Throughout the Golden Age of slasher cinema — the late ‘70s through the early ‘80s — films of this genre weren’t exactly praised for their depiction of women. Quite the contrary, in fact; they were frequently under fire from all sides for their frequent misogynist tendencies.
That’s why it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that 1982’s THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE was not only directed by a woman (Amy Holden Jones), but also based on a screenplay by feminist author Rita Mae Brown (whose famous 1973 autobiographical novel Rubyfruit Jungle was later adapted into a short film).
That sounds like a pretty good start toward eroding the negative aspects of the slasher formula… but somewhere between page and screen, things took a slight turn.
You see, Brown penned the script (originally titled SLEEPLESS NIGHTS) as a parody of the genre’s tropes — a feat Wes Craven would finally accomplish with the landmark meta-slasher SCREAM. Had Brown’s script been shot as written, it would have beaten Craven’s smart send-up of the genre by 14 years, but the film’s producers — including B-movie magnate Roger Corman — didn’t get the joke, and many of the comic elements were blunted by the time cameras rolled.
Fortunately, there’s still a lot to love about the finished product, which retains much of Brown’s humorous dialogue and likeable characters, and checks all the right slasher boxes along the way.
The title party is a secret shindig thrown by high school senior Trish (Michele Michaels) for her teammates on the girls’ basketball team while her parents are out of town. After the usual ‘80s-era exploitation hijinks (including shower scenes, horny boyfriends and pranksters trying to scare the girls), the party is eventually crashed — in every sense of the word — by escaped psychotic killer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella), whose weapon of choice is a deliberately phallic power drill.
Despite spawning two official sequels (the second film in the series is totally bizarre, and worth revisiting for a future article), it’s a little surprising that SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE didn’t receive a lot more love among fans of the genre; my theory is that it’s kind of a Jekyll & Hyde creation — a parody of horror and exploitation flicks which is itself rather exploitative.
For example, while we’re treated to scenes of Trish and her friends lathering up their naked bodies, or frolicking in skimpy sleepwear, they are also depicted throughout the film as strong, smart and resourceful — as opposed to the cowering, whimpering victims all too often featured in less memorable slasher entries.
Most of the leads have Final Girl qualifications, despite their number being quickly whittled down by the killer (look for popular Scream Queen Brinke Stevens as an early victim).
Conversely, most of the male characters are largely seen as ineffectual doofuses at best, and impotent nutcases at worst. Even the sweaty, leering killer’s gigantic power tool is an obviously symbolic compensation for his impotent rage (naturally it ends up being snapped in half by one of the women), and the pizza delivery guy’s death is treated as little more than comic collateral damage in the escalating battle with Thorn.
If not quite a classic, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is worth a watch for fans of ‘80s horror and exploitation, and a must-have for any true slasher fanatic’s collection.
Thankfully, it’s now available on Blu-ray from the fine folks at Scream Factory, who managed to track down the original 35mm negative for a new HD transfer, and included a new behind-the-scenes documentary about the film and its sequels… appropriately titled Sleepless Nights.
Now for this week’s trivia: SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE director Amy Holden Jones specifically picked Rita Mae Brown’s script (at the time titled DON’T OPEN THE DOOR) as her first feature film project, and actually filmed several key scenes, using her own resources, as a proof of concept for Roger Corman — who then agreed to put up the money for the production after seeing how well the scenes turned out.
Jones went on to an extremely prolific career as a screenwriter (her most successful creation was the family comedy BEETHOVEN), but to date has never returned to the horror genre.