Slasher movies are kind of my comfort food. I grew up in the 1980s, and, in a way, so did they. Maybe it’s more accurate to say they grew out, with a ton of franchises, successful or not, piling on roman numerals and subtitles throughout the decade, not to mention the odd one-hit wonders. Those series wore deep ruts in a simple, subliminal formula: an evil event in the past (usually wrongful death) rises up in the person of a maniac with bladed weapons (the better to slash you with) to mow through sinful victims (teenagers), finally to be defeated by a virginal champion, the Final Girl (usually with a traditionally male name). It is a tale as old as time. And the ritual element of the standard slasher, not unlike the sacrifices at the heart of 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods, renews the storyline that should be hackneyed. It’s a formula that, besides The Cabin in the Woods, sustains the metafiction of the Scream franchise, 2015’s The Final Girls, and a ton of recent offerings on the small screen – The Scream TV series, Scream Queens, Stalker, and the upcoming Dead of Summer.
I memorized a lot of these movies when I was a kid, so thorough was my enjoyment and so lax my parental supervision. When I watch them again, now well on the other side of teenager, with the perspective of someone who has had relationships and critical literature classes and recently a freaking daughter, sometimes I discover unremembered, ugly surprises, like so much Jason Voorhees splashing up from beneath the dark, glassy waters of Crystal Lake. While Friday the 13th Part III still holds the record as my favorite Friday, I noticed for the first time last year how Final Girl Chris’ love interest constantly harasses her for sex. And this is after they’ve apparently been broken up for a while and she’s clearly working through PTSD from an attack by a deformed maniac. I mean, dude. Seriously? In the context of an 80s slasher film, I think horndog boyfriend is sincerely meant to be a good, strong, sexually virile guy, not even particularly horndog, who wants to get with his girl and what’s your problem, social justice warrior? But if you think about it, his behavior really is appalling. I’m not saying I would change the film, but I am saying that guy’s an asshat in any era and I’m hoping we’ve evolved enough as a society to agree on that, or at least discuss it.
But then again, sometimes there are other surprises. You would expect this most sexually-charged of genres from a relatively unenlightened time to be fairly toxic towards anyone not straight and white and male. You would not necessarily be incorrect. But sex is more complicated than that and so, too, slasher movies.
Witness 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre. It doesn’t stand out much on paper: popular girl throws a party while her parents are away, not inviting the beautiful new girl, who’s conveniently across the street. Mischievous, panty-peeking boys crash the party, but then so does a killer who escaped from a mental institution, and welcome or not, the new girl is going to find her way to the party before the night’s over, too. So says what it does, does what it says, really. As a Roger Corman New World Pictures joint, it is super low budget, darker in lighting than tone, scored with a Casio, and features a modest body count augmented by a robust frontal nudity count. It’s sometimes listed as a horror comedy, but that doesn’t work for me; there’s a gory bit of black humor here and there, but it’s far from Shaun of the Dead. Still, first time director Amy Holden Jones slashed her up a fun, effective drive-in movie here, and a lot just works, especially the skinflint kill scenes.
Slumber Party Massacre isn’t the only slasher ever directed by a woman, but it was the first, and that’s how it usually comes up now, thirty-something years on. Not only that, but it was written, originally as a parody, by best-selling feminist author and screenwriter Rita Mae Brown. So as a slasher, its bonafides are practically exotic. Women made this! And most articles I found talking about the movie emphasize it had a female writer and a female director, some vaguely lamenting that (male) production had nevertheless guided a subversive feminist piece into a more rote and ordinary place.
But when Amy Holden Jones candidly described her experiences making the movie at The Old Hockstatter Place, she emphasized how supportive Roger Corman had been and explained how little of Rita Mae Brown’s draft actually made it into the final product – her final product.
“Corman watched the first day’s dailies, decided I knew what I was doing and left me completely alone. He also had very few notes on the final film, which he loved from the start.”
The limit of Roger Corman’s involvement appeared to be insisting on a certain amount of nudity, because the man has his priorities.
