young) and the lovely Pam. Actress Melanie Kinnaman gave Bracke insight into the casting process:
“If you go back over all of the Friday movies, you notice that the people who make these films love to see blondes running. I knew how to run and I was blonde, so I had an edge.”
Settling in, Tommy meets young Reggie the Reckless (Shevar Ross of Diff’rent Strokes). I don’t know what this character’s function is within the universe of the story – he’s not a patient and he’s not a caretaker, though he does seem to be related to one member of the staff – but he helpfully introduces himself by scaring the shit out of Tommy with a rubber spider. This is important because it shows how sensitive the folks at Pinehurst Sanitarium are to inhabitants’ past traumas.
“Man, you is one scared cat!” young Reggie observes. Whether triggered by the spider or not, Tommy then hallucinates that Jason is standing outside his window in what amounts to a virtual recreation of a scene from John Carpenter’s Halloween. And since Jason doesn’t actually show up in the film, on behalf of my ten-year-old self: BOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
Elsewhere on the grounds, we get a good sense of what life is like for the patients at Pinehurst. To wit: Joey (Dominick Brascia) tries to share his chocolate bar with Vic (the late Mark Venturini). Joey’s a bit too persistent for Vic’s liking, so Vic momentarily pauses in his wood-chopping to murder him with an ax. You might not realize it the first time you see the film, but this whimsical, seemingly-impromptu homicide is what Gustav Freytag would term “the inciting event.” As a scene, it’s also a useful microcosm for the rest of the movie: it’s hilariously offensive, displays no inherent logic, and is over before the viewer knows what the hell is going on. This is too bad, because Joey’s characterization – benign, overweight, and Hollywood handicapped with chocolate all over his face – is a surefire candidate for the Movie Sensitivity Hall of Fame.
When the meat wagon comes to get the body, the camera lingers on an EMT, Roy (Dick Wieand), who seems to be taking it hard.
“Come on, Roy. Get yer hands dirty,” sneers his bubblegum-snapping partner.
Roy is planning to do just that. For you see, Joey was Roy’s son, and Roy blames the institute for Joey’s death. Or something.
This is “revealed” in the final moments of the film, courtesy of the most slapdash Murder, She Wrote-style exposition imaginable, helpfully illustrated for the viewer via photos taken from Roy’s wallet – separate location stills of each actor in costume. Yes, seriously.
People complain about the psychiatrist’s exposition dump at the end of Psycho – well, imagine that scene consisted of nothing more than: “Norman was crazy. He killed his mother then killed other people while pretending to be her. Here, I have some photos.”
I guess it’s not a cheat because Roy pops up a couple more times to transport bodies and deliver important information through dialogue, such as in this exchange:
“What the hell’s going on here?”
“Are you talkin’ to me, Sheriff?”
“I thought you were talking to me.”
We don’t get any real sense of who the other inhabitants of this sanitarium are – one stutters, one is faintly goth, one is a redhead (slasher sequel stalwart Juliette Cummins!), and one apparently used to chop wood in a fruitless attempt to sublimate his aggression. The film’s use of broad, interchangeable characters would be fine – even necessary, given the ludicrously high body count – but for one thing: in addition to being ineptly scripted, A New Beginning has the temerity to posture as some kind of classical whodunit, with red herrings at every fucking turn and a solution that could charitably be described as “hilariously left field” (see above).
This is all sufficiently weird already, but we’re not done. Ethel (Carol Locatell) and Junior (Ron Sloan), a couple of hillbillies straight out of central casting (complete with dirt-smeared clothes and faces) ride up on a motorcycle to give the sheriff shit. Apparently they live nearby and Ethel’s sick of being subjected to the sight of nubile teens fucking in her general vicinity. Here’s how the exchange starts:
“Morning, Ethel. You look lovely today.”
“Horseshit! I want that fuckin’ loony bin closed down, ya hear?”
The saga of Ethel and Junior deserves its own jeremiad, but suffice it to say that before they’re killed, the film makes great use of their limited screentime, serving up a few priceless redneck vittles:
- Junior constantly echoing things Ethel says, and shouting, “You tell ‘em, ma!”
- Ethel screaming “KEEEE-YAH!” as she chops a chicken “just like they done to that piggo at the goddamn crazy farm.”
- Junior’s ever-present leather aviator cap with ear flaps.
- Ethel repeatedly admonishing Junior to come inside and “eat yer slop!”
- The way she relishes being brusque to a drifter who teleports into this film from The Grapes of Wrath to find work, telling him she’ll fill his stomach after he cleans the shit out of the chicken coop.
- Junior getting unceremoniously Tae-Kwon-owned by Tommy after referring to him as “a crazy from the loony bin!”
Ethel’s death isn’t very memorable, sadly (Cleaver To Face While Preparing Stew), but young Junior gets Decapitation While Atop Motorcycle, which is unassailably great – and made even better by the fact that it happens while he is driving in circles around his own house over and over, in the midst of a tantrum, screaming, “HE HURT ME, MA,” tears flowing down his cheeks.
At the time, this kind of zaniness was new to the Friday the 13th films; Jason hadn’t yet gone to space or to hell, nor had he done on-screen battle with Freddy. It’s indicative of a divide that began to make itself known in the mid-80s: between the kind of slasher film with stakes (i.e. you kinda sorta care if people live or die) and ones like A New Beginning, where victims like Ethel, Junior and the Drifter show up only long enough to earn our contempt and be dispatched.
