Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Rated R

Score: 2 out of 5

Yep, with another thirteenth of the month falling on a Friday, we're back to this series... even if it should've ended with the last movie. At this point, the Friday the 13th series was well into franchise mode, the fact that they had just released a movie billed as the "Final Chapter" just eleven months prior not stopping Paramount from making every effort to milk its cash cow dry. The only question is, having brutally killed off Jason Voorhees for good in the prior film, where do you go from here?

The answer: nowhere, really. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning attempts to shake up the formula by bringing back Tommy Jarvis, the kid hero from the last film, and doing things with him that might've seemed interesting on paper. Unfortunately, all this really produces is an utterly muddled plot, paper-thin characters that I couldn't give a rat's ass about beyond their immediate appearances, and a twist at the end that felt undercooked, like a desperate attempt to find a way to work around the aforementioned question I raised. Only a high body count and some potent kills and gore effects really save this one, even if the MPAA's attempts to go all Jason on this film themselves in the editing room are incredibly noticeable. If not for the fact that it forms the mid-point of the Tommy Jarvis saga, this would otherwise be a wholly unessential entry in the series.

Speaking of Tommy, he's once more among the main characters. The former precocious, horror-loving kid has grown up into a troubled teen who gets into fights and has spent time in and out of psychiatric care, spending his nights having nightmares about Jason. We start the film with him arriving at the Pinehurst Halfway House, a residential facility filled with an assortment of other losers and weirdos, all of whom are basically cannon fodder; the only people you need to care about are Pam, the camp director, and Reggie, the young grandson of the camp cook who's visiting for the weekend. Things go wrong immediately when Victor, a hot-tempered slab of beefcake, takes an ax and hacks up the goofy fat kid Joey, which gets him sent off to jail. Unfortunately, this will hardly be the only death to occur at Pinehurst, because this is a Friday the 13th movie and you know that there's a hockey fan in the woods.

A New Beginning, unlike the last three sequels, tries to follow the lead of the original film and build a whodunit mystery around the killer, keeping him offscreen and hidden in the shadows for most of the movie as he does his dirty work. When he does appear on screen, the different design of his hockey mask indicates to an eagle-eyed viewer that this may not be the real Jason we're dealing with. Other slashers from both the '80s and '90s, such as Sleepaway Camp and Scream, managed to make this work, but in all honesty, the Friday the 13th series is exceptionally ill-suited to this type of story. It's not just as slasher movie, but a specific subgenre of such, the "icon slasher" built around a unique, charismatic, immediately noticeable killer like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Leatherface, or Chucky. Jason Voorhees isn't like Ghostface or the Jigsaw killer, an identity that various people can adopt; he's a backwoods maniac who drowned at summer camp and has a load of mommy issues. By this point, Jason was already one of the most famous horror movie monsters in the world. If you're seeing a Friday movie that's not the original, then you automatically expect Jason the moment you see a dude in a hockey mask and overalls on screen. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too, with subplots about Tommy possibly going crazy as a result of what had happened to him, suspicion cast on various characters (Tommy, Vic, the camp's owner Matthew, the paramedic Roy), and many other attempts to insinuate that it's not actually Jason under the mask, but at the same time, it shows us a killer who is strongly implied, and stated on more than one occasion, to be Jason. In the end, the killer reveal feels like a total cop-out, turning out to be somebody who had barely any screen time before then. I would've liked it more if they'd either brought Jason back from the dead straight-up (which they did with the next film, realizing their mistake here), or more fully committed to the idea of Tommy having been driven murderously insane by surviving Jason's killing spree in the last film (and thus setting him up as a new killer). It was a mess of plot threads that ultimately amounted to a wet fart.

The kills are really this film's salvation, and fortunately, there are a lot of them. The actors may uniformly range from mediocre to dreadful (at this point, I expect no less from this franchise), but there are a lot of ways for their characters to die here. While the film almost always cuts away from the actual deed, likely to keep from getting the dreaded X rating, it does not hesitate to show the aftermath of the eye gougings, axes to the head, dismemberments, impalements, and other ways in which "Jason" inflicts death on unsuspecting youths. There are quite a few memorable ones here, most notably the use of a belt and a tree to crush a man's head, with just the cracking sound effects and the sight of the killer twisting and tightening his end of the belt being enough even if we barely see the damage. The nostalgic '80s sleaze is in full effect, too, from the abundant supply of the cheapest special effect (I'm talkin' 'bout T&A) to the punk chick Violet with the funky hair to the fact that multiple female characters are killed off while naked or right after flashing their breasts. Every cliche of '80s slashers is represented here, for better and for worse, and for some of us, that's the whole point of these movies. I couldn't help but smile as I watched this movie seemingly go out of its way to fulfill them all.

The Bottom Line

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is precisely the sort of movie that people who don't like '80s slasher movies often dismiss the entire genre as: lurid, violent, repetitive, lacking in plot, riddled with substandard production values, and overall feeling like it was made on the cheap as a quick cash-in. If that's your speed, then this film has plenty of camp value, but even on that level, there are better cheesy slashers out there.

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