Friday the 13th: A New Beginning

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

Dir. Danny Steinmann

Written by: Martin Kitrosser, David Cohen, and Danny Steinmann

Starring: John Shepherd, Melanie Kinnaman, Shavar Ross, Tom Morga

 

I’ve reached the end of my month of watching and writing about Friday the 13th, and this month is wrapping up with the sequel that’s probably the reason why I didn’t continue collecting more of this franchise. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning is a follow up to the inaccurately named The Final Chapter, and it attempts to move the franchise in new directions hinted at in that film by continuing the story of Tommy Jarvis. Unfortunately, where that film was able to make subtle innovations to a tired formula, A New Beginning chooses to attempt to change things too drastically, while retaining some of the worst aspects of the earlier sequels. It’s a confusing mess of a film, and one that feels wholly unnecessary with regards to the rest of the series. It’s the middle film in an ill-advised trilogy that used Tommy Jarvis as its central character, but it fails to develop his role in the series, or even in one individual film, in any meaningful way. Featuring one of the series’ highest body counts, this entry might please viewers only looking for some gory fun, but for anyone with any higher expectations, A New Beginning totally fails to deliver.

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The film opens with young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) sneaking through the woods near his home to find Jason Vorhees’s fresh grave. As he spies on the grave, a couple of grave robbers arrive on the scene hoping to get a view of the legendary monster, Jason (Morga). When they unearth the coffin and remove its lid, Jason quickly and miraculously comes back to life, stabbing both of the grave robbers with his trademark machete. Jason rises from the grave, shaking off dirt and worms, and turns his attention to Tommy, who is still cowering behind a bush. He slowly strides over to the boy who killed him, and raises his machete high over his head, preparing to deliver a killing blow. As the blade descends, adult Tommy Jarvis (Shepherd) awakens, startled, in the back seat of a transport van from the mental institution where he has spent all of his teens. Tommy is being transported to a rural halfway house, in an attempt to ease his transition back into society. At the halfway house, Tommy first meets Pam (Kinnaman), the director of the facility, and Reggie (Ross), a young boy whose grandfather is the cook. He also meets the other patients, including Joey (Dominick Brascia) and Victor (Mark Venturini), two patients who have a dispute shortly after Tommy’s arrival that leads to Victor brutally murdering Joey with an axe in front of the rest of the residents. Joey’s is just the first in a string of murders, as several of the residents and townsfolk in the surrounding area go missing, and Tommy is left wondering if Jason Vorhees could truly be back.

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It’s understandable that the series’ creators and the filmmakers behind A New Beginning would want to shift the focus of the series moving forward. Despite the successes of The Final Chapter, no one could deny that most of the life had been wrung out of the existing formula, and using Tommy Jarvis as the character to bridge the gap between the first few movies and the next batch of sequels makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the execution of those changes is terribly botched in A New Beginning, with new director Danny Steinmann trying to change too much, too soon, and ending up creating a confusing mess of a movie. Though it stands firmly in the slasher genre, Steinmann attempts to integrate elements of mystery, and even psychological thriller, into the mix, and it just doesn’t work. The film wants to tease throughout that Tommy may in fact be behind the murders, but its narrative is too flimsily constructed to carry this conceit through. Instead, what is presented is a series of kill scenes, many of which feature characters who are introduced into the film for the sole purpose of being murdered later in their first scene, strung together by the sketches of a mystery that also feels largely irrelevant to the film’s outcome. The film features a couple of twists in its third act, with the killer being revealed to be Joey’s estranged father, who works as a paramedic, and who snapped after seeing his bastard son’s mutilated corpse, and with a final shot which features Tommy putting on Jason’s hockey mask and stalking up behind final girl, Pam, with a knife. These sorts of twists revealing the killer’s identity, or hinting at the inevitable sequel, should be familiar to fans of the series by now, but in A New Beginning, neither of the surprises feel narratively warranted or satisfying.

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One of the reasons for this lack of satisfaction is likely that the film doesn’t do anything to make the audience care one bit about any of the characters. Even the trio that ostensibly makes up the core of the cast – Tommy, Pam, and Reggie – are completely underdeveloped. Clearly the idea here was to include a cute kid to replicate the success of casting Feldman as the young Tommy Jarvis, but Reggie’s character is never developed beyond being an excitable, rambunctious little boy. Pam’s character is given maybe a dozen lines in the entire movie, and Tommy is equally mute, with Shepherd attempting to translate his mental scars through a brooding, vacant performance. Ancillary characters fare even worse, with the residents of the halfway house being as typically undifferentiated as the counselors of the first few installments in the series. As I mentioned, several characters are literally introduced just to be killed off, and as a result, the film feels disjointed and incomplete. The film jumps from locale to locale with little logic, and characters pop into the story abruptly, with little narrative import, and are dispatched from the story summarily, with even less. More than any other entry in the series, besides perhaps Part III, A New Beginning feels like its narrative was constructed with the sole purpose of guiding the audience from one kill to the next, with little attempt made to promote satisfying, or even coherent, storytelling. The fact that its creators clearly had a higher opinion of its quality, and had ambitions to introduce new elements into the series, makes it a bigger disappointment than Part III, because at least that movie contained its ambitions to being a campy gorefest.

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I haven’t seen the films that make up the second half of the Friday the 13th series since sometime in the 1990s, so I’d have trouble maintaining that A New Beginning is positively the worst movie in the series, but it can’t be far off. I’m sure it’s a movie that has its champions among fans of the series, but it’s hard for me to look at this movie as anything but a failure, particularly after the relative successes of The Final Chapter in reinvigorating the series. Its plot is a flimsy pretense, its acting is as laughably bad as its dialogue, and it doesn’t even have the good sense to actually feature Jason Vorhees as its masked killer. I suppose that it does feature a few good kill scenes, but if that’s all you’re looking for as a viewer, there are superior watching experiences within the Friday the 13th series, and certainly across the slasher genre. A New Beginning tries to do too much with the franchise, and its attempts to move it forward end up being two steps back. The less said about this bad movie, the better.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Dir. Joseph Vito

Written by: Barney Cohen

Starring: Kimberley Beck, Corey Feldman, E. Erich Anderson, Ted White

 

The Friday the 13th series bounces back admirably from its two lackluster sequels in what was initially intended to be its final installment. The Final Chapter attempts to make changes to the stale formula of its predecessors, and actually features a few performances that are worth watching, as well as upping some of the suspense factor, providing actual scares rather than the gruesome shocks of the first few films. The subtle attempts to change the patterns of the series make The Final Chapter feel somewhat fresh, and make it a highlight in the series. This might be faint praise, but it’s certainly the best of the five that I own, and from my memories of the other movies in the series that I’ve seen, it’s likely the best in the series, overall. Its higher production values give it a boost above the original, and its lack of adherence to the established Friday the 13th formula make it unique enough to stand head and shoulders over the other, highly derivative sequels.

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The Final Chapter picks up immediately after the events of Part III, with Jason’s body being taken to the morgue. Presumably, his fight with Chris put Jason (White) down for the count, but you can’t keep a good unstoppable psycho killer down, and, as such, Jason miraculously revives in the morgue. After killing the orderlies on duty there, Jason is back on the loose and headed towards Crystal Lake, where a new family has moved in. Trish (Beck) and Tommy (Feldman) Jarvis, and their mother (Joan Freeman), have moved to the country in search of a quieter life, but the group of teens who have rented the house next door might have other plans. Those teens lead Jason right back to the lake, and he quickly gets back to his old tricks, rampaging through the woods, picking off his victims one by one, in gruesome and shocking fashion. While Jason is stalking his victims, however, there is someone stalking him. Trish meets a young man named Rob (Anderson), whose sister was one of Jason’s victims in an earlier massacre, and Rob has sworn to get revenge on the masked killer. As such, he shows up at the end of the film to help protect Trish and Tommy from Jason. However, Rob proves to be no match for Jason and the two siblings are left as the last pair standing, forced to confront the monstrous Jason in a fight for their lives.

