This film, directed by James Mangold, is one that I was very impressed with in its original theatrical release, and revisiting it now, it still holds up as an effective thriller. Supported by a remarkable ensemble cast and a brilliant screenplay, Identity delivers a mind-bending story that cleverly weaves its way around a classic murder mystery premise.
Strangers from all different walks of life are all trapped by a torrential rain storm on a Nevada road one night. They are forced to take shelter at an old roadside motel, run by the nervous manager Larry (John Hawkes). There is Ed Dakota, a limo driver, escorting fading television star Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca De Mornay), the turbulent married couple of George & Alice York (John C. McGinley & Leila Kinzel) with their young son Timothy (Bret Loehr), Rhodes, a Department of Corrections officer transporting the dangerous convict Robert Maine (Jake Busey), a beautiful call girl (Amanda Peet), and a couple of young newlyweds (William Lee Scott & Clea DuVall). None of them are at ease amongst these strangers, but circumstances become dire when someone begins murdering them one-by-one. Accusations begin to fly as paranoia and fear escalate, but they will all begin to discover very strange truths about their supposed chance encounter here. Meanwhile in an undisclosed location, in an eleventh hour court hearing, psychiatrist Dr. Mallick (Alfred Molina) tries to prove the innocence and sanity of his patient, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has been convicted of murder, and is scheduled to face execution in twenty-four hours. How both of these stories connect is a mystery of identity.
This film will keep you guessing from one moment to the next as to many things. Many twists unfold in plot and perception, and when you think this film has twisted your thoughts into many knots, it throws one final one at you. Now, these twists won’t leave you lost, there’s plenty of breathing room and enough exposition to allow you to understand all that is happening. It is very cleverly paced and structured to keep an audience ensnared through the entire mystery. This film is tense, suspenseful, creepy, and haunting. It is an excellent psychological thriller that has far more to it than just a group of people getting killed off in a very Agatha Christie fashion. In fact, no other film I have seen has utilized this genre quite so well. There is just as much psychological terror for the characters as there is for the audience.
Director James Mangold brilliantly builds suspense and paranoia with a troubling sense of unease. A group of strangers stranded in a run down desert motel definitely lends to that feeling. Considering one of them is a known violent criminal heightens that even more. Subtle things are revealed to the audience that add to our apprehension knowing certain people are not who they claim or appear to be. This creates plenty of clever misdirection. Add in some volatile and emotionally distressed characters, and the tension is wrapped so a tight, unnerving level. When that tension finally breaks, it’s heart pounding. The film hardly never allows an audience to relax fully. There’s regularly some form of urgency or excitement that propels the characters forward towards danger.
The style of the film is very original such as with the immediate flashbacks. You’ll see a lot of them at the start and a bit near the end. They show how certain events brought everyone together in a unique non-linear fashion. It nicely punctuates certain plot elements such as it was Paris’ high-heeled shoe that flew out of her opened suitcase that caused the York’s flat tire later that night. It’s a nice, quick storytelling tool that helps move the story ahead quickly without leaving even small questions unanswered. I enjoyed that element quite a bit, and the direction and editing of them was very handled well. The addition of the rain storm throughout the film is classically atmospheric, and adds to the treacherous, mysterious qualities of the plot. Danger and paranoia are abound as things get stranger and stranger, and the torrential rain and thunder claps simply unsettle the characters and the audience further.
The surreal aspects are also subtly handled. They forge an underlying peculiarity for the strangers at the motel. They attempt to explain them in various ways, but eventually, these occurrences go far beyond mere coincidence or rationale. They can’t make sense of it, but it truly freaks them out. It creates a bizarre, twisted web for them all. These aspects build up so beautifully to an absolutely mind-blowing revelation.
Identity is masterfully shot and edited. Shooting in all that nighttime rain never muddles the visuals. We always have a clear picture of what’s happening without sacrificing the dramatic, moody cinematography. The film evenly balances between various indoor and outdoor scenes giving an audience enough variety in the visuals to keep our eyes interested. There is such great atmosphere crafted into how the film is shot, and the editing really supports the lingering suspense expertly. When things begin deconstructing in the third act, the editing creates an amazing visual style which perfectly represents the psychological chaos. It’s all a superbly executed thriller with many gripping twists and turns that have an excellent conclusion.
This ensemble cast is magnificent! There strong performances all around with John Cusack being the obvious trusting protagonist. He brings his usual heart and wit along with a solid dramatic weight. Ed Dakota is a very relatable character with a great depth of pain and desire to do what is right. He’s given a strong back story that Cusack really grasps the emotional weight and guilt Ed carries with him, making him someone we can invest our confidence in.
