Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Census Bloodbath: Everything louder than everything else


No more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, no more days to Halloween, here's our crossover!  As if he needs any introduction, our friend Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture, as well as many other places these days, shall be taking on the task of reviewing three wholesome, edifying 1950s sci-fi films of the kind we so often do around here, while I review three slasher films straight from the pit of moral decay called the 1980s.

Written and directed by Deborah Brock
With Crystal Bernard (Courtney), Kimberly McArthur (Amy), Juliette Cummins (Sheila), Heidi Kozak (Sally), Patrick Lowe (Matt), Scott Westmoreland (Jeff), Joel Hoffman (T.J.),and Atanas Ilitch (The Driller Killer)

Spoiler alert: moderate

So, Slumber Party Massacre II is special.  It's special in an obvious way: as with its five-years-earlier predecessor, 1982's The Slumber Party Massacre, it's a slasher film written by a woman and directed by a woman (though, in this sequel's case, it was written and directed by the same woman, rather than two women operating at rather transparent cross-purposes).  And it's special because it's a musical, which is pretty weird, certainly, yet only captures a little part of just how weird the movie is.  But above all it's special because it does something that, to my knowledge, no slasher sequel had ever done or would ever do again: it concerns itself, exclusively, with a survivor's trauma.

There are other slasher sequels that try to do that, sure.  Look no further than David Gordon Green's great big PTSD-laced Halloween reboot—and yet, despite the slasher form's penchant for perpetual serialization, even something as modestly continuity-based and psychologically-oriented as Halloween '18 is still pretty rare.  And even when they do try, they divide their attention, because they are slasher movies.  Hence their overriding focus is almost always on the returning slasher villain, slashing away at all the women and sometimes men (and, by default, an entirely or almost entirely-new cast of them), and never so much on the girl who got away.  (The Screams are not exceptions.  In fact, they divide their focus even further, between having mysteries and being smug.)

Slumber Party Massacre II remains a slasher, on its face—though it might cheat like hell to be one, seeking to hide itself in plain sight amongst the wackier supernatural slashers that dominated the post-Nightmare On Elm Street exploitation-horror landscape—but, ingeniously, almost none of the things it needs to do to be a slasher get in the way of what it actually wants to be, and what it actually is, a surrealist psychological thriller, more akin to something like Repulsion than to its own predecessor (except, unlike Repulsion, being neither boring nor stupid nor metatextually nauseating), using the slasher form to explore what it might mean to have made it through one slasher movie already.

Which sounds like it ought to be rather dour, but Massacre II can't be dour: as noted, it's still got "being a musical" to get to, but just as it makes "being a slasher" the same thing as being a surrealist psychological thriller, it makes "being a musical, even a pretty fun musical" just as essential an ingredient.

The survivor that Massacre II is interested in is Courtney Bates, and we may indeed remember Courtney fondly as the 20-year-old, ostensibly-12-year-old little sister of Valerie Bates from Massacre, now aged in real time into a 25-year-old, ostensibly-17-year-old young woman (albeit recast with Crystal Bernard, before she hit it big with Wings, perhaps the best of NBC's "oh, that's also fine" sitcoms of the Seinfeld era).  Valerie has suffered a nervous breakdown in the aftermath of Russ Thorn's rampage, landing her in a sanitarium, and, at home, Courtney and her mom get by as best they can, though naturally it's something of a life of quiet desperation for the Bates matriarch, who has invested so much concern into her elder daughter's pitiful plight that she's almost forgotten that her younger one is almost all-grown-up.  Hence when Courtney asks if she can go spend a few days at a friend's awesome new condo, conflicting with what we suspect are routine (and tedious) visits to a nearly-catatonic Val, Courtney has to remind her that this weekend is her birthday, so maybe she'd prefer to spend it with her crappy garage band, expressing herself and having a good time, rather than spending it hoping her broken sibling might, this time, finally recognize her family, or feebly speak.

But Courtney is perhaps more in need of some healing herself than she can admit, despite having what seems like (and are) three reasonably-supportive and sociable bandmates—Sheila (the sexually-aggressive one, and the one whose dad has a condo), Amy (the sweet-natured one, or, if you must, the one with truly extraordinary breasts), and Pam (the somewhat flighty, narcissistic one).  Courtney even has a nice, sexy boy named Matt that she's got a crush on, and who's crushing right back on her, so maybe they ought to up and make an official thing of it already, maybe when he comes out to Sheila's dad's actually quite-parent-free condo, wink wink, this weekend.