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The introduction of the Jarvis family was a conscious decision on the part of the film’s creators to create protagonists who would be seen as more than just disposable fodder for Jason’s murderous rampage, and that decision pays dividends. The earlier films in the series feature a host of interchangeable murder victims, and, as such, don’t invite any sort of audience identification, but The Final Chapter actually gives us a few characters who are sympathetic and fleshed out enough to make them worth rooting for. Focusing on a family gives the film a feeling of higher stakes than previous entries in the series, and Tommy, in particular, is a notable addition to Friday the 13th lore. More than any other character in the series, Tommy gets actual character traits and a personality that makes him endearing to the audience. Casting an up-and-comer in Corey Feldman also helps this cause. He doesn’t have to do much acting in the film besides being an excitable, cute kid, but his performance stands out as one of the best in a film franchise that doesn’t put much weight in the dramatic chops of its actors. Beck doesn’t fare quite as well, largely falling into the familiar role of the final girl, but she is still very good. She has a bigger screen presence than any of the actresses who preceded her in that role, and she brings a wholesomeness to her portrayal that was largely absent from any of the first three films. Her performance ranges from nurturing and kind to savage and fearsome during her final showdown with Jason, and she shows more depth and range than any actress in the franchise previously or since.

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While much of its plot does, in fact, play out like a paint-by-numbers Friday the 13th sequel, the little differences that I’ve already mentioned in The Final Chapter’s casting and attempts to flesh out its characters do wonders to freshen up the formula. Also, new director Joseph Vito brings a new storytelling sensibility to the franchise. Jason’s assault on the house that the teens have rented feels more purposeful than any of his previous rampages, with Vito blocking the kill scenes out with efficiency and something resembling narrative continuity. The kills are still a random string of gory cut scenes, but Jason moves through the house with something resembling forethought, as if he’s actually on a mission with an achievable end goal in this film. Vito also dispenses with the silly tone taken in Part III, delivering a grimmer, more serious entry into the series. Like any good horror film, there are moments of levity to contrast the terror, but overall this is a darker movie. The stakes also feel heightened in this entry with the decision to introduce a character who already has an understanding of what Jason is capable of, and who has made it his stated mission to kill the monster. Though it doesn’t turn out to be Rob who kills Jason in the end, his foreknowledge seems to even the playing field, even if that advantage does prove to be futile. The Final Chapter takes itself seriously, which could have been disastrous, leading the audience to point out the obvious silliness of this movie and its ilk, but instead the darker tone and attempts at audience identification make for a movie that stands out in a crowded field of B-slashers.

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Vito is also to be credited for creating one of the series’ most iconic final chases. Each movie in the Friday the 13th series invariably ends with its final, usually female, protagonist desperately racing through the woods or some other locale, with Jason and his machete close on her heels. The Final Chapter delivers one of the best chases, with Trish narrowly escaping Jason time and time again as he lays waste to her home, all while she is trying to distract him and protect her brother, Tommy. This final fight scene might represent the most awesome depiction of Jason’s superhuman abilities of any sequence in the series, at least in the films that comprise the first half, with which I’m more familiar. It packs genuine suspense, from the moment that Trish and Rob arrive at the teens’ rental home to find their mangled corpses, until the very last moment that Jason is bearing down on Trish in her own home, after having chased her through the woods in between. It also packs in great jump scares, with Jason casually tossing bodies through picture windows, and crashing through doors and walls like a homicidal Kool-Aid Man. No matter where Trish hides, Jason is right behind her, bursting into frame abruptly and violently. It’s a great sequence, and it’s capped off with a memorable ending worthy of the original’s reveal of Mrs. Vorhees. Tommy arrives just in the nick of time, disguised as a young Jason, and is able to distract and confuse the killer long enough for his sister to get the drop on Jason and knock his mask off, before Tommy jumps on him, hacking away with a machete at Jason’s prone, seemingly lifeless body. It’s a thrilling ending to the series’ most exciting sequel.

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I think it likely goes without saying that The Final Chapter is my favorite of the Friday the 13th sequels. I think I probably even prefer it to the original. It can stand alone as a horror movie, without resting on the laurels of its franchise affiliation. It takes the tried and true formula of the rest of the series, and genre overall, and fleshes it out with slightly more interesting characters and a bit more depth than most of the rest of its ilk. Besides featuring Corey Feldman in a pre-fame role, the film also features a young Crispin Glover in a supporting role, and those casting choices make it obvious that there was some attempt made to make this a higher quality of movie than should probably be expected of a third sequel to a slasher rip off. It all works pretty well, however, and the end result is a totally enjoyable, mildly rewatchable horror movie. The series may have been better off truly letting this be the final chapter, but there were many, many subpar sequels to come. As a result, the Friday the 13th brand has probably become somewhat watered down, but The Final Chapter is well worth another look for its attempts to give the series a much-needed breath of fresh air, while still remaining true to the core dynamics of the franchise. It and the original are likely the only ones that I can recommend someone who isn’t already a fan of the series taking the time to check out today.

Friday the 13th Part III

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Dir. Steve Miner

Written by: Martin Kitrosser & Carol Watson

Starring: Dana Kimmell, Larry Zerner, Richard Brooker

 

The second sequel to Friday the 13th is quite possibly the worst of the five films in the series that I own, and it is likely in the running for one of the worst entries in the franchise, in general. Friday the 13th Part III is another tired rehash of the territory trod in the first two films, with another group of relatively anonymous young people arriving at Crystal Lake to serve as quarry for a rampaging Jason. Though director Steve Miner attempted to modernize and reinvigorate the series with his second stint as director, particularly through the use of new 3D film technology, Part III simply hasn’t aged well and it doesn’t hold up favorably to the rest of the early films in the series. It is notable for a couple of additions to the series’ canon, and for being the first ever 3D film to receive a wide theatrical release, but aside from that, it’s a largely forgettable movie.

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Part III is a direct sequel to Part 2, beginning with a wounded Jason Vorhees (Brooker) arriving at a rural convenience store in search of clothing and shelter. Jason quickly kills off the couple who owns the store and seeks refuge in a nearby abandoned house on Crystal Lake. At the same time, Chris (Kimmell) and her friends are on their way to a weekend getaway at the lake. Unbeknownst to the group of friends, however, they are in for a less than relaxing time on their vacation. Chris’s family lake house just happens to be the same one that Jason has chosen as his new home, and when the friends arrive there, he starts to his usual business of dismembering young people. Along the way, two of Chris’s friends, Shelly (Zerner) and Vera (Catherine Parks), run afoul of some bikers, who initially seem to be a bigger threat to their wellbeing than the homicidal maniac hiding in the barn, but Jason quickly proves himself to be the apex predator in this ecosystem. The movie unfolds predictably until only Chris is left to confront Jason. She manages to get the best of Jason, hanging him from a beam in the barn, before burying an ax in his forehead, but like Alice and Ginny before her, Chris is left deeply traumatized by her ordeal.

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While Miner goes to great lengths in Part III to change the series’ tone and visual aesthetic, the narrative and plot structure of the film remain largely unchanged from the first two entries in the series. The embrace of 3D technology is an admirable attempt to revolutionize the style of the slasher genre, and I have to imagine that it likely made some of the film’s many kill scenes that much more intense and satisfying for audiences at the time, but while watching the movie on home video over thirty years after its initial release the 3D doesn’t have the same sort of effect. Rather than adding vitality to the horror, the effects simply look dated and cheesy. The filmmakers’ insistence on including 3D in such a prevalent role, but also introducing the effects in largely hamfisted ways, leads to an overall watering down effect, and, for modern viewers, draws attention to the effects in a negative way. The bad effects do add a camp factor to the film, however, and they pair nicely with one of its only silver linings: Miner’s decision to introduce a lighter, more humorous tone to this sequel. It seems likely that he knows that even with the addition of the 3D gimmick, audiences couldn’t take another paint-by-numbers Friday the 13th sequel seriously so he decided to try to include elements of camp and humor to the film, to mixed effect.

