Friday, March 17, 2017

Pillow Fights and Power Tools - THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

People have a natural tendency to think in generalities, to take a few well known examples of something and apply it across the board.  We all do it sometimes, especially Republicans (joke).  So I always roll my eyes when people who are clearly not horror fans go on about the tropes and stereotypes that they claim happen in every single horror movie.  The classic example is that in slasher movies, sex = death.  It’s the idea that SCREAM turned into movie gold.  But, guess what?  Being in a slasher movie = death.  That is the theme.  People die after having sex, people die while pursuing sex, people die while having nothing to do with sex.  People just die, the sex is a bonus.  I challenge you to find a slasher where only the sexy people die.  I'm talking about a real slasher, not one of those porn knock offs like HALLOWWEINER or A NIGHTMARE ON COCK STREET.

So, I cringe when I find a slasher that really is steeped in stereotypes.  Even then, though, things might not be as cut and dry as they seem.  Take the 1982 classic THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, a movie whose own title is working against it.  Look past the assumptions and the surface level cliches and you will find a surprisingly subversive take on the genre.

The Capsule:
While her parents are off on vacation, 18 year old Trish (Michelle Michaels) invites her girlfriends, Diane (Gina Smika Hunter), Jackie (Andree Honore), and Kim (Debra De Liso) over for a wild slumber party filled with booze, drugs, and sports talk.  Also invited is the new girl, Valarie (Robin Stille), but she is too insecure about being tall, beautiful, and athletic, so she stays next door and look after her bratty, Playgirl loving little sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers).  It’s just as well, because Russ Thorn, recently escaped mental patient and power tool enthusiast, has fixated on Trish’s friends.  The girls aren’t going to find any help from the police, their two wimpy party crashers, the creepy neighbor, or the pizza delivery boy, so they will have to deal with Thorn and his suggestive giant drill all by themselves.  

At a glance, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE seems like the movie that spawned all those Scream-esque stereotypes.  Yes, there is a moment when someone runs away from the killer into the basement instead of out of the front door, WHICH IS RIGHT THERE! But look closer and you find that this film came from Roger Corman’s finely tuned exploitation factory, New World Pictures.  There are key points that have to be hit to make a successful Corman film, often as bluntly as possible.  SLUMBER PARTY has three undressing scenes plus an extended shower scene ridiculously shoehorned in (seriously, who changes clothes in the living room?).  Not that I'm complaining.

The bigger reason for the well used tropes, I think, is that the screenplay was originally intended to be a parody of slasher movies.  Instead, director Amy Holden Jones decided to play it straight.  The film has a healthy sense of humor (especially related to the poor pizza delivery guy), but for the most part, it’s a pretty brutal tale.  The parody from the script that slipped through seems so much stranger when played straight. It is ridiculous for Courtney to hide under the couch rather than sprint out of the house when the killer is coming, but it leads to a very tense and memorable scene rather than a cheap laugh.

The biggest offender is the jump scare.  There are at least five horror movie’s worth of jump scares and fake outs packed into this film's scant 70 minute runtime.  We have the menacing POV lurking behind a person that is really just someone they know, the person pretending to be dead as a joke, and the gold standard of jump scares, the cat jumping out of a closet.  If they had figured out how to fit in window shutters slamming open from the wind, they could have had a jump scare straight flush.

The escaped mental patient setup is cliché enough, but they really pound it home with the constant advertising.  The movie opens with a close up of a newspaper headline providing all the exposition we need in one tidy shot.  It then blows that bit of subtlety with numerous urgent radio announcements that give the same information.  Of course, who is looking for subtlety in a movie with Massacre in the title? 

The greatest thing about this is that even Although, the escape of this incredibly dangerous madman is widely publicized absolutely no one gives a shit.  The girls always switch off the radio before the announcement finishes, no one talks about the escape or wonders where this nutcase could be, and no one is the least bit concerned.  Trish has a general unease about being alone in her house, and she is worried when the garage door is left unlocked, but it is never related to the mass murderer currently on the loose.  Trish even sees him lurking out in her yard through the window at one point and she still doesn’t seem too alarmed.  He is absolutely the last thought on anyone’s mind, until he shows up.  Even then, I don’t know if anyone makes the connection.  I wonder if the survivors see the newspaper afterwards and go “Well, that explains it!”

It’s not just the girls, it’s everyone.  There is not a single cop anywhere in the movie.  No one is searching for this guy.  I would be pissed if I were Russ Thorn.  Michael Myers had a whole police force after him, and he had only killed his sister at that point.  Thorn was already a mass murderer.  Where’s his Loomis?  

