Freakiest Friday – Appreciating Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

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When Paramount dropped the machete on Jason Voorhees in 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the act was an unwitting bellwether for the American slasher film as a whole. Not only had Crystal Lake’s favorite son begun to risk overexposure, but so too had the genre, as filmmakers and studios everywhere looked to profit from the splatter.  In only four short years, this particular brand of horror film evolved from fringe drive-in successor to a cottage industry featuring Jason as its poster boy.  In retrospect, Paramount’s decision to slay its golden goose was ballsy—and yet, their next move was even ballsier. 

It wasn’t so much their decision to soldier on with the franchise in spite of the supposed Final Chapter (after the franchise proved to still be profitable, continuing only made good business sense) that took guts, nor was it the decision to do so without its lead character.  Instead, it was the studio’s decision to hand over the reins to low-budget provocateur Danny Steinmann, a director who had cut his teeth in the porn industry.  While he had since graduated to proper features like The Unseen and Savage Streets, his ascent to the director’s chair for the genre’s most profitable franchise must have felt like a curious choice (and one made all the more so by Steinmann’s enigmatic departure from the profession soon afterwards). 

With seemingly nowhere left to go thanks to the decisive previous entry (never a problem for this franchise, obviously), Steinmann molded Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning into the most insular affair imaginable.  Perhaps sensing that the stock, good-old-fashioned American psychosexual slasher was in its death throes (though the genre did receive a supernatural boost from Elm Street a year earlier and was never quite the same again), Steinmann wasn’t content to deliver a creaky, half-hearted death rattle, opting instead to send out a psychotic howl into the ether that proudly channeled every genre cliché imaginable.  For Steinmann, shying away from the genre’s infamy never seemed like an option, so it follows that his Friday the 13th entry feels like an effort to echo and amplify it. Everything critics lobbed at slasher movies was true to some extent—the gratuitous violence and nudity, particularly—so why not embrace it and craft the most unhinged and offensive Friday the 13thsequel imaginable? 

Initially, Part V looks the part of a studious follow-up:  beginning ostensibly where the last chapter left off, Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman in a “special appearance”) visits Jason’s grave, only to be beaten there by a couple of dumb kids who can’t resist sneaking a peek at the dead killer. Predictably, he rises from the grave, dispatches the two interlopers, and then sets his sights on Tommy, who wakes up just as he’s about to be stabbed to death, thus revealing the entire episode to be a nightmare.  Now a few years older, Tommy (John Shepherd) wakes up in the back of a mental institute’s van, where one of his caretakers flips through a porno mag in the front seat. 

This is the real entry point to the world of A New Beginning, a cock-eyed land populated by maniacs, vagrants, rednecks, coke fiends, wannabe greasers, and the bunch of looneys at Pinehurst Halfway House, where Jarvis takes up residence. Within a day’s stay at the place, he witnesses a fellow tenant hack a poor kid to pieces with an axe, which obviously does wonders for his still-fractured psyche. While that sort of hack-and-slash feels like standard procedure for this franchise, there’s something exceedingly disquieting and mean-spirited about this outburst, perhaps because it actually is quite unexpected, occurring in broad daylight and making a victim of Joey (Dominick Brascia), an annoying but kind-hearted dope with chocolate smeared on his cherubic face. 

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Even weirder and meaner is the aftermath: upon arriving on the scene, a paramedic surveys the carnage and chastises the horrified onlookers for being a bunch of pussies and goads ambulance driver Roy into getting his hands dirty. The camera lingers on the latter, first framing his legs in the foreground and then focusing on his intent gaze, seemingly giving up the ghost right off of the bat. When more murders begin to occur, there’s little doubt who the perpetrator is, so little so that you wonder if Steinmann and company were even all that interested in crafting a whodunit. Few other suspects are developed outside of Tommy himself, the quiet cauldron of rage simmering amidst all the chaos (what does it say about the film if Shepard’s wild-eyed Tommy isn’t nearly the craziest one, though?). When a suspicious vagabond strolls into the film, it seems as if he might at least act as a red herring, but he’s quickly cast aside a few scenes later, just another mangled corpse for the ever-growing pile.