One of the biggest problems with trying to add an element of silliness to the proceedings in Part III is that the cast is simply not talented enough to pull off even the most broad comedy. Zerner is ostensibly supposed to be the funny guy, but most of his jokes simply revolve around the idea that he’s ugly and a loser. He’s a practical joker, sure, but these attempts at humor make the character more annoying rather than really funny. Ditto for Chuck (David Katims) and Chili (Rachel Howard), Chris’s two stoner friends, who never rise above a C-level Cheech and Chong impression before they’re summarily dispatched by Jason. Even though the attempts at humor largely fall flat, I have to commend Miner and the screenwriters for trying to change the tone of this film from the first two in the franchise, because had they tried to play it straight and really attempt some scares, the end result would have been an even bigger disaster. One of the only things making the film watchable for me is the fact that it seems like all of the cast and crew know that they’re making a terrible movie and they decide to have a bit of fun with it.

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I can’t really endorse watching Friday the 13th Part III today, but I do wonder what it would be like to watch the movie in a movie theater in 1982. It still would have been a pretty objectively terrible movie, I’m sure, but would some of its campy charm have taken hold seeing the effects as they were meant to be seen? If so, I could probably see myself viewing this as a superior sequel to Part 2, simply because it doesn’t require the narrative gymnastics that that film requires in relation to its predecessor, and because both films feature fairly uninspired performances, predictable plots, and a plethora of gory kills. They’re essentially the same movie, but Part III aims to broaden its appeal by introducing actual attempts at humor, and seen in the proper context, I’m sure that its effects were decently impressive for their time. Plus Part III has the added bonus of being the film in which Jason receives his trademark hockey mask, a souvenir taken from a freshly killed Shelly. That moment alone gives it a bit more cred with fans of the series, but still I can only judge Part III based on the copy of it that I own and am most familiar with, and without the added benefit of being presented in its proper 3D format, the movie isn’t a success for me.

Friday the 13th Pt. 2

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

Dir. Steve Miner

Written by: Ron Kurz (based on characters created by Victor Miller)

Starring: Amy Steel, John Furey, Warrington Gillette/Steve Dash

 

The first sequel in the Friday the 13th series marks a decision on the part of the series’ creators to eschew their original plans of making an anthology horror film series and to double down on tales of psycho killer Jason Vorhees hunting lustful teens in the remote woods of New Jersey. Predating the eventual sequels to earlier slashers Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the entire run of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th Part 2 marks the first movie, that I know of, to introduce the trope of the immortal or invulnerable slasher. The ending of Halloween hints at Michael Meyers’s indestructability, but this sequel is the first that brings us a killer who was, ostensibly, killed off in the first film, in this case as a child, no less. Other than that minor innovation, the film otherwise sticks to the basic slasher template, and provides a handful of satisfying kills, but few real scares. It hews closely to the plot and pacing of the original, and though it’s the first film in the series to feature an adult Jason, it fails to really break any new ground or push the series forward in a meaningful way.

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The sequel begins shortly after the original Friday the 13th left off, with that film’s heroine, Alice (Adrienne King), still haunted by nightmares of her ordeal at Camp Crystal Lake and of the undead boy, Jason, who she dreamt emerged from the lake at the film’s end to drag her to her death. It turns out that her fears are warranted, as a fully-grown Jason (Gillette/Dash) has stalked her to her home and the film’s first scene culminates with him avenging his mother’s death at the hands of Alice in Friday the 13th. From there, the film flashes forward five years and the audience is introduced to a new group of camp counselors who are attending a counselor training program led by Paul (Furey) at a camp adjacent to Camp Crystal Lake. These counselors are young, horny, and stupid, with few distinguishing character traits, much like the group of counselors in the original. As such, it isn’t particularly shocking or emotionally devastating when Jason descends upon the camp, skewering and slashing counselors right and left. Eventually, Paul’s girlfriend Ginny (Steel) emerges as a final girl, ready to do battle with Jason. She discovers a hut in the woods where Jason has apparently been hiding out for years, building a shrine to his dead mother with her severed head and articles of her clothing. Ginny uses these to imitate Mrs. Vorhees, tricking Jason into letting his guard down so that she can attack him, wounding him enough to make her escape. Ultimately, Ginny makes it out alive, but, like Alice, she is robbed of her sanity and sense of security.

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Aside from the first appearance of a mature Jason as the film’s killer, Friday the 13th Part 2 doesn’t offer much variation from the template established by the original film. This sequel exists solely as a cash-in on the popularity of the original film, and it isn’t surprising that most of the creative team behind the original opted not to participate in the series moving forward. Some of the movie’s kills stand out, and the body count is escalated, but there is little innovation or evolution in this entry in the series. In fact, Part 2’s narrative so severely retcons the original’s narrative to facilitate its own existence that it has been widely lampooned by both fans and creatives involved in the series’ initial creation. If, as this sequel posits, Jason had been alive the entire time, hiding out in a hut by Crystal Lake, why didn’t he simply reunite with his mother at some point? And, short of that, how did he survive alone in the woods for nearly three decades without being spotted by some camper, hunter, or other person? I don’t always look for strong narrative continuity in slasher films, particularly in hastily thrown together sequels, but this level of narrative implausibility is really hard to look past. Not only does it not further the Friday the 13th canon, it severely disrupts it, opening up the rest of the series to an escalating chain of narrative disruptions and flimsy excuses to return the infamous Crystal Lake killer from the dead. The film gains points for being the first to introduce Jason, an iconic horror figure who has become larger that the franchise itself, but it’s hard for me not to wonder what the creative brain trust behind the original film could have done together if the series had moved in the originally intended direction and abandoned the Crystal Lake setting altogether in favor of a new tale of terror. As it stands, however, Part 2 moved the film in a direction that would see it largely recreating the same scenario over and over again with slight variations on the setting.

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There isn’t much else to say about the film. Its cast of characters is largely indistinguishable, even more so than in the original, serving only as fodder for Jason’s homicidal rampage. Characters stand out for a few physical traits, perhaps, such as one counselor who is confined to a wheelchair, and another who is obviously cast as the camp clown, but they’re otherwise simply bowling pins set up to be knocked down in, admittedly, entertaining and clever ways by Jason and his array of sharp and pointy objects. The dialogue and performances in the film are laughable, as should be expected for a slasher of its type. Overall, this sequel has the feeling of being scraped together quickly to cash in on the success of its predecessor and to establish the long term viability of a franchise centered on the character of Jason Vorhees. In those respects, it’s a film that is successful. It pays some fealty to the original with its extra-long precredit sequence involving Jason returning to murder the heroine from the first film, and then splits off on a new, if nonsensical, parallel track from which the ensuing sequels would spring. For better or for worse, Friday the 13th Part 2 established the now familiar paradigm in slasher franchises that the killer can be brought back from the dead for any reason or no reason at all, as long as audiences seem willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash at the cinema box office. It certainly isn’t the worst film in the franchise, but it doesn’t hold up favorably to the original for me, simply because it hews so closely to the structure and plot of that film. It gains a few points for introducing Jason, albeit without his iconic hockey mask, but it’s largely too redundant of a movie for me to want to give it much time or attention. The original packs a similar amount of scares and has an air of novelty about it, and Jason would be given better films to terrorize later in the series, so despite its importance in changing the direction of the franchise, Part 2 feels largely extraneous to me.

Friday the 13th

Friday the 13th (1980)

Dir. Sean S. Cunningham

Written by: Victor Miller

Starring: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Harry Crosby III

 

During the month of July, I will be writing exclusively about the Friday the 13th movie franchise. The series is a classic of the slasher genre, and during my teens, I harbored a pretty healthy obsession with all things horror, so naturally I started collecting DVDs from the series. I currently own the first five movies in the franchise, and, fortuitously, July has five Sundays, so this will be the official Friday the 13th month on my site. Some of these posts might be a little shorter than my normal review because, to be honest, these movies can get a bit repetitive as the series goes on, but I’ll try to keep it interesting and look into what makes each of these movies work (or not, as the case may be) both as a film and within the confines of their own micro-genre. There’s no better place to start than at the very beginning with the first visit to Camp Crystal Lake, and the movie that launched the most financially successful horror franchise of all time.

