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.
When do serial killers retire?
Preternatural slashers being who they are, maybe the answer is never. Their reasons for being are killing and fear. Pinhead won’t be taking up cross-stitch in his waning years. Freddy Krueger would dissolve into the ether before scrapbooking. To stop invading dreams and torturing suburban youth would mean to stop being. Essence and purpose are intertwined and codependent.
But if a horror antagonist ever conveyed the energy of waking up before an alarm on Monday morning with a belabored sigh, that antagonist is Jason Voorhees circa Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. Post-hypnosis Peter Gibbons has more passion. I guess I sympathize with Jason: What more could we expect out of someone who has to work Friday nights?
This is the second time I’ve packed my bags to vacation at Camp Crystal Lake. Ages ago, my partner and I decided to run through the 1980s slasher gamut and enjoyed the nearly Jason-less Friday the 13th. While it might not enthrall audiences if it premiered today (particularly given its legacy), there’s enough there to see why it spawned a 12-part franchise. Cool kills, great setting, tense music and a simple Psycho riff go a long way.
The New Blood, however, suffers from a lack of commitment and cohesive vision, all-too-familiar American censorship and a story that takes itself too seriously.
In Crystal Lake Memories, the miniseries-length, all-encompassing documentary chronicling the franchise, director John Carl Buechler details how he came to be associated with the project, and his involvement is delivered with all the passion of a teenager being asked to babysit their younger sibling when their other friends are raising Cain on Devil’s Night. When asked to direct, his initial reaction was “Why? Didn’t they just make six of them? I mean, why would you ever want to do a Part VII?”
He credits this dismissive attitude with getting the job, thinking that his desire to perhaps push the franchise into a new direction to find that passion was the clincher. It’s more likely Paramount wanted to embody the sentiment in Bo Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff.”
We know it’s not right,
We know it’s not funny
But we’ll stop beating this dead horse
When it stops spitting out money
And yet The New Blood would debut at #1 on its opening weekend. Six movies in, there was no risk to making another installment. Better yet, the movies weren’t costing Paramount any money to make. With a budget of $2.8 million, The New Blood was the lowest-budgeted film to debut at number 1 in 1988, undercutting Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers by nearly half and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master by even more than that, and even coming in under the cult classic They Live ($3 million).
While Buechler certainly had the credentials to helm the movie, having worked in special makeup effects on such movies like Re-Animator and directing Troll, Occam’s Razor requires us to posit another theory: Buechler was the live body needed to showcase a bunch of dead ones. His own dreams and vision be damned. The money machine needed fed.
Setting aside Buechler’s reaction to being offered the job (he did accept after all) and the real monster of the grinding gears of Hollywood, it is still true that honest attempts were made. The New Blood‘s failures weren’t for lack of trying to chase, even languidly, the concept of the “new.” Buechler did endeavor to draw on 1971’s Hands of the Ripper, a British film following Jack the Ripper’s daughter, and imbue the film’s protagonist, Tina Shepard (played astutely by Lar Park Lincoln), with that energy. There will always be something special about horror hounds sucking up inspiration from movies of which no one else has ever heard. Screenwriter Daryl Haney also pursued the Carrie vs. Jason angle for the plot, and associate producer Barbara Sachs embraced that plot point so much that she thought this could be so unlike other Friday films and so respectable that it could win an Academy Award.
Of course, therein lies the problem. A producer in love with the “respectable” and a director enamored with gore are two trains trying to occupy the same track. According to the castmates, Sachs didn’t appear to understand what made Friday the 13th successful in the first place. It’s reported she wasn’t a fan of the horror genre and continually challenged or rejected Buechler’s ideas, causing him to either go rogue or the final product to be a Frankenstein-like amalgamation of both of their visions — neither of which is achieved, and in spectacularly underwhelming fashion. Given Buechler’s chronically dismissive attitude, he perhaps also lacked the ability to give any credence to some of Sachs’s more becoming ideas and remained hellbent on his vision alone.
That Carrie vs. Jason concept could have been a viable spin, though somewhat recycled. Lincoln’s Tina holds her own, even with now-corny telekinetic effects happening and a lack of chemistry with the opposing piece of sexual tension named Nick (Kevin Blair). Terry Kiser, playing the cowardly menace Dr. Crews, was capable of becoming a character audiences love to hate and would further prove his talents the next year as he became part of our national zeitgeist playing the titular corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s. The cast has moments of charm but collectively and prematurely fall victim to the formulaic structure of the slasher film: Insert Sharp Implement A into Kid B as quickly as possible. Despite being one of the longest-lived characters, Susan Jennifer Sullivan’s performance as the archetypal “mean girl” is wasted and is one of the greater tragedies of the movie. As of today, the cast is most remembered for having many members in the LGBTQ community, leading fans to christen the movie Fri-gay the 13th.
Much like Carrie, there could have been something substantial explored. Tina’s emotion-driven telekinesis led her to cause the accident that killed her father, and the movie attempts to explore her coping although it keeps getting derailed in order to show kill sequences that keep looking away to spare the fragile psyches of the MPAA. What if Tina can’t control her powers? What if she brings harm to more people for whom she cares? Can she overcome guilt? What is the message when it comes to exploiting talented youth for the personal gain of adults? What does it mean to fit in as a misfit? How do we cope with grief and anxiety?
The answer given is “Who cares? Let’s see her electrocute Jason!”
That focus can be wildly entertaining and is something that slashers do best. They give us plenty of gore and entice our inner sadists to delight in viewing the most ridiculous of deaths executed in the cleverest of ways.
Unfortunately, the MPAA forced further and further cuts to be made, so much so that the movie could arguably be PG-13 if released today. Cameras cut away right before the killing actions. Kills are quick and even humane!. In the most iconic kill, Judy is bashed against a tree while trapped in her sleeping bag. The original plan involved a heavy dummy and gallons of blood. All of the original gore remains cut from even the most devoted restorations of the film, available only on grainy VHS rips from Eastern Europe uploaded to YouTube.
The MPAA let one murderous strike be shown. As one producer said, it’s like the movie is filled with jokes devoid of punchlines.
And the cuts result in making Jason appear … bored. He stalks from kill to kill like someone checking off a to-do list.
Buy milk. Check.
Drop off the bills at the post office. Check.
Drag Judy out from a tent in the middle of the night and toss her against a tree, somehow killing her instantly? Check.
It also ends up diminishing Kane Hodder’s portrayal of Jason. Hodder holds the distinction of being the only actor to play Jason multiple times, playing him in this, as well as Friday the 13th: Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday and Jason X. His philosophy behind taking the role mirrored Buechler’s in the “whatever happens happens” sense. As he says in Crystal Lake Memories: “I kind of went into it without any real plan.”
That may be horrifying for plenty of reasons, but the thought process behind it was to make Jason appear more human and build in some character. With the cuts in The New Blood, it may have worked too well, and Jason appears so human that he’s ready to hang up the hockey mask for good and go enjoy a beach and appletini.
The New Blood is a horror movie without much horror. The kids are fish in a barrel. There is no hunt. There is no challenge. Gore is outlawed, and the story is not working with but competing against the action. It’s enough to make even Jason Voorhees look forward to Saturday.