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Enjoy the Show – Alice Cooper and the Man Behind the Mask

The first half of the 1980s had not been kind to Alice Cooper. He had struggled through both alcohol abuse and a fledging music career, with a string of commercial disappointments failing to regain his former glory. After the mediocre performance of 1983’s Dada, Cooper’s contract with Warner Bros. – his home for over a decade – expired and, after undergoing a slow process back to sobriety, was signed to a new label. ‘I remember the day that I finally realised I had to get help,’ he told Classic Rock in 2011. ‘It was 1983 and I woke up in a hotel room. I’d been on a heavy drinking session the night before and when I came to, the bathroom was full of blood – my blood.’

Teaming up with guitarist Kane Roberts, the two began to collaborate on what would become Cooper’s sixteenth studio album and his ninth as a solo artist, Constrictor. With the supper of his new record company MCA his first single in three years would be He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), a synth-heavy atmospheric anthem that would be released to promote the latest Paramount sequel to their highly successful Friday the 13th series, Jason Lives.

The pairing of Alice Cooper and the franchise’s iconic antagonist Jason Voorhees was an inspired move; both had enjoyed considerable success but had begun to lose popularity with their target audience and so this collaboration was intended to give both a new lease of life. The previous instalment in the series, 1985’s A New Beginning, was an attempt to reinvigorate the fan base after killing off Jason in the fourth picture, but with a box office performance over $10m less than its predecessor and a critical reaction even more venomous than the earlier entries, executives at the studio soon realised that if the Friday the 13th brand was to continue they would require a fresh approach.

Both the character and series had by definition become easily recyclable and very little risk would come with producing another Friday the 13th sequel, so despite the subpar reaction to the fifth movie Paramount rushed the next picture into production. Frank Mancusco, Jr., who had spearheaded the series over the last few years, had ventured onto other projects such as the slasher satire April Fool’s Day and so took a backseat to the development of Jason Lives. While the studio had begun to enjoy greater success with both the big screen Star Trek spinoffs and their multi-million dollar contract with comedian Eddie Murphy, as long as Jason Voorhees continued to turn a profit then further instalments would be produced.

Having turned his back on alcohol and instead focused on his family, Cooper returned to the music industry in his trademark make-up, something that – much like KISS – he had abandoned earlier in the decade. Having distanced himself from the theatrics of his 1970s visage by embracing New Wave and punk with his albums Flush the Fashion and Zipper Catches Skin, Cooper had chosen to resurrect the shock rock that he had championed since he had first emerged on the scene fifteen years earlier.

‘I fell over myself saying yes when the people at Paramount asked me to help score the film,’ Cooper told Fangoria prior to the movie’s release. ‘Jason is a real heavy metal kind of character and Alice is more than a bit influenced by horror. Doing the video and the music for Part VI is like a dream come true for me.’ Although he had previously appeared in the low budget European B-movie Monster Dog for Claudio Fragasso, Jason Lives would be Cooper’s horror breakthrough, which would lead to onscreen appearances in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the Freddy Krueger sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.

While Cooper would not star in Jason Lives, the appearance of Jason Voorhees in the promo video for He’s back (The Man Behind the Mask) would introduce him to a new generation of horror fans. Cooper would contribute three songs for the soundtrack to Part VI, an exclusive new track called Hard Rock Summer and Teenager Frankenstein, which also served as the opener for Constrictor. His association with Friday the 13th would finally allow Cooper the comeback he so desperately craved.

He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)

He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask)

‘Over the years many musical artists have expressed an interest in getting involved with the movies,’ explained Mancusco, Jr. in Crystal Lake Memories. ‘But when the idea of Alice Cooper came up it just made perfect sense. Not only from a marketing perspective, but the general spirit of the movie and Alice’s music – Jason Lives was just a more fun type of Friday the 13th. And, at the time, MTV had really started to become a truly substantive, youth-oriented marketing tool. How could we pass up this opportunity to put Jason in his first music video?’