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The original Friday the 13th begins with the re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, in New Jersey, after some twenty years of dormancy. The camp was shuttered after some negligent camp counselors let a young camper, Jason, drown in the lake. However, a new group of counselors arrives at the campground, ready to fix it up and reopen the camp for the summer, despite the warnings of the townsfolk about the campground, which they refer to as “Camp Blood,” being cursed. In the midst of a terrible storm, the counselors are separated as a killer stalks through the woods. In predictable fashion, the unheeded warnings prove to be warranted, and counselors start disappearing one after another as it becomes apparent that the group is not alone at Crystal Lake.

Though it was clearly inspired by earlier slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th is largely responsible for setting the genre template for the modern slasher film. It upped the ante on blood and gore, and moved the setting from the suburbs to a remote, rural campground, heightening the sense of fear and isolation in the movie. Though all of its generic tropes have become rote by now, they must have seemed fresh and shocking when the film was released in 1980, causing audiences to flock to the movie which became a run-away box office success. The film’s popularity might be largely due to the fact that it alters the established slasher template enough to seem novel at the time, replacing the creeping dread of Last House on the Left with a more episodic, start and stop type of horror, with kills popping up at random and causing a roller coaster type of thrill effect on the audience. The film also eschews some of the more disturbing aspects of hardcore horror films that preceded it like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, making for a more accessible and easier to digest horror movie experience. While it’s certainly gruesome, Friday the 13th feels more like escapism than a broadcast from a doomed and sickening society, which early Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper films certainly resemble. Cunningham is more intent on causing jump scares than creating a world that’s skin-crawlingly disturbing, and the end result is a horror film that feels lighter, though no less vital or important, than its contemporaries.

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Friday the 13th is an altogether predictable movie. From the outset, the audience knows that the warnings from the townsfolk ought to be heeded by the counselors, and they also know that the entire film is predicated on the counselors not heeding those warnings and continuing to be typical sex-crazed teens. Like most slashers, Friday the 13th equates sex and death, in most cases quite explicitly, with the counselors being murdered either during, or right after performing, a sex act. I think this inherent conservatism in slashers is something that’s always interested me, the thinking that young people should be punished (with death) for being sexually explorative. I’m not sure why, as I strongly believe that people have an inherent right to freedom of sexual expression provided that they’re acting responsibly and consensually, but I’ve always been curious about the equivalence of sex and murder in horror movies. Often, the killers in these films as viewed as someone whose sexual deviance or impropriety has driven them to kill, or they’re shown as being so psychosexually repressed that they are driven to seek out victims who they feel are acting out urges that they are unwilling to claim and act upon, so they choose to pass lethal judgment on these victims. Friday the 13th carries on this tradition, established in earlier horror films, and helps it to cement its place as a hardwired genre trope.

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The one thing that is relatively untraditional about the original Friday the 13th is that it features a female killer. The killer is never seen throughout the early parts of the film, instead her presence is implied through point-of-view shots and the film’s now iconic score. When the killer is finally revealed, it’s not the familiar hockey mask-sporting Jason, but instead his mother, played by Betsy Palmer. Mrs. Vorhees was a cook at Camp Crystal Lake, and, as she explains to Alice (King), the last surviving counselor, her son, Jason, was the young boy who drowned in the lake, prompting the camp to close. It dawns on Alice that she is in the presence of the person who murdered her friends, and she takes off, providing one final, thrilling chase scene. The usage of a female killer, though not entirely novel at the time, certainly provides for an unexpected twist at the film’s end. Up to this point, all signs had pointed to some sort of supernatural explanation for the return of the drowned Jason, but Mrs. Vorhees’s is an earthbound entity with a practical reason to want to seek her revenge. I can remember finally getting to see the original movie in the franchise and being shocked that there was no Jason. I had only seen a handful of the later sequels on television, and I just assumed that the killer would show up in his familiar hockey mask, wielding a machete, and so I was rather taken aback when there was little mention of Jason at all. This genuine surprise gives the film a bit of depth that many of its sequels lack and ups its rewatchability quotient.

The original Friday the 13th isn’t the high water mark of quality for the series, nor is it the highest grossing entry in the franchise, but it was unique and successful enough to spawn its incredible lineage. The franchise was originally conceived of as a series of anthology films, but the original’s epilogue, in which an exhausted Alice falls asleep in a canoe drifting out to middle of Camp Crystal Lake after decapitating Mrs. Vorhees, only to be roused by a pale, bloated young Jason emerging from the depths of the lake to try and drag her to her death, practically demanded that a sequel centering on the undead Jason be released. These sequels would vary wildly in quality, as I’ll discuss in the weeks to come, but they all managed to be relatively safe box-office bets until the series began to run out of steam in the early 1990s. For a while, though, Friday the 13th was a reliable and bankable commodity at the box office, and that all started with the original slasher back in 1980.

Five Deadly Venoms

Five Deadly Venoms (1978)

Dir. Chang Cheh

Written by: Chang Cheh, Kuang Ni

Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Pai Wei, Feng Lu

 

Five Deadly Venoms is a classic of grindhouse cinema, one of the most memorable and celebrated martial arts films of the late 1970s, and one of the most seen classic kung fu films in the West. The movie comes relatively late into the body of work of the prolific and respected Hong Kong filmmaker, Chang Cheh, who had cut his teeth in the 1960s making popular Wuxia films before transitioning to the kung fu genre. Five Deadly Venoms shows the influence of the swords and spectacle aesthetic of the Wuxia tradition, and is an unusual blend of the two styles, featuring the period setting and unattainable physical feats of the Wuxia, as well as some gritty hand-to-hand combat set pieces. It features several great martial artists showcasing different styles of kung fu, as the five venoms all specialize in a different variant based on the attacking style of an animal. Plus it has an unusual mystery structure, making its plot a bit more engaging than the typical derivative kung fu films of the time. Taking these elements into consideration, it isn’t surprising that Five Deadly Venoms has risen above the pack of martial arts films of its time to become a midnight movie staple.

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The film opens with aging Master Yuan (Feng Ku) explaining to his final pupil, Yang Tieh (Sheng), that he fears that the other pupils he taught in the past may have begun using the skills he taught them for evil rather than good. Yuan took on five pupils in his younger days and he taught each of them a specific, and devastating, style of kung fu. Yuan asks Tieh, who he was taught a hybrid of all five styles, to seek out the five masked pupils – Centipede (Feng), Snake (Chi), Scorpion (Chien), Lizard (Kwok), and Toad (Pai) – and to kill any who are using his teachings for the purposes of evil. Yuan gives Tieh a tip that the poison clan, as his former pupils are referred to, may be plotting a robbery and Tieh tracks them to the town where their target lives. Tieh has a difficult time identifying the venoms, as their identities are a closely guarded secret, but eventually they all come to the surface during a murder investigation. Tieh teams up with Lizard, who is now a police officer, and Toad, to try to take down Centipede and Snake, who have murdered an entire family in their search for a rumored treasure, but the identity of Scorpion remains a mystery until the very end.

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That rudimentary plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the fun mystery that’s at the core of Five Deadly Venoms. At least in my experience, its plot structure is fairly unique among the kung fu films of its time period. I can remember my first time watching the movie, thinking that it was actually a bit confusing, with a decent-at-best English language dub and a subpar image transfer making it difficult to pick up on some characters’ identities and some of the more nuanced plot points. Mistaken and double identities abound, with one character not revealing his true nature until immediately before the film’s climactic battle. The venoms are all intriguing characters, and their variated kung fu styles keep the action fresh and exciting throughout the film. In many kung fu films of the time, the plot was a thin construct only used to propel the action from one set piece to another, but in Five Deadly Venoms, action often takes a backseat to intrigue, as there is genuine mystery about the identity of several of the venoms, and as to the motivations that each character has regarding the hidden treasure that Centipede and Snake have killed to find. This deeper plot structure also helps to heighten character identification, and the scenes that feature the once-invulnerable Toad broken and tortured are genuinely emotionally moving, something that more run of the mill kung fu films can rarely claim. The richness of the plot and the characters makes Five Deadly Venoms a satisfying rewatch, and it’s likely the reason that I’ve returned to this film much more frequently than the other martial arts classics in my collection.

