13 Fridays is a 13-week look at the entirety of Friday the 13th series, starting on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, and running through Halloween 2021. It will run parallel to other series we’re running in late summer / early autumn, including another round of No Sleep October essays. Every week features an essay about one of the Friday the 13th films in chronological order, written by new and regular Midwest Film Journal contributors and staff writers. Some have seen the whole franchise. Some are novices and neophytes, jumping into the movies without watching the rest of them to offer unvarnished thoughts.
Arguably the most reviled of the series, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is a most misunderstood creature — a worthy, quotable entry in the series that takes risks and ups the ante in several ways. It’s a guilty pleasure even when compared to the rest of the Friday series, which in and of itself undoubtedly bears that banner.
As an attempt to “restart” the franchise just a year after 1984’s The Final Chapter, A New Beginning (the fifth film in the series) certainly wasn’t a rousing success. Its $21 million box office take places it squarely in the middle of the franchise — sixth place, according to Box Office Mojo, after The Final Chapter, considered by many to be the best film of the bunch. Of course, its $2.2 million budget means it made back 10 times what it cost, so the studio was likely not upset.
But it does take some narrative risks that previous entries did not, including pulling the action away from Camp Crystal Lake, experimenting more with comedy and, of course, the infamous “imposter Jason” storyline. In a franchise that already proved itself to not be above cheap gimmicks — from the Pamela Voorhees twist in the first film and its second surprise ending to the silly 3D effects in Part III — an imposter Jason certainly tracks with the franchise’s overall sense of style.
It also establishes Jason’s greatest nemesis, Tommy Jarvis, played here by John Shepherd, who takes over for Corey Feldman from The Final Chapter (although Feldman does have a brief film-opening cameo). Tommy is Jason’s long-awaited Laurie Strode, and excluding Alice’s brief appearance in Part 2, he represents the first victim who lives to fight Jason another day (as he also does in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives).
This version of Tommy picks up several years after the events of The Final Chapter. Tommy is a teenager suffering from post-traumatic stress in the wake of his encounter with Jason and is moving into Pinehurst, a home for wayward and troubled teens.
But Jason still haunts him, manifesting as hallucinations and nightmares that he combats largely with drugs and self-isolation. When Tommy arrives at the halfway house, he is sullen and isolated despite the efforts of Dr. Matt Letter (Richard Young) and Pam (Melanie Kinnaman), who hope to help Tommy adjust and find his way into society.
Meanwhile, the home’s other inhabitants are a group of rowdy troublemakers and misfits, including Reggie “The Reckless” (Shavar Ross), whose grandfather works at the home. Reggie befriends Tommy, but tragedy soon strikes again: One of the teens at the home, Joey (Dominick Brascia), is murdered by Vic (Mark Venturini) in a fit of rage. Soon thereafter, a string of murders menaces the town. Has Jason returned to finish the job on Tommy? Or is there a copycat in their midst?
The novelty of giving the masked killer a carryover nemesis for the first time is ultimately revealed as a ruse because “Jason” is indeed a copycat — revealed at the film’s conclusion to be Roy Burns (Dick Wieand), a paramedic who briefly tended to young Joey’s body early in the film. Roy, we learn, was secretly Joey’s father and had been watching him from afar for years. When he saw the aftermath of Joey’s brutal death, it drove him to mass murder.
So yes, the plot is certainly ludicrous and the film’s direction hardly cohesive, feeling like a collection of individual murders without any real through-line. We are introduced to characters who die in the same scene; whether it’s young toughs Pete (Corey Parker) and Vinnie (Anthony Barrile), amorous waitress Lana (Rebecca Wood-Sharkey) and impatient beau Billy (Bob DeSimone), or RV park inhabitants Demon (Miguel A. Nuñez Jr.) and his girlfriend, Anita (Jere Fields), characters are often dispatched in short order with hardly an introduction.
Even the machete fodder who do carry through the film are forgotten for long stretches, then swiftly offed. A subplot where the stuttering Jake (Jerry Pavlon) professes his feelings for Robin (Juliette Cummins) only to be rebuffed and laughed at comes out of nowhere, and the rest of the kids are mere stereotypes. There are the horny ones, the introverted loner, the carefree one — all quickly murdered.
Of course, this all sounds horrible. What makes A New Beginning so memorable?
In short, its self-awareness. This cadre of ’80s caricatures embraces the stereotypes and utter silliness they know they’re foisting upon the audience. By now, everyone involved knows these movies are cash grabs, cheap and easy ways to create content that the audience will lap up like a dog, and the filmmakers are winking at us the whole time.
Take Ethel (Carol Locatell) and her son, Junior (Ron Sloan), arguably the two funniest characters in the entire franchise. A dirty, backwoods mother-and-son duo, they’re the nosy neighbors who hate the halfway house’s existence mostly because some of its residents sneak onto their property to have sex.
Ethel’s foul motormouth routine leads to some of the best laughs ever in the series, whether she’s talking to the dead chicken she’s preparing for dinner or politely asking her son to “shut the fuck up” while she’s berating Matt and his clan. They’re a breath of fresh air in the film, easily its most interesting characters, and they also represent two more suspects in our murder-mystery.
Some of Ethel’s highlights throughout the film: An obviously homeless man knocks on her door telling her he’s hungry and asking for a meal, and she tells him to “clean all the shit out of the chicken coop and dump it behind the shed” before filling his stomach. She also calls Junior a “big dildo” and, in their climactic scene, implores him to “come eat this fucking stew.” Ethel is a gem, and her exit is appropriately hilarious as well.
As characters, Demon and Anita couldn’t be more different than Junior and Ethel, but their short stint is similarly entertaining. Demon’s tight leather pants and penchant for eating enchiladas leads to a trip to the outhouse, where he and Anita share a sweet duet of a song consisting only of the words “ooh” and “baby.” Exclusively. And in that order.
This comes moments after Anita literally rattles his cage, scaring him while he’s taking care of business, prompting Demon to warn “You’re gonna get it, bitch” in a display that doesn’t play well today but is also cartoonish enough to not really take seriously.
Beginning also goes all out on imaginative kills, upping the ante from harpoons to the eye and 3D head-squashings to motorcycle decapitations, post-coital hedge trimmers to the eyes and a leather strap to the face. Although they often strain credulity, the kills are nonetheless fun and often brutal.
The film’s main murder-mystery plot, though, is undeniably silly, despite subtle clues that this Jason is different. First there’s his mask, which sports black triangles rather than the signature red triangle across the brow, and then there’s the insistence by different characters that Jason is dead. The final reveal of “Jason” still rings hollow and silly, down to copious news clippings found in Roy’s wallet, including an article that features a hockey mask-clad Jason front and center.
So while A New Beginning is really anything but — to the extent that the next film did about as much as it could to ignore or outright contradict this film just a year later — it remains a piece of camp art, a hokey good time that is eminently rewatchable, if only you can get past that ridiculous twist.