10 June 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: GROWN-UPS THINK IT'S FUNNY TO BE SCARED

Fanboys being fanboys, it can surely come as no surprise that the final shot of Friday the 13th: A New Beginning sent the Jason faithful into apoplectic fits of agony, with its implication that the unstoppable psycho from that point forward might not have the last name "Voorhees." Which is a stupid thing to worry about, but it is the sort of stupidity that I'm fairly sympathetic towards.

Anyway, the response that film received in 1985 was apparently quite visceral, I suppose much in the way of e.g. The Phantom Menace in 1999. Unlike George Lucas, the suits at Paramount did not respond to that reaction by informing us that we were uncultured jackasses who didn't deserve his movies; but like Attack of the Clones, the film they released still pretty much blew.

Honestly, after the mind-rape of A New Beginning, all that Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (you can just sense the desperation in the title) had to do was show up. It couldn't help but be better; I was going to list something amusingly unlikely that could have made the film worse, but the more I think about it the more I truly do not believe that such a thing exists. Still, there's showing up and there's actually putting a little bit of effort into it, and Jason Lives is probably best described as the first merely awful Friday the 13th film, not reaching the gonzo depths of A New Beginning or Part 3, but only sucking in normal, easily understood ways.

Those easily understood ways, for the record, are almost all related to the fact that Jason Lives is the... You see, Jason Lives is meant to be... For this sixth film in the series, the changed direction... I can't say it.

JasonLivesissupposedtobefunny.

For a reason that time has doubtlessly forgotten, someone decided at some point that this would be a kinder, gentler, more user-friendly Friday the 13th, and that manifests itself in a constant lightly comic tone that couldn't possibly be more disgusting to contemplate. Not to mention that it's almost as degorified as the prim Part 2, but without that film's surprisingly high-quality visual language. It's kind of a nice film, and nice exploitation films are nobody's idea of a good time.

What really interests me about this film is that it is the first time that a Friday the 13th chapter has a single writer-director, Mr. Tom McLoughlin of no other project anybody wants to spend much time thinking about. At the risk of sounding like a raving madperson, I almost want to suppose that it's this detail that answers the question of why Jason Lives is so extremely strange in the context of its series: it is the work of an "auteur." And you will notice that I'm not so comfortable about this theory that I could avoid putting "auteur" in scare quotes.

But facts are what they are, and the fact is that Jason Lives is by far the most left-field film in the series so far. Somebody has to be credited for that, McLoughlin is as good a choice as any, and this means that he is perhaps individually responsible for a great sea change of late-80s horror. But enough of this theoretical frim-fram, let us on to the movie.

So Jason is dead, his body cremated, and little Tommy Jarvis has gone insane, right? Right. Then how is it that Tommy (now played by Thom Matthews, whose performance is an early augur of how shriekingly bad the acting will be in this film: every actor's every emotion is conveyed by opening their eyes really wide and staring. I suppose another thing to blame McLoughlin for) arrives in the graveyard where Jason has been interred beneath a decaying tombstone, hell-bent on digging the killer up and killing him again (the therapy, she is not working too well)? There's no good answer, but there's an easy one: Jason Lives is not a sequel to A New Beginning. They represent alternate continuities, which I think has been done before, but I can't remember where.

In fact, I have a somewhat more specific theory: in the fifth film, we see Tommy handed off from the Unger Institute to the Pinehurst Center. In this film, Tommy is referred to as coming from "the Institute." So I suppose that A New Beginning is the story of what happens if Tommy is sent out among young people before he is ready, and Jason Lives is the story of what happens if he is fully cured. Oh, and somewhere around that, Jason wasn't cremated.

For what it's worth, in this film we are given the implication that Jason really did die when he drowned in 1957, which offers its own set of continuity snafus, but this can be easily wiped away: the "fact" of his 1957 death is meant to explain how to "kill" him here, but he most clearly does not die. So I'm happy to say that he only mostly drowned, as Part 2 makes pretty clear.

That I put so much energy into this is a sign either that I am of pathetic mind, or that I was bored watching the movie and had nothing else to think about.

