By the time I’d made it all the way to tonight’s piece I was going on 14 and even then Younger Me could sense the hurk and jerk of a movie series tottering on its last legs, begging for a fresh idea to blow through its sagging sails. At the time, Young Me found it odd that this series of films, centered as they are around a homicidal pseudo-zombie, could be so lacking in life.
Older and (I like to think) Wiser Me is nonplussed at this. He (I) no longer finds anything odd in the progressive degeneration of the American horror film – or film in general, for that matter. Older Me (I) possesses enough insight to see these films clearly, both as perpetrators and victims of their own perpetuation. Their downfall and degrading “quality” were as inevitable as a teenage death inside the Crystal Lake Woods, the result of a mass market system geared, not to telling stories, but to making the good people at Gulf Western (who at the time owned Paramount Pictures, and thus Jason Voorhees) richer than they already were. And they’ve no one to blame but themselves.
The New Blood marks a second major departure for the Friday series, the first one coming in Part IV with Corey Feldman as the first Final Boy. His character, Tommy Jarvis, went on to triumph over Jason (as much as anyone apparently can) in the next two films (a different actor in the role each time). In this respect, tonight’s picture marks a return to form, gifting us with a Final Girl cut right out of the Jamie Lee Curtis mold; you can almost see the scars where they hammered her out. But rather than bring us all the way back into the black The New Blood‘s screenwriting duo, Manuel Fidello and Daryl Haney, chose to throw a curve ball into our midst, in the process created my personal favorite Friday film…however much that says.
After an unnecessary prologue (narrated by Walt Gorney, a.k.a. Crazy Ralph of Friday the 13th Part 1 and 2) we meet our Final Girl as a child (played by Jennifer Banko) so absurdly blond she might’ve walked right out of the Village of the Damned. This is Tina Shepherd, and right off the bat we know that Tina is cursed with an unhappy fate. Not only are her parents dumb enough to rent (no, wait…own, honest to God, own!) shore-front property on Crystal Lake, they’re dysfunctional enough to argue in front of their tweenage daughter. Young Tina flees this scene of drunken, abusive-family bliss, making it all the way to the row boat Mom and Dad keep left tied to their rickety old dock. Ominous, no?
Que Tina’s Dad, who comes tearassing out of the house with apologies already on his lips. Tina’s absorbs his “didn’t mean to”s from her place out over the black waters that, as you might’ve heard, once dragged down a young boy named Jason Voorhees. Young Tina’s not buying Dad’s good-guy act, not even waiting until the inevitable promise never to do it again. “I hate you,” she screeches at her father. “I wish you were dead.” And because this is a horror movie, her wish is summarily granted.
First Tina gets all big-eyed, and she might as well be one of the uberchildren from the aforementioned Village. They’d welcome her as a long-lost sister. Something supernatural rushes through the dark water, up to Dad’s perch on the family dock. Then things get interesting. Boards tear loose from nails. Supporting pillars jump and jive out of their muddy, lake bed sockets. The whole dock moans like a tired cow and Dad (displaying a level of intelligence on par with any teenage Slasher movie character) is incapable of preventing the inevitable. Down he goes, along with the dock, in a rare (for this lake, at least) non-Voorhees-related death. This leaves Tina, still among the air-breathers, to discover that sometimes wishes do come true, though they don’t always come with takebacks.
Not that anyone has any business making wishes over Crystal Lake anyway. Christ, you might as well give a pranoid schizophrenic jars of napalm for Christmas.
Cut to years later, as an obviously-teenage Tina (played by twenty-seven year-old Lar Park Lincoln) comes to in her mom’s car. As part of Tina’s on-going therapy, she and Mom (Susan Blu, most famous around these parts as the English-language voice of Token Female Autobot, Arcee) are on their way back to Crystal Lake. I guess everything else has failed. And, in theory, a trip to the lake does beat a trip back to the mental hospital.
