Although Jason Lives had fared better with both fans and critics than its predecessor, the success of the Friday the 13th franchise had started to show signs of stalling. Paramount had attempted to gain permission from New Line Cinema to cross over the series with their own product, A Nightmare on Elm Street, for what would eventually become Freddy vs. Jason. The studio had discussed concepts with a variety of filmmakers, including Jason Lives‘ Tom McLoughlin but, whilst Friday the 13th had begun to struggle at the box office, 1987′s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors had become a phenomenal success, and soon it became apparent that they would be unable to compromise with New Line. Whilst Paramount had enjoyed minor acclaim with their small screen spinoff, Friday the 13th: The Series, they began to entertain ideas for what would be their eighth installment.
Frank Mancuso Jr., who had nurtured the franchise throughout most of its sequels, was hard at work with his own production company, Hometown, and no longer had interest in Jason Voorhees, thus allowing Paramount’s Senior VP Barbara Sachs to oversee the production. Amongst the writers to audition for the task of bringing back Jason in a way that would compete with Elm Street was Daryl Haney who, after a string of failed pitches, suggested that the heroine have some kind of telekinetic ability. Sachs was immediately struck by the proposal and dubbed the concept Jason vs. Carrie, in reference to Brian De Palma’s classic adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Flying back from Los Angeles to New York the following day, Haney was contacted by Sachs and informed that he was hired, thus starting several weeks of phone discussions between the two as they attempted to formulate a plot.
Demanding something bigger than fans had seen before, Sachs would lay out a synopsis which saw a yuppie businessman arriving at Crystal Lake with the intention of building luxury condos, much to the distress of the local residents who feared that Jason would return. A playful poke at capitalism – something common amongst filmmakers during the 1980s with such satires as Trading Places, Wall Street and RoboCop – Jason would not actually appear in the story until midway through. Despite his lack of interest in the project, Mancuso Jr. was horrified by how much the script had diverted from the traditional formula and advised Haney to view Joseph Zito’s 1984 sequel Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which many considered the best installment. Unlike the previous Friday the 13th movies, the task of directing Part VII would be entrusted to an experienced special effects artist, an aspect that would prove useful during production.
Having developed a passion for make-up from an early age, John Carl Buechler had begun experimenting with clay and latex and soon became a regular letter writer to acclaimed FX artist Rick Baker, whom he would land an apprenticeship with, before gaining his break at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, where he would be involved in such schlock classics as Forbidden World and Deathstalker. From there he moved onto Charles Band’s Empire, which would lead to his first official directing credit with 1984′s The Dungeonmaster, shooting the segment Demons of the Dead. But it would be his low budget fantasy Troll, which he had first tried to finance whilst still at New World, that would bring Buechler to the attention of Mancuso, Jr. By this point, the Friday the 13th franchise had begun to compete with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was far more revered and professional, and so the telekinetic subplot would add a supernatural element.
There was immediate tension between Haney and Buechler, with the latter reworking the script to remove many of the tired slasher clichés and adding several action sequences, whilst also refining the central character, Tina. Determined to avoid the basic slice-and-dice formula of its predecessors, Buechler wanted to explore Jason’s supernatural elements and how he had finally found his match. Haney, who had been unimpressed by Troll when Sachs had screened the film for him, felt that Buechler would not be able to do his script justice and soon entered a dispute over his salary when he felt that he was not receiving the payment he was owed. The rewrites on Birthday Bash, as it would be tentatively known, were credited to Manuel Fidello, many of whom believed was an alias for an unknown writer. It is worth noting that Manuel Fidello was also the name of Spencer Tracy’s character in Victor Fleming’s 1937 classic Captains Courageous.
Once again the casting sessions would consist of an endless supply of young, good-looking actors eager to be mutilated or disrobe. Kerry Noonan, who had already been dispatched in Jason Lives, was invited in to audition for the role of Tina, without the casting agents realising that she had appeared in a previous Friday movie. In fact, none of the young cast who attended the auditions were aware that Birthday Bash was a Friday the 13th film, although with the script’s antagonist sporting a hockey mask some began to suspect the truth. The part of Tina would eventually go to twenty-six year old Lar Park Lincoln, whose prior experience in the horror genre had been the tongue-in-cheek flick House II: The Second Story (produced by Friday the 13th‘s Sean S. Cunningham). Kevin Spirtas, who would ultimately be cast in the heroic role of Nick, had first cut his teeth on Broadway at the age of eighteen, where he performed in such productions as A Chorus Line and Meet Me in St. Louis. As he left his teens he began to pursue roles in low budget movies under the name Kevin Blair, landing his first break in Wes Craven’s critically mauled The Hills Have Eyes Part II.
Making a brief appearance as Michael, whose birthday the fake title was in reference to, was William Butler, who had moved to Los Angeles at the age of seventeen and, through his friend John Vulich (who had worked on The Final Chapter), had been hired by Buechler to work at his special effects workshop Mechanical and Make-Up Imageries, where he would learn the basics of prop and creature design on cult movies such as From Beyond and Cellar Dweller. Discovering that Buechler had been hired to direct the latest Friday the 13th, Butler pleaded for an audition. Susan Blu, who would be cast as Tina’s well meaning-yet-incompetent mother, Amanda, was previously known for her work as a voiceover artist, with her most successful role being the robot car Arcee in the 1986 animated hit Transformers: The Movie. At the suggestion of casting agent Anthony Barnao, Blu reluctantly read for the role, despite having little on screen experience.
Whilst C.J. Graham had given a memorable performance as Jason in Part VI, Buechler was determined to cast stuntman Kane Hodder, whom he had recently worked with on a horror movie called Prison. Mancuso Jr. was at first reluctant to cast Hodder, whom he felt was too small for the role, and so to convince him Buechler shot screen test footage of Hodder in full make-up, which would include extra padding to bulk the up character and allow for segments of flesh to be cut out of his torso and spine. Finally satisfied that he would be more than capable of taking on the role, Hodder was cast and would portray Jason for the next three movies. So passionate was his approach to the role that Hodder would redefine the character and would become a favourite amongst fans, causing a backlash when he was replaced by fellow stuntman Ken Kirzinger for 2003′s Freddy vs. Jason. Ironically, Kirzinger had appeared briefly in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan fourteen years earlier, where he was tossed into a mirror by Jason. Although Graham had worked briefly with fire on the previous film, Hodder and Buechler would subject Jason to an array of explosions, pyrotechnics and other dangerous stunts during the movie’s action-packed climax.
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood was completed on a budget of $2.8m, approximately $200,000 less than Jason Lives, and was released theatrically in the United States on May 13th 1988, making it the third of the franchise to be released on a Friday the 13th. Released on approximately 1,800 screens, the movie took $19,170,001 at the US box office, falling just short of its predecessor. Clearly disgusted in his review of the film the day after release, Richard Harrington of The Washington Post said; “Those reviews of Friday the 13th movies that come out on Saturday the 14th could never be as mindless and brutal as the films themselves… So why should we expect Part VIII (More New Blood) next year? Well, Paramount has already made $172 million on six sick films and should easily reach the $200 million plateau with this edition.” Variety added; “He meets his match with the girl who cooks up her own storm with a willful stare. Although their duel offers original effects-laden thrills and stunts, it’s too little and too late.”