Friday the 13th Part 5 is the first film in the franchise that doesn’t open with an extended flashback. While there is a very brief precis of Parts 1-4 before the credits roll, the opening is mainly devoted to a dream sequence in which Tommy (Corey Feldman), one of the few survivors from Part 4, witnesses a couple of teenagers digging up Jason’s grave, only to find that he is still alive and more insatiable than ever. As Jason disposes of them and then bears down upon Tommy, we’re suddenly transported to the present – at least six or seven years later – where a much older Tommy (John Shepherd) is now being transported to a low-level mental health retreat after being institutionalised in the wake of his encounter with Jason in the previous film.
True to its name, then, Part 5 presents a new beginning for Friday the 13th, since this is the closest we have come to character continuity between any two films in the franchise so far. While more time elapses between Parts 4 and 5 than any other two films in the franchise as well, the effect is to deepen and nuance Tommy’s fixation on the past, which also transforms him into the first real protagonist that the franchise has had as well, with the exception of Jason himself. While A New Beginning has a looser, more disparate and ensemble vibe than any other previous film, it’s only because of how emphatically it is anchored in the psyche and perception of this one single character. It feels appropriate, then, that Tommy and Jason gradually converge as the film proceeds, until they are effectively a single protagonist by the final hallucinatory scene.
What Part 5 shares with the previous four films is yet another spatial reimagination and reconfiguration of the Camp Crystal Lake universe. While it’s impossible for the series ever to fully discard the Lake look, this is the first film that takes place away from the Lake, with most of the action unfolding at the mental health retreat, which looks a bit like a vineyard and feels as if it was shot in California rather than the lush New England landscapes of the previous films (it is supposedly set in Pennsylvania). Over Parts 1-4, it felt as if Camp Crystal Lake was gradually coalescing into suburbia, but here we’re presented with a collection of misfits who are being prepared for a return to suburbia after suffering psychiatric, psychological or antisocial symptoms. Having just been released from a state institution, Tommy, in particular, is used to walls, thresholds and boundaries, only to suddenly find himself without them for the first time in years as he prepares to return to mainstream society. Whereas the previous films presented suburbia as a gradual constraint of the mise-en-scene, then, A New Beginning imagines suburbia as a relaxation and elasticisation of the mise-en-scene, creating a very different atmosphere and ambience.
First and foremost, that heightened relaxation creates a quite new ensemble experience this time around. By Part 4, the franchise had become about as sexually explicit as possible, so it’s refreshing to see that Part 5 heads in a completely different direction, replacing entitled suburbanites with a band of misfits who don’t – yet – fit into suburbia. In their hands, this becomes the first film in the franchise as which you really sense something like 80s teen subculture, with traces of Goth, New Wave and MTV aesthetics that sync up with Jason’s own presence in surprisingly and comically apposite ways. Certainly, there are still some lascivious moments, but they’re treated as psychological symptoms as much as sexual proclivities, while the film as a whole seems less inclined to fear burgeoning sexuality so much as to commune with the kinds of fallibility, awkwardness and even shame that it brings. In that sense, all of the teenagers in Part 5 feel like an offshoot of Crispin Glover’s character in Part 4 – the first real teen “character” in the franchise – and his crippling fear of being labelled a “bad lay.”
What is so striking about A New Beginning, however, is that the teenagers aren’t even the main characters any more. In part, that’s because they’re robbed of agency and action by the mental health retreat, but it’s also because they’re folded into a wider ensemble cast that includes the doctors and therapists, the neighbours, the local police force, and a host of other minor or incidental characters that ensures that this is not only the most character-driven film in the franchise to date, but a veritable manifesto for a new character-oriented version and vision of the franchise itself. Among other things, that enables the first real African-American character in the series so far – “Reggie the Reckless” (Shavar Ross), the son of the retreat’s caretaker, who puts in by far the most charismatic performance in the film, thanks in part to his rapport with Pam Roberts (Melanie Kinnaman), one of the retreat therapists, who exudes a wonderfully wry, detached intelligence that often reminded me of Kristen Bell. One of the benefits of exploitation cinema is that there’s more scope to luxuriate in characters who would be sidelined or caricatured in mainstream Hollywood cinema, and I’d lay good money on Reggie being one of the great African-American child performances of the decade.
One of the most interesting consequences of this ensemble experience is that it tends to sideline Jason himself, since after the prologue there’s no trace of him for some time. Since we’re no longer at the Lake, Jason has to spend more time travelling to reach his victims, creating a rhythm that anticipates many of the great 90s slasher sequels, and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer in particular. In that sense, Part 5 also completes the dissociation of the camera from Jason’s gaze that started in Part 4, resulting in a film that, for the first half hour, feels as if it could operate entirely independently of Jason’s agency. Whereas Part 4 compensated for that absence by announcing Jason’s presence periodically with highly baroque, operatic, melodramatic musical motifs, here Harry Manfredi’s signature score is almost entirely absent across the first act, turning this into the most evocative soundscape since Part 2 and really allowing the sounds of nature, in particular, to return to fringes of the audibility. That casual vibe gives the characters more room to breathe, but it also suggests that Jason is just one part of the puzzle, one ingredient in a wider psychodrama.