Ray Liotta has a nice turn showing both a hardened strength and a shadier side that surfaces later on. He is very intense, confrontational, and adversarial while projecting a presence of authority with a more temperamental edge. Jake Busey is convincingly intimidating and dangerous with a crazed look in his eye coupled with his reliable charisma. John Hawkes is another stellar actor who can deliver a deep array of emotions. Here, he runs the full gamut ranging from nervous and skittish to violent and unhinged. And I really have to say that Rebecca De Mornay is hotter here than I have ever seen her before. She’s beyond gorgeous in my view, as I have an affinity for red heads, and she does a wonderful job as the somewhat egotistical actress Caroline Suzanne. She’s definitely a pleasure. And of course, I always expect nothing less than excellence from John C. McGinley, as many do these days, and he doesn’t fail here. His George York is a very nervous man with little self-confidence who doesn’t cope with these violent, tragic situations well. McGinley brings a lot of compassion and simple innocence to this caring husband and step-father.
Alfred Molina is perfect as Dr. Mallick presenting a soft-spoken, intelligent psychiatrist with a sense of empathy. Pruitt Taylor Vince has always impressed me taking on some substantive and sometimes peculiar roles, and doing an exceptionally unique and standout job in them. For what little time he has on screen, he brings that same level of talent to Malcolm Rivers. That jittery eye trick he does seems to land him these off-kilter roles, and it is distinctly effective.
I really have to hand it to the screenwriting talents of Michael Clooney, and especially the directorial abilities of James Mangold. Both crafted together a very solid, smart, and effective thriller that has plenty of genuine scares and suspense to entertain an audience. Because of this, it still has re-watch value. The film is so strong that it would still work just as marvelously without the major twist at the end. The mystery thriller aspect with people being killed off at the motel is just expertly executed in every way. The addition of said twist just ups the psychological brilliance of the concept. I definitely give Identity a wholehearted recommendation, just as I did when it was theatrically released.
So, Jason Voorhees has been hacked to pieces, and Paramount decided to launch a new direction for the franchise. Fortunately, it was short lived with this lower grade, poorly conceived sequel trying to position Tommy Jarvis as the new killer of the Friday The 13th films. Quite frankly, this has a lot wrong with it right from the start, and it’s easy to see why Paramount quickly rebounded with the far superior Jason Lives. I’ve just never really liked this entry much because of it’s very direct-to-video production quality, bland execution, and lack of decently written characters. The director and screenwriters simply did not have the talent to make this a good movie, regardless of the MPAA cuts.
A few years have past for Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard) since he saw Jason Voorhees killed, and after some time in a mental institution trying to recover from those horrific events, he’s been transferred to a halfway house far from Crystal Lake. Unfortunately, soon after his arrival, a volatile young patient named Vic Faden suddenly murders the young, obnoxious, and obese Joey with an axe. Shortly thereafter, it seems as though Jason has been resurrected from the grave to murder more people. Meanwhile, Tommy suffers from hallucinations of Jason repeatedly, and they are slowly driving him mad. As the bodies stack up, and Tommy seems to have disappeared, suspicions intentionally fall upon him. However, it eventually becomes clear to the audience that this is not the work of Jason, but of a mysterious imposter using the Jason lore as a façade for his murder spree. The aftermath of this violent experience hints at a new direction for the franchise that would quickly be discarded after backlash from the fans.
Firstly, John Shepard does a partially good job as the new Tommy Jarvis. I think a lot of the hallucination scenes are excellently handled giving Tommy an obvious mental imbalance. However, a lot of Shepard’s screentime is him standing or sitting around silent and introverted. Shepard doesn’t put any effort into making Tommy seem like a troubled young man outside of those hallucinatory freak out scenes. The screenplay doesn’t give him anything to do to showcase such behavior. He also has almost no character interactions in this movie, and thus, it doesn’t give Shepard much to work with. So, it’s a fine line to divide this issue which can also cut towards director Danny Steinmann’s way since he also co-wrote the script. Instead of directing Shepard to demonstrate that internal turmoil, he just has him be a blank slate that shows nothing of what Tommy is going through. Still, in the vast majority of his screentime, John Shepard just fills up the frame, and even in the big climax of the film, he still comes off as a waste of space. Corey Feldman, who does cameo as Tommy in the opening dream sequence, did a stunningly impressive job with the diverse range the character of Tommy Jarvis offered in the previous film. He hit everything dead-on-the-mark, and made a powerful impression throughout the movie. There is nothing within John Shepard’s performance to remotely equal that exceptionally well-rounded and captivating performance from Feldman. In the following film, Thom Mathews would serve as an excellent hero for this franchise, and do so much more than Shepard even tried to do in this sequel.
The mood and scares are decent enough. I especially feel Violet’s stalk and slash death scene is exceptionally effective with the soundtrack of “His Eyes” by Pseudo Echo behind it. Unfortunately, you definitely get very little gore due to the MPAA’s stringent standards of the time. Still, the big problem of this film is the lack of decent characters to give a damn about. There are a lot of random people added to the body count who only show up for one scene to get killed. That’s one sense of why I feel it comes off like a bland and cheesy direct-to-video movie. You can contrast the characters in this film to those in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. The main characters in both are all in a mental health facility with their own quirks and personal issues. In Dream Warriors, the roles are smartly written and greatly cast to create a very strong ensemble of young characters that add vibrancy and emotional relatability to the film. In A New Beginning, the characters all seem very under-developed as if they are just there to just fill up the screenplay. They are not given any depth or background, let alone particularly likable aspects They either come off as too weird, too irritating, or just uninteresting. They bring no life to the film for an audience to really get scared for them, and the casting is not all that memorable. There are some decently entertaining bits here and there with one or two characters, but other characters are just blandly written or underwhelmingly acted. Nobody stands out. They all blend into the background creating a film with no real tension, energy, or charisma. Considering The Final Chapter and Jason Lives have two of the best young casts of the series with nicely fleshed out characters that are memorable and enjoyable, this makes A New Beginning even more of a sore thumb in the franchise. Horror and suspense work best when an audience cares about the characters in the story, and I really could not care less about these.
