02 June 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A FALSE START

It is a good thing for movies to make money, and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter made quite a lot of it. So it should be unsurprising in the extreme that Paramount rather quickly reneged on their pledge that the saga was over, and in March, 1985, a bit less than one year after that climactic chapter, they released Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, a giant reset switch on the series that launched the "second phase" of films and just so happened to be without question the ass-stupidest entry in the series to that point.

It is human to assign blame, but the question of who primarily fucked up this particular film so extravagantly is tricky. Series producer Frank Mancuso, for restarting the goddamn things? Director Danny Steinmann, who brought new levels of incompetence to the scare sequences? The four individuals responsible for the screenplay, including Martin Kitrosser, one-half of the team that brought the rancid Part 3 to life? Who really cares? Having a culprit wouldn't make the film any better.

Fans of the series (they exist) would like to suggest that the chief flaw of A New Beginning is the hideous temerity of putting anyone other than our boy Jason Voorhees behind the mask, but this is idiotic, kind of like saying that the biggest problem with the Nazis was their ugly uniforms. (Hooray, the Summer of Blood just broke Godwin's Law! Now we can all relax). There is really not a single point at which this film works on any worthwhile level, and making the killer Jason, Pamela, or Dr. Seuss couldn't change that fact.

So let's begin at the beginning, the film's absolute best scene, and a pretty bad scene it is at that: in the night during a terrible storm, a figure in a slicker walks through the woods, in such a way that we're not meant to figure out who he is. And when we finally see his face, he does indeed turn out to be a complete psycho (Corey Feldman)! Actually, it's just Tommy Jarvis from The Final Chapter, but he's being played by Corey Feldman anyway.

Tommy stops in front of a crude grave marked "Jason Voorhees," when rustling in the bushes sends him into hiding. The rustling turns out to be two moronic teenagers, intent on digging up Jason's body for whatever reason teenagers do such things; it is perfectly unsurprising when the famed killer (very much in one piece, despite Tommy's machete adventures from the previous film''s climax) turns out to be quite alive, dealing with the teens in short order, and turning his attention to the cowering boy-

-who wakes up, now in his late teens, and played by John Shepherd; this transition will turn out to be the final well-executed directorial fillip of the entire movie.

Right away, do you see what sets A New Beginning apart from its storied predecessors? No recap! Which is kind of a nice change, to be completely honest, but it's only the first significant shift of plot construction, and most of those which follow are entirely horrible.

Here's something worth pondering right at the start: it's usually taken as given that the more bodies a slasher film has, the worse it ends up, the inflated body count being a desperation move to distract us from the inanities of the script. Think about: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with its parsimonious four deaths; the same number in Halloween; then leap to Friday the 13th, with ten. Well, it just so happens that A New Beginning holds the record for most deaths in the series until Jason X, AND it has the most naked breasts for good measure. From start to finish, we see 22 people die in this film, an average of more than one death every 4.25 minutes.

It should hopefully be obvious that this sort of mass slaughter can't really be effectively conveyed by the traditional Friday the 13th pattern in which the first 60% of the story is meeting the "characters" and sex scenes; and this leads to what I find the single most interesting deviation that A New Beginning makes from what went before: although we still get a central group of teens, they are not the sole focus of the movie. Instead the film goes through a seemingly endless number of sequences of introducing us to some meaningless tertiary character, forcing us to watch their goings-on for 8 or 10 minutes, then offing them. Weirdly, the great bulk of killings here also seem to come in pairs.

On to the plot: Tommy Jarvis has been in and out of institutions since his horribly traumatic experience years earlier, and when we meet him, he is being transferred from the Unger Institute to the Pinehurst Youth Leadership Center, run by Dr. Matt Lederer (Richard Young) and his assistant Pam (Melanie Kinnaman). Pam has every earmark of a Final Girl, and is unquestionably the only female in the cast who does, which makes it all the worse that I allowed her character's evident age to dissuade me from believe that she would fulfill that role until it was pretty much obvious. We're also quickly introduced to the precocious 12-year-old Reggie (Shavar Ross), and his grandfather (Vernon Washington).

No sooner does Tommy arrive than Sheriff Tucker (Marco St. John) arrives with the Center's resident sex fiends, Eddie (John Robert Dixon) and Tina (the fantastically-named Debisue Voorhees, whose name had to be the only reason she was cast; certainly it was not for her line-reading ability), who had been "screwing their heads off" on the property of the mysterious "Ethel." And look! It's Ethel now, with her son Junior!

