Monday, May 20, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’

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The Slumber Party Massacre is a movie that refuses to be hobbled either by its low budget or the fact that it’s a Roger Corman slasher movie. With its wry sense of humor and moments of empathy for its women, it stands out as one of the few slasher flicks where the women behind the screen managed to warp the male gaze so that it all but turns in on itself. That it does all this in just a little over an hour is impressive.

As debuts go, Amy Holden Jones’s The Slumber Party Massacre is one that, if you’re not paying attention, you might mistakenly dismiss. Jones takes what could be a by-the-numbers slasher flick and instead turns it into an empathetic sardonic take on the formula. Jones warps the male gaze to the point where it feels less voyeuristic and more bluntly exploitative but in a way that leaves you feeling uncomfortable. 

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Trish (Michelle Michaels)

She’s helped by the script, penned by the legendary Rita Mae Brown. Though Brown’s script was intended as a parody, after it was bought by an icon of schlock, Roger Corman, it became less parody and more serious. But Brown’s wit and incisive observations about the tropes still bleed through the rewrites. It works on two levels at the same time but never parallel to one another, instead intertwining back and forth.

The film is filled with tiny flourishes that set it apart from so many of its siblings of the genre. The girls having the slumber party aren’t cheerleaders but instead part of the Girl’s Basketball team. Perhaps a modern version of The Slumber Party Massacre would have them be more intelligent, but much like Halloween Kills, the movie is trying to thread a needle, it just does it better.

Trish (Michelle Michaels) and her friends, Kim (Debra Deliso), Diane (Gina Marie), and Jackie (Andree Honroe) are regular teenage girls. It’s hard to remember exactly who is who, part of Brown’s dig at the genre is that the women in slasher films are interchangeable. At the same time, they are allowed to be ditzy, intelligent, horny, and judgmental teenagers. 

Brown even has a running gag where the girls, knowing the Dodgers beat the Mets in a 6-1 game, try to figure out where the runs came from. Any movie that has a through-line in which characters discuss baseball is almost impossible to be all bad, though some films do try. Here, it’s fascinating if only because for younger viewers it’s a reminder of a time before Google when you had to find out basic information at night by either getting a paper, calling Coach Jana (Pamela Roylance) or hoping to catch the local sportscaster on the news.

Valerie (Robin Stille), the new girl in town, who was invited by Trish but overheard Diane trash-talking her and declined to go, spends the night with her bratty little sister Courtney (Jennifer Myers). They live across the street, making Courtney eager to go to the party after hearing all the screaming and Valerie upset after hearing Diane talk about her.

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Left to Right: Courtney (Jennifer Meyers) and her big sister Valerie (Robin Stille)

The Slumber Party Massacre is a slasher film that doesn’t hide who the killer is or make him some mysterious unstoppable figure. He’s just a man wielding a portable drill doubling as a phallic symbol in an obvious bit of psychosexual symbolism. Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) is an escaped serial killer. Jones and Brown repeatedly have moments in the background where the radio, the newspaper, or a specific character is breathlessly relating the news of Thorn’s escapes and the five people he killed before he escaped.

There’s no “who dunnit” aspect, as we know it’s Thorn from the jump. But unlike Michael, Freddy, Jason, or others, once Thorn gets a chance to talk he becomes pathetic. “You’re so pretty. You’ll like this.” Thorn is just a creep. This is what sets him apart from other slashers — he’s just some guy.

Jones and Brown understand that violence against women doesn’t come from unstoppable, unkillable supernatural forces behind faceless masks. Instead, it comes from ordinary men. On top of that, Jones populates The Slumber Party Massacre with women, more so than most films, slasher, horror, or otherwise. Women exist in The Slumber Party Massacre more than in almost any other film of its type.

The phone repair woman played by Jean Vargas is a typically masculine role, and in 1983, rare to see. Granted, Vargas is ogled by the teen boys at the high school; Jones and her DP, Stephen L. Posey, frame her coming down the ladder from the boy’s POV. The camera locked in on her backside as she climbed down.

Even her death is filmed with more empathy than most deaths. The boys shamelessly flirt with Jane and help her load her equipment into her van. As they leave, their backs to her, we see her pulled into the van. Jones and Posey place the camera in the distance from the van, the two boys walking towards it on one side, the van with Jane pounding on the back window for help. The boys turn around for one more look, and Jane is pulled down onto the van floor before they can see her.

The framing of the scene places Jane’s death as something to remember, it’s important. Yes, it’s one of many. But the boys are off to the side, the focus is on Jane and her fight for survival. Jones and Posey cut to the inside of the van so we can see her struggling.

