Written by: Rita Mae Brown
Directed by: Amy Holden Jones
Starring: Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, and Michael Villella
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“You know how girls love to scream."
I wouldn’t fault anyone who points their finger at the likes of The Slumber Party Massacre and blames them for giving the slasher genre a bad name (okay, an even worse name). Even I have to admit it’s emblematic of the off-brand sort of slashers that emerged after Friday the 13th ushered audiences into the 80s: it’s a cheap, gratuitous knock-off that seems to pander exactly to expectations that had already crystalized over the course of a few years. Featuring only the bare genre essentials (nubile, scantily-clad girls, a maniac brandishing a power drill, and a scant 76 minutes of mayhem), The Slumber Party Massacre would appear to be an easy target for ridicule and scorn for appealing to such a common denominator—and yet, it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.
Instead, the film is noteworthy for its female creative team, director Amy Holden Jones and writer Rita Mae Brown, the latter of whom intended it to be a send-up of the genre. Somewhere along the way, The Slumber Party Massacre was twisted into a more straightforward slasher. And, on the surface, it couldn’t really be any more straightforward: high school senior Trish (Michelle Michaels) throws a slumber party with her gal-pals when her parents bail for the weekend, and the revelry coincides with the escape of psychopath Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) from a local facility.
That’s pretty much it. Slashers don’t come more streamlined than this one: not only does it dispense with any mystery by revealing the killer right up front, but it also gets right down to business by gratuitously offing a couple of victims post-haste. Characterization is minimal, as Trish seems like a default protagonist simply because she’s the one who throws the party. At first, she’s at least the nice girl of her group since she goes out of her way to invite Valerie (Robin Stille), the new awkward new girl at school who also moved in next door. Val spurns the request after overhearing a catty conversation between Trish’s friends and opts to spend the night at home with her sister, so you’ve got a pack of alpha girls and literally the girl next door (Val ends up becoming more of a protagonist, if the film can really be considered to have one). And, in between them, a dude that really enjoys impaling unwitting victims with a power drill for no apparent reason (you might consider this an attempt to ape the enigma of Michael Myers, but I reckon it’s because explaining a motive would take time, which is not a luxury when you’ve got a dozen folks to drill holes into).
All of the slashing arrives without fail—and not without an undercurrent of subversion. Maybe it’s just the fallacy of intent whispering into my ear, but there’s an occasional whiff of the film Brown initially wrote. It’s mostly confined to oddball moments, such as an egregious pan on a girl’s ass that’s so blatantly obvious and pointless that it must be calling out the genre’s tendency to male gaze. On the whole, the film feels a bit sillier and more self-aware than many of its contemporaries as well, what with all of the ridiculous jump scares (one stretch strings like three of them in a row) and the fits of oddball humor (my favorite is Thorn disguising himself as the pizza delivery man and cracking wise about how many folks he’s killed so far). Another scene has Valerie watching a slasher flick (a bit from Joe Dante's Hollywood Boulevard) as an actual murder takes place right outside of her door. While this isn’t as overt as the meta tomfoolery in Scream, there’s a sense that The Slumber Party Massacre is knowingly cliché at times.
With that comes some playfulness with gender expectations, too. The film starts right out of the gate when Trish—presumably our “good girl” protagonist—immediately disrobes for the camera. Even Valerie isn’t the awkward prude you might expect when she and her sister seem to joke around about sexuality like any boys might do in these sorts of films. Women also show up in traditionally male roles, as one woman works on phone lines while another serves as some sort of handyman (er, woman, I guess). Aside from the killer, males are rather underrepresented, limited only to a disposable neighbor (Rigg Kennedy) and some horndog boyfriends hanging around the party and acting as voyeurs (before finally attempting to get into the girls’ pants). Interestingly enough, they wind up on the business end of the grisliest murders in the film, as if they’re being punished for their sexual indiscretions, a fate typically reserved for female counterparts.
And of course there’s the issue of a guy who’s primary murder weapon is uber-phallic, a point that rarely goes unnoticed throughout the film. John Carpenter has resisted the reading of Halloween that posits Michael Myers as a victim of sexual repression and whose butcher knife acts as a violent, phallic substitute; instead, he considers the virginal Laurie Strode to be the one with the sexual hang-ups. Suffice it to say, the ladies behind The Slumber Party Massacre don't ape Carpenter's viewpoint: their women are sexually liberated, with most of them spending much of the film in nothing more than undergarments and what not. Meanwhile, they’re stalked by a high-strung man whose impulses eventually seem to be sexually motivated—he finds the girls so pretty that he has to kill them. Playing up the sexual overtones here is obvious and unsubtle, particularly in shots where Thorn’s drill literally substitutes for his cock. Sometimes a power drill is just a power drill; sometimes, it’s a penis. It’s definitely a penis here.
Even if one wanted to ignore the obvious overtones, they’re left with a pretty rad little slasher with impressive gore and ass-kicking girls. I’m not sure why anyone would want to discard the interesting subtext, though—it’s much more fun to read it as a film by two women who were quick to call the slasher genre out on its bullshit. Their initial vision may have been somewhat thwarted, but the hints in the margins here result in a slasher film that’s actually more interesting now than it was when I first watched it as a kid (when I was interested in it for all the things Brown and Jones were trying to highlight, of course).
That’s not a bad fate for a thirty-year-old splatter flick, and it’s good enough for entry into the Scream Factory canon. The Blu-ray upgrade features a newly minted HD transfer from the original negative along with a host of extras, with a 23-minute retrospective headlining the supplements (it’s actually a pared down version of the hour-long doc found on The Slumber Party Massacre collection from a few years back). Also re-appearing are the usual promotional materials (trailers, stills, and posters) and a commentary track with Jones, Villela, and Debra De Liso. The only new supplement is “The Man Next Door,” a bizarre little interview with Kennedy, who plays Trish’s neighbor. If there are any noticeable omissions here, it’d be the film’s sequels; considering the trio arrived as a trilogy on DVD from Shout Factory, one wonders why Scream didn’t follow suit. Here’s hoping they’re in the cards--I don’t even think Blu-ray can consider itself a real format until it counts The Slumber Party Massacre II among its ranks. Buy it!
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