4 out of 5 stars

When a horror movie proves successful, strange and wonderful things can follow, like low-budget affairs ballooning into studio blockbusters. And while companies milk their intellectual properties dry, the creatives put in charge do their best to remain… well, creative. Humble stories of summer camp slashers, babysitter stalkers, and haunted dolls have mutated into decades-spanning soap operas of murder and mayhem. The toughest challenge is overcoming a dud. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985) was a financial success, grossing $22M, after series highlight The Final Chapter (1984), but it was also a bad film. The ‘new beginning’ being just anyone could wear the infamous hockey mask after Jason’s demise wasn’t received well by audiences, least of all because of the supposed twist that—spoiler alert!—some paramedic named Roy was the killer…

Writer-director Tom McLoughlin was given both the simplest yet loftiest goal with Part VI: make a good Friday the 13th. The franchise had rolled out several similar yet distinct chapters in the past five years; the origin story which is technically a prequel, the real origin story, a 3D adventure, a hilariously empty promise of conclusion, and the emptier promise of renewal. McLoughlin was given carte blanche creatively, with the single caveat being that audiences wanted the real Jason back, even though he died two films ago.

Survivor of the last two massacres, Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews), therefore digs up Jason’s grave to ensure his evil has passed, only to incite a freak accident that resurrects the simple-minded hillbilly into an indestructible slashing machine. Deemed crazy by the resident Sheriff Garris (David Kagen), Tommy finds help from his rebellious daughter Megan (Jennifer Cooke) as they attempt to stop Jason from returning to his old hunting grounds, Camp Crystal Lake.

And that’s it. Jason Lives. Like Alice Cooper sings, “he’s back! The man behind the mask.” No 3D glasses, Carrie knock-offs, or crossovers needed, and yet the film is so audacious in its straightforwardness. This is a lean 87-minutes as Tommy speeds toward the cemetery with his friend rattling off pure exposition, we don’t even need dialogue for the shovels and gasoline in the backseat. Earlier Friday the 13th‘s appreciated their naturalistic summer vibes but McLoughlin homages classic Universal horror with grave-digging on a dark and stormy night. Freddy Krueger and killer doll Chucky were always supernatural, you never needed logic for their returns, and Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers shrugged off bullets with the poetic licence of being ‘the boogeyman’. Here lies Jason, literal wormfood, and without warning or explanation, a bolt of lightning revives a rotting skeleton instantly into a hulking behemoth who can punch the hearts out of people’s chests. How can this be possible? Well, it worked in Frankenstein, so why not here?

McLoughlin injects not only Jason Lives but the entire franchise with a much-needed vigour because he recognises this isn’t just another Friday the 13th, it’s cinema! Be bold! Be daring! The blood-thirsty audience wished this resurrection into existence and they demand more sacrifices, so give it to them. When Tommy douses the reanimated corpse with gasoline, he strikes his match… only for an instant downpour to put it out. He looks up with a face that echoes his later line, “I tried to destroy Jason but I fucked up!” Sandwiched between two brazen references to Frankenstein and the James Bond franchise (a moment seen to be believed), this frank metatextual attitude came a full decade before Scream (1996) satirized the slasher genre, and is all thanks to McLoughlin’s distinct personality. The director ran a mime company and worked alongside Dick Van Dyke so he was never going to take horror completely seriously. Past directors were more interested in just getting the film out, but here there are so many throwaway gags here you’d almost think it was a parody. One I always laugh out loud at is the brief montage sequence of sleeping pre-teen campers clutching family photos, letters to home, and then Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

Thank God for the constant rollercoaster of fun and thrills because, since the first movie, the censors were hacking away almost all traces of blood. It was especially odd censorship given the film relishes in Jason’s newfound super-strength and every kill is physically impossible: arms ripped clean off, heads twisted off, bodies folded backward in two. The film moves at such a blistering pace you never miss the past inspiration of Tom Savini but there are moments where you wonder, ‘that guy just got stabbed in the head and there isn’t a drop of blood.’

So who are these people that get so ridiculously mutilated? Interestingly, contrasted with past entries, Jason Lives spends little attention on the campers and the camp itself until the climax. One reason the pacing feels so intense is that Tommy is front and centre for the entire story, and most of the runtime is his plight to warn the sheriff that Jason’s back and the authorities’ refusal to believe the absurd. The majority of the body-count is arbitrary victims that Jason comes across on his furious march back to camp; from the head counselors lost on the road who proclaim, “I’ve seen enough horror movies to know any weirdo wearing a mask is never friendly!”, to the random office workers on a paintball retreat literally wearing headbands with ‘DEAD’ written across their foreheads.

These sequences are enjoyable but less engrossing than other entries because these characters come and go in single scenes. Jason flying out of a tree and bisecting three bodies with one machete swing is incredible, but almost halfway through the film we’ve only spent seconds at Camp Blood. But perhaps that’s intentional. What time we spend there, a kid observing an inane camp lecture declares “if this is as exciting as it gets, we’re in big trouble”. When it cuts to Jason’s bloody machete, that’s a directorial statement the audience is only here for one thing and it’s not reminiscing on how pleasant summer camp was.

The story this time’s about the grudge match between Tommy and Jason. Aiding and delaying are the decent secondary characters of Megan and Sheriff Garris. Cooke enjoys herself in the role, notably in the car chase sequence in which she hides Tommy’s head down in her lap as they speed by ‘Dangerous Curves Ahead’ signs while he stares point-blank at her crotch. Kagen delivers a strong performance, proving an obstacle to Tommy in constantly arresting him, then courageously defend a camp full of children while mowing down Jason with a shotgun.

Special credit to C.J Graham, who brings a uniquely unstoppable presence to the killer with his Marine background. The old, living Jason stumbled through the woods and often felt like anyone who saw him coming could plausibly take him out with a plank of wood. Now, however, not only does Jason absorb and ignore damage like The Terminator, there’s almost a meta-awareness in his visible attitude; it’s like he learned he was in a horror movie after death and now knows he can do whatever he wants. He stands and stares while victims play out the same hopeless tropes in vain; when a woman offers him her Mastercard, he promptly spears her through the face. Once swearing revenge on his mother’s killers, now Jason kills anyone and everyone stupid enough to visit the site of five mass murders.

Jason’s new insatiable drive for destruction was one of many fixes implemented after the failings of Part V, and yet Part VI cost $3M (nearly $1M more than Part V) but made $19.5M. Shockingly, A New Beginning has made more money than half of the films in the franchise, particularly most of the later sequels. Was there a cause for this failure other than people still burnt from the last disappointment? This is the only Friday the 13th without nudity, and there isn’t much gratuitous violence either. In retrospect, it’s pointless to question any real sense of failure when this is part six of twelve, it certainly made enough to interest Paramount in greenlighting Part VII and that’s when things got gimmicky once again; psychokinetic teenagers, followed by a triple-bill of trips to Manhattan, Hell, and then outer space. The franchise was well and truly ran into the ground until the long-gestating Freddy vs Jason (2003) brought in the highest box office of $117M and the 2009 remake took in $93M. The Friday the 13th audience wants something new and old; a fresh coat of paint on a classic retread, or as the grave keeper ponders while breaking the fourth wall, “why’d they have to and dig up Jason? Some folks got a strange idea of entertainment.”

USA | 1986 | 86 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

directors: Tom McLoughlin.
writers: Tom McLoughlin (based on characters created by Victor Miller).
starring: Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen, Kerry Noonan, Renée Jones, Tom Fridley, Darcy DeMoss, Nancy McLoughlin, Alan Blumenfeld, Matthew Falson, Ann Ryerson & Ron Palillo.