It’s not entirely Thorn’s fault.  These are the most nonchalant characters ever to be in a horror movie. No one seems to be aware that bad things happen in the world.  A perfect example is this guy, the improbably named Mr. Contant (Rigg Kennedy).  He is Trish’s next door neighbor, and the person that her parents ask to keep an eye on their daughter while they are away, despite the fact that he is clearly a sex offender.  Seriously, he steals Trish’s doll from the trash when she’s not looking.  What do you think he's going to do with that doll?  Not donate it to an orphanage, that's for sure.  She should be totally creeped out by this weirdo, but she's not.  When she is surprised by his sudden unannounced appearance inside her house, she acts relieved, rather than the more natural reaction of screaming “what the fuck are you doing in my house?”  She even makes him coffee before the other girls arrive.  I’m shocked he didn’t ask if she wanted a massage while they waited.  Look at him.  I bet he uses the phrase “I have a wide selection of exotic lotions,” at least once a week.

His second jump scare is even more amazing.  Diane is alone in the dark, gathering firewood from a pile by the driveway when Mr. Contant creeps up behind her with a cleaver.  He swoops in and hacks up a snail that startled her.  Diane has absolutely no reaction to him, other than to complement him on his snail removal technique.  It's like they just met in line at Starbucks.  That’s how this crazy jump scare town works.  Snails are terrifying, but sexual predators holding cleavers aren’t given a second thought.  At least Russ Thorn has the decency to put a drill through his throat before the sicko could do something really unpleasant.

In many ways, though, Russ Thorn makes an even more effective villain that Mr. Contant.  For instance, he actually kills people.  His identity as the killer is never in doubt, and the director shows his face from the start.  Not hiding behind a scary mask puts more of the heavy lifting on the actor.  Michael Villella does a great job of making a fairly average looking guy seem menacing and unhinged purely with his mannerisms and expressions.  He doesn't speak until nearly the end, and what he says just makes everything worse.  It’s not a nuanced performance, but he is super creepy.  

It’s his signature weapon that really makes him stand out.  His two handed industrial (and magically cordless) drill is a showstopper.  It is second only to the chainsaw as something people instinctively do not want to be on the other end of.  He gets a lot of mileage out of the unwieldy thing, using it to slash and bash, in addition to a lot of straightforward impaling.  He even decapitates someone with it (off screen).  Not sure how he managed that.  Maybe there is a special attachment. 

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is a straight ahead slasher, but Jones manages to subvert a few of the gender stereotypes.  For one thing, the girls are all part of the basketball team, not the cheerleading squad.  Their number one topic of discussion is sports, and they are considerably more confident and formidable than the uncomfortable dudes who awkwardly crash their party.  It’s those dudes who get the most protracted deaths, and they are the ones expressing the kind of fear and vulnerability usually reserved for the female characters.  It was a nice switch, especially for the un-self aware early '80s.  Also unusual is the body count, which is evenly split, six female to six male (if you count the killer's death [spoiler]).

Jones also plays with the stereotypical sex crazed mean girl character, Diane.  She’s the snobby one who doesn’t want the shy new girl, Valarie, invited to the party because she's jealous of her basketball skills .  She’s also the one with the football player boyfriend, and is planning on sneaking away for a little fun with him.  But her snobbishness melts away once she gets to the party, and she actually comes off as the most mature one there.  As for the interest in sex, her behavior with her boyfriend is less slutty than it is sweetly innocent.  It’s just a pity she picked the dark garage to fool around in.

Most of the girls do wind up as victims, and there is a lot of screaming and panicking, but none of them just cower.  They grab kitchen knives as soon as they realize what is happening, and they actively fight to protect themselves.  There is a nice scene were Valarie is in the basement evaluating what household tools would make the best weapon, much like Bruce Willis’ Butch did in PULP FICTION years later.  She settles on a circular saw, but she runs out of cord before we can get an awesome saw vs. drill duel.
Speaking of the drill, there is absolutely nothing subtle about that bit of phallic imagery.  Several shots are staged low behind Thorn, with the long drill bit whirling suggestively from between his legs.  There is nothing particularly lascivious about the killings themselves, we’re not talking about Lucio Fulci, after all, but we get Jones’ message about the typical sexual undertones of horror loud and clear.  This leads to the most satisfying scene of the movie, when one of the girls snaps off Thorn’s drill bit with a machete.  Thorn mournfully cradles his weapon as if to say “you broke off my mighty tool!”

While few would consider THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE to be a feminist masterpiece, Amy Jones provides enough twists and tweaks to the formula to make it stand out.  Interestingly, the following two sequels would also be directed by women, each with their own unique style (a batshit crazy style, if you are talking about SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II).  Like a lot of genre movies, they are more than the sum of their parts, or their tropes.  

So if there is one message to take from the movie, let it be this:  Never let Mr. Contant anywhere near your daughter.

C Chaka

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