The first half of the eighties had not been kind to Alice Cooper. He had struggled through both alcohol and drug abuse along with a fledging music career, a string of commercial disappointments having failed 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 eventually 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 a young unknown guitarist by the name of Kane Roberts, the two began to collaborate on what would become Cooper’s sixteenth studio album and his ninth as a solo artist, Constrictor. ‘My head was exploding with what ifs,’ he would later confess in his memoir Gold Monster. ‘What if it’s over? I mean, really over? I honestly had no idea what was going to happen.’ With the support 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 Pictures 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 early in their careers 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 horror franchise, 1985’s A New Beginning, had been an attempt to reinvigorate the fan base after killing off Jason in the fourth picture, but with a box office performance of 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 so 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 since Part 2 five years earlier, had ventured onto other projects and so took a backseat to the development of Jason Lives, allowing Don Behrns, who had previously worked with A New Beginning director Danny Steinmann on The Unseen, to take the reins. While the studio had begun to enjoy box office 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.
Those films perfectly suited the mood of the public at the time
‘A New Beginning was a turning point in the series in that we found out that the Friday the 13th films had a core audience that would go to see the films no matter what,’ claimed Mancuso, Jr. in David Grove’s Making Friday the 13th. ‘Parts 3 and 4 did so well financially that I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the later sequels to them. Those films perfectly suited the mood of the public at the time that they were released. I think one of the problems was going from The Final Chapter to A New Beginning because it seemed to the audience, people who weren’t a part of the Friday core audience, that the films were just going on and on.’
Much like Jason, by the mid-eighties Cooper was desperate to reclaim his audience. Having turned his back on alcohol to focus on his family, he 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 seventies visage by embracing new wave and punk with his albums Flush the Fashion and Zipper Catches Skin, Cooper had chosen to finally resurrect the shock rock that he had championed since he first emerged on the scene in the late sixties.
During his self-imposed exile Cooper had lived on a diet of low budget splatter and slasher movies, which were in no short supply thanks to home video allowing horror fans an endless supply of blood, gore and softcore nudity. This excessive bloodshed would help distract the recovering rock star from his past vices and also formed the basis of his friendship with Roberts who, at twenty-four, was fourteen years younger than his new friend. While catering to the heavy metal audience of the era, lyrically the songs on Constrictor owed a debt to their mutual love of horror. ‘They were tributes to splatter movies,’ he revealed to Rue Morgue in 2000. ‘I mean, Kane Roberts and I, that’s all we did, watch every splatter movie there was. And our stage show was so bloody that people in the first two rows were literally soaked. But I think people got the idea of it. It was like The Evil Dead. You know how the beginning of The Evil Dead was so scary? Then it got so bloody that it got funny.’
For Cooper, who had come dangerously close to death during the early eighties after years of self-abuse, his on-stage persona had finally become just that; a horror character that he would portray during shows and then leave behind as he stepped off the stage. ‘You will never see Alice offstage,’ he insisted to CAMM. ‘He’s a character and I write for him. When I become him, it’s fun, but I don’t try to be Alice offstage. It would be ridiculous. Maybe if eight guys jumped me or something, then I could turn into Alice. That would scare them pretty badly!’ Elsewhere, in an interview with Circus he highlighted the association between horror and his own brand of rock ‘n’ roll, ‘Alice will always be a rock villain, my show was always like it is now and I’m not going to change it.’
With the commercial disaster of DaDa behind him and his collaboration with Roberts producing a wealth of new material, Cooper was eager to introduce his character to the young metal crowd of the eighties and so when he was approached by Paramount Pictures to contribute music to the latest Friday the 13th instalment the opportunity was too tempting to resist. A decade earlier he had joined forces with horror legend Vincent Price for Devil’s Food/Black Widow, the highlight of his debut solo album Welcome to My Nightmare and now, with interest in horror at an all-time high, he would once again share the screen with a genre icon. Jason Voorhees was facing his greatest challenge with the arrival of Freddy Krueger, the charismatic boogeyman of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, but with the help of Alice Cooper he had the chance to reclaim his title.
‘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 mark Cooper’s horror breakthrough, which would subsequently lead to onscreen appearances in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the Freddy Krueger sequel Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare.
And 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, including 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.
‘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 eighties, 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.
The Man Behind the Mask was written three or four different ways
‘They came to us and they said, ‘Can you write two or three songs for the movie? A couple of incidentals and a theme?” explained Cooper. ‘The Man Behind the Mask was written three or four different ways. We wrote a heavy metal version of it and then we wrote a hard rock version and then we realised at that time that we were looking for a little more bounce to it. We got together with Tom Kelly, who wrote for Madonna.’
