Years after killing masked psychopath Jason Voorhees to save his sister’s life, Tommy Jarvis is transferred from a mental institution to a halfway house for troubled young people. Though he is considered well enough to begin preparing for a return to the outside world, Tommy is still haunted by hallucinations and nightmares of the hulking killer. When mutilated bodies start turning up in the area, he wonders if Jason has returned from the grave – or if he himself has taken up the dead monster’s bloody work.
The most admirable thing about FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING is that it tries mightily to live up to its name. Though the marketing campaign was built around the notion that perhaps Jason himself has been resurrected, the story by Martin Kitrosser, David Cohen, and Danny Steinmann points toward Tommy Jarvis as the likely psychopath, having presumably snapped and co-opted the Voorhees modus operandi for his own grisly killing spree. From a narrative standpoint, making your default antagonist also your prime suspect is difficult to pull off – especially in a relatively mindless popcorn film aimed at teenagers. Is the audience supposed to root for Tommy or fear him? A more gifted helmer might have pulled it off, but Steinmann, who cut his directorial teeth on softcore porn, can’t quite strike the right balance of likeability and sinister rage in his male lead. Further, the true identity of the murderer is about as “secret” to viewers paying very close attention as that of your average MURDER SHE WROTE killer, once we get a look at the guilty party’s face just a few minutes into the film. Still, it’s a credit to the entire cast and crew that they approached the material with an earnest desire to recapture the spirit of the original FRIDAY THE 13TH without resorting to turning Jason Voorhees into Universal’s Frankenstein Monster or Hammer’s Dracula. This is the only FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel in which there is any attempt to create doubt regarding just who is behind the hockey mask.
Characterization has not always been a strong suit of this series, and this film features an eclectic mix of terrible 80s teen clichés and quirky, memorable bit players. Similarly, the acting is all over the chart, with John Shepherd fine (if not overly sympathetic) as Tommy, and Melanie Kinnaman and Shavar Ross (DIFF’RENT STROKES) doing their best to recreate the preteen Tommy-Trish dynamic from the previous film. Carol Locatell and Ron Sloan are hilariously offensive as ill-tempered mother and son southern stereotypes. Though cartoonish in the extreme, both have a lot of fun in their roles, and they represent the last real “rural” characters to appear in the mythos, despite the fact that most of the subsequent outings still center on the same Crystal Lake. Sonny Shields is good in a very brief bit as an out of work drifter who looks and sounds an awful lot like Clint Eastwood. The other cast members are less memorable and given less to work with in even more one-dimensional parts. From the clumsy, mentally-challenged fat kid to the dyed, pierced New Wave punk girl to the terminally horny teen couple to the stuttering, Jon Cryer-esque nerd, this group of victims could easily be yanked from this movie and transplanted into a thousand others from the same period, in genres ranging from horror to sex comedy to AfterSchool Special. The worst offenders are Anthony Barrile and Cory Parker as obnoxious, anachronistic greasers Vinnie and Pete, respectively, complete with leather jackets, ducktails, and wholly idiotic dialogue. At least Corey Feldman makes a token appearance (and when was the last time you heard yourself say that?) in the pre-credit dream sequence, lending both star power and pathos to a film sorely lacking in both areas.
Perhaps owing to Steinmann’s experience on earlier drive-in films like THE UNSEEN and SAVAGE STREETS, this movie is more callous and sleazy than its predecessors. The entire story hinges on a vicious, savage killing of a completely innocent character in the opening moments, a crime which has nothing to do with Jason Voorhees or the legends of Camp Blood whatsoever. Despite being mentally unstable and having seen this butchery first hand, the residents of the halfway house take all of a few minutes to get over it and go on with their lives. For the first time in the series, we see the use of hard drugs, an ambulance driver and his waitress girlfriend enjoying some cocaine before unwittingly adding to the body count. Some of the murders here are almost pornographically brutal. Two female victims are killed while naked and lying on their backs, one impaled from beneath so that the knife blade protrudes between her bare breasts, the other (played by Debi Sue Voorhees!) losing both eyes to a pair of garden shears after shagging her boyfriend in the woods. A third female, the aforementioned snow-plowing waitress, makes sure to expose her perky breasts before she is added to the death toll. One male victim is dispatched with a road flare in the mouth, a shot that is both poorly executed and more than a little suggestive of fellatio. Another character is set up as a possible red herring and then quickly slaughtered… after peeping at two teenagers having sex. The obligatory outhouse killing is preceded by a more liberal spattering of crude excretory jokes and sound effects. It may seem odd to think of a FRIDAY THE 13TH film as “tasteless” in comparison to other installments in the series, but this one deserves that label.
With all of its flaws, one might think that A NEW BEGINNING is completely unwatchable, but that would be an unfair assessment. Because it tries so hard to strike a balance between the tone of the original film and a new direction for the series, the movie remains interesting in spite of its shortcomings. Tommy is obviously not the killer this time around, but there is substantial evidence that he is headed down that path, and even the most hardcore Jason fan has to be a bit intrigued by what might have been had Paramount not opted to take the easy route with PART 6. Though slight of build, Shepherd certainly displays the intensity necessary to be a frightening psychopath. When he attacks a teasing bully at breakfast, his sudden, uncontrollable fury is pretty frightening stuff. When he emerges from behind the door in the closing moments, wearing the mask and brandishing a huge knife, the audience is ready and willing to accept that this kid they have rooted for in two consecutive films is about to turn into a murderous monster. Sadly, neither Shepherd nor his unhinged take on Tommy Jarvis would return in the next entry.
The fake Jason does look great, and does a decent job of filling in for his more infamous inspiration. One inspired touch was the changing of the design of the hockey mask, prompting viewers watching the trailer to wonder if indeed Jason had returned, while simultaneously tipping off the more observant fans that something about this Mr. Voorhees wasn’t quite right. The climactic chase/fight scene is tense and exciting, and a couple of the murders (the garden shears to the eyes; a man’s head crushed against a tree with a leather strap) are worthy of Mrs. V’s baby boy. If you’re going to do a FRIDAY THE 13TH film without Jason, you could do a lot worse than this.
Dismissed and purposefully ignored by the FRIDAY faithful, A NEW BEGINNING probably deserves a better reputation. It is certainly derivative, one-dimensional, and extremely clunky at times, but it is also a fairly entertaining 92 minute diversion that fed our addictions between Jason’s death in THE FINAL CHAPTER and resurrection in JASON LIVES. Think of it as this series’ sloppy, low-budget equivalent of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. Charged with keeping the franchise alive without the iconic leading man of the previous films, the producers made a noble effort to combine the conventions of the series with some new, unexpected twists. While George Lazenby’s sole James Bond outing is infinitely superior to the one and only rampage of the pseudo-Jason in just about every way, it is fair to say that both films offer enough of a change of pace from their predecessors that they are worthy additions to any fan’s DVD library.