A New Beginning or the Beginning of the end? VHS Revival analyses one of the most reviled entries in the Friday the 13th series
Generally speaking, Friday the 13th fans fall into two categories: those who dig the dead-eyed Jason of earlier instalments and those who embrace his sillier meta incarnation. Personally, I have fun with both, but what happens when Jason is removed completely? Can it still be considered a Friday the 13th movie? Many will tell you, “No! Absolutely not! Are you out of your f*cking mind?!” Even if a masked killer of an uncannily similar build and appearance spends the entirety of that movie slaughtering teens in a plethora of violent ways, if it turns out to be somebody else doing the business it’s a total cop out, a sacrilegious act worthy of Jason-style retribution. I certainly felt that way the first time I saw A New Beginning, a title whose origins will soon become clear. Even though the movie’s villain looks and acts like Jason, it still isn’t Jason, and for fans of the franchise that in itself is enough to inspire apathy.
Here’s the thing: I’ve seen A New Beginning a dozen times since the initial shock of discovering Voorhees substitute Roy Burns ― a soft spoken introvert who undergoes the kind of transformation that makes Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner, look like an adolescent growing his first pimple ― and I must admit, it’s kind of grown on me. In fact, I find myself reaching for the fifth instalment more than most during my adulthood ― I’ve commenced re-watching it almost as a compulsion. Is this because I had abandoned it for so long, for many years refusing to revisit a film that pulled down our proverbial pants Paramount style? It certainly played a part. For the longest time A New Beginning had been cast into the shadows of creative ignominy like a wounded imp from a malformed dimension, but when I finally rescued it from out in the cold it was almost like a new discovery, an extra instalment with that 80s Paramount vibe that has since become something very dear to me.
Those familiar with the series will know that there was never supposed to be A New Beginning, or so we had been left to believe. By 1984, the same year the UK government introduced the Video Recordings Act, banning a list of 72 movies dubbed ‘The Video Nasties’ by a tabloid media looking to exploit affairs, Jason Voorhees had become the poster boy for moral outrage over in the US. This was thanks in large part to influential critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the latter labelling Friday the 13th Part IV an “immoral and reprehensible piece of trash” that was a “depressing commentary” on modern teenage culture. So ashamed of their product and weary of public scrutiny were the honchos at Paramount that they refused to release any footage of The Final Chapter prior to its opening. Ebert was dubious, as were many slasher detractors looking to curb the creative violence, but this was set to be Jason’s final outing. Period.
Sheriff Tucker: [talking to himself] What the hell’s going on here?
Roy: You talking to me, Sheriff?
Sheriff Tucker: Huh?
Roy: I thought you were talking to me.
It took Paramount a whole year to renege on its promise that Friday the 13th Part IV would indeed be The Final Chapter, and the $22,000,000 it raked in at the box office ― more than ten times its allocated budget ― tells you exactly why. Paramount may have been ashamed of their product, but as long as budgets were meagre and a demand for the franchise remained, they were more than happy to reap the rewards, even if it meant culling much of the violence, and, in the case of some of those later sequels, destroying the footage entirely. Unlike the majority of slashers that ran into trouble with the censors, films like 1988‘s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood can never been seen in the way they were originally intended, which is a shame when you see some of the raw footage that still exists. Many feel that the series should have stopped at The Final Chapter, but very few truly believed that it was the end for the madman in the hockey mask. Paramount may have claimed as much, even thought as much, but there was simply too much money to be made from what had proved a low-risk property.
In all likelihood, Jason’s demise was nothing more than a cynical marketing gimmick, a trend that would continue as the character was resurrected time and time again under his post-Jason Lives guise. Those in charge of creative genuinely believed that The Final Chapter would be exactly that, something that motivated director Joseph Zito and practical effects wizard Tom Savini, the latter returning to the series for the first time since the original, to go out with a particularly brutal bang, but it’s doubtful that the money men ever closed the book on Jason ― in business you never say never. So surreptitious was Paramount’s eventual backtracking that A New Beginning was cast under the fake title Repetition after the David Bowie song, a tradition that began with 1982’s Friday the 13th Part 3 as a means to swerve the attention of unions looking to castigate horror flicks with violent-sounding titles, and many of the actors involved were unaware that the movie was in fact a Friday the 13th instalment until after they’d signed up for the gig. The series had developed such a stigma that Paramount even resorted to misleading cast members.
Technically speaking, Paramount did stick to their promise (at least temporarily) because this time Jason isn’t the culprit at all, and only appears through the twisted mind of franchise mainstay Tommy Jarvis. A New Beginning is the second part of what fans lovingly refer to as the ‘Tommy Jarvis trilogy’. Portrayed by three different actors in Corey Feldman, John Shepard and Return of the Living Dead alumni Thom Matthews, the character appeared in a total of three instalments, and asides from Jason and mother Pamela is more synonymous with the Friday the 13th series than anyone else, at least in fictional terms. Of those three actors, Shephard is the one least lauded, partly because he had the least notable career outside of the series and partly because fans generally adore The Final Chapter and Jason Lives ― the Black Sheep A New Beginning not so much ― but Shepard is just as memorable as his peers thanks to a quite ludicrous screenplay, the emotionally scarred Jarvis leaping from broody introvert to frenetic savage in the frenzied blink of an eye. The moment when a seemingly subdued Tommy obliterates a fellow patient for the sake of a friendly practical joke is an absolutely priceless moment in the series, and a fine indicator of A New Beginning‘s irresistibly wanton silliness.