Still…give me a nice, safe, padded room over Camp Blood any day. Would you willingly drive your teenage daughter out to such a place? Well, Linda Shepherd would, and is, immediately alienating her from the audience. A missed opportunity in my book. Mrs. Shepherd is one of the few honest adults in these films…so, in a way, her stupidity is foreordained, her age-group forever cast (in Slasher movies, at least) as dim-witted authority figures. Why else would she display such criminal ignorance of Crystal Lake and its mortal effect on teenagers of certain genders and psychological states? You’d think local legend or…oh, I don’t know…national media attention might’ve clued Mrs. Shepherd into the bloody history of her one-time vacation spot. So either their personal family tragedy has left Tina’s mom so myopic she’s kept her head firmly up her ass for the past seven films…or Mrs. Shepherd is an incredible gullible woman, ensnared by Tina’s psychologist, the nefarious Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser). Her fate is the fruit of her own stupidity, and thus deserved. Her daughter, in the tradition of all Final Girls, is simply tortured for the fun of it.
The old house is still there waiting for them, a lakefront landmine. Amazing how well the place has kept up. Not a cobweb in sight. Only Tina appears to notice the gathering of teenagers at the cabin next door…and one new neighbor in particular, a boy wearing shorts so short they immediately to mind a small Japanese boy of my acquaintance named Kenny. This is Nick (Kevin Spirtas), a Clark Kent figure if ever there was one, who stops to help Tina when her suitcase explodes, spilling socks and undies into their muddy, shared driveway. Tina is somewhat unimpressed with his underwear-repacking skills. “Thanks,” she says, grabbing a pair of panties out of Nick’s hand, “you’ve been a great help. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
Here we glimpse this film’s one and only innovation. That one remark contains Nick and Tina’s entire relationship, a dramatic inversion of the classical Damsel in Distress that I’ve labeled “the proto-Buffy,” after the eponymous Vampire Slayer, this inversion’s apotheosis. We have the willowy female figure, traditionally victimized by monsters, who – instead of waiting around to be saved by the dashing, handsome man – rises to save herself and become a slayer of monsters, a rescuer of the very same macho assholes who usually kill themselves defending the Final Girl in these movies.
But more on that later. For the moment, we meet Dr. Crews: a shady son of a gun with a taste for tweed and the kind of obsequious mind-fucking practiced by every evil psychologist in the history of cinema. With everyone settled into the old Shepherd place (that’s what I would’ve called it, damnit) he sets Tina behind a school desk, an enormous 1980s video camera filming her every twitch. Crews then sets a matchbook on the table and goads Tina into a state of heightened anxiety. He shouts, he yells, he does a passable, middle-American, R. D. Lang impersonation. And suddenly the matchbook scoots across the table (with the aid of a little stop motion). Tina, we’re to assume, is more than meets the eye.
All part of Tina’s “treatment’. We’re meant to intuit (though the movie never exactly states) that Tina’s been bouncing in and out of institutions ever since she sent Dad into the lake. We immediately intuit (though it’ll be a half hour before the movie confirms this) that, somewhere along the line, Dr. Crews got wind of Tina’s “psychokinetic abilities” and has brought her out here in a crass and unbelievably stupid attempt to goad her into performing on camera. Where none of his colleagues will see. As opposed to back at the institute. Where everyone could see. Smart. Like any good idiot Scientist, he plans to slip the tape back to civilization and get rich off the tour deals. Here we come, Oprah, here we come. Come one, come all; see the Telekinetic Freak! Only five bucks! To see the Telekinetic Freak! Just! Five! Bucks!
Tina, no fool in spite of her institutionalization (she’s, for example, the only person in the film who voices any reservations about being at Crystal Lake), accuses Dr. Crews of being “more interested in this telekinetic stuff than you do about me.” The good doctor assures her this isn’t the case. Heaven forbid. Never mind the camera, let’s focus on making little Tina well again. Her psychic superpowers are really nothing more than misplaced guilt, manifesting as blah, blah, blah…The matchbook spontaneously combusts when Tina calls “bullshit” on this play and runs from the room.
Two of the teenagers next door are having sex in the van parked outside, so right away we know both are destined to die. No need to pay attention to anything they say. Instead I ruminate on the phenomenon of Van Sex, so common in the 1980s, so rarely seen in these gray days of the early twenty-first century. My personal theory? Throughout the 90s, the aging population of latch-key kids abandoned vehicular fucking all together for the comfort of their own homes (or, more accurately, their working parents’ homes). The dual increase in teenage pregnancy and two-income households in the United States would seem to bear this out. Further research is pending at press time.