Odious Comic Relief characters stretch back long into the history of horror, sci-fi and horror/sci-fi, at least as far as the early 1930s, and some of those figures have been truly insipid - especially in the '40s, where the very worst perpetrators of all time reside. Even in this series, we've had sterling examples like Shelly the Prick of Part 3 and "Deadfuck" Ted of The Final Chapter. But you'd have to look long and hard to find comic relief figures so gruelingly unpleasant as to make your skin crawl right off of your body as Ethel (Carol Locatell) and Junior (Ron Sloan). They are Foul-Mouthed Hillbillies, one of the few character clichés that the Friday the 13th series hadn't already strip-mined by now, and they are unspeakably evil.

While this goes on we meet a few more of the Center's inhabitants: Joey (Dominick Brascia), a stereotypical fat slob with chocolate all over his face, tries to put the moves on Robin (Juliette Cummins) and Violet (Tiffany Helm, sporting an amazing two-tone dye job in her crimped hair and drapey post-Madonna clothes; the whole effect screams !!1985!! as thoroughly as if they'd had that date stamped in the bottom right corner of the whole film), who rebuff him; undaunted, Joey tries to be friendly with Vic Faden (Mark Venturini), an inexplicable 1950's greaser chopping wood. Vic doesn't take well to this overture, and he decapitates Joey with an axe, in an unexpected, brutal and bloody moment that is absolutely the only death in this film that makes any kind of impression at all. Anyway, we have later indications that this was meant to be a sort of red herring murder, to make us suspect Vic later on; we do not. Oh my, we do not.

Two men arrive to take the body away, Paramedic Roy (Dick Wieand) and Paramedic McNo-name (Caskey Swaim). When Roy sees the body, he flips out, in a drawn-out series of shots that can only be Meaningful. File that away. The residents of the Center are mostly just assholes about it, particularly Jake (Jerry Pavlon) who tries to play a practical joke on Tommy, and gets severely beaten for his troubles.

There's an endless scene where Ethel prepares stew for herself and Junior, splashing some of that classic Foul-Mouthed Hillbilly humor all over the screen. About three hours later, she hires Drifter O'Nameless (Sonny Shields) to muck out her chicken coop.

That night, for no fucking reason, two local hoodlums with car trouble are killed, one by having his head suddenly replaced with a ridiculously fake looking prosthetic that has a road flare shoved into it. But they don't die before gracing us with one of the finest exchanges in the series as it stands:
Hoodlum Pete (Corey Parker): "I've got to take a crap."
Hoodlum Vinnie (Anthony Barille): "Crap my ass!"
And there's more killing to come! Billy (Bob De Simone), the orderly who dropped Tommy off at the Center, swings by a diner to pick up his waitress girlfriend Lana (Rebecca Wood), engaging in banter that I cannot bring myself to repeat, although the morbidly curious can find it in the IMDb "Quotes" section. She heads into the ladies room to change, and flashes her boobs to the mirror while shouting, "It's showtime," and this is the moment that it really hit me: there are no bras whatsoever in the Friday the 13th universe, except for one that Alice from the first film wore in one scene.

The next day, the mayor (Ric Mancini) and Sheriff Tucker discuss the possibility that this looks like the work of Jason Voorhees, which the mayor refuses categorically to believe, on the grounds that "Jason Voorhees was cremated!" Uh-huh, pull the other one. The good news is that now we know that we're in Crystal Lake, which is not where I'd have sent Tommy Jarvis to heal up, but what the hell do I know?

In regards to Part 3 and The Final Chapter, I suggested that the series had settled into a comfortable place where plot simply does not exist; A New Beginning proves me incredibly wrong. There is a truly unbelievable amount of energy put into figuring out ways to cycle warm bodies into the film for the next 50 minutes, kill them shortly after they have been introduced, and then move on to the next vignette. You'd practically need a guidemap to get through the lurching start-stop anti-momentum of this story, and I'm happy to present just such an outline, of every sequence from the notorious "Jason Voorhees was cremated!" line to the start of the Final Girl sequence.

-Tina and Eddie sneak off to have sex in the woods. The Act Itself is one of the steamier in the series, but the big number is after Eddie heads out to the river to wash up, and Debisue Voorhees rolls around and around to show off about 93% of her body, although she demurely crosses her legs to make sure that we don't see something immoral. Then her eyes get gouged out by a pair of garden shears, which we see in loving detail when Eddie returns. He gets bound to a tree and his brain is screwed out (hah!) with a leather strap that tightens no matter what direction you turn it. Yay continuity.