In one of the most ingenious plot points, some of the inmates at the mental health retreat are genuinely dangerous on their own terms.Indeed, the first murder is actually committed by an inmate, and constitutes the most brutal and graphic sequence in the entire film. In turn, that murder prompts a mysterious revenge agenda on the part of one of the investigating policemen, resulting in an unfolding crime procedural that is entirely independent of Jason, at least in the first part of the film. With such a wealth of suspicious and dangerous characters, there a burgeoning awareness of “fake” Jasons or “rival” Jasons, which at this pivotal moment in Jason’s serial proliferation almost makes the film feel like an allegory of brand control. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the cops do start investigating Jason, but even that makes for quite a novel and surreal moment for the franchise, bringing him back to earth only to create a new kind of suspense in the process.
In many ways, then, A New Beginning is one of the most ambitious films in the franchise and, like all ambitious films, its reach doesn’t always match its grasp. Combining so many different moving pieces is a hard task, and the film doesn’t always handle it as seamlessly and elegantly as it could. Nevertheless, it benefits from moving further towards horror-comedy than Parts 1-4, or by using horror-comedy precisely as the ideal register for this inability or unwillingness to tie everything together under a single tone, atmosphere or directorial vision. As the film proceeds, this horror-comedy takes many forms, ranging from straight slapstick asides (and characters who only exist for the sake of slapstick asides) to the wry, laconic, rambling quality of the police procedural, to the jivey banter brought in by Reggie the Reckless, all of which beautifully punctures the austere whiteness of the first four films.
It is in the kill sequences, however, that the comedy really comes into its own, since Steinmann seems prescient that The Final Chapter took the spectacle of gore as far as it could possible go, at least at this moment in he franchise. Certainly, The Final Chapter was one of the most shocking and gory 80s films I have seen – it’s no surprise that it’s a key influence on Eli Roth, since each kill sequence feels like a torture porn manifesto in the making – so it’s refreshing to see that Part 5 doesn’t have much interest in graphic violence. Nor does it have much interest in ingenious or tortuous violence, with Jason pretty much adopting the machete as his weapon of choice. As the film escalates, it feels as if the kill sequences are an obligation more than anything else, to the point where that obligation – and what Steinmann does with it – becomes the central joke of the film.
It’s a testament to the film, then, that it never devolves into straight comedy, nor loses its eerie kernel and vision. In part, that’s because this is also the queerest film in the franchise, and frequently feels like a rival or companion piece to A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, which came out the same year. In the history of slasher films, Elm Street 2 is generally seen as being the first to feature a male scream queen, played by Mark Patton, who would subsequently come out as gay, and the Elm Street overtones of A New Beginning often make it feel like part of that same moment. From the very beginning of the film, we’re unsure of the extent to which Jason has infiltrated Bobby, creating the kind of heightened proximity between the two that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has identified as the “paranoid gothic,” a situation in which two men are brought together in a sickly, horrifying and often supernatural way as an expression of unresolved or unarticulated homoerotic tendencies. While it doesn’t make sense to suggest that Jason and Tommy actually desire each other, there is a sense in which their homoerotic proximity forms part of the anti-suburban behaviour that Tommy is trying to shake, which is why is feels so pointed – and so perfect – that their communion only comes into its own when he arrives at the very institution that is designed to usher him back into suburbia.
At a more immediate level, there is something irreducibly queer about Shepherd as an actor and Tommy as a character, if only because their relative isolation and introspection is so different from the promiscuous frathouse vibe of the earlier films. Key to that vibe was a softcore exploitation fixation on the naked female torso, but A New Beginning is the first film in the franchise in which the muscular male body is frankly offered up as an object of desire and voyeurism as well. It feels right, then, that A New Beginning feels sandwiched between Elm Street 2 and Elm Street 3, continually returning to dream-states and dream-experiences as well as gradually converging waking and dreaming life, until it concludes with a series of sleep shots – frontal high shots of Tommy’s face as he tries not to fall asleep – that play as direct homages to Wes Craven. As with Elm Street, there is a continual sense of Tommy waking up from a dream only to find himself still in a nightmare, although it works even better here to suggest Jason’s inexorability and serial robustness over the next stage in the franchise.
If the film does have a fault, it’s that it doesn’t explore the exquisite dream-space of the mental health retreat as much as it could. In the franchise so far, the final chase has always been reserved from the most bravura moments, so it’s disappointing to find that here it plays more like a pastiche of earlier moments – in the film, in the franchise, in other horror franchises – which is not a great quality for the last act of a reboot. By the end, it almost feels as if the extended flashback sequence left out of the opening has been reserved for the conclusion, or as if the opening flashback sequence for the next film has been included at the end of this one, which suggests that A New Beginning has more serial anxiety than would appear at first glance.
Nevertheless, even this final sequence has one brilliant moment. At one point in the final chase, Pam and Reggie take shelter in a barn that harks back to the farmscape of Part 3, where they take shelter in the roof. For almost the first time in the franchise, we get a genuine POV from Jason’s perspective as he – and we – try to figure out where they are. Although the first three films were suffused with Jason’s gaze in a generalised, abstracted, apparatus-oriented kind of way, that’s very different from a straight POV shot, and the difference between the two makes this short sequence at the end of Part 5 wonderfully surprising. Within the overall logic of the series it is a genuinely uncanny moment and a promising taste of what’s to come for the next generation of Friday the 13th films.