Speaking of which, on their way to a rumble with the Socs, Ponyboy and Soda Pop are bummed out when their car breaks down. They scat-sing (“Rat-a-tat-a-rat-a-tat-a-too-ee…”) and fling insults at one another until Dude Who’s Not Jason comes along. The leather costuming for these two is somewhere between Grease and Cruising, which (as with the appearance of the Drifter) adds an element of the surreal. Oh, uh…Throat Cut But With Strangely Little Blood and Road Flare In The Mouth.
The theme of a-cappella-leading-to-death continues when Reggie’s brother Demon (a very good Miguel Nunez) goes to the outhouse (“Damn enchiladas!”) and trades a few seated choruses of “Ooh Baby” with his girlfriend just outside. This scene goes a long way towards redeeming some of the other nonsense in the film, because Nunez is such a likeable presence and he gets a chance to communicate something resembling human emotions before dying: Spear Through Outhouse Wall.
Pro-tip: If you’re counting, this is the fourth time in the series that a character has met his or her demise immediately after sitting on the toilet. This is something I know.
Back at the loony bin, Violet (Tiffany Helm) gives Crispin Glover’s legendary seizure-dance in The Final Chapter a tip of the hat with a very respectable variation on “The Robot.” The only audience for this performance is us (and ersatz-Jason) which is a shame because it would’ve turned more than a few heads at the Pinehurst Annual Cotillion. Apparently Violet’s original death was too much (“…like a gruesome ad for heavy-duty feminine protection,” according to Helm) so she’s given the unfortunately pedestrian send-off of Machete To Stomach.
Anyway, there’s more mayhem, more bodies are added to the pile, and in the end we get Tommy, Pam and Reggie the Reckless defeating pseudo-Jason in a barn – check your tickets: who had Falling Onto A Bed Of Spikes? – followed by the “Roy reveal,” and finally a bizarre coda in which Tommy, recovering in a hospital, apparently flips out and takes on the role of nü-Jason for himself. Get it? The ending is the real new beginning!
Have I mentioned that none of this really makes sense?
Presiding over this lunacy is the late Danny Steinmann who, based on the accounts of the cast and crew, was a rather intense fellow and not always the easiest field marshal under whom to serve. I don’t want to indulge in a lot of rumor-mongering, but it’s instructive to compare Steinmann’s filmography with that of his immediate Friday predecessor, schlock genre master and Norris-tamer Joe Zito.
Even if one finds little to recommend the film he made, Steinmann deserves at least some recognition for his contribution to one of the funniest commentary tracks ever recorded. When he’s not loudly reacting to or complimenting his own work, he’s going on the widest of bullshit tangents or lobbing passive aggressive bombs at co-commentators Shepherd and (especially) Ross. The best burn is reserved for Red Shirt Productions’ Michael Felsher, who’s moderating by telephone: “We’re not paying for this call, are we?” the Stein wonders after a particularly geeky outburst. Shepherd also gets in on the fun, relating that the film was originally intended to be a 3-D release, but “Shevar can’t act in 3-D.” (It’s interesting, though hardly surprising, that at no time during the track is cocaine mentioned, despite the fact that, as cinematographer Stephen Posey decorously puts it in Bracke’s book, “Drugs were a presence.” Hold on to your monocles, folks.)
To say that Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is something of an anomaly would be an understatement. It’s almost certainly the most barefaced piece of slasher sleaze ever produced under the auspices of a major studio. As a continuation of the series, it fails because it mindlessly follows the formula, except where it mattered most to the thousands of kids who had the misfortune to grow up taking these films seriously – i.e. no Jason. Any credit the film might garner for hearkening back to the first film’s “killer has an actual motivational backstory” is lost in the batshit exploitation weirdness of the results.
But it’s certainly never boring. I suppose this is just a byproduct of its cracked design, the logic being that if the pace doesn’t let up, we can’t reflect upon what we’re seeing. As an illustration of just how single-minded the film’s drive is, and how packed with carnage its ninety minutes are, below is a list of some of the film’s kills that I haven’t had time to mention. Note just how seriously this installment seems to take the “vice before slice” rule:
- Machete to the Stomach Times Two (for grave robbing in a dream sequence)
- Implied Machete to Head (for being Corey Feldman in a dream sequence)
- Leather Strap Wrapped Around Head and Tightened Until Skull’s Crushed (after sex)
- Garden Shears to the Eyeballs (sex)
- Machete to Stomach (for peeping the above sex)
- Ax to the Back of the Head (after forecasting “snow flurries up your nose”)
- Ax to the Stomach (after flashing breasts for…the camera?)
- Cleaver to the Head (for impure thoughts about Juliette Cummins)
- Knife Through the Chest from Below Bunk Bed (for being Juliette Cummins; also, laughing at the stutterer’s advances)
- Eyes Gouged Out Offscreen (solitary exception – nice old gramps didn’t do nothing to no one)
However, aside from some nicely rendered – if over-lit, as it was 1985 – photography courtesy of Posey, a couple of solid performances (particularly from Shepherd, who has almost no lines), and one of Harry Manfredini’s best scores among his largely interchangeable contributions to the series, it’s difficult to make the case that this is even a very, very rough diamond. But it is still to be preferred to the douche slaughterhouse that is the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, a film so cynical in its brutality, so boilerplate in its writing, and populated by such a menagerie of blandly unsympathetic fashion plates that the viewer is left pining for the dafuq madness of A New Beginning, which at least has the courage to let its freak flag fly.