Author: Emmett O’Regan
By 1982, the slasher wave had crested and though technically not the first of its kind, John Carpenter’s 1978 masterwork Halloween, and its subsequent (and unprecedented) earnings, spurred forth a glut of imitators hoping to capitalize on the indie horror’s massive success. The ethos espoused by a large quotient of these celluloid mimics? Make it quick, make it cheap, and make it shocking. Even works now considered foundational texts in the eyes of horror aficionados (i.e. Friday the 13th), were explicit and shameless in their wholesale thievery of Halloween and its key elements.
Naturally, in the four years that followed, studios churned stories of masked psychopaths, vengeful nerds, and crazed hillbillies out with abandon to great financial (but rarely critical) success. Like any pop-culture trend, though, public interest soon began to shift toward other corners of the multiplex for its kicks. And, while 1982 didn’t mark the end of the “golden age” of slashers, it did signal- like the lives of so many silver-screen teenagers- the end was nigh.
It was in this dying gasp of the genre’s cultural ubiquity, that The Slumber Party Massacre arrived, to no great fanfare. Thanks, in part, to a microscopic budget, the film was a modest hit, accumulating just under $4 million dollars at the box office. Critics were less than enthusiastic, and for all intents and purposes, the film seemed to leave as quietly as it came.
Penned by queer feminist writer and activist Rita Mae Brown, The Slumber Party Massacre was initially designed as a parodical deconstruction of the misogynist tropes so common in the slasher genre. Brown had some notoriety in academic and literary circles for her outspoken critique of various political groups queer-exclusionary conception of feminism, and her semi-autobiographical novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. Legendary B-movie producer Roger Corrman acquired Brown’s screenplay, but, unhappy with the film’s satirical tone, shelved it. The script remained dormant, until Amy Holden Jones- the picture’s eventual director- delivered Corman a sizzle reel using the script’s prologue as its foundation. Impressed by Jones’ chops and ability to shoot on the cheap, Corman agreed to move forward on the project, with the caveat that it be shot as a straightforward slasher, and feature nudity (something of a Corman house rule).
It’s the friction between these competing ideals that transforms The Slumber Party Massacre into something far more nuanced and vital than the prototypical exploitation slasher, and is responsible for the film’s evolution into a canonical cult classic. Massacre seems to comment on itself throughout, spiking moments of tension and fear with quick bursts of physical comedy, or purposefully silly lines of dialogue played straight, calling attention to the inherent absurdity of its trappings.
The villain himself is the punchline for a bit of penile humour- murderer Russ Thorn’s weapon of choice is, a giant… drill. A power tool whose sole function is penetration, often shot hanging between his legs like a metal male appendage. The poster is similarly composed and (excuse the pun) drills the point home that this villain’s murderous proclivities come from some half-witted response to sexual inadequacy. This isn’t necessarily new thematic ground as far as slashers are concerned, but what is primarily subtextual in its less critically-minded peers, Massacre makes explicit. And then, upends with visual gags. The climactic battle between the trio of final girls and their tormenter, sees the tide turn when new-kid-at-school Valerie literally cuts Thorn’s tool off at the base with a machete, before ultimately dispatching him.
Additionally, Massacre allows the entire slumber party, not just its final girls, the dignity of real humanity. For a 76 minute film, the amount of time committed to developing the group’s respective personalities, relationships, and internal lives is impressive, if economical. Jones gives her characters room on screen to be actual young women, and provides a full spectrum view of what that entails. There’s burgeoning sexuality, mixed with naivete, that particularly adolescent brand of pettiness, rebelliousness, and gentle kindness all at once, and always without judgment. The inevitable kills that follow feel emotionally visceral, because the viewer has developed an affection and understanding of what makes each member of the party tick.
Even in the moments of Corman-mandated nudity, what would inevitably feel leering or exploitative in the hands of a male director, Holden makes either rote or dispassionate. In an early sequence set in the showers of a high school gym, the camera pans down the naked body of protagonist Trish in such a literal manner, it almost seems to mock the idea of viewer titillation. It’s a parody of the male gaze. Every man that appears throughout is a send up of that same idea- grating oglers and chauvinist perverts of the highest order- the exact kind of horny dweeb Corman’s nudity decree aimed its crosshairs squarely at.
All of that would be for nought, though, if The Slumber Party Massacre didn’t also work as an excellent entry in the slasher-movie annals. To this end, the picture succeeds admirably. The gang of slumber-partying heroines are likable and engaging, the villain slimy and compelling. The kills are effectively grotesque, and there’s a wonderful tension-and-release interplay between the film’s knowing humour and straightforward scares. The micro-budget, too, works in its favour. Cameras and equipment of dubious quality lend a warm, hazy grain to the already soft colour palette, and the comforting, fuzzy crackle of the audio affirm The Slumber Party Massacre as that special kind of perfectly-imperfect midnight movie delicacy, so often attempted and so rarely achieved. It’s at once cosy and creepy, homey and horrifying.
The unexpected, but lasting legacy of Amy Holden Jones and Rita Mae Brown’s high school horror, is easy to spot, even forty years later. Aside from general shift in perception, and the film’s now cemented spot as a quintessential genre entry, the tendrils of its influence can be seen in horror of all shapes. This is true in the literal sense (see the 2021 sequel/reboot of the same name), and in less obvious ways. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that Kevin Williamson derived inspiration from the self-referential, satirical gags Rita Mae Brown trades in, while writing Scream. There are shades of The Slumber Party Massacre’s trope-inversion in modern feminist horror gem Jennifer’s Body. There’s the same lived-in female friendships in 90’s camp classic The Craft.
For an unassuming Corman-factory quickie with such mixed initial reception, the impact of The Slumber Party Massacre on generations of horror filmmakers is undeniable, and its prescient themes resonate louder now than they ever have. And while the slumber party didn’t go as planned for Trish, Valerie, and company- we’re still lucky to have been invited.
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