-Drifter O'Nameless is killed, apparently for the hell of it.

-Tommy and Pam take Reggie to his drug-dealing pimp brother, Demon (Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.), and I think I am ready for the series to return to all-white casts if this is the best they can do. Junior arrives, and Tommy beats the crap out of him, then runs away.

-Speaking of crap, the film's inexplicable concern with defecation continues as Demon has an emergency while eating Mexican food with his girlfriend Anita (Jeré Fields), runs into an outhouse, they freaking flirt while he's in the outhouse, she has her throat slit, and he is stabbed through the outhouse with a giant iron spike.

-Junior rides his bike around in circles, and Ethel screams at him, and after seven or eight hours, they are both killed, and you want to stand up and cheer and cry tears of joy.

-Pam goes a-looking for Tommy (Dr. Matt having disappeared). At the Center Jake dies abruptly. Robin meanders around topless, and climbs into a twin bed that clearly does not have a body in it, waggles her breasts around a bit, and then through the magic of editing, Jake's body is in the twin bed and she gets the requisite "knife through the back of the throat". Violet dies as she practices the Robot to Pseudo Echo. The flashing !!1985!! returns.

When Pam returns, she and Reggie find the bodies, and a tall man dressed in workclothes and a hockey mask - but not that mask. This one has powder blue trimmings instead of red ones. They run, and in the woods, they find Matt, Grandpa and Paramedic McNoname. The mock-Jason stomps after them - the first time that the series has the unrealistically slow killer that plagued the genre, and is particularly annoying when Pam slips in the mud and takes about ten minutes to stand up again. Primarily for that reason, this Final Girl sequence sucks on toast.

Would you believe that it was Tommy Jarvis all along? No, of course not, because that would be fucking stupid. Instead, Tommy shows up, the Final Three kill mock-Jason, and he is unmasked to be...

I mean, here's the thing: it can only be Paramedic Roy, the Mayor or Sheriff Tucker at this point, and we had all of those meaningful looks at Roy before, so yeah, it's him, because apparently Joey (the fat kid who got decapitated) was his long-lost son. The stupid burns us, my precious.

In the final scene, Tommy finds Jason's real mask (it's even got the axe dent from Part 3!) in his hospital room, and then he knifes Pam in the gut. PSYCH! It's another dream sequence (he's been hallucinating all through the film). Then Pam comes again, and Tommy is gone, by which I mean "hiding behind her with a knife and hockey mask." The end.

Jesus.

This is not a fun stupid movie. This is a stupid movie that makes me want to claw my skin off. Why would Roy pretend to be Jason Voorhees? Doesn't matter. Why would he kill eighteen people to avenge his son, including such spear-carriers as the drifter or Pete and Vinnie? Doesn't matter.

But my God, there's only so much "doesn't matter" you can take in a single film, and there's something about the way that extras keep revolving into the film just to be cut down that's infinitely more frustrating than just watching the platter of teenagers get picked off in the earlier films.

In all other ways, though, this is the most thoroughly derivative film in the series yet. Hardly any death or "scare" scene isn't a complete rip-off of another Friday the 13th film. I genuinely don't know if that's supposed to be because this is deliberately in-jokey, or because the writers and Danny Steinmann are beneath contempt, but you know what? That doesn't matter either. I'm done watching the consensus pick for worst in the series, and I never have to see it again. Even the idea of Jason taking Manhattan sounds like a pleasure right now.

Body Count: As I mentioned before, a jaw-dropping 22; 19 in reality + 3 in dream sequences, perpetrated by four different individuals.

The F13 Dating Controversy: Dialogue makes clear what was fairly easy to assume: in 1984, Tommy Jarvis was 12 years old. There is an obvious desire to make him as young as possible in A New Beginning, leading some desperate commenters to give his age here at a laughable 15 years; it's ludicrous to argue that he's not at least 17, and I'm much more comfortable with 18. So let's go ahead and say that this oh-so-1985 film takes place in the summer of 1990.

Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

2 comments:

GeoX said...

I'm loving these reviews. Even though they're old, I'M just now reading them, okay? But can I note that Godwin's Law is like the Law of Gravity, not a criminal law. It is descriptive, not proscriptive. Ergo, you fulfilled rather than broke it.

Villain612 said...

The two hillbillies are surely annoying in this film. But am I the only one to notice that they pretty much resemble every goddamn character Rob Zombie has ever written?