Such a disdain for actual storytelling drives A New Beginning: its lead character only speaks a handful of lines and undergoes a semi-coherent journey through madness throughout the film, but it’s hardly at the forefront (Tommy’s trials here were even deemed expendable by the next sequel).  In its place is Steinmann’s insistence on delivering exactly what’s expected of a film like this. Appropriately arriving right in the middle of the 80s, A New Beginning is consumed by excess in terms of its body count, racking up a then-franchise high 21 kills, thus outpacing its predecessor by a staggering seven death scenes—this is a turbocharged Friday the 13th preoccupied with relentlessly savage gore gags and ultra-gratuitous violence.

Counting those who only show up in dream sequences only to die, the film rolls out several characters with little-to-no-bearing on the plot at all—they simply show up to be slaughtered. Even the four preceding films largely avoided this, but Steinmann embraces every opportunity to hack, gut, and skull-crush cast members to death. Compounding the nastiness is just how likable, charismatic, or pitiful most of the cast is: Melanie Kinnaman is a sweetheart as one of Pinehurst’s caretakers, while Miguel Nunez’s leather-clad Demon briefly steals the show before he’s snuffed out in an outhouse (a moment that really summarizes just how skeezy A New Beginning can be). Even a kid with a speech impediment (Jerry Pavolon) isn’t spared from the carnage, nor is the kindly grandfather (Vernon Washington) whose corpse flies through a window, his eyes plucked out with little fanfare.

But for all its gore, the film is genuinely soaked in a bizarre, almost otherworldly backwoods atmosphere. Where the previous films at least provided glimpses of civilization, A New Beginning burrows into the most rural, isolated areas surrounding Crystal Lake. Much of its proceedings are shrouded by thickets, and the film’s sparse, inward changes in locales often trade in one backwater haunt for another: the already remote halfway house yields to a nearby farm, a clearing in the woods, or even a trailer park that’s situated in a dense grove. 

By filling out such surroundings with an assortment of hayseeds and yokels (Carol Locatell’s deranged Ethel is a franchise highlight), the film takes on a Hicksploitation vibe, and, with every frame feeling as though it’s been dipped in grime, grease, and grit, Friday V sometimes feels less like an 80s slasher and more like a 70s regional drive-in flick. If S.F. Brownrigg had ever taken a shot at directing a Friday the 13th, it probably would have felt a lot like this: scummy, sleazy, outlandish, and just downright weird

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Given the lack of Jason and its aimless plot, it’s tempting to regard A New Beginning as a generic franchise entry, one that feels less like a Friday the 13th film and more like the cookie cutter slashers inspired by the series. But with so much unhinged flavor and a psychotic sense of derring-do flitting about its edges, the film is too singular and deranged to dismiss, its scuzziness too palpable to just cast aside as haphazardly prepared pulp.  If anything, the film is purposely overcooked to a nightmarish broil and thus shares kinship with demented underground 80s fits of psychosleaze like Nightmares in a Damaged Brain or Butcher Baker, Nightmare Maker.  It’s difficult to imagine a major studio like Paramount just handing over the keys to its splatter kingdom to produce such unbridled sleaziness these days, and, indeed, the studio dialed back and sought relative comfort and refuge by resurrecting Jason one year later.

There’s a moment towards the end of A New Beginning that finds two of the kids watching A Place in the Sun on television, which seems like an incongruous choice of programming considering the raging, psychotic tempest surrounding them. It seems like a calculated nod, though, as Steinmann’s slasher is a half-step away from 50s melodrama, what with its broad characters, overblown theatrics, and sudden, sustained fits of violence. The film’s driven by the same sense of sweltering heat and repressed tension that drives most melodrama, only Steinmann blows the lid open on it early and often, thus unleashing a torrent of unyielding mayhem—it’s as if he decided to key in on the kooky broadness of Betsy Palmer’s climactic turn in the original and apply it to an entire film. 

Few of its genre successors would even dare to exhibit such a bold, unhinged flavor. While the latter half the 1980s would still produce some great slashers, the distinctly weird ones were pushed further to the fringes, with the major franchises particularly becoming polished, processed pieces on the assembly line. Oddly enough, this did result in high-water marks for each series, including Friday the 13th.  But as accomplished as Jason Lives and its later-80s brethren are, there’s something to be said for the idiosyncrasies of A New Beginning, a film that retroactively stands on the crest of a turning tide, one of the last outlaws of an era before American slasher films felt the need to constantly wink.  Steinmann’s film doesn’t even so much as blink—it’s a wide-eyed gaze right into the abyss, which spews back nothing but what’s expected of the slasher genre. 

Brett Gallman is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.  He was raised in and around video stores and hasn’t stopped talking about horror movies ever since.  You can find him on Twitter @brettgallman.