Yes, so in the longest pre-credits sequence in the series since Part 2, Tommy and his friend Allen (Ron Palillo) sneak into the cemetery, dig up a very maggoty Jason, and Tommy goes a bit apeshit, and jabs the corpse deep in the chest with a wrought-iron fence post. He makes ready to get gasoline to burn the body, when a thunderstorm kicks up, lightning hits the fence post, and Jason is reanimated. He kills Allen in the film's only worthwhile gore effect, and Tommy is only barely able to escape, after a shockingly well-executed moment where the boy tries to light damp matches to set the approaching killer on fire. After all this, Jason grabs the hockey mask that Tommy brought along for some badly-expressed reason. He straps it on. In just about the last moment of the film that is at all interesting, the camera jumps to a shot of his perfectly pristine eye, surrounded by corroded flesh, staring angrily out of the mask's eye hole.

I suppose there are stupider ways to bring back Jason Voorhees, but the bottom level of "stupid" in these films is quite hard to fathom. Anyway, it gets the job done, and that's that. What it does mean though, is that we finally have a plausible excuse for Jason's indestructibility: he is a zombie now. I shouldn't have said "plausible."

Tommy runs to the police (yes! There is a strong police presence in this film!) to explain what happens, but Sheriff Garris (David Kagen) pooh-poohs him and tosses him in the drunk tank after giving us the eloquently-rendered exposition that Crystal Lake has changed its name to Forest Green out of shame for the memory of Jason. Sure, fine, whatever. We also meet the foul-tempered deputy Rick Cologne (Vincent Guastaferro)

As this happens, we find two young people, Darren (sort-of real actor Tony Goldwyn) and Lizabeth (Nancy "Mrs. Tom" McLoughlin) puttering through the woods in a VW on their way to Camp Forest Green (goddamnit) when they are stopped by a scary masked psycho in the woods. Lizabeth gets the film's first meta-cute gag, "I've seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly," and after some stage business the two are killed with the Fencepost of Electric Life.

The next morning, Tommy wakes to find some young people looking for Darren and Lizabeth: Sissy (Reneé Jones), Paula (Kerry Noonan), Cort (Tom Fridley) and Megan (Jennifer Cooke), who are quite instantly recognizable as meat, meat, meat, and...aha! For the twin details that Megan is Sheriff Garris's daughter, and that she is hot after Tommy, proves instantly that she is the Final Girl, except not. Kind of.

As it will turn out, Jason Lives goes through the same pattern of "introduce a character and kill them within three minutes" that marked so many deaths in A New Beginning, but it's not quite as obnoxious here. For one, there's at least a thin reason for the killings to happen - Jason is trying to defend his home turf - and a thin reason for the victims to be where they are - nobody expected Jason's reanimated corpse to show up.

That said, I can't imagine any successful defence on dramatic grounds for the paintball scene, with its notoriously toothless triple decapitation (a fairly clear victim of the MPAA, not the filmmakers), nor the murder of the newly engaged couple. These are body count padding, pure and simple. Except not.

Because they are funny. The scene where Jason grabs a paintballer's arm and flings the man against a tree, ending up with just the arm and that arm's machete (godDAMNit), and the subsequent moment that the dead man splatters blood all over a smiley face carved for no good reason into a tree, is funny. Ostensibly.

What it really is, is fucking annoying. This film lacks the hideously withering comic relief of the previous entries, but that blissful release comes with a high cost, which is that we are instead confronted with a whole lot of little jokes; none so blistering as Ethel and Junior, or Harold and Edna, to be sure, but it's like death by a thousand cuts instead of having your intestines pulled out through your navel.

This is the film of Crazy Martin (Bob Larkin), the graveyard caretaker, leering at the camera and saying, "Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment."

This is the film in which the place names "Cunningham" and "Carpenter" and "Karloff" are dropped, and if it wasn't bad enough to equate Sean Cunningham and John Carpenter, you could at least leave the 1930s actor out of it.

