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Friday the 13th: Part VII is a criminally underrated slasher sequel. Time for that to change
Four decades after the release of the first Friday the 13th movie, there are sequels that are loved and there are sequels that are hated. Friday the 13th Part VII: New Blood (1988) is definitely in the second group. With a dismal 32 percent "fresh" critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 37 percent audience score, its solemn tone is generally considered a step down from the self-referential humor of Part VI. Even if it isn't quite as loathed as the slasher nadir that is Part VIII, few fans or critics remember it fondly, or even at all.
Which is a shame, because Part VII is a slasher oddity — a film that genuinely changes up the genre's bloody rituals while staying true to its dark, shambling gods. Director John Carl Buechler hacks away at a script by Daryl Haney and Manuel Fidello with unusual, bloody-minded focus, thunking his ax solidly into high-concept schlock.
The high concept in question is, essentially: “What if Jason fought Stephen King’s Carrie?”
Tina Shepard (Lar Park Lincoln) manifests powerful, fitfully-controlled telekinetic powers when she's emotionally upset. As a young girl, she saw her father beating her mother (Susan Blu), prompting her to psychically destroy a pier to drown him in Crystal Lake. As a disturbed teen, still not fully in command of her abilities, she's committed to a mental hospital until her doctor, Christopher Crews (Terry Kiser), decides to bring her back to the lake. He supposedly wants her to confront her fears and her guilt — but he actually just wants to study her telekinesis for his own purposes.
After an argument with Crews, an angry, grief-stricken Terri sits by the lake and wishes her father would come back to her; instead her powers lift undead zombie-monster Jason Vorhees from the bottom of the lake where he was chained at the end of Part VI. Jason starts killing teenagers, as Jason is wont to do, on his way to his climactic battle with Tina and whatever telephone poles and electric wires she can throw at him.
The (sort of) genius of the “Carrie vs. Jason” idea is that it isn't just a crossover monster battle. It's also a genre scramble. The slasher becomes part of a psychological horror narrative, and vice versa. Tina gets much more backstory than the typical final girl; we know about her individual past and her individual trauma.
As a result, Jason becomes not just some random killer, but a figure out of Tina's specific pain and fear. Just as Carrie can be read as Carrie's revenge fantasy, Part VII can be seen as the flickering images in Tina's skull. "These are delusions. You're creating images of your father!" Dr. Crews tells her, with a misdiagnosis that isn't exactly a misdiagnosis. Jason in the movie is the abusive father returned, a rotting nightmare daddy whose love is punishment and the scythe.
That's not an innovation, exactly. It's just a more explicit acknowledgment than usual of the way slashers work. We all know the cliché that slashers execute adolescents for having sex, and Jason (Kane Hodder) does murder a lot of randy and post-coital teens. "OK, you big hunk of a man, come and get me!" one teen calls to her offscreen lover. He’s already been murdered, of course. It’s Jason who responds.
But the logic of slashers, like the logic of abuse, is not that you must be punished for sex. It's that you must be punished for everything. Jason kills people for being popular and for being nerds, for having intercourse and for not having intercourse. He kills them for being birthday boys; for being nerds; for being beautiful; for not being beautiful. He stabs Dr. Crews for being an evil, abusive father surrogate, and he slices Tina's mom open for being an abused victim. Whatever you do, daddy will hurt you.
Jason as the abusive father also helps ground some of the sillier slasher tropes in a bleak dream logic. As is the slasher default, Jason here gets electrocuted, burned, shot, and dropped from a height. No matter what happens to him, he gets up and keeps coming back. It's an unlikely plot device.
But in this case, it's also a metaphor for the huge power disparities between abusers and abused. Jason is the evil daddy, and for child Tina, that means he is invulnerable, unkillable, remorseless. The boogie monster is a pale shadow of what parents actually sometimes do to their kids — and not just once, but over and over, replayed as trauma, fear, and nightmare.
Abused children may grow up, but Jason is there in their mind still, just waiting to resurface.
Jason as an abuser is more solid and more terrifying than Jason as an unkillable plot trope — and that means defeating Jason, in VII, is unusually satisfying. Lar Park Lincoln isn't a great actor, but she manages to convey dawning resolution and determination as she figures out her powers at last and unleashes them on the man who has tormented her. The bare-bones special effects somehow make her improbable stand more affecting. Yes, of course, we can see that she couldn't really fight him. But we want to imagine that battered kid could drop a porch on the ugly thing coming for her, or that rocks, floorboards, nails, and fire itself would leap to her defense.
Slasher movies aren't known for their optimistic vision, but the climax of Part VII shows a world that rises up to protect those most in need of protection. Or, even better, it imagines that those most in need of protection can magically protect themselves.
Needless to say, Part VII is not a flawless masterpiece. Stripping off Jason's mask to show the zombie horror face beneath is supposed to be an extra shock-scare, but ends up just being kind of doofy. And even by the standards of the day, the film is excessively coy in cutting away from Jason's kills.
The worst choice though is at the conclusion, in a very brief scene in which Tina's abusive father comes back from the dead to save her from Jason. Suddenly, instead of a story about how Tina defeats all the abusive fathers, it’s a story about how some abusers are good, actually. For the sake of a shock-scare twist, the filmmakers gathered up all their thematic work and dumped it in the pond. The schlocky exploitation film managed to address issues of sexual violence and abuse with some thoughtfulness, but it’s still a schlocky exploitation film in the end.
Even with those caveats, though, Part VII remains unusually thoughtful for a hulking slasher sequel. It slices through the genre meat to reveal not only a pumping heart, but a bit of soul, too.