As MTV had gained popularity in the early 1980s, many acclaimed rock artists had begun to participate in the promotion of horror movies. W.A.S.P. had made an appearance in the 1984 flick The Dungeonmaster, the same year that saw the release of their debut album, while the Italian supernatural picture Demons had boasted the likes of Mötley Crüe and Saxon on its soundtrack. But none had shot a video nor issued a single to coincide with the release of a movie and so Paramount’s decision to utilise the newly reinvented Alice Cooper was a potential risk.

Initially He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) was to have been presented differently than the keyboard-oriented version that made its way into the movie. The demo cut by Cooper and Roberts featured prominent electric guitars and a different vocal melody during the chorus but fearing that it lacked a commercial hook the song was reworked, while the original recording was transformed into another track for Constrictor, Trick Bag. ‘No one seems to be sure why this version wasn’t on the album,’ admits Brian Nelson, who helped to compile the 1999 box-set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper. ‘Someone at the record company got scared, I guess.’

While Jason Lives would be directed by Tom McLoughlin, who had come to the attention of Paramount following his low budget debut One Dark Night, the promo video for He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) would be helmed by Jeffrey Abelson, whose prior work in this medium would include producing the clip for Ray Parker, Jr’s hit single Ghostbusters two years earlier. Following his contribution to Friday the 13th, Abelson’s subsequent work would include the video for the Guns N’ Roses song You Could Be Mine, released in 1991 to promote the Arnold Schwarzenegger blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

With stuntman Dan Bradley having been replaced by newcomer C.J Graham in the role of Jason just days into the shoot, the character would appear in the music video mostly through montages on a cinema screen during a showing of Jason Lives, which a young man – also called Jason – has taken his date to watch. But suddenly, during a scene in which the film’s hero digs up Jason’s coffin, the killer crashes through the screen, before removing his mask to reveal Cooper underneath. The opportunity to portray Jason Voorhees onscreen, albeit it only for a second, would further establish a connection between both the horror character and rock star.

Despite the creative freedom he was given in both writing and directing Jason Lives, McLoughlin was somewhat disappointed to be denied the chance to shoot the music video. ‘I was just dying to do the music video but the record company wouldn’t let me,’ McLoughlin told author Peter M. Bracke. ‘At the time, they had a core group of guys and all they would direct were music videos. Now that strict hierarchy has changed but at the time it was very frustrating. And the funny thing is, I used to be in a band when I was really young called TNT. I was the lead singer and we were a total Alice Cooper kind of group – purely visuals, with costumes and make-up and the whole thing and we’d blow up tons of shit onstage. So I still think it would have been great if I had been allowed to do that video.’

The special effects crew who had worked on Jason Lives were mostly absent for the video shoot, resulting in a hastily designed Jason Voorhees. The focus of the video would instead be Cooper, who traps the young Jason and his date in a cage and taunts them before suddenly allowing their release. When Jason returns home to his father and is asked whether or not he enjoyed the movie, Jason confesses that he did not understand it. The father spins around to once again reveal Alice Cooper.

Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper

‘It’s definitely a return to the old Alice. It is everything up to and including the Billion Dollar Babies period of my career, but with one important difference: These songs are much less ‘show business’ and much more scary,’ Cooper told writer Marc Shapiro in 1986. ‘I’m using rock ‘n’ roll to open up a window into a little psychodrama. Alice Cooper, the character, is totally psychotic which, in a show business sense, is what makes him so dangerous and interesting. Alice should come and pat you on the back and suddenly reach around and slit your throat.’

Both Jason Voorhees and Alice Cooper were reinvigorated by the end of 1986. ‘I just felt so alive and so ready again,’ Cooper confessed to writer Malcolm Dome when looking back on that era twenty-five years later. ‘I don’t pretend that Constrictor is a classic but it was Alice doing what he wanted. That hadn’t happened for so long.’ Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was released through Paramount Pictures on 1 August 1986 and was greeted by a more positive critical response than its predecessors. It did, however, continue the commercial decline that had begun the previous year with A New Beginning and would remain until the surprise success of Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. Yet despite failing to meet the expectations of the studio, Jason Lives would more than satisfy the needs of its fan base while Alice Cooper was introduced to a new generation of heavy metal fans. He’s back, indeed!

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