Monday, October 30, 2017

Census Bloodbath: The drill is his penis


THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE

1982
Directed by Amy Holden Jones
Written by Rita Mae Brown
With Michelle Michaels (Trish), Debra Deliso (Kim), Andree Honore (Jackie), Gina Smika (Diane), Robin Still (Val), Jennifer Meyers (Courtney), Brinke Stevens (Linda), Joseph Alan Johnson (Neil), David Millbern (Jeff), Jim Boyce (John), Rigg Kennedy (Mr. Contant), Pamela Roylance (Coach Rachel), and Michael Villella (Russ Thorn)

Spoiler alert: high

Happy Halloween!  It's time for our fourth annual Old Switcheroo!  As our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture plies his way through the sci-fi of a bygone era, I put on his face (humanely removed, I assure you) and swim through the great lake of viscera and boobs we call... the 1980s.


The Slumber Party Massacre is sort of an exercise in metatextuality, which is to say, it rewards outside reading, and becomes more interesting the more you know about its production.  If you know nothing at all, then it's really just one more slasher film, proficient in the way slasher films tend to be, though with more survivors, and a little more affrontive in its sexual antagonisms, than the usual.  However, if you know it was overseen by one woman, eager to jumpstart her directorial career, and written by another woman—and not just any woman, but a political lesbian—whose claim to fame was in a different medium (and a wholly different register), then it becomes the parody it was intended to be, albeit an incredibly dry and droll one.

But, if you know that it was ultimately produced by that other iconic feminist, Roger Corman, and if you know that the woman who directed it, Amy Holden Jones, was necessarily much more deferential to the man who signed the checks than she was to Rita Mae Brown, the aforementioned lesbian novelist who wrote it, that's when Massacre reveals its most interesting self.  And that's the feature-length threeway death-struggle of sensibilities it becomes, beginning when its authors collide, and ending when Brown's jokey, dumbassed script wins out—by the very skin of its very teeth!—against both Corman's general indifference to the project beyond its commercial viability as a tits-and-gore programmer, and against Jones' own uncommonly blithe aesthetic, which one might best describe as "dead teenager movie autopilot."

In fact, the result of their collision is in all likelihood more interesting—or, rather, let's stop using that word, and just say better—than it would have been if just a single vision had shone through.  The parody Jones wound up making is almost certainly funnier than it is on the page, precisely because it feels unintentional.  Brown's Sleepless Nights screenplay was, clearly enough, a bad movie on purpose.  Those almost never work out.  But Jones and Corman's Slumber Party Massacre is a bad movie on accident, and those have a much higher chance of being entertaining.  Or maybe I'm completely full of shit, and Sleepless Nights really was the Airplane! of slasher flix, and old man Corman robbed us of something precious.

I'm going to go with my gut on this one anyway, and say that given the resources available to Brown's script (namely, Corman-level funding and Corman-level actors), Massacre is very likely the best expression of Brown's work that was feasible at the time, even though I harbor a suspicion that the final product justifiably pissed her off.  Besides, if my pal Brennan wanted me to watch the slapstick version of this material, he'd have assigned Slumber Party Massacre II, instead.  And he should have.  That thing looks fucking amazing.

Massacre's original recipe has its own strong charm, though, so I shall not complain.  The story is astonishingly, deliberately rote: as the morning Exposition Tribune informs us, Russ Thorn, noted mass-murderer, has recently escaped from his confinement at the bughouse.  However, for the time being, we're more interested in our protagonist Trish's breasts, since that's also what the first couple minutes of Slumber Party Massacre appear to be most concerned with too.  (Well, that and Ralph Jones' also-rote slasher film score, that nevertheless has a whiff of gothic horror to it, granting it a little necessary personality.)

Trish sees her parents off on their trip out of town, and then goes to school, where, in the locker room, she nudely plans a fun sleepover with her nude friends Kim, Jackie, and Diane.  Trish is even happy to invite the new nude girl in school, Val, though Val naturally demurs after she hears Diane talking shit about her "behind her back"/straight to her face, in the most dismissive and humiliating way she could.  In the midst of this, Thorn's been skulking around, murdering his way into a telephone lineswoman's van, and when one of our non-player characters, Linda, wanders back into the locker room, she meets the business end of Thorn's weapon of choice, his mechanical murderdick.

The rest of the film, to an extent, writes itself.  (So maybe it's unfair of me, but this is the largest reason why I don't imagine that Brown's screenplay was especially valuable, just in itself: there is almost no evidence from Massacre that Brown was even slightly exerting her imagination, and, frankly, it's possible the only slasher movie Brown ever actually saw was Halloween, since Massacre is surely not interested in creating a funny villain, or even a memorable one beyond his bona fides as a sex murderer.  Likewise, it definitely isn't interested in attempting to riff on what was always the silliest part of every slasher movie that came after JC's icebreaker—the unexpected, and invariably-moronic, twist ending.)

