Feminist activist Rita Mae Brown wrote a parody of slasher movies called Sleepless Nights…which eventually became an actual slasher movie, The Slumber Party Massacre. It’s unclear to me exactly how much of the original screenplay was changed by producers (including Roger Corman) and director Amy Holden Jones, but Rita Mae Brown remains the credited writer for the film, which makes it a fascinating project. Would you believe a slasher movie that began life as a slasher parody actually works?
The Slumber Party Massacre, released in 1982, does not wildly reinvent a genre defined by classics like Black Christmas (1974), Halloween (1980), and Friday the 13th (1980). In most respects, it’s a typical slasher, but that’s what good about it! It’s got everything you want! Gratuitous nudity (to quote fellow Dissolver Heaven Leigh Collins, “Were boobs just better in the 80s? Jesus Christ.”), a locker room shot where the camera pans down to show a girl’s ass for literally no reason, girls taking off their clothes while boys leer through the window…okay, this is a film directed by a woman but you’d hardly be able to tell. This feels tied to its parodic roots, though Jones mimics the male gaze a little too well.
You might also suspect the film has its roots in parody based on a few scenes where Amy Holden Jones plays with the notion that these hapless teens don’t notice the horror around them. Not long after the credits roll, she introduces the villain, Russ Thorn, in a startling daytime kill where he pulls her into a van and murders her in the background as boys simply walk away, not seeing her smashed against the back window or, later, her corpse lying in the garbage. This could be funny, but it’s actually quite unsettling. Later Jones again uses the background to her advantage, filming Thorn climbing in through the window behind unsuspecting girls, and you almost expect him to hold up a finger and say, “Shhhh,” to the camera, but again, it’s an effective technique that heightens the tension. The pièce de résistance comes when a girl fails to notice a fucking dead body hanging out of a fridge over and over, opening and closing the refrigerator as the body keeps falling out into the foreground (not the background!). There’s no way this isn’t meant to be at least a little bit funny, but by this point in the film, it’s also deeply unnerving. The horror here comes from an invasion, and that dead body is threatening to encroach into that girl’s world. Up until now, she has no idea that anything bad is happening, but this is the moment where ignorance ends, and we don’t want her to be drawn into the nightmare. It’s a marvel that Jones can make these scenes so tense and scary.
Then again there’s also a bit where a girl eats a slice of pizza off a dead body, and that’s just straight-up funny. You cannot make that scary, and you should not try. Sometimes horror can use a little genuine comic relief! The preponderance of fakeouts throughout the film are similarly less successful at being scary because the sheer number of them becomes a small joke, and Jones leans into it. My favorite is a girl coming home to OH NO SOMEONE IS DRILLING THROUGH THE DOOR oh it’s just someone installing her new peephole.
The marvelous tension between comedy and horror manifests as actual tension in the dueling slumber parties. I love the cut from the titular slumber party, where the girls are smoking weed and drinking booze, to Val making Kool-Aid with her little sister next door. Over at Trish’s house, they’re getting naked and getting killed, but at Val’s place, they’re reading Playgirl and watching horror movies. It’s a delightful contrast, but it’s yet another example of how this film finds the horror in characters not noticing things. All this mayhem is happening next door, and it could have been a sick joke if Val simply never noticed, but thankfully she does get to go and Final Girl it up. It’s very satisfying; she’s obviously the best character.
And what of Russ Thorn and his absurdly large drill? What could it possibly symbolize? Michael Villella’s dead eyes don’t give the game away, and I almost wish he didn’t speak at all, but he does speak once at the end to make it clear that yes, he is indeed a manifestation of misogyny. Did you notice how his drill penetrates women? In case you missed it, here is a shot framed with the massive drill bit between his legs. I was impressed that Thorn did not simply penetrate women with his drill, but he could even use it to slash! But he even uses a knife to slash at one point, which is disappointing, really. Commit to the bit.
Halloween may be the prototypical slasher flick, and it deserves its reputation, but The Slumber Party Massacre is a lean 76 minutes of fun, a solid example of the genre that succeeds as both a tense horror film and occasionally as a cheeky parody. It’s certainly not the movie Rita Mae Brown wanted, but it was the movie horror needed.