Jones has since made a career for herself scriptwriting, mostly horror classics like Indecent Proposal and the Beethoven series. But she started here, not only producing and directing, but rewriting Slumber Party Massacre without taking a screenwriter credit, so that only the broad outline really belonged to the original script. Although, that said, she did still see it as feminist at the end of the day:
“I believe it is feminist in that the underlying fear is a female one, the fear of sex with a guy.”
Except I don’t really think so. That is, I don’t think the underlying fear is either intrinsically feminine or, indeed, the fear of sex with a guy. To me, all the fear is on the Driller Killer’s end. Watching this as a grown-up, sexually liberated woman person and a fan of the genre, I was pleasantly surprised by how the sexual anxiety, which is pretty much a given with these movies, was entirely masculine, contrasted with the healthy appreciation of girls and women for their own bodies and sexuality. And while, sure, this last might be rationalized as a way to get tops off in the course of the story, the masculine anxiety in the form of Driller Killer doesn’t prevail over their topless corpses in the usual fashion. More on that in a minute.
When we look at sexual anxiety in Slumber Party Massacre, you have to appreciate first how banal its standard bearer is. I know, you’d think the escaped mental patient aspect alone would be a enough to write home about, although he doesn’t have Donald Pleasance in tow. Like Halloween’s Michael Myers, Slumber Party Massacre’s Driller Killer has a fairly ordinary name to juxtapose with his less ordinary occupation, but unlike Michael, Russ Thorn fits his. I guess Thorn could be a phallic allusion, or maybe he’s a distant, distant relative of Damien. He has a big ‘ol drill – really, really big — but Russ Thorn is otherwise unencumbered with the accoutrements of the maniac killer. He doesn’t wear a mask, or even an inscrutable expression, and the camera isn’t coy with him either. There’s no red right hand. Short hair, white guy, average height, average weight, dressed in denim, normal gait. And at one point, you actually get to see him run from a murder scene. Not even running after someone, which he also does and is un-slasherly enough that only Leatherface really could get away with it, but beating feet to elude apprehension. His jaunty midi theme evokes something more like Castlevania than Halloween, and at all times, the Driller Killer presents as…just a guy. It’s almost like he’s just running through the blocking for the real Driller Killer. This could have been a pretty brilliant conceit for a parody, making the killer so bland that the juxtaposition with his huge drill is an absurdity in itself, or on the other hand, it could have been as chilling as the unseen killer in Black Christmas, but Russ doesn’t get enough mystique to be scary or enough personality to hang with Freddy. He’s just Russ. And in this way, he’s the most transparent avatar of male sexual anxiety I’ve ever seen in one of these movies.
Also noteworthy: how the movie treats the female body. Objectifying – well, yes. It is an adolescent fantasy, and Amy Holden Jones’ camera out-male gazes the male gaze of many of its contemporaries, leering over naked boobs and buttocks steadily, purposefully, unapologetically, while the plot spools out of frame through overheard dialogue. There is a gym class shower scene that is utterly prosaic and just as shameless, and that’s what is interesting to me. It is utterly shameless. You expect slasher movies to thread sexuality through the narrative more furtively, to explicitly associate nudity with moments of illicit activity or unwitting exposure, to make it something forbidden and titillating. The attitude of nudity in Slumber Party Massacre is almost before the fall in its frankness, and this is one of the reasons that I question whether it really has anything to do with female sexual anxiety. I mean, maybe sometimes a drill is just a drill, but an erect nipple is always an erect nipple. So as much as the film objectifies bodies, I’m not sure that it’s done purely in the service of Roger Corman’s boob quota.
Our heroines use pornography, too, including a Sly Stallone issue of Playgirl, which I could have lived without the knowledge of. The new girl, Valerie, has a younger sister, Courtney, who’s probably meant to be 15 or so, and in addition to regularly stalking and stealing her big sister’s centerfolds, she’s curious and excited by boys and, despite some good-natured teasing, obviously idolizes her sister’s beauty at least partially for that reason. And while an embracing attitude towards sex normally would be punching your tickets to get murdered in a film like this – and the girls (and guys) who get killed at the party also demonstrate healthy sex drives – these are the Final Girls. Valerie and Courtney are the vestal virgins who have the unspoiled power to destroy the killer by virtue of their virtue, except they’re not. And they’re not the only ones who survive; Trish, the girl who threw this Bacchanale with the drug use and casual nudity, makes it, too, when she probably should have been first in line.