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,’ admitted Cooper’s assistant 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.’
Roberts would also recall the experience of writing and recording He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), both with and without Kelly. ‘I remember we wrote it with Tom Kelly, who was this guy who had all these hits with Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles and he did Like a Virgin with Madonna,’ he told Legendary Rock Interviews a quarter of a century later. ‘Don’t ask me why or how but we ended up writing that with that guy. I really enjoyed the writing session, we really had a good time. I remember we first came in with a very heavy version of it, I‘m trying to remember; ‘He crawled out of his hole just to rock and roll.’ And it was just really heavy with this plodding riff. And then we heard that it was going to be featured prominently within the film and so started tinkering with it left and right, making it a little more accessible or poppy.’
While Roberts is the one most credited for his role in Cooper’s comeback, another member of the group was a classically trained musician who was struggling through a minimum wage job while searching for his big break. After his tenure with Cooper, Kip Winger would enjoy moderate success with his eponymous band, scoring a Top Twenty hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990 with the power ballad Miles Away. But in 1986 he was just another wannabe rock star. ‘I was a waiter, waiting tables in New York and then I got the job and then playing arenas. So it was all the way to the top like that,’ Winger explained to Metal Head Zone on how he went from a day job to performing in stadiums almost overnight. Cooper would also recall how the young bassist first joined the band, ‘We had him play some bass on the album and next thing I knew I said, ‘Kane, let’s try and get this guy in the band.’ I always knew he was going to go out on his own; it was no secret because he was so talented.’
With Beau Hill, the man entrusted to produce Cooper’s long-awaited comeback, unavailable for the sessions that would take place for He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask), Cooper instead turned to Michael Wagener, whom Hill had recruited to help mix the album. Relocating from New York’s Atlantic Studios, the base of operations for Constrictor, the song would be recorded at Amigo Studios in Los Angeles. While the album artwork would credit David Rosenberg as the drummer, in truth all the material created for the album would be accomplished using a drum machine and nowhere was this more evident than on He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask). One significant contribution would come from keyboardist Paul Delph, whose work on the 1981 Toni Basil hit Mickey had already demonstrated his skills with a synthesiser and would prove a valuable asset as Cooper’s song was reworked from hard rock to synthpop.
With the song having been refashioned to cater to the pop crowd that lived on a steady diet of MTV, the visuals for He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) would almost be as important as the music. While Jason Lives was directed by Tom McLoughlin, who had come to the attention of Paramount following his low budget debut One Dark Night, the promo video would be helmed by Jeffrey Abelson, whose prior contributions to this medium would include producing the video 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 promo 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 Tommy Jarvis digs up Jason’s coffin, the killer crashes through the screen, removing his mask to reveal Cooper underneath. The opportunity to portray Jason Voorhees onscreen, albeit if only for a second, would further establish a connection between both the horror character and rock star.
‘The idea is that these two kids around sixteen or seventeen get swept away into Alice Cooperville. I grab them and bring them into my world,’ Cooper told Faces while describing the concept for the promo video, which would be shot in Los Angeles in the summer of 1986. In an interview with Metal Hammer during this time he would add, ‘I gave my alliance to Jason because he’s one of my favourite characters. We have a lot in common. I’ve been killed so many times on stage and I keep coming back. He does too. They just can’t get rid of us!’
I was just dying to do the music video but the record company wouldn’t let me
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 promo. ‘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 on Cooper, who traps the young Jason and his date in a cage to taunt 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.
‘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 critic 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.’ Elsewhere he claimed, ‘I felt we just tested the water with Constrictor. The Nightmare Returns was one of our most successful tours ever. I forgot how many millions of people we played for but to me it indicated that there is still a real hunger for Alice.’
Jason had also enjoyed something of a resurrection, with the disappointment that the series had endured with A New Beginning having been all but wiped from memory. ‘I only now realise the impact Jason Lives had on the franchise because after thirty-three-plus years it’s still loved and talked about as one of the fan favourites,’ McLoughlin admitted to Love-It-Loud in 2019. ‘I never in a million years expected anything like that. I just wanted to make a horror movie with a classic monster who was beyond human and was fun to watch. None of us had the slightest notion that the eighties horror figures were going to be so famous decades later.’
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives was released through Paramount Pictures on 1 August 1986 and was greeted with 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 finally introduced to a new generation of heavy metal fans. He’s back, indeed!