Wes Craven knows what I'm talking about.

But, in case you do need me to spell it out, Trish's slumber party—which winds up including a pair of semi-harmless peeping toms, the semi-harmless semi-creepy middle-aged neighbor man entrusted with Trish's safety, the teens' gym teacher, and ultimately Val herself, along with her bored little sister, Courtney—goes rather poorly.  Soon enough, Jones proves she's seen two John Carpenter movies: Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13.

So, before you think I was being mean to Brown for no reason, the latter entries on Trish's extended guest list do, in fact, represent the one really engaging or subversive thing Brown winds up doing with slasher flick structure—but let's hold off on that.  First things first: before you think I was being mean to Jones for no reason, Massacre is not a bad-bad movie, even before you get to its more intriguing bits.

True: it is not directed with any real flair; and, despite that one very nice gore shock involving a pizza man's eyes, you can tell it was both cheap and made in 1982, after the MPAA had begun its campaign of censorship; and, if a properly thought-out composition does come along, it kind of does seem like a happy accident.  The only really well-done shot in the movie comes early, when we find poor Linda crushed beneath the architecture of an empty gym while we know Thorn is stalking her; however, one even earlier bit, involving a murder inside a van in the out-of-focus background with a pair of goofballs oblivious in the foreground, honestly does recall the best parts of Carpenter and Cundey's approach to Halloween.  Unfortunately, it turns out to be wasted genius, when Jones refuses to let Thorn's menace simply sit there and unnerve us, and cuts to the murder-in-progress instead.  Does it pay to remember that Jones actually got her start as one of Corman's editors, and we know her best from the savagely unjudicious cutting she and Dante got up to on Hollywood Boulevard?


Still: Jones keeps the pace up; her camera is voyeuristic; her movie's violent and sexploitative; and she puts it all together with some small competence. That's all you need from a slasher.

But Jones' overly-mechanical execution isn't exactly an accident, either, and through this hybrid form of resistance and satire, she makes the underlying intention of Brown's script known, basically by rubbing our noses in the shit of all the most ridiculous aspects of slasher film construction.  We have, these past four years, been largely forgiving of the slasher's least savory aspect, which is its ever-artless juxtaposition of sex with death.  That's because slasher movies were made for Johnny Slasherfan, and, inevitably, they gave Johnny Slasherfan what Johnny Slasherfan wanted, which was 1)naked girls and 2)cool murders—not necessarily at the same time, but, you know, whatevs.  From the standpoint of an efficient narrative, then, it made the most sense to simply murder naked girls, and this is how the slasher canon, at least the better ones, can sort-of stand up to feminist critique (despite the fact that almost every one of them comes part-and-parcel with pornish trappings, or worse)—because at least one of the naked girls gets the better of the sex murderer in the end, and we're pretty much compelled to respect her just for surviving.

And everybody's happy!  I said everybody.  Is.  Happy.

It's a more palatable formula for delivering sex and violence than the Bond movies, anyway, and Jones amps all of that up to the point of parody here, yet (crucially) without ever actually making Massacre an avowed comedy; and you get the sense of somebody getting away with something, or at least slipping it past Corman's own barely-functional bullshit detector.  Massacre, after all, is borderline-famous for its unmotivated nudity, especially its psychotically-gratuitous shower scene, which dispassionately pans up and down bathing women like it's almost nodding in approval, clinically evaluating its starlets' asses for something like a whole minute.  It really is laugh-out-loud funny in its subliminal reserve, its "this is, indeed, an ass" matter-of-factness; but, you know, it's not not naked girls, either, so Johnny Slasherfan gets the best leer of his whole slasher fan career, and he gets something to think about, too, possibly without quite even realizing it. (I might be kidding myself.)

But the same attitude manifests in subtler ways—frankly, they'd have to be—from the way Brown's undersketched collection of less-than-one-note gals talk less like women than they talk like women-in-slasher-movies, which is to say, women written by men, but with something of a discernible eyeroll, to the endless collection of fake jump scares that constitutes something like 50% of Massacre's 77 minute runtime, only one of which is actually earned.  (And it's the first.)  The latter really would have gotten tedious in the proper comedy Brown wanted; but Jones, stonefaced as Buster Keaton, just keeps laying them on, and that's how they become funny.

Though my favorite thing in the whole movie must be Val's "little" sister Courtney, of indeterminate age, but presumably around 15, played by a 20 year old, and played as a 10 year old.