The other reason that I might return to Five Deadly Venoms more readily than the Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies in my collection is that it provides the perfect combination of action, campiness, and tradition that I learned to embrace when I was a teenager starting to discover Hong Kong martial arts films. I’ve written before about my experience raiding my friend’s father’s VHS collection and watching 1970s and 1980s kung fu and action movies that he had taped off of HBO when I would stay at their house. The movies that I discovered there were often the stereotypically campy kung fu classics, complete with incomplete or inaccurate English dubbing, bad editing, and grainy image quality. As such, I came to love these qualities about this subgenre of action films. I sought out movies that would check off these boxes, further coming to love the B-movie quality of the genre when I saw the way that Quentin Tarantino lovingly spun those seeming shortcomings into a perfect homage in Kill Bill. I started to see the cinematic interconnections in kung fu movies, Westerns, pulp detective movies and novels, and, to a lesser extent, comics. I started becoming aware of a “high culture”/”low culture” dichotomy and realizing that I had little interest in separating types of art from one another, as I realized that works of art, by nature, form a mesh that informs one another, as well as informing the tastes and viewing patterns of fans. I enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its aspirational “artfulness” (and it is a beautiful, moving, and artful film) didn’t speak to me in the same way that the rawness of movies like Five Deadly Venoms did.

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After the first couple of years of college, Five Deadly Venoms, along with the rest of the kung fu films in my collection, found itself seemingly permanently anchored to its place on the shelf. My last couple of years of college were dominated by Westerns and arthouse cinema, and my free time to watch movies for fun was greatly diminished. After dropping out of graduate school, I felt a need to disengage with movies almost entirely, experiencing an overload and a burn out that was overwhelming. After a year or two of really not enjoying watching movies, and going out of my way to find excuses not to see the newest releases or rewatch old favorites, I started allowing myself some indulgences. Five Deadly Venoms was one of the first of these forays back into really watching movies for pleasure that I can distinctly remember. One morning in early 2010, some 18 months after I had left graduate school and probably nearly a year after a DUI car crash that derailed my sense of self for several years, I found myself alone in my house, listening to one of my favorite albums, the undeniable debut album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang. I listened to the album a lot back then, and I still do, but for some reason on that morning, upon hearing the opening sample to “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” which is partially culled from Five Deadly Venoms, I felt compelled to stop the music and dig up my old DVD copy of the movie and pop it in. I sat down on the floor of my room and watched it from beginning to end, remembering just how fun it could be to get lost in a great story for a couple of hours. It was a great experience and I can remember feeling a bit lighter after having watched a movie that I really enjoyed.

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I’ve since watched Five Deadly Venoms a few times, and it doesn’t disappoint. Martial arts movies are a frequent pick-me-up for me, when I want to elevate my mood before heading to work for the evening, or when I want to totally push any thoughts of responsibility out of my head for a while. I stream a lot of stuff, but Five Deadly Venoms is the DVD most likely to come off of my shelf for a rewatch. Unlike the rest of the low quality bootlegs that comprise a large portion of my kung fu collection, I don’t mind the grainy textures and variant sound quality, which only seem to be exacerbated by modern televisions. There’s something about that quality and this movie that seems fitting and even charming. It probably isn’t my favorite kung fu movie, but it is emblematic of a certain type of kung fu movie, and reminiscent of a time in my life when I needed to be reminded that the opportunity to watch a good movie is something of value, to be enjoyed and savored. I think that more and more it’s become difficult for people to really unplug, and that being too busy to enjoy a decent quality of life has become the norm for so many people I know, and that isn’t a healthy way of life. One of the things that I’ve most valued about working on this project is that it has forced me to find the time to sit down and really watch and enjoy at least one movie each week. Even though I look at keeping my posts updated regularly as important work, I find it rewarding, and that satisfaction, along with an honest desire to approach all of these movies with an air of critical curiosity, has kept me working through. Five Deadly Venoms is, objectively, not the best movie that I’ve written about for this project, but it is one of the most fun, and often movies that are just plain fun are the ones most worth watching.  

The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker

 

From the age of 15 until I was about 20, I was totally obsessed with horror movies. I collected all of the modern classics, from Nightmare on Elm Street to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Dawn of the Dead, I loved all kinds of different varieties of horror from the 1970s and 1980s. I started to get out of the genre during the early 2000s when theaters started filling up with half-boiled remakes of classic horror films and ham-fisted adaptations of Japanese ghost stories. Eventually, I even parted ways with many of the horror discs in my collection, losing them or allowing them to get mixed in with the collections of various different roommates in college. I just wasn’t watching scary movies much anymore, and even though I still liked to see the occasional horror movie, there were very few that I felt were worth regular revisits. Of course, there are a handful of horror movies that I haven’t ever been able to let go of, and The Evil Dead ranks highly on that list. It’s an influential classic in the genre and it played an important role in my youthful desire to be a filmmaker, with its low budget, DIY aesthetic encouraging me to try my hand at making my own movies.

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The Evil Dead finds Ash (Campbell), and his group of college friends setting off for a camping weekend at a secluded cabin in rural Tennessee. Their journey to the cabin is beset by portentous omens of the danger that they are walking into, but the real terror occurs when they arrive at the cabin and discover a curious book and a recording left by the cabin’s previous occupant, an archaeologist. The book, which is bound in human flesh, is revealed to be the Sumerian Book of the Dead, containing incantations and funeral rites, some of which have been recorded to the tape. When Ash and his friends play the tape, the recited incantations awaken an ancient evil in the forest. Though they are all disturbed by the tapes, the group tries to settle down for the night, but their restfulness is interrupted when Ash’s sister, Cheryl (Sandweiss), is possessed by a demonic entity from the woods, forcing the rest of the group to lock her up in the cellar. One by one, the rest of Ash’s friends begin to turn, and he is forced to fight them off, dismembering and disemboweling them in an increasingly gruesome fashion. Ash is finally able to destroy the Book of the Dead, which causes Cheryl and his friend Scott (Hal Delrich), both under the influence of the demons, to spontaneously decompose into piles of gore and viscera, but as Ash finds out when he limps out of the cabin to greet the rising Sun, the supernatural danger is far from over.

It would be tough to overestimate the impact seeing a movie like The Evil Dead had on me as a young teen. It was more raw, grittier than most of the horror movies I was used to seeing, even the slasher movies that I really liked. The low budget style and the tiny cast started gears turning in my head in the same way that they did when I first saw Clerks. It dawned on me that this was a popular movie, a classic even, and it had been made by a group of amateurs. I knew Bruce Campbell already, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already been introduced to Sam Raimi, as he had since graduated to bigger, more mainstream projects, including Spiderman, but seeing their origins as filmmakers was really inspiring to me. While Clerks taught me that movies don’t have to be big and flashy to make an impact, watching The Evil Dead taught me that you can make a truly effective horror movie on a shoestring budget with just a dedicated crew, a little ingenuity, and a lot of Karo syrup and food coloring to make fake blood. The effects in the movie certainly look dated now, but for a young person whose mind was already open to the possibilities of independent cinema, they were ingenious. Though I rarely ever put any of the knowledge into practice, I started reading up on DIY practical effects while I was in high school, hoping to have the opportunity to use them on my own feature film debut one day. Obviously, that day never came, but just because I didn’t follow through on my dreams of becoming an independent filmmaker doesn’t lessen the influence that several of the touchstones of independent cinema of the 1980s and 1990s have had on my taste in art, and on my outlook on life, as a whole.

