Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood is one of the more divisive entries of the long running franchise. Fans have always praised its depiction of Jason, with his weathered, rotted appearance and for Kane Hodder donning the mask for the very first time, but have criticized its more fantasy-based story direction and the fact that the exquisite gore sequences were so drastically cut by the MPAA that they practically neutered the movie. I think there’s some weight to these arguments, but I also think that many fans tend to criticize The New Blood for not being what they wanted it to be rather than enjoying it for what it is, partly because what it actually became is spectacularly out-of-left field and unexpected for what began as a straight-to-the-point summer camp slasher. Not even a decade after the original’s release, here comes Friday the 13th Part VII: a tried-and-true Empire Pictures monster movie.
As the movie turns 35, I think that’s worth examining in detail.
For the uninitiated, Empire was an independent film studio in the 1980s founded by Charles Band, responsible for the likes of Ghoulies, Trancers, Re-Animator and more. Most of their movies had a very distinctive, weird, quirky charm. They were completely unlike most of the things that the major studios were making at the time. The Empire films were generally bigger hits on video than they were in theaters, which was a factor in Band starting up the direct-to-video studio Full Moon Entertainment after Empire shut down. They were known for weird titles, weird concepts and stunning box art that captivated the imagination, particularly of young fans. Maybe one of the best bonuses of renting an Empire movie, though, was that as much as you thought you knew what you were getting, you never got exactly what you thought you were getting. There were always unexpected curveballs.
Take Ghoulies, for example. The box art makes the concept seem pretty cut-and-dry. Little monsters that pop out of the toilet and bite your ass; that’s a movie worth renting. And for the most part, you do get that. But what you don’t expect is for the movie to revolve around a Satanic cult, to have a protagonist who is being lured into the family business of becoming a warlock, growing mad with power, with two little otherworldly assistants and a vampire dummy that comes to life. These are all things that are not sold by the premise; they’re the extra bang for your buck, and every Empire production was like that to an extent.
While Jason Lives was a return to form in terms of literally returning Jason to the series, it was also a big, bold step that opened up a lot of interesting new possibilities by pushing the series in a more explicitly supernatural direction. Whether because of Empire’s penchant for the weird and supernatural, or because he was able to turn in small-scale horror on time and on budget and had a keen knowledge of creature effects, the late, legendary makeup artist John Carl Buechler was hired to direct the seventh installment of the franchise. Buechler had been a mainstay at Empire, working on effects for Ghoulies, Dungeonmaster, Prison and a slew of others, but also directing films like Troll and Cellar Dweller. It was the success of Troll that likely put him on the radar to do a Friday the 13th, and even though he was openly opposed to the slasher formula in general, he clearly saw the opportunity to go in a different direction, particularly after the doors had been opened by the previous movie.
That’s where I think The New Blood loses some viewers and why others love it, because while it is a Friday the 13th flick that delivers on everything you expect from the title, it both is and isn’t as much of a standard slasher. Instead, with Buechler at the helm, it’s a full blown monster movie, with all of the sensibilities the director carried over from Empire, and that is why it works so well.
Firstly, there’s the fact that The New Blood doesn’t just deliver on the promise of Jason slaughtering teens by a lake. In typical Empire tradition, you get all of that, but with a whole other fantastical element at play. And that, of course, is its heroine Tina Shepard. The very presence of Tina pushes The New Blood in a much more explicitly sci-fi/fantasy direction. Here’s our first heroine who has an edge on Jason from the moment she’s introduced, given that she’s telekinetic. A resident of the area when she was child, she lashed out with her powers at a young age, accidentally killing her father in the process. When we meet her as a teenager, she’s turned very much inward. The only people she ever really has on her side throughout the movie are her mother and her would-be boyfriend, Nick. Everyone else either wants to manipulate her or wants her out of the way.
Tina’s a radically different character than previous heroines in the Friday the 13th saga because those characters were almost exclusively unaware that anything out of the ordinary was even happening until the dawn of the third act. Tina does not have that luxury at all. She’s intimately aware that things are strange around here and cannot help but carry a knowledge that weird and extraordinary things exist in the world wherever she goes, because she’s one of them. In fact, Tina’s role in The New Blood is almost the complete opposite of previous heroines (though notably similar to Tommy Jarvis in Part VI) as instead of not picking up on the imminent danger coming toward themselves and their friends, Tina spends most of the movie failing to convince everyone around her of the very real threat in their midst. She’s not only not unaware of Jason, she is literally having visions of him that she cannot escape.
There’s an interesting parallel to be noted between Jason and Tina as well, which makes the showdown between them that much stronger. Jason, as we know and are reminded by the opening Walt Gorney/Crazy Ralph recap, is a vengeful spirit who blames the world for his mother’s death. Tina, meanwhile, is a troubled girl whose recovery is hindered by the fact that she blames herself entirely for her father’s death. She’s returned to the lake because she’s making no progress in therapy, as the guilt over what she did to her dad is just too heavy. It’s clear just in the way she acts around her mother, Dr. Crews, and the kids next door that Tina’s self worth isn’t exactly through the roof. Intentional or not, it’s something that builds throughout the film, as we see more and more things—Nick, her mom—that Tina is willing to fight for, while she also allows herself to smile and have fun, that unshackle her self-imposed restrictions on her own power.