Surely, though, we can spare at least a mention for Thorn and his drill!  It was a phallic image so ludicrously pure that Brian De Palma, who probably huffed at Massacre's satire of Carrie's shower scene, decided to steal Massacre's murder weapon wholesale for Body Double's exercise in high-camp thriller sleaze.  (Yet I think you can tell that it's an affectionate lift, when De Palma steals the same extension cord joke that serves as one of Massacre's few desultory gestures toward genuine yuks, and treats it in pretty exactly much the same way—that is, as an absurd element designed to ramp up the tension rather than any proper laughs.)  I suppose BDP gets more terror out of his drill, but there's something more biting to Jones' original staging, where often as not Thorn's drill is almost literally a waggling cock.  If Thorn is in no other way special, Brown nevertheless chose the right symbolic tool for Thorn to drill through half a high school's graduating class with.

Obvious?  Obviously.  But it works; and that brings us to the actual clever thing Brown's screenplay does with a genre I'm rather certain she didn't like, and that's the way the frequent cutaways to Val and Courtney addle our identification with Trish, actually making us wonder who will make it out of this film alive.

That's the twist Brown was interested in, and the moment you can tell that Slumber Party Massacre was written by a feminist, after all, isn't when one of the victims or another chops off the end of Thorn's evil penis drill with her machete.  That's just the moment you can tell it was written by someone without a strong grasp of metallurgy.  (And shouldn't it be, like, a bear trap?)  No, the moment you can tell it was written by a feminist is when the Final Girl who marshals the strength to defeat the sex-crazed madman turns out to be four whole women, working together, to finish the job as one.  Neat.

Killer:  Russ Thorn
Final Girls: Trish, Val, Courtney, and Coach Rachel
Best Kill:  Pizza delivery!
Sign of the Times: Gym teachers and neighbors are treated as members of an extended family, rather than presumed to be predators, even though the odds are pretty strong that they're merely lonely individuals in an atomized world, just like you
Scariest Moment: That first fake jump scare, when Coach Rachel's landlady puts a power drill through her door to install a new peephole, and almost takes out her eye; it got me, anyway
Weirdest Moment: Courtney masturbates with a banana to the Sylvester Stallone issue of Playgirl, and I make no judgment, but that seems unhygienic on top of being uncomfortable
Champion Dialogue: "Look, what do you have against Valerie anyway?" "Nothing.  She drinks too much milk."
Body Count: 11 or 12, it's not quite clear
1. A nameless telephone linewoman, ironically killed in her own windowless murdervan
2.  Linda, drilled while bleeding on a locker room floor and unable to, as the saying goes, plug it up
3.  Mr. Contant, drilled, which is either a nod to Thorn's bi-curiosity or his pragmatism, or to the fact that slasher movie symbolism is rarely completely rigorous
4.  John, Diane's boyfriend, gets horny and subsequently loses his head
5.  Diane can't live without her man, or at least, will not
6.  Offscreen, Thorn convinces the pizza man to lean up against the wall and stand still, so that he's properly braced when Thorn drills out both of his eyes
7.  Jackie, her throat slashed by Thorn's drill, because this movie could not afford a blood-spurting drill-irrumatio prop, and yes, I do choose to hold this against it
8.  Jeff, who took the high road
9.  and Neil, who took the low road, and got there before him
10.  Kim, drilled from behind (SUBtext!)
11, maybe?  Coach Rachel surely didn't die immediately from her wounds, but it's possible she perished on her way to the hospital, I guess
12, definitely.  Russ Thorn, repeatedly hit with a machete, the most vaginal of all possible weapons

TL;DR: A slyly feminist deconstruction of the genre, like really sly, like half the movie is still softcore porn and women being barely-metaphorically fucked to death, but it still has the goods

2 comments:

  1. The first slasher arrives!

    And just you wait, you won't be spared from Part 2 for too long. Unlike Prom Night, however, I had to make absolutely sure you saw the first one first, because I pretty much love the whole trilogy. (Yes, they made three of these)

    I'll have to check out the Brian De Palma flick! I haven't seen nearly as many of his movies as I should (I think just Carrie, Phantom of the Paradise, and Dressed to Kill - and I guess Mission Impossible), and so I never made that particular connection.

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    1. I think you'd get a kick out of Body Double. It's basically pure De Palma (robustly-made, Hitchcockian in its pastiche, deeply concerned with the gaze, and very sleazy) and has the fractured logic of a well-made slasher, although nowhere near the body count.

      I watched the musical number from SPM2 and walked away with a less-than-representative impression of it, I think, going by your review. I mean, going by your review, the plot basically seems, "You've all seem Nightmare, right? So we can just skip to the part where the killer walks out of the dreamworld without explaining that, right?" Still, if that's next year's assignment, I'm excited, to the point I may get ahead it just to satisfy my own curiosity.

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