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 portrayal of Jason, with Kane Hodder stepping behind 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 some of 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 praising it for what it is: a tried-and-true Empire Pictures monster movie.
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—aside from things like Re-Animator that were pick-ups—had a very distinctive, very weird, very quirky charm. They, by and large, were completely unlike 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 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 assistant dwarves from the other side and a vampire clown dummy that comes to life. These are all things that are not sold by the premise, they’re extra bang for your buck, and every Empire production was like that to an extent.
When Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was released in theaters, Empire had just had its first major hit with Ghoulies. The marketing campaign had truly worked, and the movie easily made back its miniscule budget and then some. Jason Lives, while a minor critical success compared to most Friday the 13th entries, did not light the box office on fire the way previous movies in the franchise had. As far as the producers and Paramount were concerned, they had given audiences what they wanted by putting Jason back in the movies—just as the title suggested—but people still weren’t necessarily showing up.
But 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. While the ghostly campfire story aspect had always been a part of the mythology, Jason Lives firmly took a more overt, supernatural direction. Jason was an undead, vengeful rotting corpse in the classic EC Comics tradition. He had been, like Frankenstein before him, resurrected by a bolt of lightning. From here, anything was truly possible and luckily Paramount recognized that.
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 handle on makeup 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 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 fairly openly opposed to the slasher formula, he saw the opportunity to go in a different direction, particularly after the doors that had been opened by the previous movie.
And 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’s not nearly as much of a tried-and-true 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, and this is mostly a happy accident as Buechler didn’t appear to have much say in the script, 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 our 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. 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, 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.
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 have been reminded by the opening Walt Gorney 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.
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 Hodder’s Jason leaves all illusions of a simple masked madman behind. This 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. While 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, 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 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. Even in Troll and Cellar Dweller, there were not attempts to hide the titular creatures even though both films were introducing those characters for the first time. 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, it seemed logical 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 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 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.
Because of that, 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 as those, too, were 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 villain, but build the mythology regardless. It has a fantastically designed central monster, one that the camera truly loves and does not hold back from showing. And even without Charlie Band on the sidelines calling for some of these more eccentric touches, it has that distinct, quirky Empire charm.
Ironically, the worlds of Friday the 13th and Empire would truly merge at the end of the decade. After the dissolving of Empire Pictures, Band would launch Full Moon with 1989’s Puppet Master, and struck a distribution deal with none other than Paramount, the former home of Friday the 13th. That happy coincidence aside, The New Blood remains a noteworthy entry in the saga. The fact that Paramount 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 great one.