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One of the things that I found most refreshing about The Evil Dead when compared to studio slasher films like Friday the 13th is that the fact that the filming process was not only a labor of love, but a grueling endurance test, is palpable in every frame of the movie. It’s clear that the cast members, who often doubled as erstwhile crew members, care about getting this film made despite the arduous circumstances they often found themselves in. I’ve since read about the difficult shoot that found the cast and crew subjected to freezing temperatures, physical injury, and a grueling shooting schedule, and I think that knowing the difficulty that went into creating this piece of art makes it even more special to me. Even though its premise is obviously absurd, as are most horror movies’, The Evil Dead feels more real than a lot of the slicker, more highly polished gore fests of the period. It shares this grittiness with one of my favorite horror movies of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, another film in which the scares are made all the more effective by the clear duress that the actors had to endure.

Even today, in spite of all of the technological advances that have been made since its release, The Evil Dead retains its power to shock and horrify. I almost never find supernatural horror of this type to be truly scary, but The Evil Dead is a brutal and effective movie. The ramshackle cabin and its remote setting are scary enough without the threat of demonic possession, but Raimi further sets the mood with long, snaking, point-of-view tracking shots that alert the audience to an otherworldly presence living in the woods. He takes his time in the early parts of the film, creating tension in the audience. He allows for a few cheap scares to lighten the mood early on, but continues to use the location and his arsenal of cinematic tricks to set an ominous and eerie mood before the film erupts into full on horror. When it does take its sharp turn, after the demons in the woods have been released by Scott and Ash playing the archeologist’s recording, Raimi doesn’t relent until the film’s end, presenting the audience with classic scene after classic scene of terror, violence, and extreme gore. The Evil Dead doesn’t pull any punches, featuring graphic scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and torture which result in buckets and buckets of fake blood that coats the actors, the sets, and even the camera lens. This extreme violence not only serves to escalate the film’s horror quotient, it also helped the film gain a great deal of notoriety as it was famously given an NC-17 rating upon its initial release, and was banned in several countries for its graphic, disturbing content.

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Though it likely seems tame by the standards of today’s brutal horror franchises like Hostel and Saw, there’s no denying the impact that The Evil Dead must have had upon its arrival on screens in 1981. The found footage aesthetic that the film brushes up against was used by other notorious films of the period such as Cannibal Holocaust, and likely influenced the new swath of found footage horror films that has been popular recently, although I haven’t seen many of them to verify that influence. The film was popular and influential enough to spark Raimi’s ascent as a filmmaker, and to lead to a media franchise revolving around Ash and his battles against the forces of evil. It’s also a testament to the impact that a dedicated, visionary filmmaker and crew can make with their art in spite of technical or financial limitations. Some people prefer the slightly more polished sequel, which is something of a rehash of the original film with a bit more humor, but I have to stick with my preference for the original. The Evil Dead sets the blueprint for the campy, low budget, ultraviolent, schlocky horror film of the 1980s. It’s a genre classic and a must-see for any fans of horror movies.

Eraserhead

Eraserhead (1977)

Dir. David Lynch

Written by: David Lynch

Starring: Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart

 

Finally getting to write about Eraserhead, something that I’ve avoided ever doing despite enjoying the film for the last 15-odd years, should be a liberating experience, but it feels very daunting at the same time. It’s a film that I know well, having watched it over a dozen times since first experiencing it in my late teens via a little red Netflix envelope, but it’s a film that still vexes me in many ways. It’s the auspicious debut of my favorite filmmaker, and a dark indicator of the themes and content that would make up his ensuing output. Lynch’s filmography is celebrated, but also troubling, with his films asking audiences to bear witness to dark urges that exist buried deep within themselves. His films are designed to trigger deep-seeded anxieties and fears that rest at the core of the human experience. Eraserhead begins this trend with its look at the anxieties surrounding bringing new life into a flawed, disturbing world. Though it’s presented in an exceedingly strange package, at its core, Eraserhead is a look at the struggles of an everyman trying to get by in a world that is designed to sap him of his energy and his will to live. It took me a long time, and many, many repeated viewings to come to some sort of understanding of this film, but it was a process that was richly rewarding, and one which helped to open up my mind to new analyses of the films of my favorite director.

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I wasn’t really ready for Eraserhead when I was 19 and I first saw the movie. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, because I did enjoy the movie, and I thought that it was delightfully weird and esoteric, but I didn’t have any sort of framework with which to really understand it. I had seen visually experimental, non-narrative films in college, but those didn’t seem to apply here. Eraserhead was using some of the tools of experimental cinema in a symbolic and narrative way that I had trouble reconciling. Even in reference to the other David Lynch films that I had seen, Eraserhead was something totally foreign and new. In Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., I recognized the world that Lynch was depicting as somewhat similar to my own; even if I did find Mulholland Dr. narratively inscrutable, I still felt that I had some foothold into its world. Eraserhead, on the other hand, felt hermetically sealed, existing in a separate and decidedly interiorly-focused cinematic space, one that I could observe but not enter into in any meaningful way. The film’s bleak industrial-noir setting felt at first familiar, but it gave way to the unfamiliarity of tiny, misshapen chickens that ooze black inky liquid, hellish factories that turn men’s heads into pencil erasers, and, of course, one monstrous and insatiable infant. This was uncharted cinematic territory. Trying to cobble together meaning out of the film’s disparate and confusing imagery seemed impossible, but I was still drawn to the film. By the end of my first viewing of Eraserhead, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had watched, but I knew that I wanted more of it.

I’ve encountered countless films in my life that I’ve held up as seminal or formative in some way, and I encountered many of those for the first time in my late teens and early twenties, as my cinematic world was rapidly being expanded, and my understanding of the medium was growing by the day. Eraserhead found itself firmly in that group of highly meaningful films. Though I didn’t screen Eraserhead again for two years, it lingered around the periphery of my consciousness, its iconic images popping up from time to time. I expanded my viewership of Lynch’s films, but I still wasn’t able to find a direct line into the heart of Eraserhead through an auterist critical approach, which was often my preferred critical approach to films at the time. Even within this singularly weird filmography, Eraserhead stood as an outlier, defiantly experimental, refusing codification by my young brain. I read critical analyses of the film, which attempted to parse out its dense symbolism and orient it within the larger context of Lynch’s body of work, but still Eraserhead remained a mystery. Eventually, I just chalked up my lack of ability to come to complete grasps with the film to the mark of Lynch’s true artistic genius, and my own woeful shortcomings in that department.

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While I’m certainly still not a genius on the level of any of the filmmakers I’ve been writing about for this project, much less on the level of a visionary like Lynch, I do think that I’ve come to a much more comfortable place of understanding with regards to Eraserhead. Clearly, Lynch is using the film to help work out some of his anxieties about his newfound status as a father, but it’s also obvious to Lynch fans that Eraserhead sets the table for all of the films and media projects that would come later. The film’s chaotic, densely-layered soundtrack points forward to Lynch’s continued sonic experimentation. He is known as a master of film sound, and that use of sound as a mood setting and narrative device is very much on display in Eraserhead. The film’s soundtrack swells with an omnipresent whooshing, intermittently interrupted by industrial banging and cranking. The way Lynch records the plaintive cries of Henry’s monstrous baby results in an unnerving caterwaul that stops far short of invoking sympathy in the audience.

Thematically, Eraserhead finds Lynch already mining the source material for his later films. Paranoia, anxiety, and voyeurism all factor heavily into Eraserhead, and Lynch will return to these ideas more explicitly in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Eraserhead is also one of Lynch’s most complete explorations of a dream space, as much of the film could be interpreted as an extended dream triggered by Henry’s fear of his impending fatherhood. Even if you eschew that reading, the film contains several notable scenes that explore Henry’s interior fantasies, including his obsession with the tiny woman who lives in the radiator, and the nightmare that gives the film its title, in which Henry’s head is stolen and sold to a factory where it is ground down to make pencil erasers. Dreams are privileged sources of symbolism and truth in Lynch’s work, and he often attempts to explore the liminal space between dreaming and the waking world, in which that truth is most accessible. We see dreamlike sequences in all of Lynch’s media, but Eraserhead is a bold film that spends nearly all of its time locked into its protagonist’s interiority.