This is the film in which these things and their infinite kin replace the gore, and in which the only sex scene is between two fully clothed individuals whose genitals are nowhere near each other.

The worst thing is that this could have been a pretty decent film, under the Friday the 13th definition of "decent," with all of its fair and substantive changes: there is a whole busload of campers, for a start, and they range from giving the film its only successful comic relief, in the form of the deadpan little boys Tyen and Billy (Tommy and Justin Nowell), and the closest it comes to genuine suspense, in the form of Nancy (Courtney Vickery), the only person who keeps seeing Jason creeping around camp. I don't think anything is more frustrating about the entire film than the treatment of the kids: it's obvious from moment one that none of them will die, and given the theme of child-in-a-killer's-body that has been built up in fits and starts throughout the series, they could have even played Jason against the kids. But they didn't. Because they suck.

Then there's the Final Girl sequence that isn't, insofar as there are many people very much alive throughout, and Tommy and Megan share Final Girl duties. It's not good, as played - very much a lot of pointless running and lack of clarity where the killer is relative to the action. And the interaction between Tommy and Jason is frankly embarrassing. And the end is a typical cop-out that you can see coming from about an hour away. But it could have been good, in a more beautiful world.

The strange thing is, given all of these changes, what's left is awfully familiar. Indeed, despite everything this feels much more derivative than A New Beginning. Possibly because unlike that film, it doesn't feel in every moment like a time capsule from 1985, but instead like a low-grade "campers in peril" slasher film, only with a lighter and more playful tone than such films were then accustomed to. The series had been strip-mined for ideas by the middle of Part 3, but the various filmmaking teams seemed content to coast on that. Jason Lives is the first attempt to do something really startlingly different, and it doesn't take, at all. Every moment seems familiar, even the ones that have no precedent.

Remember when I mentioned a sea change earlier? This is what I meant: the Friday the 13th series was the big dog of slashers. Other films looked toward the adventures of Jason for all of their cues, and this film made two big changes to the series' formula: it was very safe and funny, and it incorporated the paranormal element that A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced to the genre two years earlier. Suddenly, every slasher was a ghost story, and every slasher was defanged.

I mean, seriously: one gore shot, no boobs, and a hugely fake, fully clothed sex scene. This series was born as exploitation, goddammit, and both The Final Chapter and A New Beginning exploited the hell out of everything. This is so weary and polite that it's practically comatose. It's not stupid, like the three preceding entries were, and I'm grateful for it. But the price we pay for that is stultifying boredom.

Be it known: I have at this point officially forgotten why I started this project.

Body Count: A surprisingly demure 18 - the first time that the count drops between films.

The F13 Dating Controversy: I've already mentioned my notion that Jason Lives and A New Beginning are not in the same continuity, so I choose to ignore the earlier film. That said: Jason's grave has been obviously been around for plenty of years, and it appears that Tommy is at least a little bit older than Meghan, who is surely 17 or 18; moreover, the only way that large parts of the plot make sense at all is if he is a legal adult. 20, maybe 19, then: but Thom Matthews was 27 during shooting and he looks every moment of that. So let's go with the higher figure, placing this 1986 film (replete with a child in He-Man pajamas) in 1992.

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:

Rebecca said...

Sequel with alternate continuity... like the God Bomb?

Peakius Baragonius said...

I recently saw this via the Joe Bob Briggs version on Youtube with some of the violent stuff cut out, and I must say this: I was entertained rather than bored. I tend to prefer "nicer" films, or at least ones with a conscience that most good horror films seemed to have. Yes, all the broad meta-humor fell completely flat, but some of the subtler stuff was interesting, such as the paintball guy with the machete essentially summing up Jason's views towards teenage women. Also, I liked Megan and her relationship with Tommy, which was far more playful than I'd expected from the genre, and overall the more human feel to the story helped me enjoy it more.

Perhaps watching all the movies in a row kind of drove you crazy, and I sympathize. Then again, the only film of the series I'd seen all the way through before this was *Jason X*, and after the raw suck of that film anything would seem like a masterpiece in comparison.