Saturday, 6 March 2010
FRIDAY 13th Part VII - THE NEW BLOOD
There will be blood and there will be spoilers
When we last left Jason he was mouldering at the bottom of Crystal Lake, supposedly now at rest having being returned to his original watery grave - although judging from the finale of the last flick being chained to a rock and receiving an outboard motor in the brain seems to have helped more…
Now the ending of Friday 13th Part VI – Jason Lives was one of the better finishes in the series. The supernatural element of laying his murderous spirit to rest by returning his body to the lake establishes a bona fide means of defeating Jason, making him more of a mythic monster like Dracula or the Wolf Man than the average slasher. But of course, part of the elegance of introducing this rule governing Jason’s powers is that there is an easy way to raise him again for another outing – just as the Count may be revived by removing the stake from his mouldering ribcage or by sprinkling fresh blood on his sun-struck ashes, so now Jason is ready to go as soon as something or some one frees his corpse from the water weeds…
So that’s where everyone’s favourite serial slaying slaphead was circa 1988, but what of the franchise itself. Jason Lives had gone down well with the faithful, and although some had a problem with the introduction of humour into the format – still a divisive point today among fans – generally everyone was happy to see the real Jason back and in good killing form. However at the box office, ticket sales had dropped with Jason Lives seeing a notable drop in profits. Undoubtedly the fake Jason shtick of A New Beginning had annoyed many, prompting them to jump ship but there were other factors in play.
By 1987, the slasher genre was in terminal decline as the hundreds of Friday and Halloween clones produced throughout the ‘80s were taking their toll on audience interest levels. The preceding year had seen the release of April Fools Day a horror comedy that sent up the genre and which some credit as ending the slasher gold rush. But more importantly, compared to the visceral imagination and energy of horror trailblazers like Evil Dead 2 and Hellraiser, masked men dicing up cardboard teens looked tedious, cliché bound and, worst of all, safe.
It’s often said that the most frightening films are those whose events could happen – many assert that a human psychopath is scarier than a tana leaf powered mummy, as you could conceivably encounter the former in real life whereas the latter exists only in the imagination. However by the closing years of the ‘80s, cinema audiences had been reminded that plausible does not necessarily equal convincing, never mind frightening, by countless witless teen carve ups. The gritty realism of the early films that form the roots of the slasher genre had ossified into overly familiar tropes; formula had swallowed up the fear.
And worst still for Jason, by 1988 he had some heavy weight rivals. Michael Myers was returning to the screen after a six year vacation in Halloween IV, Leatherface and co and returned after an even longer absence (Texas Chainsaw Masacre 2)1986), The Tall Man was flashing his silver balls again (Phantasm II), and Jim Cameron had unleashed the xenomorphs again (Aliens 1986). Not to mention new kids on the block, the Terminator, Pinhead and the Predator were all encroaching on the killing-everyone-in-your-path territory Jason had dominated for so long. And then there was Freddy…
Making his debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven’s Fred Krueger was a real machete in the guts for slasher films; here was a villain who didn’t just mutely kill, he mocked and taunted. Krueger had not only personality but far more terrifying means of dispatching his prey through reality bending dreams. Tellingly, when he returned for the first sequel Freddy’s Revenge in 1985, audiences and critics alike responded badly to what was commonly seen as turning the character into a run-of-the-mill slasher. Hence when he returned in 1987 for Dream Warriors, the emphasis was back on the dreams, the mythology and the characters rather than just serving up the splatter.
As I remarked in my discussion of Jason Lives, the shadow of Freddy was looming large over the Friday 13th franchise and the introduction of the supernatural elements and an attempt to construct a mythology for Jason as a character can be seen as a direct response to the success of the Nightmare On Elm Street series. Furthermore, some one somewhere having noted all the who would win speculation in fanboy land, decided pitting Freddy versus Jason would be box office gold. And it’s here that we first get the rumblings about this legendary modern monster rally. Yes folks, The New Blood was originally slated to be this epic rumble. But as every horror head knows, an agreement between Paramount and New Line failed to coalesce at this time, and Jason ended up taking a break in ’87 while the studios threw papers back and forth.
However you can clearly see the legacy of this plan in the bones of The New Blood. Now although many have labelled this entry in the saga as ‘Jason Versus Carrie’, I feel the key inspiration was probably Dream Warriors; it borrows the themes and plot accoutrements of a troubled teen and her therapist and more importantly gives her what Charles Fort would term ‘wild talents’; namely precognition and telekinesis, to combat Jason’s undead fury.
The plot for this one centres on Tina who as a child inadvertently kills her abusive father with an outburst of her psychic abilities. Not an event that’s going to make for a psychological stability in later life, I’m sure you’ll agree. Years later she returns to Crystal Lake, with her mom and slightly sinister psychologist in tow to confront her inner demons and unwittingly resurrects Jason from his watery grave with her latent psychic powers…
Helmed by special effects man turned director John Carl Buechler (neigh!*), The New Blood is a troublesome movie to assess. It’s not outrightly awful but neither does it actually hang together well. And coming between of the fan favourite Jason Lives and the next two sub standard entries doesn’t help its cause either, and has resulted as often being fingered as the point of the series decline.
