18 June 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: JASON VERSUS CARRIE

By custom, this is where I put a nimble little parable about the historical development of the Friday the 13th film series, explaining where the film of the day fit into the series and the greater whole of the 1980s slasher film. I don't know how to do that here. Because by Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood, I feel that I've run out of bullshit power. You know why they made this film? Because the title was still a licence to print money. Even though Jason Lives was the first film in the series with a box office take south of $20 million, it still managed to net over six times its production cost. So they made a goddamn sequel. And then, 19 years later, I decided to review the goddamn thing.

Next, by custom, this is where I put the scary-long plot synopsis of the movie covering the plot beat-by-beat until I hit the point where I can't think about it any more and write up some banal conclusions. I suppose I should explain why I do that, given that nothing else anywhere on this blog comes even close to this format. See, the Friday the 13th movies are pretty much indistinguishable. Sure, Part 3 and A New Beginning are stupid on a level not dreamt of by the occasionally-successful Part 2, but if I tried to fit these into my normal pattern, there would be a rather dismaying sameness to all of the posts: "this film is made without technical distinction, but without being particularly inept in any way. Meanwhile, teenagers whose names we didn't quite pick up die violently, although most of the gore ends up off camera, due to the MPAA. The dialogue and acting are uniformly terrible. The plot machinations are contrived. The last ten minutes offer some tiny level of suspense and enjoyment that works on the level that the filmmakers intended." Not much fun for you, and more importantly, not any fun at all for me.

So I turn to a microanalysis of the films' plots, and there we discover that they are not so similar at all. Like Kabuki theatre, Minimalist music or the films of Ozu Yasujiro, the Friday the 13th series gains meaning by the almost-imperceptible changes made to a rigid formula. Much as we can discover a universe of meaning in the tiny shifts between Late Spring and An Autumn Afternoon, so too can we judge the function of Jason Lives by considering the ways that it is not The Final Chapter.

Dear God, please strike me down now.

Anyway, after the eyeball-scraping tedium of the last film, I was really prepared to just push through this one real fast, just to get it done, maybe actually bring it in under 1000 words this time. But fuck me if The New Blood didn't turn out to be kind of an okay film, certainly the best of the whole damn series since Part 2. It's not well-acted; it doesn't make sense at all; it has miserly gore effects; and the writing is just as flat as ever. The good news is that it's stripped-down, with only one instance of the obviously-inflated body count syndrome of the last three films. This is a "pure" slasher, if you will, with virtually all of the tension coming from the simple fact of a bunch of teenagers in a cabin having sex and getting killed. Plus, the telekinetic teenage girl.

Yes. This is, famously (for a specific definition of "famous") the one where Jason fights a knock-off of Carrie. If that sounds silly, that's probably because it is. But it's such a nice change of pace, and by this seventh entry in the series, being different just for the sake of it really is justification enough.

Alright then: after a respectably well-done recap narrated by an uncredited Walt Gorney, AKA Crazy Ralph of Friday the 13th (these are the first and second signs that we are back to our roots here), we open on Friday, October 13 (ooh...portentous!), where little Tina Shepard (Jennifer Banko) cowers in fear as she listens to her father beating her mother. That's just what this series needed to class it up.

Actually, that's not where we open. We open on a really bad composite shot of Jason Voorhees (played for the moment by a foam dummy) drifting right underneath the Shepard summer home, looking for all the world like the water has been drained from Crystal Lake, as it's being called again, and Jason is just plopped right there on the lake-bed down from the house.

Little Tina runs down the dock right outside the back door and paddles out a bit on a boat, when her Bad Dad (John Otrin) runs after, suddenly grief-stricken and remorseful (I for one got the distinct vibe that his beatings did not run exclusively towards the matrimonial, if you get what I mean, but the film does not insist on that reading). Little Tina gets pissy, and what appears to be a torpedo launches from her rowboat, and the dock where Bad Dad is standing collapses into the water, falling on top of him and killing him, and Little Tina looks horrified-

-and then, just like they did in A New Beginning, we jump cut to Teenager Tina (Lar Park-Lincoln) waking up and looking very scared and guilty. It's years later - my Lord, I'm glad they went back to that well, it's so very full of dramatic potential - and Tina is traveling with her mother (Susan Blu) back to that cabin for the first time since That Horrible Night, to meet Tina's psychiatrist, Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser). Dr. Crews seems to think that the only way Tina will ever overcome her terrible PTSD from (as she sees it) killing her Bad Dad, is if she returns to the scene of the accident, in what is a remarkably unclichéd bit of movie psychoanalysis that will doubtless pay dividends that cannot be even slightly fathomed at this stage of the plot's development.