As that comfort level grows, Tina’s power seems to increase, and it’s likely not that it wasn’t there before, but simply that her guilt was so strong that it was holding both it and her down. While she’s never quite fully confident, Tina recognizes the things she has to fight for and that instinct and assuredness allow her to become as much of a force of nature as the budget permits. By the end, the guilt has truly been lifted, embodied in that cheesy and oft-hated ending in which Tina literally conjures her father—or at least a psychokinetic image of him—from the lake, finally making peace with his death, putting her childhood tragedy behind her, and bringing Jason back to rest at the bottom of the lake in one fell swoop. There are heavy themes at work here of childhood trauma and grief that are heightened, even occasionally treated like a daytime soap, which is very reminiscent of the Empire films as well. That’s a major factor of pretty much every scene in Ghoulies, but even applies to some of the dramatic moments between Dan and Meg in Re-Animator, as well. And it only makes sense. Indie horror and soap operas are both cases where you have to memorize and go through pages of dialogue very quickly.
Given the fact that it’s a Friday the 13th where the heroine has super powers, The New Blood also offers the opportunity for a more super powered and unstoppable Jason, an opportunity that Buechler absolutely latched onto and made the most of. No matter what people think of the movie, Part VII is often credited with having the series’ best portrayal of Jason, or at the very least his best look. Buechler put all of his skills as a makeup artist into this design, which is truly a work of art. There’s something about this design that’s weirdly contradictory, but works so well. This new Jason shows every single wound the franchise had ever inflicted on him. It should, in some ways, be Jason at his most beaten down and vulnerable, but it’s anything but. Instead, this is Jason at his scariest, because every wound is like a notch on his belt, each one is a reminder that no matter how many attempts have been made to take him down permanently, he’s still standing.
Buechler and Kane Hodder’s Jason leaves all illusions of a simple masked madman behind. He is not just a powerful, unstoppable force—he’s a legitimate movie monster. The design of this Jason pushes the character into full-blown creature feature territory in the best way possible. Buechler’s direction of Jason feels fully in line with his previous work, but also proves that he was the perfect person to mark this transition for the character.
Sure, Jason Lives was the first to do away with the more enigmatic close-ups of feet and hands that were so prominent in the early movies, but it did so in a way that fit the movie’s more comedic tone, even depicting Jason in broad daylight, sometimes framing him in the background, often as a payoff to a either a joke or a kill. With The New Blood, however, when the camera is on Jason, it’s for the most part on Jason. It’s as blunt and in-your-face to watch Jason walk up out of the murky Crystal Lake waters as it is to see the Gill-Man step out of the Black Lagoon, or to watch Jason stalk the nearby woods, fully framed in camera just as Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man did the same.
Buechler framed monsters in his previous films at Empire in a very similar way. In Troll and Cellar Dweller, there were no attempts to hide the titular monsters even though both films were introducing those characters for the first time. Buechler had a tendency to shoot monsters matter-of-factly, as if they were simply just another character in the scene. That was a part of the endearingly odd sensibility that made Empire so unique. The Troll was a devious monster, yet in the way he was shot and lit and presented in a scene, he might as well have been ALF, and I think that gave viewers a false sense of ease once he started doing terrible things. Like the classic features of the Universal heyday or even (especially) the atomic age monsters of the ‘50s, those monsters were the stars of their respective features and as a result the camera tended to linger on them. Buechler wisely took the same approach to Jason, acknowledging the franchise’s success at the same time and turning the monster into the true star of the show.
Because of the more fantastical nature of the movie, one would think that The New Blood would get away with more gore than its MPAA targeted predecessors. After all, this was around the same time that Evil Dead II and Hellraiser II were getting R ratings with literal buckets of blood being showcased on the screen. Both of those movies were a more fantastical and exaggerated kind of horror. They weren’t gritty or realistic slasher films in the vein of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or even the original Friday the 13th. But the MPAA was already notorious for its hatred of the Friday the 13th franchise, so despite it being the exact kind of film they tended to be more lenient on, they essentially punished The New Blood for simply being a part of the series.
As a result, The New Blood has more gore left on the cutting room floor than any other Friday the 13th movie. This is certainly the most unfair connection it shares with the Empire Pictures films because it is an accidental one. Those movies were also largely devoid of serious gore. The New Blood had every intention of being a truly gory movie, but fantastically so, in a way that was not meant to disgust the audience but to be a part of the roller coaster ride that fans had come to love so well. Even without the intended amount of bloodshed, though, The New Blood still works. It works as Friday the 13th movie, it works as a monster movie, and it works as an Empire movie even though it technically isn’t one.
It still has all of the things viewers came to expect out of the best Empire had to offer. It has weird, supernatural plot elements that are separate from the main monster, but build the mythology regardless. It has a fantastically designed central monster, one that the camera truly loves. It has Empire and Full Moon stalwart William Butler as the ill-fated Michael, who doesn’t live to see his own birthday party. And even without Charlie Band on the sidelines calling for some of these more eccentric touches, it has that distinct, quirky Empire charm. 35 years later, The New Blood remains a noteworthy entry in the saga. The fact that they let John Carl Buechler make a John Carl Buechler movie is in and of itself worth celebrating. The New Blood is as gooey and nasty as it is charming and quirky, as much a creature-run-amok flick as it is an old-school Marvel comic. It’s a monster movie, first and foremost, and it’s a good one.