With the coming of my latest Flame Tree Press book, Slash, I’ve decided to spend the rest of the year exploring the slasher genre that was the backdrop of my youth. Nothing like transitioning from “coming-of-age” to “psychos murdering people in creative and sometimes amusing ways.”
I know that most people consider the slasher sub-genre a male dominated enterprise, both behind the camera and in the theater seats. That’s why the best way to kick things off is with the female-helmed The Slumber Party Massacre, a 1982 Roger Corman financed movie that I contend should be in everyone’s top 10 slasher list. Does it exploit women in the name of murderous carnage? Yes. Is it a damn good movie? That’s a double yes. What makes it fascinating to me is the people who brought it to life on the silver screen.
It was written by Rita Mae Brown, a screenwriter and novelist who has gone on to pen dozens of mystery novels and a slew of television movies. She’s best known as an activist and feminist. “A feminist!” you say. “A feminist wrote a screenplay about a bunch of scantily clad girls at a sleepover?” Yes indeedy. You can stay poor on principles or feed your family in Hollyweird.
The screenplay for The Slumber Party Massacre was originally titled Sleepless Nights and meant to be a spoof on slasher flicks. I wonder if there was any serious hair pulling and screaming when Brown saw what had become of her parody? Perhaps her peels of rage can still be heard echoing in the deep, dark recesses of outer space.
The director was Amy Holden Jones, who later went on to write The Relic and Mystic Pizza. Before TSPM, she had been working in the Corman system, hustling and editing what she could. Here’s a “Sophie’s Choice” for you—when she was asked to direct The Slumber Party Massacre, she turned down editing E.T., The Extra Terrestrial. I personally think she made the right choice. I’d rather have helped create a cult classic than be stuck in an editing room cutting together an alien puppet movie. But that’s just me.
What makes The Slumber Party Massacre stand out from so many other is that there is very little fat on its bones (or female cast, for that matter). We find out right from the jump that a psycho killer is on the loose. Within the first five minutes, we have nudity (18 year old Trish, played by Michelle Michaels, who showers and then throws away her childhood toys in a heavy-handed coming of age), a gender swap with a beautiful blonde woman working on the pole for the phone company, and said phone blonde (not phony blonde) taking a drill to the head in the back of her van.
The killer on the loose is psycho Russ Thorn, played by Michael Villella. On my Blu-ray extras, the method actor was interviewed years later, explaining how he used the Strassberg method to adopt the movements of an animal, only speaking to the female stars on set after he killed them on screen because he wanted them to be afraid of him. Okay, that’s pretty creepy. The thing about Russ is that he’s no Jason or Michael. He looks like a dentist who took too many hits of laughing gas. He also looks like the smallest person in the cast. A normal sized man or woman could probably smack that drill out of his hand and give him a good old-fashioned ass whupping.
But I digress. After a rousing basketball practice where most of the girls look like they’ve never even seen a basketball before, it’s time to hit the showers. The way the camera pans up and down their nude bodies is a little uncomfortable, even for me (and more so for the director when she watches it now). And when I say uncomfortable, it’s because my wife slapped her hands over my eyes and wouldn’t let me see. The girls are planning a slumber party that night, no boys allowed. Also not allowed is new girl Val, played by the late Robin Stille, who died by suicide in 1996. She’s tall and über-beautiful and the best basketball player on the team, considering the low bar that has been set. Time to get those claws out. One thing I noticed in the shower scene is the way Trish and Val looked at each other over the shower stalls. Was there a glimmer of attraction? Both talk about boys (Val has a Playgirl stuffed under her mattress), but methinks they were meant to be at least bisexual.
Once we get to the party, we get the icky neighbor tasked with watching over Trish, a little bag of weed, beers and cocktails, and two dudes who represent us, the viewers, watching the girls inexplicably strip down in front of an open window so they can slip into their nighties. When they order pizza, the delivery boy makes it there within 30 minutes,—minus his eyeballs, which have been cored out by Russ Thorn’s highly phallic drill. From there on, Russ is happy to thrust his tool into everyone he sees, man or woman, which makes me think he as well is supposed to be bisexual. There’s a great shot of him standing over one of the cowering girls. We see him from behind, the immense drill hanging between his legs. So subtle.
What makes this cool is not just how fast it moves or the gore, but the humorous under- and overtones, like when Val runs to attack Russ with a table saw, only to be yanked on her ass when she misjudges the length of the power cord. Or when Val’s bratty sister keeps opening the refrigerator, not knowing there’s a body inside, the corpse slipping further and further out each time she opens and closes the door. There’s also a sweet battle scene with Val wielding a machete (used to cut snails in half like tiny penises) against Thorn’s thick drill. When she circumcises his drill, the little man is toast, like Samson without his lucky locks.
In TSPM, we get more than one final girl. In fact, we get three! Will Val and Trish find love through tragedy? I would have liked to have seen it explored in the sequel, but sadly, it was left to the dust of time. By the way, the second movie in the all-female-helmed trilogy stars Crystal Bernard as Val’s sister, all grown up and slightly off. It’s a mind fuck of a bad movie, with the third one jumping at the dare to be even more unwatchable.
So why did Brown and Holden debase themselves to make something called The Slumber Party Massacre? Because everyone needs to start somewhere. Does anyone begrudge Jason Alexander for The Burning or Kevin Bacon for Friday the 13th? I think not. Brown and Holden went on to have some pretty fine careers, so don’t judge them. And they did make a good movie that has a little bit of everything for everyone. It’s a must-watch in the Shea lair, and it should be in yours, too. As Thorn said before he tried to kill Val, “It takes a lot of love to do all of this.” Indeed. Now where the hell are my power tools?
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.