The cabin next door to the ol' Shepard place is full of - brace yourself - teenagers. The only one we need to consider right now is Nick (Kevin Blair), who is a sensitive hunk sort of person, and who tries to help Tina with her luggage after it spills out all over the ground, ending in a bit of "comic" business related to Miss Shepard's unmentionables. I highlight this because, thanks be to whatever dark god looks over the slasher movie, this is the only comic relief in the film. After the nightmarishly jokey Jason Lives, I can't begin to express how glad that makes me.

The next scene proves two things that you already knew: Tina is a psychokinetic and Dr. Crews is trying to bend her power to his own wicked ends. Unfortunately, she will not realize this latter fact for a solid 50 minutes, and it will prove to be excruciating to wait. In the meantime, she decides to use her powers to try and raise her father from the lake-bed, and...waitaminnit. So we're to belief that in all those years, the Crystal Lake police could never be arsed to recover John Shepard's body from 20 feet of water? Okay. Anyway, it should come as no surprise at all that she a) revives a body; b) it isn't her father's; c) it prominently features a baleful eye poking out of a hocky mask.

Out from the water pops none other than Our Man Jason, and I'd like to toss another couple of bloviations into my early comments about how the films aren't as mindlessly similar as all that. You see, in the five films at this point which featured an adult Jason Voorhees, there had not been any actor to play the character twice, and believe it or not, for a voiceless psycho killer, they each brought something different to their performance. Mostly, they brought unspeakable suckage. The one shining exception to that is Steve Daskawisz, the uncredited stuntman who played Jason all the way back in Part 2 (at the time, I gave mad props to Warrington Gillette, the credited actor who, as it turns out, only plays Jason in the brief climactic unmasked scene. Credit is now restored to where it is due). Indeed, the one truly great moment in the whole damn series, Ginny's confrontation with Jason at the shrine to Pamela Voorhees, is great almost solely because of the physical performance of Jason it contains.

In The New Blood, the series finally got another actor who could do something worth doing: stuntman Kane Hodder. His performance of Jason is genuinely menacing in a way that the character never had been to this point, and it's completely unsurprising that Hodder would turn out to be the first actor called back to the role. But that's a story for next time.

The eagle-eyed will also note a brief glimpse of the makeup effects that will turn out to be pretty damn important to the relative esteem in which I hold this film, and I'll get to that in a little bit.

Tina flips out and tries to convince her mother and Dr. Crews of the fell horror she has just witnessed. She fails in this attempt. Meanwhile, Jason stomps out into the woods, and kills the first people he comes across: Michael (William Butler) and Jane (Staci Greason), who have fallen into a bit of car trouble on their way to Michael's "surprise" birthday party, to be held at that very same cabin next door to the ol' Shepard place. The deaths kind of suck, but they are acted with great menace by Hodder.

Aaaaaannnnnnddddd....now it's time to Meet the Meat, and such a dreadful batch of Meat they are this time around. Perhaps the one horrible side-effect of having fewer extraneous body-count padding is that by this time there was no going back on the hypnotically inflated body counts in the series, and so instead of a dozen characters added in by dribs and drabs and quickly slaughtered, here we get a dozen characters in one huge block and we're supposed to fucking remember them all. Okay, so here's the list of potential victims: Tina and her mother and Dr. Crews and Nick we know, and at the profoundly dull-looking party that Nick drags Tina to (over Crews's objections), we get to meet Russell (Larry Cox), the cipher whose uncle owns the cabin; Sanda (Heidi Kozak) who is a shrewish gold-digger dating Russell to be near his wealth; Eddie (Jeff Bennett) who wants to write sci-fi and makes sure everybody he ever meets learns that fact at length; pretty bitch Robin (Elizabeth Kaitan) and glasses-wearing, i.e. "ugly" bitch Maddy (Diana Barrows), who are in competition for requisite pothead David (Jon Renfield); and Kate (Diane Almeida) and Ben (Craig Thomas), whose personalities consist pretty much solely of being the Token Black Couple. Towering above all of these is Melissa (Susan Jennifer Sullivan), who is that most hoary and intractable of bad horror stereotypes, the Horny Rich Cunt. As Nick confesses to Tina, he hates these people. You will hate them too. Passionately.

Before the plot really gets going, Jason kills the only two figures who are really just there to feed our bloodlust: Dan (Michael Schroeder) and Judy (Debora Kessler), the hapless campers who just want to peacefully fuck in the woods. Dan gets a de rigeur "fist through the chest" death (I think this is the third one?), but the filmmakers saved something really special for Judy, one of the most notorious of all Friday the 13th deaths: she crawls whimpering into a sleeping bag, whereupon Jason picks her up, swings her into a tree, drops her, and then kicks her. And they call these films misogynist! Although to be fair, this is just about Hodder's finest moment, especially given that he ad-libbed the kick.

Meanwhile, if you guessed that Dan had a goddamn machete, you don't win fuck-all, because this is a Friday the 13th movie, so of course there's a fucking machete. I hate all these fucking machetes.