Unfortunately, Courtney is not likely to find anything near the kind of help she needs there, and although she has tried to push down the nightmares that have plagued her since the Slumber Party Massacre, they're only getting worse—the grabby hands and entitled attitude of Sheila's asshole boyfriend T.J., showing up early for the party, aren't helping (and while T.J's counterpart and Amy's boyfriend, Jeff, isn't nearly such a dick, nobody's really able to keep much of a leash on that beast).  It's not long now before those nightmares become full-on daylight hallucinations, and, just when she thinks she's found a safe haven in Matt's gorgeous arms, they leap right out of her head altogether, in a seductively-evil form that's combined everything that's ever hurt her—Russ Thorn and the mechanical murderdick he tried to fuck her to death with—with perverted versions of everything she's found solace in since—rock 'n' roll and the stirrings of her own, healthier sexual appetites—and this unreckoned melange of memory and desire taunts and torments her as he rocks out on a power drill, built into a guitar of Chuck Berry red, laying waste to everyone she loves before turning, inevitably, toward her.

So what writer-director Deborah Brock's made, in case you didn't notice, is a mostly-rigorous and extremely-brazen feature-length metaphor for the way trauma can poison everything and destroy the possibility of joy  (and, I'd say, a one-third-feature-length subjective depiction of a psychologically-uncomfortable first sexual experience), amped up for cinema's sake to the point of psychosis.  And it's entirely possible you did not notice, since it certainly doesn't look like anybody has: in 1987, Slumber Party Massacre II was dismissed by regular critics entirely when they saw it at all, and even in this day and age, where we're supposed to be able to see this kind of thing, it has not often been rediscovered by horror fans as any classic of the genre.  So still it gets derided as a Nightmare knockoff (it's riding that wave, of course, but it just simply isn't), and receives no end of complaints about its gonzo style, and how its crooning killer appears out of the ether with no backstory, nor even a connection to reality—the musical numbers, though present, are diegetic right up until our new Driller Killer's manifestation, whereupon he starts singing his own tune, with his own unseen backup band, as he stalks and murders.

But you can't say Brock doesn't hold your hand on this one: she gives us a heroine suffering massive, worsening, explicit hallucinations; a villain who embodies all her fears and anxieties and lusts, who appears in "reality" at the moment she consents, as enthusiastically as anyone could, to lose her virginity; an aesthetic that shifts, from off-kilter and oppressive but basically-realistic to full-on Expressionist, the very instant he appears from behind the drilled-to-death corpse of our heroine's lover; and, at the risk of repeating myself, a switch from music that has an onscreen explanation to a whole heap of cock-rock songs about exploiting women, being delivered by a man with a guitar with a hyperphallic murder weapon in it.  It is, anyway, not subtle, and presumably none of the latter parts of Courtney's drama takes place outside of Courtney's mind, a presumption rather emphasized by a final montage that embodies a triumph, of sorts, over trauma—with a reminder that trauma is rarely fully banished—and then, admittedly, retrenches into a confusing, arguably unncessarily-nihilistic reversal for probably no better reason than it's a horror movie, and horror movies are supposed to end with unnecessary nihilism.  Well, nobody's perfect.

And Massacre II isn't perfect.  I mean, a lot of it's practically perfect: more than anything else, there's the design of the Driller Killer as a greaser freak—part Fonz, part Kreuger, part Andrew Dice Clay—and the high-octane swagger/masculine-prancing of Atanas Ilitch's magnetically-camp performance of the Driller is really perfect, basically the most flawless sex monster of an era, not least because this bad boy comes from the id of a seventeen year old girl, plausibly representing everything a seventeen year old girl in 1987 could find tempting and terrifying in a man.  But most perfect of all is that, for once, someone reminds us that sometimes the most insidious punisher of sluts is the one who lives inside your own mind.

You can't criticize the pacing, either: Massacre II is superbly brisk at 75 minutes (in its theatrical cut, that is), and while it packs its kills entirely into its finale, it juices things right along with goofy teen hi-jinx, not to mention Courtney's foreshadowing freakouts, which are all just as good as the kills (if not better).  I love the shit out of the tone, too, which is naturally deranged, but awfully fun about it—you could just as easily call Massacre II a comedy, if you wanted, even more easily than Massacre, which was already a secret comedy.  Likewise, I can't find any real fault in the acting, as such, though it's not "good"—if nothing else, it's a link to the flat bad acting of the covertly-parodic original—but, a lot more concretely, bad acting from twenty-somethings can sometimes sort-of reproduce the fumblings of teens, and Brock uses that extremely well, to the extent that some scenes (Matt trying to cheer up a spiraling Courtney with a birthday cake, or just the tenor of a conversation between Courtney and a confused-but-very-concerned Amy) actually serve as surprisingly effective emotional beats.  And I think I adore that meta-gag in the pillow fight sequence, which features one actress taking off her top, no doubt in fulfillment of this Corman production's requirements, yet that actress is somehow not Kimberly McArthur, the actual Playboy Bunny playing Amy.