Back to Tina, who’s crying over her dead dad’s picture. Dad’s picture is remarkably free of dust considering how long the cabin’s been abandoned (at least ten years, assuming Tina’s legal). Indeed, it’s as if Dr. Crews put in a call to Merry Maids before Tina and Mom arrived…Mom tries to comfort Tina, but Tina flees the room. (Sensing a theme yet?) Down she goes, to the rebuilt dock (sweet Jesus, why even think of rebuilding it?) and the moonlit Black Lagoon that is Crystal Lake. Why does everyone in the 1980s wear their belts around their ribs? “I’m sorry daddy,” Tina says, “I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring you back.”
Ah, sweet, bleeding Jesus, there she goes again! Wishing over Crystal Lake. No good can come of this! None! And, indeed, there’s Jason, right where Tommy Jarvis left him in the last film, chained to a rock at the bottom of the lake. Tina’s Psychokinetic Ability somehow revives the dead(?) be-masked butcher, snaps his chain at the fourth link, and rockets Jason to the surface. The sight makes Tina faint, leaving the reanimated Jason to trudge off into the woods in search of his natural prey: horny, substance-abusing teenagers. It occurs to me now that Jason could’ve just climbed the dock right there and then, killed Tina in her sleep, and saved himself a lot of walking…but I suppose he smelt the nude flesh from five miles away.
Hats off to the special effects team for this one. They’ve crafted a beautiful makeup job for stunt/journeyman Kane Hodder, who’d play Jason for the next three films. An all-around stand-up dude, Hodder does a wonderful job in his mute roll underneath all those tons of makeup. His Jason has a physical presence I find lacking in the previous six films. I can’t really explain it as anything other than body language…the palpable, stoop-shouldered, lumbering menace that this man can exude through fifty pounds of latex.
Props duly given, it’s on to the criticisms. And the questions. Like, what exactly is holding Jason together by now? Stubborn backwoods pride? He’s officially “died” (though perhaps that’s not accurate – has he “lain dormant” like a hibernating predator? Or “gone inert” like some powered-down death machine?) at least six times to date and suffered a baker’s dozen supposed-deaths (the False Endings), along with countless wounds that would be quite mortal to any mortal man. No explanation is given until the ninth film in the series, and that we will consider in turn. For the moment, we’re left to pretend we’re not thinking about it. Besides, Tina’s coming to. Back to her.
Dr. Crews makes like a non-believer, knowing full well the proverbial Truth is out there. You can hear it in his bored, materialist contempt for Tina’s story. As she shouts him down, a picture on the mantle grows a spider web of cracks, as if Tina fired an invisible BB into it. I’ve a feeling that, had Dr. Crews moved two steps to his left, he’d be spending the rest of the movie nursing a sucking chest wound. Alas, ’tis not to be. At least not yet.
Cut to the unpaved road which leads up to these cabins. There’s a guy named Michael (William Butler) and a girl…who’s name I’ve already forgotten (Staci Gearson). Damn. Ah, well. Whatever. Their car’s (ahem) died on them, but rather than camp in Crystal Lake Woods (NO! YOU FOOLS!) What’s-Her-Name insists they truck on to the cabin. The gathering of teenagers across the way from Tina? It’s Michael’s surprise birthday party. Happy Birthday, you dead bastard.
Back at the cabins, Nick drops by, bearing a piece of Tina’s escaped luggage and a suspicious resemblance to the young Clark Kent I see in my head when I read Superman novels. He manages to invite Tina over to the party next door and make a good impression on Mom all in one go. He’s no Tommy Jarvis, but at least the boy knows enough to know you should always impress their mother.
Back to the woods, where Michael abandons What’s-Her-Name to Jason’s wrath by walking an extraordinarily loooong distance for a whiz. Michael’s shy kidneys earn him the sight of his dead girlfriend nailed to a tree with a tent stake. Happy Birthday, asshole. Enter Jason, stage right. Exit Michael, via that same stake. Interestingly enough, in a reversal of prevalent trends, it is the girl who dies first and the guy who gets stalked through the (relatively sparse) underbrush, surviving for thirty-seven whole seconds.
Back at the party, Our Heroine meets and greets this movie’s parade of expendable cliches. Dead Meat of all shapes and sizes have turned out for Michael. There’s the Token Black Couple: Ben (Craig Thomas) and Kate (Diane Almeida); Maddy the Nerd Girl (Diana Barrows); the Designated Rich Bitch, Melissa (Susan Jennifer Sullivan); the obligatory girl named Robin (Elizabeth Kaitan); they’re all here. There’s even Eddie, the Science Fiction Writer (Jeff Bennett, who’s gone on to do quite the mess of voice acting since this), whom I’ll develop somewhat of a sentimental attachment to…and David (John Renfield), the Token Stoner, toward whom I’ll feel oddly cold. I wonder what that says about my self-image, eh?
