Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. 40 years after Camp Crystal Lake appeared on the silver screen, we look back at Friday the 13th and how the perennial slasher series mutated across the years. Read the rest of our Friday coverage here.
As the golden age of the slasher flick drew to a decidedly ignominious close, the bigwigs at Paramount Pictures had quite the dilemma on their hands. Four films into the Friday the 13th series, they had drawn themselves into a corner. By naming the most recent entry into the Crystal Lake canon The Final Chapter, they had entered into a contract with their audience, one that they now had to find a way to wriggle out of.
Problem was, audiences loved 1984’s The Final Chapter. In what was supposed to be his curtain call, Jason Voorhees fully became the Jason Voorhees we horror freaks know and love: an unstoppable, bulky, machete-wielding demon in a hockey mask and gas station fatigues who never met a window he didn’t want to throw a horny co-ed through. If it was Friday the 13th 3-D that first introduced us to this version of Jason back in 1982, then The Final Chapter perfected it.
Since you can’t improve on perfection, The Final Chapter ended with the murderous mama’s boy meeting his maker thanks to a clever bait and switch courtesy of young horror movie buff Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman). However, when the film became the second highest-grossing entry in the franchise, the brass at Paramount knew that they couldn’t just let the series die, like some weirdo looking for a corkscrew in a dark kitchen.
Which brings us to 1985’s Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, a film that so utterly fails on almost every conceivable level that it accidentally becomes the most perversely fascinating entry in the whole franchise. Aside from the one in space, of course.
We open promisingly, with our old pal Tommy Jarvis witnessing two backwoods rubes gleefully dig up Jason Voorhees’ grave. Mistake number one. Burying Jason Voorhees with both a machete and a screwdriver proves to be mistake number two, as he immediately kills the two hillbillies, then sets his sights on the horrified Tommy.
But, to quote Biggie Smalls, it was all a dream! Tommy, who is now a thirty-year-old teen (John Shepherd), wakes up in the back of a car. Forever haunted by his previous encounter with ol’ Mr. Goalie Man (and either a catatonic slob or a John Wick-style karate machine, depending on the scene), Tommy is going to live at Pinehurst Halfway Home, a treatment facility for troubled youths.
Naming all of the supporting characters Tommy meets would require a whole separate article, so here are a few notable names to keep in mind:
- Reggie (Shavar Ross), a precocious young black kid brought in to bring the kind of Gary Coleman energy this franchise was apparently lacking;
- Pam (Melanie Kinnaman), the co-director of the facility;
- George (Vernon Washington) and Tina (Debi Sue Voorhees), two teen nymphos who love to make the sex on top of each other;
- Ethel Hubbard (Carol Locatell) and her son Junior (Ron Sloan), a pair of angry rednecks who want Pinehurst shut down for nebulous reasons;
- Joey (Dominick Brascia), a chubby, mentally handicapped slob whose hands are perpetually covered in chocolate;
- Jake (Jerry Pavlon), a stuttering nerd with a crush on the cynical Robin (Juliette Cummins);
- Violet (Tiffany Helm), a goth who inexplicably also loves to breakdance;
- and of course, Demon (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), Reggie’s Jheri-curled metalhead cousin who lives in a van.
If you’re feeling confused, don’t worry: nearly all of these characters are brutally murdered before you ever get a chance to really know them, sometimes mere minutes after being introduced to them.
A film that so utterly fails on almost every conceivable level that it accidentally becomes the most perversely fascinating entry in the whole franchise.
What one could charitably describe as the film’s plot is set into motion once Joey’s bumbling, chocolatey antics piss off fellow inmate Vic (Mark Venturini), who responds by very calmly butchering Joey to death with the biggest ax you’ve ever seen. From there, the film falls into a recognizable pattern: characters walk into a place, they are murdered by someone who looks very similar to Jason Voorhees, and eventually, the film ends.
Now, if you’re the type of horror hound or Fango Mom who comes to a film like this for the gory violence alone, then you’re going to come away satisfied. Folks are dispatched with machetes, axes, knives, garden shears, meat cleavers, and railroad spikes. A greaser dude gets a lit road flare shoved into his mouth! George’s head is burst open with a homemade garrote! And then there is poor Demon, who is impaled on an outhouse toilet, all because he caught a case of the enchilada shits!
A New Beginning’s attitude towards treating its characters like mere machete fodder is so cynical that it almost comes back around to being refreshingly honest. All in all, a mind-boggling twenty-two people are killed in this film. That’s more than the real-life body count of the Zodiac Killer and the Son of Sam combined!
Then there’s the film’s nudity, which, even by slasher standards, feels especially gratuitous and icky. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning takes place in that cinematic universe where, as soon as they’re alone, women just take off their tops and wander around aimlessly with their breasts exposed. Perhaps it would not surprise you that the film’s director and co-writer, Danny Steinmann, was mostly known for directing hardcore skin flicks? Shocking, we know.
What’s not so shocking is the factoid we have spent this entire article dancing around: if anyone knows anything about A New Beginning, it’s that it is the Jason movie without Jason. As it is revealed after his final face-off with Tommy Jarvis (though, to be fair, Reggie and Pam do most of the heavy lifting), the killer was actually local EMT Roy Burns (Dick Wieland) pretending to be Jason Voorhees!
Now, this is not really much of a surprise, as Roy spends his two earlier scenes in the movie acting like a shifty, vaguely vengeful weirdo, but we don’t actually learn why he did this until the very end of the movie, and the explanation is as inexplicable as it is stupid: turns out, Roy was secretly Joey’s father, and his son’s murder drove him nuts. The end.
A good twist ending is one that is hiding in plain sight the whole time. It leaves some breadcrumbs for the audience to follow back to the beginning of the film, allowing them to see the story from a whole new perspective. Instead, the whole sorry mess plays like one of those memes where a kid at the grocery store says to his mother, “Can we get Jason Voorhees?” To which the mother responds, “We have Jason Voorhees at home,” then you see a caption that says “Jason Voorhees at home” above a picture of a dumpy EMT named Roy.
This was certainly the consensus amongst Friday the 13th fans upon the film’s release. Though it topped the box office on its opening weekend, it ultimately failed to out-gross the previous two entries in the franchise, and viewers were not shy in letting Paramount know that they felt they wanted the real deal back.
Paramount quickly course-corrected, and in 1986, Jason Voorhees was officially resurrected with Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, an indisputable high point in the franchise. A New Beginning, however, remains an outlier, a cautionary tale in the style of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, aka the one without Michael Myers.
Though Halloween III is regarded as something of a cult classic today, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning has not been afforded that same reconsideration, and it is hard to say why. It is a singularly strange, almost hypnotically sleazy experience, one that is arguably far more enjoyable than many of the Friday the 13th films that followed it, especially the dregs that are Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes to Hell. Perhaps, instead of a failed experiment, think of it as a quirky genre exercise: “22 Victims in Search of a Jason.”