By contrast, other deaths are more humorous. Take the scene where two of the women are hiding in Trish’s bedroom from the killer, the door barricaded, huddled together as they hold each other in terror, utterly ignorant of Russ Thorn climbing through the open window behind them, soaked in blood with a manic grin on his face. When they do notice him, they begin throwing knickknacks and figurines before knocking him out. But then they have to move all the furniture they used to block the door, which seals their fate.

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Left to Right: Trish (Michaels), Kim (Debra Deliso), and Jackie (Andree Honore)

Brown peppers The Slumber Party Massacre with jokes but Jones slyly chooses to play it straight. Characters don’t wink at the screen or make references to other movies. Instead, we have moments such as the girls huddled around the corpse of the dead pizza delivery boy. “The body’s cold.” One of the other ladies quickly asks, “But how’s the pizza?”

Jones takes Brown’s mocking humor and plays it straight so it comes off macabre. One scene has the aforementioned pizza delivery boy knocking on the door. The guys who crashed the party asked how much the delivery cost. The voice of Russ Thorn replies, “Six…for now.” The boys think he means six dollars but we know he means bodies. There’s even a scene where Thorn packs the bodies in the trunk of a car, counts them, and realizes he missed one. 

One scene, one of the best in the movie, in my opinion, involves Courtney and Valerie coming into the house to make sure everyone is okay. Courtney opens the fridge to reveal one of the dead girls in the fridge. Jones and Posey shoot it so Courtney is looking away talking to her sister while we see the body. Courtney opens the fridge three or four times each time the body slowly gets closer and closer to falling out.

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Diane (Gina Mari) in one of the film’s iconic shots

The Slumber Party Massacre is a slasher film after all, which means there are scenes of gratuitous nudity. But these scenes feel almost perfunctory in a way. As if they are merely fulfilling the mandates of a producer’s wishes. Jones goes out of her way to make sure the situation itself would be one where a woman would be naked. 

On top of that, she and Posey frame the scenes in a way that makes it less titillating and more unsettling, as if the audience is behaving like peeping toms, and they are being called out. Jones goes a step further in de-sexualizing these moments by having her actors not behave in an overtly sexual manner, or pose as if there was a camera on them. This more than anything makes the scenes less erotic and more a voyeuristic indictment of the male gaze.

One scene, in particular, involves the ladies in the locker room showering after a basketball game. The camera lingers on their bodies but Jones also layers in several audio tracks so we have the feeling of multiple conversations going on at once. We hear some of them talk about how their breasts are getting bigger, but also hear others talk about which pro football player they find attractive. 

At one point, Jones and Posey drop the camera down to Michelle Michaels’s backside and leave it there. In any other movie, this would have been an attempt to exploit Michaels’s body. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice the camera feels as if it plopped down to its position, almost as if in resignation. There’s no music either; it just stares as if to say, “This is what you want. Happy?” The moment is jarring because it’s a no-frills attempt to fulfill the requirement of exploitation but done in a spirit that makes the whole thing feel empty and discomfiting.

I couldn’t help but notice the way certain characters looked at each other throughout The Slumber Party Massacre. One scene has Trish staring at Valerie across the room while the two take a shower; they look at each other, communicating something quietly. Trish wants to invite her, Valerie wants to come, and there seems to be some unspoken familiarity between the two. 

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Valerie (Stille) fights the murderous drill killer, Russ Thorn (Michael Villella)

Combine this with another scene where the two boys who have crashed the party take it upon themselves to go get help. They discuss their doomed plan which includes the red flag of red flags, “splitting up” but as they talk, they dance around the fact that they know, on some level, they won’t be coming back. The blonde boy looks at his friend in a way that screams, “kiss me.”

What’s more, the teens in The Slumber Party Massacre aren’t being punished for any moral transgressions. Yes, they are horny, and they do drugs, but all teens do that, and their deaths are so removed from these actions that it’s impossible to draw that kind of connection. Nor are they killed for having something resembling bisexual yearnings. They are just flat-out murdered by a creep with a drill. That, more than anything, gives the movie its true horror. The murders aren’t symbolic of anything but the violence of a man who can’t get it up and needs women to validate his power.

Of course, The Slumber Party Massacre ends in a final showdown, but here again, there’s another little twist. There’s not a final girl but three final girls, each one taking a stab at Russ Thorn and his not-so-subtle drill-organ. Heck, Jones and Posey even have a scene where we see one of the victims between his legs, the drill hanging down like a flaccid penis. Fitting then, Valerie should cut the tip of the drill off with a machete, emasculating the killer. She then cuts off his hand, but I suspect the symbolic castration is what’s really bothering him.

Images courtesy of New World Pictures

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