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I’ve neglected the plot synopsis that I typically write for each film because Eraserhead’s narrative can be summed up in just a sentence or two. Henry (Nance) is informed by Mary (Stewart) that she has given birth to his child, though she isn’t sure that their offspring is a child at all. The couple marry and take the baby back to Henry’s one room apartment, where it is revealed to be a monstrous lizard creature, without arms or legs, that cries incessantly. Mary can’t handle the crying and she leaves Henry alone, to go insane as he tries to care for a creature that he can’t understand or relate to. The film is narratively straight forward and simple, though its surface weirdness might obfuscate this, but it is incredibly symbolically dense. Henry is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare and the only logic that can prevail is the logic of the dream, therefore we are presented with a stream of imagery that makes no narrative sense, but carries deep symbolic truth. Henry’s responses when faced with the responsibility of caring for his child are all in some way attempts to infantilize himself. He dreams of the lady in the radiator, which represents a womblike space, and when he finally connects with his beautiful neighbor (Judith Roberts), they have sex in, and eventually submerge themselves in, a pool of milk. Henry’s apartment is strangely symbolic itself, with mounds of dirt on his furniture, many of which are sprouting small trees or shrubs. The apartment should seem like a productive, organic, space, but instead these strange dirt piles give the room a fetid and decaying feeling. Of course the most obvious symbolic element in Eraserhead is the baby itself, which both Henry and Mary view as a monstrous Other. The baby is an unwanted imposition in their lives, and, as such, they view it in a way that allows them to disassociate themselves with their offspring. This disassociation leads to Mary’s abandonment of the child and Henry’s ultimate infanticide/mercy killing. These are just a few of the more obvious symbolic signifiers in Eraserhead, but the film is rich with impressionistic dream sequences, non-sequitur dialogue, and other-worldly imagery, which allow for a richness of unique interpretations of the film.

This fluidity of meaning is one of the things that I think initially drew me to Eraserhead, and that has kept me coming back to the film as frequently as I do. Although I’ve settled on my own interpretation of the film, I still find myself challenged by it with each subsequent screening, and I often find myself considering it in a new context, based on my own changing life experiences or on my changing relationship to the film and to related media. Watching Eraserhead in 2018 with the viewing experience of Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return fresh in my mind was a totally different experience than any other time I’ve seen the film. For me, the newest season of Twin Peaks functions as Lynch’s magnum opus. It contains throughlines and references to Lynch’s earlier films and serves to bring all of his disparate thematic and aesthetic concerns together in one dense, strange viewing experience. I felt several affinities between Lynch’s first feature and what I believe will be his final visual media project, and my recent screening of Eraserhead only strengthened those connections for me.

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I found a thematic kinship between Henry’s abandonment by Mary and subsequent retreat from adult responsibility and Audrey Horne’s (Sherilyn Fenn) curious appearances in The Return. Though the narrative circumstances in each case are quite different, something about the dreaminess and illogical, circular dialogue used in both Eraserhead and in Audrey’s scenes with her husband Charlie felt very similar. Both characters are being neglected and emotionally abused by people close to them, though Audrey’s victimhood seems more obviously apparent, while Henry seems to be in a more mutually dysfunctional relationship where he, too, adds to Mary’s mental anguish. Both characters are infantilized, with Charlie’s gaslighting of Audrey keeping her in a subservient and dependent role, and Henry’s chosen retreat away from responsibility and into the safety of a childlike interior fantasy world. In the end, both characters are also last seen in a blindingly white space. Eraserhead has a superficially happy ending, with Henry finally uniting with the Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near), whose earlier song reminded the audience that “in Heaven, everything is fine,” indicating that Henry has killed himself after killing the baby. This marks the furthest expression of Henry’s retreat, as his suicide can be read as a rejection of all of life’s responsibilities.

In The Return, Lynch reverses this dynamic to some extent with Audrey’s final scene, in which she reprises her iconic dance from Twin Peaks. Audrey’s dance is interrupted by a fight breaking out and she rushes towards Charlie, who is sitting at the bar, imploring him to get her out of there. There is a brief crackle of electricity, and Audrey appears in a starkly white room, staring at her face, sans makeup, in a vanity mirror. She, and the audience, are stricken by this jarring change of scenery, and it throws into question the handful of scenes in which Audrey has appeared thus far in The Return. This being Twin Peaks, the most operative reading of the scene is that there are two Audrey’s, and we are discovering that the “real” Audrey has been trapped in a Lodge all along. However, there is some indication to support a reading that Audrey’s interactions with Charlie may have been a dream or a vision that she had, before waking up, confused, in the white room, which appears not dissimilar to a mental hospital. Though there is very little of the white space around Audrey shown, she appears to be wearing a white hospital gown, and the sheer blankness of the space indicates a sterile, clinical setting. This reading, when coupled with the ending of Eraserhead, provides for a very bleak vision, indeed. Audrey dreams of a sad and dysfunctional life, from which she is ripped during her one moment of ecstasy performing her dance, while living a reality that may be even more maddening. Henry’s narrative begins with an unhappy reality from which he retreats into a dream that is by turns menacing and seductive, ultimately succumbing to the temptation to live in the dream by taking his own life and murdering his child. For these characters there isn’t any easy way out, and the few reveries they get to experience are symbolically and explicitly linked to madness and death.

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Eraserhead is a landmark film, a bench mark and a step forward for modern surrealist filmmaking. While Bunuel and Jodorowsky were making films that set their aims on societal structures such as religion and class through an experimental and surrealist viewpoint, Lynch sought to examine the more personal territory of the human mind and emotion. He had trouble getting financing for the film and it took over five years to complete, as the production was plagued with complications. When Eraserhead finally arrived, it was a film that was seen as a visionary work by some and a confounding mess by many, although its stature in film history has certainly appreciated over time to the point that it is almost universally regarded as a classic. I have come to love the film for what it represents as the true foundational text in my favorite filmmaker’s body of work, as well as for the singular viewing experience that Eraserhead provides. There’s not a film that I can think of that is quite like it, and it is a film that two people can walk away from with markedly different opinions about and experiences of, and I really like that. More than many of the movies that I’ve written about, Eraserhead isn’t for everyone, but for the initiated it’s a rewarding treasure of a cinematic experience, with iconic visual imagery, rich symbolic nuance, and a terrifyingly original vision.

Dead Man

Dead Man (1995)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henrikson

 

I’m excited to finally write about another Western for this project, as the Western genre is one of my favorite types of film to watch and think about. One of my overarching interests in college was writing about depictions of masculinity in films, and I often found the Western genre to be rich with films that explored examples of classic machismo and also depictions of traditional masculinities in crisis. As a whole, the genre has often stood for Americana, and classical American mythmaking, but individually, Western films can serve as prisms to explore the underlying tapestry that makes up these unifying myths or as powerful critiques on the societies that produced them. My favorite Westerns to think about, like Dead Man or Blazing Saddles, are revisionist Westerns, ones that challenge and critique the accepted myths of Americana and offer up alternative narratives to the settling of the West. I love the films of John Ford and John Wayne, and we’ll get to a few of those, but I more appreciate the later films of the genre that used the existing conventions of the Western to deconstruct the genre and allow some light to seep through the cracks in the linear narrative of conquest and Manifest Destiny that the Western has come to represent. Dead Man doesn’t offer much overt criticism of the Western genre or social commentary, but it does inject mysticism, psychedelia, and some trademark Jim Jarmusch “cool” into the genre.

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The film opens with William Blake (Depp) onboard a train from Cleveland to the frontier town of Machine, where he has been offered a job as an accountant with the Dickinson metal works. Blake is instantly set apart from the rest of the passengers on the train, as they eye him suspiciously from beneath the brims of fur hats, clutching long guns tightly. The film’s surrealism is apparent from the opening scenes, as well, as the train’s Fireman (Crispin Glover) emerges, covered in soot, to engage in a strange conversation with Blake in which he warns the newcomer against going to the frontier. All the while, the passengers are shooting buffalo from the moving train behind the two men. Undeterred, Blake arrives in Machine, and sets off to claim his job, however, when he arrives at the metal works, his job has already been filled and he is driven from the property at gunpoint by Mr. Dickinson himself (Robert Mitchum). Without the job he was promised, and having just buried his parents in Cleveland, Blake finds himself with no money for a return ticket and no prospects, but he shows some kindness to a flower girl, Thel (Mili Avital), who in turn takes him back to her room at the local hotel. Their post-coital bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Thel’s former lover, Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who tries to shoot Blake, but instead shoots Thel when she throws himself in front of the bullet. Blake, with some difficulty, uses Thel’s gun to shoot Charlie, and then realizes that he has been shot by the bullet that passed through Thel’s chest. Wounded, he jumps out of the window and steals Charlie’s horse, riding off into the desert. When Blake comes to, he meets Nobody (Farmer), a Native American who will act as a spiritual guide for Blake as they continue into the frontier, possibly into the afterlife.