Now previous to landing this gig, Buechler (whinny!) had previous directed a pair of low budget flicks Troll and Cellar Dweller, both of which have garnered more than a few fans among lovers of schlock cinema – sure, they are cheap and camp but do display some imaginative flair and are more fantastic than anatomical in their horrors. And I’m guessing it was a combination of ambitious special effects on a tight budget and phantasmagoria with a sense of humour that landed him the gig.
But The New Blood fell foul of the MPAA so a lot of the FX work ended up on the cutting room floor. As he remarks ruefully in His Name Was Jason cutting out the climax of the kills in a Friday 13th movie is like trimming the punch lines from a comedy, and the censor snips effective hobbled his movie.
However I really think the problems of The New Blood aren’t rooted in the toned down version we saw. In terms of direction, Buechler (neigh!) acquits himself well in the main, but what scuppers the movie is actually the script. Now whether this is a legacy issue from the mooted team–up or just shoddy screen writing is hard to say, and certainly the six month turn around for the picture doesn’t give a director much leeway for fixing problems.
Part of the trouble is that the film seems to have jettisoned the touches of humour that made the previous entry so much fun and appears to be trying for serious horror. However the plot completely botches it’s handling of all the character driven psycho-drama as it’s mixed in with far too many scenes of the same old two dimensional shreddies wandering about waiting to die. And I can’t help feeling that what would make this flick far more effective isn’t restoring the gore – although admittedly that might have helped - but excising completely a third of the cast.
Now obviously you want a high body count in a Friday 13th movie but The New Blood unfortunately doesn’t follow the example set by its predecessor. Jason Lives ramped up its mayhem by including a lot of folk who just appear then die in quick succession, whereas in The New Blood has far too many teens introduced as proper characters. And while I commend the attempt to put flesh on the bones of these disposable characters the simple fact is that there are far too many of them cluttering up the screen, and ultimately detracts from the plot’s main focal points of Tina, her mother, secondary villain Dr Crews and nice guy Nick.
And aside from painting a very crowded picture, the script also fluffs several key plot points. Firstly it’s not entirely clear what Tina is attempting when she returns to Crystal Lake and exercises her wild talents. Is she trying to just recover her father’s body? (As the fine fellows at the Now Playing podcast’s retrospective have pointed out, in this series if someone disappears under the waters of Crystal Lake no bugger is going to even attempt to dredge it!) Or is she actually trying to resurrect him? Surely a bad idea – hasn’t she read WW Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw?
Equally at the film’s climax when her father rises from his watery grave, is this Tina resurrecting him, puppeting his corpse in a dues ex marionetta fashion, or is it his ghost returning to aid his daughter? It’s particularly confusing as her no-so dear old dad looks none the worse for his sojourn at the bottom of the lake. Now apparently it was originally intended that the returning father was to be a suitable decayed cadaver but they just couldn’t get the make up right in the time they had. However even if you imagine this scene with a rotted version, there’s still a fuzziness around what is actually being depicted. And I can’t help thinking that these twin lapses in narrative clarity serious undermine what the plot is trying to achieve.
And it’s a shame as this movie does have some good ideas and where they really pay off is in the final act. After a lot of arsing about with the usual run about the woods and kill the teens tomfoolery, the movie finally fires on all cylinders and gives us a thrilling battle where Tina unleashes the full force of her telekinetic powers against Jason. It’s a great slice of psychic carnage and it’s very refreshing to see Jason go up against a foe that is as powerful as he is. It’s so good, it almost redeems the rest of the movie.
Equally noteworthy is the depiction of Jason himself. Firstly this is the first outing for Kane Hodder in the role, who brings the character a great sense of boiling rage with his aggressive body language. And secondly, the Jason make-up is excellent. After several years underwater, the maggoty Jason of Part VI has been replaced with a more decayed appearance, with bones now visible in places. It’s a fantastic job and easily my favourite of all the many different looks the character has had over the years.
So on the plus side, we have a great climax with FX and stunts galore, a great Jason in both looks and performance and some interesting plot ideas. But on the downside, the script just doesn’t make enough of the new concepts it has to play with, and as a result we have a very uneven film. Buechler (whinny!) seems to be trying his best but seems hampered by a combination of legacy issues, studio pressures and good old fashioned lack of time and resources.
It feels like the movie is pulling in two different directions at once – on one hand it’s attempting to move in a new direction and embrace the more fantastical vein of horror that was growing in popularity yet at the same time keeps backsliding into the old tired slasher clichés. When things work in the film, such as the tense exchanges between Tina and Dr Crews, the action packed final showdown or even just the brooding sequences in the forest at night, you can’t help feeling that there’s a better film lost in here struggling to get out.
And certainly it a better waste of an hour and a half than the next entry in the series, the hideous tar pit of a movie that is Part VIII - Jason Takes Manhattan…
* Sorry but I’ve seen Young Frankenstein waaaay too many times!