In any case, they’re all dead, so it’s pointless to get to know them. Tina is the only character in the film who could reasonably be called “alive,” in that she’s the only one allowed to grow and change in some meaningful way. And here’s another hint why I like this movie: while Tina does descend into the usual paroxysms associated with the Final Girl (compulsive crying, screaming, and senseless tripping over occasionally invisible-objects) she is not confined to these things as a character. She also sees dead people. Did I mention that?
It seems news to her as well. But there’s Michael, big as life, getting impaled by a walking corpse with a hockey mask for a face. It’s right there, in the kitchen, though no one else seems to notice. Then it’s gone and Tina drops her Pepsi (the Choice of a New Generation) before (can you guess?) fleeing the house, her attempt at socializing duly punished with traumatizing psychic flashes.
Of course, Dr. Crews and Mom refuse to believe her and the night passes with no immediate death. Jason has his hands full with some anonymous campers. (In Crystal Lake Woods! Fools! FOOLS!) The next morning allows Tina and Nick their only moment of characterization. Hi, I’m a city kid out in the country. Hi, I killed my dad and it fucked me up but good. Well, nice shoes, wanna stare longingly into each other’s eyes? Sure. You’re cute. You’re cuter.
A scene later and Melissa, the Token Rich Bitch, is fucking things up for everyone, convincing Eddie the Sci-fi Writer (real writers take note: this is what Hollywood thinks of us) to help her stage a socially-inappropriate sight gag that utilizes Tina’s time in the state (which one?) mental institution as its source of humor. Tina is not amused, snapping Melissa’s prize strand of pearls with a glare before (hold your breath, here it comes) fleeing the house. Those who guessed Melissa’s pearls were a birthday gift from “Daddy” receive 4,283 bonus points and +4 Experience.
So fragile is Tina’s ego she immediately declares to Mom and Dr. Crews, “I hate this place.” Smart girl. Go with that instinct. After a day and night in the old homestead, Mom is convinced, but Dr. Crews will have none of it. Tina ends the ensuing argument by throwing a TV at him with her mind before…well, you know. Having fled two cabins in a row, Tina makes it all the way to the back door before her knight in shinning denim appears. Shall he sweep this poor, telekinetic waif off her feet and carry her away from all this death and tragedy?
I say thee, Nay. After all, there’s so much killing to be done. The next half-hour of movie is devoted solely to just that, with the occasional break for a character to run through the woods. In fact, I considered nixing this review all together and in its place writing an entire article on the crazed geography of Crystal Lake. I’m telling you, this place makes Wonderland look rational and puts Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory to shame. Time, space, and relative distance operate as they please around Crystal Lake, with characters frequently covering miles in minutes of screen time, arriving at their destinations with full breath and not a speck of sweat. We expect Jason to have powers of Off-screen Teleportation, but this time it seems Crystal Lake has extended that power to everyone in its sphere of influence. Happy Friday the 13th to you, too, haunted woods.
Ah, but there is that proto-Buffy I promised to talk more about. As the sole reason I rewatched this godforsaken film, it deserves its proper place as the capstone to this review. Tina is not the first proto-Buffy to appear in Slasherdom. Indeed, all Final Girls have a potential stake to this claim. But where Jamie Lee or Heather Langenkamp were largely forced to rely on simple human inventiveness (which frequently failed them, setting up those damn False Endings), Tina, and her spiritual sister, Kristen Parker, represent a distinct bucking of trend. For once the Final Girl is empowered with the ability to face down her supernatural stalker on his terms, using something a little more effective than a coat hanger or a well timed scream.
But wait, I hear you say, who the hell is Kristen Parker? Kristen Parker was Patricia Arquette’s character in 1987’s Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. In that film Parker is a former resident of Springdale, Ohio, home to the titular Elm Street. As such, Kristen (like Tina) begins the film in a mental institution. But where her similarly-aged fellow-inmates are helpless before the nocturnal onslaught of Freddy Kruger, Kristen takes matters into her own hands. With a little help from Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy, Kristen discovers she has the power to enter other people’s dreams – and bringing them into her own. The perfect foil for Freddy Kruger is born.