I first became aware of this film in my Sophomore or Junior year of college in a class on Westerns. I don’t believe that we screened the film in its entirety in class, but we watched a handful of clips from it, and I saw enough that I was intrigued and purchased the film on DVD. I knew Jim Jarmusch, as my Wu-Tang obsession had led me to the RZA-soundtracked Ghost Dog in high school, and Broken Flowers had been one of my favorite movies of 2004, but I hadn’t explored much into the director’s filmography beyond these and a couple of other films. Even with this cursory introduction to the director’s style and having seen some clips from the movie, Dead Man was a very weird film to me the first time I watched it. I was used to modern Westerns that called into question ideas of national identity and American exceptionalism, but Dead Man is much more inwardly focused, raising questions of personal identity, life and death, and humanity. Critics, including myself earlier in this post, have called it a psychedelic Western, and it certainly is that, but perhaps it is more accurate to think of Dead Man as an Existentialist Western. It lends itself, with its moody score and monochromatic visual presentation, to the same sorts of reflection as Existentialist philosophy. Its subject matter, a dying man (who may or may not be actually dead already) being guided to the afterlife speak to these same concerns of being and nothingness, and of Man’s place in the spiritual and mystical realms. Dead Man has little time for inquiries into political or social commentary as it sets its goals on a higher level of exploration of the human condition. It was certainly a bit of an adjustment from what I had been expecting of the film at first.

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Of course, after consuming much, if not all, of Jarmusch’s oeuvre, these lofty thematic concerns don’t surprise me at all. His films often strike a balance between a perfect Zen koan and a late night, pot-fueled, dorm room philosophy session. They often provide deep truths about the human experience, but their presentation is a bit hazy and nebulous around the edges. From top to bottom, Dead Man makes for a great cult film. Like most of Jarmusch’s output, the film is just a little bit too strange to fully connect with the mainstream, but it has fared pretty well critically, and it has a fan base among critics and audiences. Its literary allusions, including a running gag in which Nobody believes that Blake is the deceased Romantic poet William Blake, and its philosophical context will satisfy the intellectuals in the audience, while its hazy, mystical presentation and brief moments of gore will satisfy the midnight movie crowd. The film celebrates the history of the Western genre with its casting of Robert Mitchum (in what would be his final role) as Dickinson, while also turning the typical Western narrative on its head. Like many Westerns, Dead Man depicts a great journey, but the nature of this journey is spiritual rather than physical, and it’s being led by Nobody, a Native American rather than a White cowboy. These type of inversions are typical of a revisionist Western, but Jarmusch pushes the genre to its breaking point, by merging the Western journey with a picaresque, peopled by strange, obtuse characters. The intended effect is to keep the audience off balance, unsure of whether Blake is really having these experiences or whether he’s hallucinating them, or if his journey is through some purgatorial space. What appears, initially, to be a stylish modern take on a classic genre turns out instead to be using that classic genre as a landscape upon which to project a rumination on life, death, violence, and human nature.

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These themes are primarily explored through the character of Nobody, played expertly by Gary Farmer, whose job it is to enlighten the dying Blake, whom Nobody often refers to as a “stupid fucking White man.” Nobody’s character walks between two worlds, having been captured by English settlers as a child and toured around museums as an attraction. In this way, Nobody has closely inspected and become educated by White culture, but as a result has been unable to fully assimilate into his own Native culture. Like Blake floating between life and death, Nobody, too, is pulled between two different types of existence. Farmer provides much of the film’s comic relief, though not in the typical Western style, with Native Americans and other marginalized characters serving as the butt of cruel jokes. Nobody is smarter and more cultured than Blake, and the film’s humor often stems from Nobody’s offhanded quips about Blake and White culture. Farmer, a member of the Cayuga Nation, brings authenticity and respect to his role, as does Jarmusch’s treatment of Native American culture in the film. The film employs several Native languages throughout, and it presents Native culture as more enlightened and sophisticated than the brutal, rapacious culture of the White characters. Though he’s capable of great violence, Nobody is full of joy and life, while Blake and the film’s other White characters are morose and associated with death. In fact, Blake becomes a sort of avenging angel over the course of the film. Though he is initially unable to shoot straight, Blake develops lethal potency during his journey with Nobody, who teaches him to let his pistol speak his poetry. Depp’s performance is worthy of praise, as well. He eschews the scenery chewing that will become his trademark later in his career, employing instead a laconic, trancelike performance style. It gives the sense that Blake is some sort of conduit, channeling the energies of the Universe as the mysteries of death are revealed to him in his spiritual journey.

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The rest of the film’s cast is excellent, as well. As is typical of a Jarmusch film, big names pop up in small roles throughout the film. Though this really is Depp’s and Farmer’s movie, several of these cameos are worth mentioning as they simply add to the overall strangeness of the film. Lance Henrikson is a standout as Cole Wilson, the deadliest of three bounty hunters that Dickinson sends to bring Blake in for the murder of Charlie, who happens to be Dickinson’s son. His performance is built around his quiet menace and the rumors that the other bounty hunters whisper about his sadism and depravity. His riding partners, Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and The Kid (Eugene Byrd), hatch a plot to kill Wilson and split the ransom among themselves, but Wilson is too crafty for them and in a memorable scene, proves the truth in the rumors of his cannibalism. Alfred Molina has a brief but memorable cameo as a bigoted frontier missionary. Blake and Nobody come upon his outpost late in the film and the missionary feigns piety when dealing with Blake, but treats Nobody with disdain and malice. Finally, Iggy Pop and Billy Bob Thornton are fantastic as two thirds of a group of outlaws who plan to rape and kill Blake. Thornton is almost unrecognizable, covered head-to-toe in fur, but his distinctive drawl is hard to mistake, while Iggy Pop is very obviously himself, despite wearing a dress and a bonnet. Their brief scene is an interlude, and not particularly important to the film’s overall plot, but, like many of Blake’s encounters in Dead Man it deepens the sense of alienation and psychedelia that the film traffics in, and it enriches this offbeat world.

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Dead Man is a film that exists wholly within its own space. While it certainly comments on and dialogues with the Western genre, it is not wholly of that genre. The film offers up little in the way of concrete narrative resolution, but instead leaves the audience with a profound sense of mood. The film’s visuals, its idiosyncratic performances, and its spare, improvised, Neil Young score, all enhance the strangeness of the film, and help to build this mood. Viewers looking for a traditional Western action film might be disappointed by Dead Man, although the film does have plenty of action, but anyone who wants to immerse themselves in a cinematic journey would be well advised to check out this somewhat lesser-known movie. It’s often said that a trip is less about the destination than about the journey, and Dead Man is a perfect example of this. While the film ends without much narrative clarity, its presentation of a moody, psychedelic trip is as enjoyable as it is inscrutable.

 

Post-script:

I missed a post last week for the first time during this project. My plan at the outset was to post once a week. The film that I had planned on writing on for my post on the 22nd of October was George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, however when I opened up the case, the disc was missing. Rather than replacing the disc, as I had with Better Off Dead, or advancing my schedule by a week, I decided that my project would be better served by me taking a week off to catch my breath. I have a demanding and time consuming job, and I also devote a good portion of my free time to volunteering and community service, so I needed to take a brief break to get my writing back on schedule and to ensure that I could continue providing the quality of content that I have striven to maintain throughout the life of this blog. I hope to not miss any more posts going forward.