(Make no mistake.  Juliette Cummins' boobs are quite excellent, too.)

I even like the staging thereof, since it's sort of an all-girl Eden—a sort of play-acting at sexuality—and it's only the precipitous entree of a couple of boys that ruin it, by coming along and interfering with Courtney before she's quite ready, which is the whole thrust of the movie, so to speak, Courtney really wanting to be ready, without actually being ready.  And so it winds up speaking—or at least I guess it does, as I clearly, bitterly recall years of being ready—to even more universal concerns than the trauma/trigger metaphor does, though, unfortunately, that metaphor speaks to enough people that you might as well call it universal.

The main problem, then, is that Massacre II is just so cheap.  (Okay, two main problems: for a film that has been reasonably unified in perspective and place, the chaotic slasher climax spills out all over creation.)  Anyway, to an extent, cheapness is obviously part of this picture's charm, arguably even helping sell the nightmarelike fugue of the thing.  But cheapness makes itself known in all sorts of ways here, some of which don't matter too much—thanks to everything else the movie has going for it—like the movie having only two genuinely great gore shocks, one of them not even being a drill kill, whereas the vast majority of the actual drill kills are accomplished more through obfuscatory cutting than through effects.  (In fairness, the unnerving, jarring, anti-continuity editing by William Flicker is, given Massacre II's mission, rather fantastic generally, even if I refuse to believe that "William Flicker" is any film editor's real name.)  There is also, of course, the self-evident haste of the lighting set-ups, which were probably much more impressive in Brock's imagination, but were overseen by prolific Z-list cinematographer Thomas Callaway, who has shot a hundred films, and, besides Massacre II, I've literally only ever heard of one.  (In fairness to Callaway, it's always sufficiently lurid when lurid is called for, and whenever he's tasked with a backlit chiaroscuro outline around the Driller Killer, he does that simply, directly, and well.)

In one big way, however, its tossed-off nature really hurts it—unless it was just a matter of musical taste (or, perhaps, local Los Angeles musical friendships).  For while Massacre II is definitely a musical, the music it uses is... fine, less bad than listenably-bland (Courtney's band, while never named, is apparently an alternate-universe version of Wednesday Week).  The better songs are the rockabilly numbers the Driller Killer gets up to, which at least have a real personality, and better lyrics (usually barely-veiled rape threats), but no solid hooks ("let's buzz" is not, I'm afraid, a solid hook); the best of the diegetic soundtrack choices by far, and the only song that feels like it could ever be anything close to a hit, is the Tom Pettyish "Hell's Cafe" from, er, Hell's Cafe, quite credibly the only song the band ever made.

It gets by on sheer, sloppy energy, anyway; energy's what defines Slumber Party Massacre II at least as much as its metaphorical import.  Since 1987, Brock has barely ever raised herself above the waterline—she's had a career that indicates she kept working, but neither frequently, nor to any lasting success.  Her closest approach to the mainstream was producing Honey, I Blew Up the Kid; I imagine the thing she's most proud of is producing Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66; meanwhile, her directorial career stalled out after making a sequel to Rock 'n' Roll High School, a Corman musical that did manage to get a band you might've heard of.  I can't help but think this was a shame, though it doubtless had a lot to do with this very diamond sinking immediately into the rough, despite making sufficient profit to ensure a sequel, albeit probably only because there was never any mathematically-possible way it couldn't.  But all of Massacre II's problems basically relate to that budget, not to vision, and you just don't get too many writer-directorial debuts like this, that at least feel like they came from an auteur with something to say (esecially when Corman's involved, because, Christ, Joe Dante's sure didn't).  Sadly, Brock's subsequent invisibility makes that nothing but a tantalizing hypothesis I doubt I'll ever prove.  Still, give her credit for doing something practically nobody ever does: making a fable about trauma that treats its subject with great empathy, and still finds a way to have a blast.