Slumber Party Massacre also offers a surprisingly broad range of female relationships. Part of the that may be the inevitable consequence of having a nearly all-female cast. It’s not Jessica Jones, but it’s close. We see convincing relationships between the high school friends, the girls and their basketball coach mentor, the strong sisterly bond between Courtney and Valerie, and you also have the stewing rivalry between Trish and Valerie. This movie would pass the Bechdel test. I’m not claiming there’s great depth – nearly everyone’s arc is going to terminate with a drill, after all — but there is naturalism and a scope to these relationships that I noticed and preferred to, say, the default cattiness of the group of alleged friends Debra Hill scripted in the first Halloween. I love Debra Hill, but I always thought that if that was her idea of natural friendships among women, she needed better friends.
All this amounts to a killer who eventually finds himself up against several girls, the host and the uninvited sisters, none of whom are pure or chaste, and it will not end well for him. When we hear him for the first time – also kind of unusual for your slasher murderers – again, he’s pretty transparent:
“You’re pretty. All of you are very pretty. I love you. It takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You’ll like it. Yes.”
And after a struggle, Valerie chops his drill bit and hand off with a machete and he falls into a swimming pool. So metaphor, much symbolism. Though he survives this, he just ends up impaling himself on the machete. So I don’t find this particular slasher describing female anxieties so much.
I’m really not trying to shoehorn Slumber Party Massacre into a progressive read, because, even though it was made by a woman, it was made for the drive-in, with all of its glorious excess, questionable taste, and penury done big. If Rita Mae Brown wanted it be a parody or satire to raise consciousness, it seems unlikely much, if any, of that survived rewrites and direction. But horror is a genre that hums along on the engine of the unvoiced as well as the unspeakable. What I see in Slumber Party Massacre, when the Driller Killer mewls at his intended victims and ultimate executioners about loving them, is affirming male sexual anxiety all right, but their power comes without good girl strictures. Patriarchy has no special magic here.
Increasingly, though newer slashers reference the 80s formula, they don’t necessarily hew to it. In The Final Girls, you have again a whole range of female relationships like those on display in Slumber Party Massacre – only better acted and fully in the foreground. (In fact, I think The Final Girls has possibly the most positive mother-daughter relationship I’ve ever seen dramatized.) Meanwhile, Scream Queens plays fast and loose with all the genre rules governing sex equaling death, defying them outrageously, really doing everything outrageously, and it suffers no loss of credibility or dilution of effect. The fact that you can find healthier sexual attitudes and a more holistic understanding of women and their relationships explicitly, consciously explored in contemporary stabs at the slasher genre like The Final Girls and Scream Queens probably speaks to the inevitability of that evolution, and it also speaks well for the genre’s adaptability. Slashers didn’t originate in the 80s and they aren’t bound to 80s grade catharsis. We’ve come to expect all they can do is rationalize their victims and heroines into a straight white man’s world, but that wasn’t even completely true in 1982.
Slumber Party Massacre isn’t widely remembered now, and I don’t believe it was intentionally feminist in its final form. But what wasn’t intentional also isn’t apologetic, in any sense. Formulaic as they are, slashers might be easy to write off as telling the same story for the same ends, but that’s just not true here. This admittedly exploitative movie still foreshadows the adaptability of the genre, and dare one hope, its audience and its makers, to a world without the masculine crisis at its core. And while it might be a surprise, it shouldn’t be unexpected — like Pamela Voorhees splashing up from from beneath the dark, glassy waters of Crystal Lake.
Angela’s second favorite Friday the 13th is Jason X, because only Uber Jason can compare to Disco Jason.