Friday, July 3, 2020

Fridays Without Jason: The Beginning and the ‘New Beginning’ of ‘Friday the 13th’

This year marks a big anniversary for not just one, but two beginnings in the Friday the 13th series: one much beloved and another widely despised. Both have had a lasting effect on the series, for better or for worse, as well as having a great deal in common. Both pushed the envelope for gore effects in their time, both function as classic whodunits, and the killers share similar motivations. Perhaps most similar of all, neither features the icon of the series as its killer. Still, the specter of Jason looms large and dominates the shattered psyches of the killers in both films.

I can’t remember a time that I had not heard of Friday the 13th. Its reputation as the ultimate in violence and gore turned out to be a bit exaggerated when I finally saw the film, but I loved it all the same. Tom Savini’s groundbreaking makeup effects made me want to follow in his footsteps for a time. I was especially impressed by the death of Kevin Bacon as Jack, dispatched while lying on a cot with a hunting arrow driven through his throat. Even now that I know how the magic tricks were done, I am still in awe of the effects and craftsmanship that went into making them a reality. Savini and the team set the standard for gore effects for a thousand slashers to come.

Though the film is a self-proclaimed rip-off of Halloween (1978) and works within a similar structure, its story functions in an entirely different way. We know from the start of Halloween that the killer is Michael Myers, a creature of pure evil with no motive but obsession and death. But the identity of the killer in Friday the 13th is not revealed until the third act of the film after the core killing spree has ended. This allows the film to work as a murder-mystery as well as a slasher. 

It also makes extensive use of the “red herring” device so often used in the classic whodunit. The first and most obvious of these is Crazy Ralph, memorably played by Walt Gorney. The second is one that I hadn’t realized until more recent viewings, but I believe that camp owner Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) was intended to fulfill the red herring role. The character is absent from the film for quite some time, particularly while the bulk of the murders are occurring. When we do see him in the café, he is wearing a plaid shirt similar to what we have seen the killer wear and carries a knife in a leather sheath on his belt, as we have also seen on the killer. He drives a blue jeep very much like the one driven by the killer in the early scene of the cook Annie’s (Robbi Morgan) murder. There are also no onscreen murders from the moment we see Steve in the café until the moment he encounters the killer, whom he apparently recognizes.

Also unlike Halloween, we discover that there is motivation for the murders. I know the movie is forty years old, but spoiler alert, the killer in the original film is not Jason Voorhees, but his devoted to the point of mania mother, Pamela. Her pain that counselors were off making love while her beloved son drowned has driven her to continuously sabotage Camp Crystal Lake from reopening for the past twenty-plus years. This motive also helped to solidify some of the “rules” of slashers, particularly those involving sex, drugs, and alcohol. But an interesting aspect of this film is that the rules were still being written at the time. For example, Alice (Adrienne King), who becomes the movie’s soul survivor, is seen drinking and sharing a joint during the “strip Monopoly” sequence. It is also implied that she had a previous, likely sexual, affair with Steve Christy. By the standards of subsequent slashers, not exactly qualities of the traditional final girl.

Many elements came together to make Friday the 13th a success greater than the sum of its Frankenstein-like parts, stitched together from the bones and tropes of other movies. Halloween was the spark, but Friday the 13th was the catalyst that gave us an onslaught of slashers in the early 80’s including three sequels to the film itself. By the time of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter in 1984, producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. was ready to move on to other things. His intention was to end the series once and for all. But box-office success often speaks louder than intentions and a fifth film was greenlit. 

There are few films that I have hated more upon first viewing than Friday the 13th Part V—A New Beginning. There are also few films that I have changed my mind about so drastically. Yes, there are plenty of weaknesses to the film, but I’d like to spend a little time on its strengths. Like the first film, it is filled with creative and memorable kills such as the leather strap across the face, the branch trimmer in the eyes, and the final demise of the killer on a bed of spikes. This was also the Friday film with the highest body count to date, exceeding the traditional thirteen within the first hour and topping off at more than twenty by the closing credits. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of much character development. 

Many characters are introduced only to be knocked off moments later. The residents of the Pinehurst facility, where Tommy Jarvis (John Shepherd) finds himself after being transferred from a state psychiatric institute following the events of The Final Chapter, are given a bit more time, but only a bit. The only characters that we really spend much quality time with are the assistant director of the facility Pam Roberts (Melanie Kinnaman); Reggie the Reckless (Shavar Ross), who is visiting his grandfather who works at Pinehurst; and Tommy.

With Tommy, some time is taken to explore the effects of trauma on a person. He struggles with control over his temper and aggression. He sees Jason everywhere. Tommy is also set up as the film’s most obvious red herring as A New Beginning is once again a whodunit. Like Steve Christy, Tommy is absent for much of the movie and the bulk of the film’s murders. His unchecked aggression, such as throwing a fellow Pinehurst resident to the ground, and his history with Jason make him a prime candidate for the killing spree. It is not until he confronts the killer in the barn at the end of the film that we know for sure that he is innocent of the crimes.

I would argue that a third strength of the film is its pitch-black humor. The previous films in the series have their moments – Crispin Glover’s iconic dance sequence in The Final Chapter comes to mind – but no Friday film had ever gone quite so dark with its humor before. The ambulance driver snapping his gum as he examines a dismembered corpse. Ethel’s antagonistic relationship with her son. The way kills are executed like a joke and a punchline. And let’s not forget those “damn enchiladas.”

Where the film upsets most fans is in its reveal of the killer, which turns out to be a character that seems to have little motivation for such extreme measures. According to characters in the film, Roy had not had much interaction with his son Joey practically since his birth. When he discovers him dead, it drives him completely mad, which gives him a similar motivation to Pamela Voorhees. Still, he is able to plan and begin executing his revenge by pretending to be Jason within hours all while continuing in his ambulance job during the day. Strangest of all, he never even pursues the person who killed his son! Needless to say, fans felt cheated that the killer, who appeared to be the return of Jason, turned out to be a random and rather underdeveloped character. The film’s closing scene, however, hints at an interesting idea. It implies that Roy and then, in the final moments, Tommy are possessed by the spirit of Jason. Maybe this is something of the same murderous and vengeful spirit that possessed Pamela Voorhees in the original.

In recent years, something unexpected has happened. Though still much beloved, the original Friday the 13th, long considered the best film in the franchise, has fallen a bit in esteem in favor of Part 2, The Final Chapter, and Part VI—Jason Lives. And even more unexpected, A New Beginning, the most despised film in the series for decades, has begun to experience a reappraisal. I doubt it will ever be a universal favorite like some of the other entries mentioned, but it certainly has developed a surprising cult following recently. It is always interesting to see how movies affect people in different ways at different times. The movies themselves are locked forever in an unchanging state, but we as individuals and fan bases are not.

So happy 40th birthday to Friday the 13th and happy 35th to A New Beginning. I have no doubt they will continue to thrill us, spark debates, and entertain us for decades to come. And even when he is nowhere to be found, may Jason continue to haunt us all.


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