Being virginal (literally and figuratively, in that she abstains from the rampant drug and alcohol consumption—Tina never touches anything harder than that Pepsi), the Final Girl is already bequeathed with semi-magical powers. For one thing, she gets to live throughout the movie in relative ignorance of the horrible goings on…until the last minute, when she usually has the misfortune to discover some grizzly tableau constructed from the bodies of her friends. Admittedly, the Teens Next Door are far from Tina’s friends (except for Melissa the Bitch, they largely ignore her – as would Melissa, had Nick not welded himself to Tina’s hip), but that’s why Mom’s here, after all. As the Joker once said, “I always think it adds resonance to a hero’s story to have some defining element of tragedy in his background, don’t you?”
As a matter of fact, I do. And the story of a proto-Buffy is a hero’s story, no matter what the title says. Might as well have called it Tina to start with, considering the Slasher movie had visibly lost any steam it might have once had. The murders are largely played for shock; quick and to the point (pun most certainly intended), they come off as almost perfunctory to Tina’s story (such as it is, being mostly one long run through Crystal Lake Woods). That would be because they are, having little place or meaning to the rest of the film…apart from their shock value to Tina. Having the Final Girl discover the mangled bodies of her friends as she’s fighting for her own life against and seemingly invulnerable foe…well, that’s a pretty slick way to add some resonance, and besides it’s how these things are done. We know it’s where things will inevitably fetch up even as we follow Tina’s journey from psyche-ward refugee to Monster Fighter. I can’t help but feel an impatient tension as I wait for the incidental characters to die, because once they do Tina will have enough righteous indignation in her fuel cells to achieve Critical Mass and become…well…Carrie, pretty much. (Fitting, since Jason owes his very existence to the fact make-up man Tom Savini, having just watched Carrie, felt Part 1 needed a similar “chair-jumper” ending.)
Because that’s really who Tina is: the psychokinetic product of a broken home with a Suburban ’80s mother in place of a Jesus Freak. Lucky Tina. Too bad Mrs. Shepherd is so criminally underdeveloped. Too bad she has to die…but lucky for all of us, as Tina’s discovery of her curiously-unmolested corpse (perhaps Jason felt, as I do, that Mrs. Shepherd bore an uncomfortable resemblance to his own Dearly Departed Mum) signals the beginning of the end game, the final confrontation, the part of this movie that shakes even the most casual fans out of their killing-spree stupors.
And thanks to Tina’s Psychokinetic Abilities for once, for once, the Final Showdown is something more than a protracted exercise in trauma. For once the Final Girl is something of a match for her pseudo-zombie foe. It goes without saying that her initial efforts will be for naught, but that doesn’t dilute my enjoyment of all this one iota. It’s about goddamn time someone stood up to Jason Voorhees and gave him a much-needed taste of his own medicine. Combining the typical Final Girl ingenuity for found weapons with cheap-to-film wire effects makes Tina by far the most dynamic and entertaining Final Girl in the series…perhaps in all of Slasherdom. No Whimpering Female bullshit for her, and no hiding behind Nick, either. Fighting her own battle throughout, Tina at last forces Jason to fight on her terms, something only Tommy Jarvis had thought of previously. Both remain alive because of it.
Liz, over at And You Call Yourself A Scientist, came down against this permutation of the Final Girl in her own excellent review of tonight’s film. And while I love Liz with all my heart, I would argue that any empowerment of a female character inside a Slasher film can only be an improvement over the norm. Anything that turns the Final Girl from Simpering Victim to Active Protagonist is a thing I’ll call Good, no matter how dumb its execution. When I was a younger, more idealistic chap, I dared hope that this improvement would continue and the Final Girl might, in time, mature from Active Protagonist to Interesting Diversion, perhaps even reaching Buffy’s level, becoming a Genuinely Interesting Character.
Alas, this was a delusion, had before I learned how genuinely stupid the Hollywood system can be. To say nothing of its sadism. Or misogyny. But that’s a rant for another time. In the mean, we have this fair diversion: a late-period Slasher film with only one interesting twist to save it from its own deficiency. Dime-store acting, poor scripting, and pedestrian directing help not at all, hindered as they are by the sub-genre’s own faltering inertia. It would take Scream and the triumph of self-referential post-modernism to inject any semblance of life into this format. And if there’s one thing that stands diametrically opposed to Mr. Jason Voorhees, it’s life.
Though hot chicks with superpowers work in a pinch.