The fourth sequel in the Friday the 13th series is like an X-rated Scooby Doo mystery in which a masked killer roams with a level of nonsensical camp that is really quite astonishing. A tonal variation on the usual summer camp slaughterhouse, it’s actually a goofy bundle of fun, a film with so many plot holes and narrative oversights that identifying them all becomes a part of the whole experience. Not only does it reveal the identity of the killer moments after the demise of the movie’s first victim with two consecutive vengeful-eyed close-ups, the whole murderous affair begins over a chocolate bar. A chocolate bar! Had it not been for the deeply puerile and mentally challenged Joey’s offer of a tasty treat, or the fact that the decidedly lax institution that is the Pinewood Home for Delinquents allows the more deranged of its residents to wander freely with an axe, all of this could have been avoided. Also, did an entire cast of teens really deserve to get the chop for an incident they had absolutely no control over? It seems like a bit of an overreaction from a person who was completely normal prior to his son’s murder, but in the realms of commercial exploitation, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
After a brief prologue starring a returning Corey Feldman, we’re brought up to date on affairs… kind of. Why Shephard’s Tommy is a fully grown man after being only twelve a year prior is anyone’s guess. We know the reason why Feldman only returned for a small cameo (he was tied up with Richard Donner’s The Goonies at the time of filming and even shot the scene in his back yard for convenience), but the character’s leap in age was more than a little baffling. The most logical explanation is that the movie jumps forward a half-decade, though to my knowledge there’s no literal indication of this, and the new wave fashion and general aesthetic tell an entirely different story. The film at least stays true to the Tommy character, who is understandably not doing so well after the events of The Final Chapter, suffering from horrific nightmares in which Jason attempts to enact revenge having had his head impaled on a machete. Though Tommy takes meds to calm himself down — the kind that don’t need digesting and for some reason work instantly — he continues to have visions of Jason, and unabashed acts of violence are designed to have us suspecting him as one of the movie’s possible culprits, and there are so many to choose from here, including the most useless red herring in franchise history in an unnamed man who randomly drops by offering to work for food, and the inanity doesn’t stop there.
A New Beginning features the only sheriff in the entire series who actually puts two and two together and suspects that Jason is in fact responsible for the community’s spate of murders instead of immediately dismissing any such notion, a refreshing concept for a Friday the 13th sequel if it were not for the fact that this is one of the only instalments that doesn’t take place at Camp Crystal Lake. There are so many silly, quirky or downright nonsensical characters in A New Beginning that it really is like watching an episode of Scooby Doo. There’s our dear, departed Joey, whose merciful fate is a quick and particularly brutal death for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Two more cretins ripe for the choppin’ are local yokels Ethel and Junior, a salt of the earth family whose dissentient ravings threaten to have the institute closed down. Strange then, that they fail to capitalise on Joey’s brutal and very public murder only hours later. In fact, not only does Pinewood go unpunished for its fatal act of negligence, its workers barely receive a telling off and are allowed to continue on in a manner that will spell the end for a whole bunch of spuriously indifferent teenagers. Kids really were tougher back then.
Ethel: That is one fucking ugly man that goes there.
Junior: That’s one fucking ugly man, Mama.
Ethel: Would you shut your trap? You ain’t so pretty yourself, you know.
Junior: I ain’t so pretty myself, I know.
There are a few minor cult characters here too. No one will ever forget Kool and the Gang extra Demon’s toilet-bound run-in with “them damn enchiladas”, and peewee prankster Reggie (Shavar Ross) becomes the plucky young sucker who helps unravel the whole sordid mystery. Melanie Kinnaman’s Pam is a rather unique final girl too; an older, maternal figure who is somewhat at odds with her peers (she was thirty-two when she starred in A New Beginning). She and Reggie’s dynamic is closer to that of Laurie Strode and Tommy Doyle in the original Halloween. Personally, I think the movie’s finale, a rain-swept battle between Pam, Reggie and Roy, is one of the most enjoyable in the series. The film is also awash with quirky and highly memorable flourishes: Violet’s absurd robot dance, a rather awkward romantic moment that (rightly) leads to a young man’s total humiliation, and Ethal’s unabashed but fully justified use of the word ‘Dildo’ just three of a myriad of cheapskate fancies that keep the movie ticking along nicely.