While, like I said, the mood is decent, I do feel this movie is lit a little too brightly. It feels a little too slick and polished taking away the dark and gritty feeling the series had up to this point. That takes away from the effective, harder edged horror atmosphere the previously films generally had. Plus, without having some abundant, high end gruesome gore effects to elevate the graphicness of the film, it all just feels cheap. The Final Chapter felt like a franchise high point as a standard bearer for what a slasher film should be. This film is just the opposite. It shows the bottom of the barrel quality of what the genre should avoid becoming.
The direction of Danny Steinmann is just not very good. I know there are far worse, more ineptly made movies out there, but for a mainstream horror franchise, this is as bad as you’d ever fear it would get. Again, everything is cheap – the characters, the gore, the cinematography, the story, and the screenplay itself. Steinmann co-wrote this with Martin Kitrosser, one of the writers of Friday The 13th, Part 3, a film that shares many of the same problems as this one, only not to this degree. The third writer, David Cohen, wrote two other films no one’s heard of and that was it. Steinmann never made another film after this one, and it is severely evident why. This is not a theatrical release quality film. It does reek of direct-to-video quality with its abundant cheesiness, poor script, and bland direction. The attempt to make Tommy seem like the killer in this is lazily handled. The film tries to throw a number of red herrings into the mix, but really, it plays up no mystery aspect whatsoever. It’s entire intent is to push Tommy to becoming the new killer of Friday The 13th, but puts nearly no effort at all into fooling you into believing he might be the killer at large. Anything that is dropped in to allude to that seems like a weak afterthought.
I’m not singling Steinmann out for any personal reason. His 1984 revenge exploitation film Savage Streets has a strong cult following, and while I have never seen it, I am generally intrigued to see it. With that cult following, it does seem to say that Steinmann was capable of making a satisfactory film filled with violence, sexuality, and grit. Maybe Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning was just a wrong choice of film for him, or he worked with the wrong creative team. Anything is possible, but the fact remains that he did not handled this movie well in any creative aspect. Even if the gore was re-instated into the film, it would not make up for the poorly executed story, the flat characters, or the overall cheesiness of the film he made.
And it’s hard to even be fooled into thinking this is Jason Voorhees back from the dead. Frankly, he looks and moves more like a poor Michael Myers imitation than a decent Jason Voorhees ones. The blue coveralls, the slender build, the more mechanical movement, and the lackluster hockey mask just scream “bad imposter.” Even the old VHS box cover couldn’t get the hockey mask right. It looked like some cheap plastic mask you’d buy at the corner drug store. Everything about this film just drives home the fact that this isn’t Jason, and we’re not even trying to fool you. Conversely, the Jason seen in Tommy’s hallucinations looks very authentic in every detail. Now, that clearly shows that the filmmakers could have given the imposter a more faithful design to heighten the second guessing of whether this really was Jason or not, but chose to just cheap out on that aspect. They even still give this regular mortal man superhuman strength, just like Jason, but in every visual aspect, he clearly is not Jason Voorhees. It’s simply bad conceptualization and poor execution.
The climax is easily one of the weakest of the franchise. I really did not like having some wise-ass kid running around this film in Reggie, and him being part of the climactic action is just cringable for me. He’s treated like a big hero in the whole thing, and there’s even a big music cue to support that intention. I simply couldn’t get invested in these weak characters to really care who survived or if there was a true protagonist here. Tommy is such an inactive part of the story that the film, in order to build suspicion that he’s the killer, is able to have him disappear for a good long while, and it doesn’t make a single bit of difference at all. It’s very hard to sell Tommy as a potential hero when, at the same time, you are lazily trying to sell him as the potential villain. It just comes off as very shoddy work. This is a script that just meanders from one death scene to the next with no idea of what story it’s trying to tell.
All in all, this is really a sad sequel that delivered next to nothing worthwhile, and Paramount heard the cries of fans everywhere regarding it. They ignored what this film attempted to setup for the Tommy Jarvis character, and took the following film into a far more satisfying and enjoyable direction. I think it was a very fortunate turn of events that Corey Feldman was already working on The Goonies at this time, and could only do a single scene cameo. It undoubtedly gave his career a massive boost to be working with great filmmakers like Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg on an eventual blockbuster instead with Danny Steinmann on a low grade slasher sequel. Again, there are vastly worse films you could subject yourself to, but there are also so many better slasher films around than this sad entry in the Friday The 13th series. However, there is one worse entry in this franchise, in my opinion, but it’s much, much further down the line in the New Line Cinema era.