Killer: Driller
Final Girl: Courtney
Best Kill: Pam, who's spent the entire movie complaining about a zit that does not appear to exist, finds herself, via a succession of cutaway shots, growing one that eats practically her whole head before it explodes in a cannonade of yellow pus; it is not technically a "kill" because it's in Courtney's head, but it's that kind of movie, and I'm counting it
Sign of the Times: Playboy existed as a cultural force
Scariest Moment: During one of her pre-spree hallucinations of the Driller Killer, Courtney finds Valerie laying insensate at her feet, and the Driller starts to roughly seduce her, cooing, "I've had Valerie, I'm bored with Valerie," and it's all in Ilitch's line read, though maybe some of it's in Brock's and Hallaway's discomfiting wide-angle lensing
Weirdest Moment: The Driller's musical number lulls into silence as he chases Courtney and Amy to the top of a construction site during the final stretch, and the Driller, alerted to his quarry's position when Amy's blood drips on his face, savors the moment, the pace of the film slowing down with him as he lights a cigarette, and it's an eerie little placeholder, and no doubt you'll agree that it's exceptionally weird to think of Blade Runner at any time while watching Slumber Party Massacre II
Champion Dialogue: "The more they do it, the louder they get.  Practice makes perfect." (Oh, they could be talking about rock 'n' roll.  But they're talking about boning)
Body Count: None, in my preferred interpretation, but, ironically, I don't have to use this to get out of actually doing a body count, since for the first time ever, I remembered all the characters' names:
1. Matt, drilled through the heart
2. Sally, pinned to a wall and drilled through the chest
3. Jeff, drilled from behind while trying to drive Courtney and Amy to safety
4. T.J., throat cut by drill
5. Sherrie, drilled in the face
6. Amy, slashed in the back with the drill, and thrown off a building
7. The Driller Killer, immolated
TL;DR: An inordinately fine piece of pop allegory, Slumber Party Massacre II achieves what The Slumber Party Massacre couldn't, being a feminist slasher by actually being a feminist slasher, rather than just being a parody of a regular old misogynistic one—yet, by a miracle, it still manages to have at least as much fun with the slasher form as its predecessor, maybe because it's hard not to have at least some fun when it's a... slasher musical?  Well, hell, there's that to say for it, too.
Score: 10/10

Brennan's Cardboard Science

2014:  Invaders From Mars   The Day the Earth Stood Still Them!
2015:  The Giant Claw  It Came From Beneath the Sea The Brain From Planet Arous
2016:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers  Godzilla (1954)  The Beginning of the End 
2017:  It Conquered the World  I Married a Monster From Outer Space  Forbidden Planet

2018: The Fly Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman Fiend Without a Face

My Census Bloodbath 
2014:  My Bloody Valentine  Pieces  The Burning
2015:  Terror Train  The House on Sorority Row  Killer Party 
2016:  The Initiation  Chopping Mall   I, Madman  
2017:  Slumber Party Massacre  Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II  Happy Birthday to Me

2018: The Prowler Slumber Party Massacre II  Death Spa


  1. This was the very first slasher review I ever did, and I certainly wasn't prepared for it, because it escalates a point in my esteem for pretty much every second I've spent away from it.
    I've read a lot (and I mean a LOT) of criticism about this movie, but yours is by far the best, with the most probing insights into what makes it special on top of being a cheesy blast.
    I'm so glad you dug this one!

    1. Thanks Brennan! For what it's worth, I like your review too ("not a chicken, but still"), and your freshman reviews were, sure as hell, a lot better than mine, and you were 18, which shames me.

      I've been looking around a bit, and haven't actually seen any writing on Massacre II that treats with its subtext, either because the kind of reviewers who would do Massacre II are disinterested in such matters (certainly possible; the difference seems to split between 80s nostalgists and "look at this stupid shit"-type folks) or because it's too buried under the kitsch elements to notice. Then again, though it struck me right in the face, it helps to have that subtext as part of the national conversation for the past little while, and I wonder if I'd have appreciated it even three years ago. But damn, Brock certainly put it there. Is it too much to say Massacre II was always ahead of its time, yet it'll now always be behind it? Oh well, I certainly didn't expect Year Five to be the one to give me a new favorite! So thanks, B.

      P.S.: So it's called an "art film" when you get bad actors and have them not say or do anything, but it's called an "exploitation film" when you do, right? The point is, Roman Polanski's Repulsion sucks, and on its merits, not just because he's a rapist. That's only what makes it GROSS.

  2. Terribly late but I think the central metaphor you've constructed in this review is both incredibly strong, and reads as intentional. Plus the movie's a great time anyway. I do think that within this metaphor, Val also serves a pretty much purely symbolic purpose, she's an expression of Courtney's trauma and what she fears she'll become if she's unable to let it go. I think that's why at the end she finds herself in the same room, same position as we'd already seen Val in.
    Btw I'm currently writing a quick essay on this movie and besides being my absolute favorite of all your Census Bloodbath pieces (Funny how liking the movie will do that) it's also been a major help

    1. Right on. And I think that's a better way to read the ending, though I suppose I've become more welcoming of "nihilism for the sake of it" endings in horror movies over the years, though this one, at least the last time I saw it, seemed optimistic enough it didn't benefit from it. Hope the essay goes well!