Unfortunately, A New Beginning is one of the most heavily cut instalments of the entire series, and thanks to the fine folks at Paramount the original footage doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. The film features the second highest kill count in the entire series (22). It’s just a shame that we barely get to see any of it, especially an infamous scene that sees a poor youngster’s head strapped to a tree and crushed to what would have been an almighty splat. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) cut a total of 56 seconds before expanding A New Beginning to 1 min 22 secs for VHS releases. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) cut a frame of blood splashing (Joey’s death), a wide frame shot of Vinnie having a road flare shoved into his mouth, a machete throat-slicing (Pete), and an excessive flow of blood originally included in the axe to Billy’s skull. Lana’s entire death was cut and recreated, resulting in a painfully bloodless scene. There was also a knife-twisting omission, a significant trimming down of the aforementioned head crushing… the list goes on and on.
Director Danny Steinmann also shot a couple of extremely graphic sex scenes (one a hardly believable 3 minutes long). The first was whittled down to only ten seconds, the other cut in its entirety. Dick Wieand, who plays Roy Burns, would later suggest that Steinmann filmed the sex scenes knowing that the MPPA would cut them, something he thought might appease them enough to allow some of the gore to sluice through, which, if accurate, is a plan that very clearly backfired. In the end, the MPAA didn’t have to get involved at all. Paramount axed those scenes before the film was even submitted to them. “I shot a porno in the woods there,” Steinmann would say of the scenes. “You wouldn’t believe the nudity they cut out”. By all accounts, Steinmann had a huge influence on A New Beginning‘s madcap presentation. Kinnaman, Wieand and stuntman Tom Morga have claimed that the director spent most of the shoot riding the wave of a cocaine binge, so out of his mind that cinematographer Stephen Posey was forced to fill in and direct certain scenes. Who would ever have thought that cocaine was responsible for the stumbling, incoherent madness of A New Beginning? I’m guessing a fair few of us.
A New Beginning was met with a tumultuous critical backlash, not only from the usual highbrow naysayers instigating the kind of moral panic that proved infinitely more dangerous than any of Jason’s fictional antics, but from a cheated fan base who paid to see Jason and instead got someone else entirely. Many fans still hold a grudge against the movie, and it’s easy to see why. Previous instalment The Final Chapter is considered one of the better entries in the series. In fact, many believe it to be the finest of all, the marker by which all other entries should be judged. Whatever your opinion of the fourth instalment, it went out with a bang at a time when the series, and the slasher in general, were becoming just a little passé. Thanks to such an oversaturated sub-genre, it was all getting just a little tiresome and bereft of ideas, and if you’re going to bring the franchise back less than a year after your series-ending declaration, you better bring the goods. Paramount, they didn’t even bother to bring along their marquee attraction.
Anita: What’s wrong? Hey, you okay?
Demon: It’s them damn enchiladas!
There was also the unexpected stumbling block of a little character named Fred Krueger to consider, who four months prior to the release of A New Beginning breathed new life into the genre with the hugely popular sleeper hit A Nightmare on Elm Street. The likes of Steinmann simply couldn’t compete with an innovative director like Wes Craven, who rather than giving us another cut-and-shut slasher in the Paramount mode, gave audiences a once in a lifetime concept that would turn Krueger portrayer Robert Englund into horror’s first bona fide rock star. Two years later, Paramount would approach New Line Cinema with the idea of a money-spinning Freddy vs Jason crossover after a series of dwindling returns. Even Tom McLoughlin’s self-reflexive classic Jason Lives! would fair badly at the box office, and as is usually the case with a poorly performing sequel, the blame fell squarely in the lap of its predecessor. An agreement was never reached on the whole Freddy vs Jason idea (at least for now), leading to what was then the most successful entry in the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. While A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master posted record highs for the series, Paramount’s cut-to-pieces, soap-opera-with-a-death-toll Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood posted record lows. There was clearly a new king in town.
Earlier, when I suggested that Friday the 13th fans fall into two categories ― those with a taste for Golden Age Jason and those who embrace the character’s sillier, meta incarnation ― I neglected to mention that A New Beginning falls into neither category. With all the cuts, ludicrous characters and various narrative oversights, it certainly doesn’t belong to the ‘video nasty’ era, and though it is plenty silly, arguably the silliest of them all, it doesn’t belong to the post-Jason Lives, Universal monster era either. Instead it inhabits a peculiar void, a kind of Twilight Zone alternate universe where everything seems as normal until you look just a little closer, until you reveal what’s hiding beneath the mask, both figuratively and literally. The film is audaciously underhanded, almost negligent in its treatment of the Voorhees character, and its black sheep status will likely never wane.
As is apparent from the movie’s equally left-field twist, the original idea was to set up a trilogy of Friday the 13th films with a different villain at the helm, but A New Beginning‘s critical and commercial failings quickly put an end to that. Rather than call it a day, Paramount found a way to bring Jason back from beyond the grave, and continued to do so until New Line bought the rights to the series with a view to creating their own Freddy vs Jason spin-off after the A Nightmare on Elm Street series had suffered a similar commercial fate. The box office only got crueller for Jason, and when he failed to take Manhattan thanks to budgetary restrictions that confined the kids of Part VIII to a long, laborious boat ride, the writing was on the wall; in truth, it had been for years. A New Beginning may have promised the dawn of a new era, but in many ways it was the beginning of the end for Jason as horror’s marquee attraction. At least for some.