Now, there's another side effect to cutting out the rat-tat-tat random death every six minutes pattern of the last two films, and that is the return of the deathly slow central "character" section. People go about and fuck, or get high, or just act like general douches, as Tina becomes increasingly freaked out about the scary masked man and Dr. Crews. There are some incredibly random POV shots from the perspectives of non-killer characters (although the music really wants you to think it's Jason, even when it clearly can't be). The cast gets whittled down bit by bit, although for the first time since the very first movie, really, it was done in such a way that it didn't bother me that nobody noticed the carnage all 'round. Jason teleports between the houses and the deep woods whenever the script needs it, and we finally end up at the Final Girl stage.

It really creeps up on us this time: for one thing, Tina has been seeing Jason for the whole film, so the whole thing is kind of a Final Girl sequence. For another, a significant number of characters are alive when she starts to psionically whup his zombie ass. But when it gets going, it's really a fine thing, from the moment that Jason is attacked by tree roots, a silly scene that is rescued, surprisingly, by Hodder's acting. Eventually everyone is dead or incapacitated, and it's just one-on-one in the ol' Shepard place, and if I may be bold? it's the best Final Girl sequence in the whole series. Most people would look at me weird and point to Part 2, and yes, that's a close second. But this is almost more of a brawler than a slasher film, and any time a slasher film ceases to remind you of a slasher film, that is a good thing.

Better yet, the entire fight features a de-masked Jason, and damn me, but they got some good make-up people for this film. The prosthetic here more than compensates for the lack of gore elsewhere, if only because you get to feeling that they kind of shot their whole budget. Jason looks like he's been at the bottom of a lake for a decade, his skin all grey where it isn't peeling off of his bones, and he shows the scars of every battle in the series thus far: the axe in the forehead, the slide down the machete, the motorboat propellers. Lots of love went into that prosthetic, boys and girls. Respect.

The very good fight ends at the lake edge, where Tina hopes to force Jason back into his none-too-effective watery grave, and it's kind of genuinely exciting as she brings her powers to bear and the water starts to roiling-

-and her zombiefied dad jumps out and grabs Jason and pulls him down.

...

You know what, movie? Fuck you too.

[A Post-Script: The New Blood was the film where composer Harry Manfredini temporarily left the series, leaving the scoring duties to Fred Mollin. I know that I haven't much mentioned the scores in these films, but that's because I haven't had to: even at the very worst depths that the stupidity of the writers, the indifference of the directors and the incompetence of the actors could reach, the score was always there holding the films back from the brink of total ruin. His absence, shall we say, is extremely difficult to ignore here.]

Body Count: A parsimonious, almost dainty 16; and one of those wasn't even committed by Jason. I'm not double-counting the deaths that Tina sees in visions. Oh yes, she has visions of Jason killing people before they actually die. Didn't I mention that? Well, she does.

The F13 Dating Controversy: Here's where things get really speculative. It's been long enough since Jason Lives that Forest Green has turned back to Crystal Lake, which suggests a few years at least. The prologue is clearly dated to Friday, October 13, of which there was one in 1995, and while this hasn't been the most consistently accurate guidepost, I'm going to screw myself up to use it here. That puts us three years past my semi-arbitrary date for Jason Lives, and the only other realistic choice, 1989, is clearly too early.

Tina is 8 or 9 in the opening - the actress was 9, let's use that. I'm content to assume that she's meant to be 16 after the flash-forward, which means, awesomely, that the main action of The New Blood takes place in 2002, a full fourteen years after the film was released.

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)

7 comments:

Rebecca said...

I may be sadly over-thinking this, especially because I'm not paying too much attention to the dates, but why can't it be 1996, 7 years after opening in 1989?

Tim said...

Because the opening has to be at least one year after Part VI, and there is no conceivable way that Part VI takes place in 1988, only four years after Part IV. Taken with everything else, the 1995-2002 frame works pretty well.

And you think you're over-thinking this?

Bryan Smith said...

hmm... but what if the opening happened in 1989 BEFORE the name was changed to Forest Green. Then The rest happened in 1996 after the temporary name change and it having been changed back?

Tim said...

Could work, I'm not sure. I haven't watched Jason Lives since the summer of 2007 when I wrote this, so I'd have to double-check, but I don't think there's any holes in your theory. Thanks!

Brian said...

You know something, I've read all of these reviews before, but I just now realized something: You take the date problem in the exact opposite way that I always did. In my mind, each new film took place in whatever year it opened, and thereby pushed the earlier films backwards, to finally reaching the point where the main bulk of the original film was only a handful of years after Jason drowned.

Yes, this comment was totally worth posting.

Not Fenimore said...

Well, it got me to reread these reviews, and remind me of the wonderful "Tim compares F13 to the works of Ozu Yasujiro" joke. So you did some good.

Tim said...

It's also kind of a great theory that I love, so there's that too. I don't know if it unerringly holds up, but you've got me wanting to check.