BLU-RAY REVIEW – THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982)

1982’s THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has always held a unique place in slasher film history.  One of the only slasher films of the era directed by a woman (Amy Holden Jones, later the writer of THE RELIC and the Alec Baldwin GETAWAY remake) and sporting an original screenplay by feminist author (and “Sneaky Pie Brown” writer – ask your mom about ‘em) Rita Mae Brown, MASSACRE has stood the test of time in part because of debates as to the film’s “feminist” themes, but also because it’s just a solid, quick, efficient little slasher film.

It’s an efficiency that’s wrapped up beautifully in its title, easily one of the most blatant-yet-accurate attention grabs in exploitation film history.  Some girls have a slumber party.  There is a massacre.

We know there will be boobs and blood.  There are no excess words (even the ‘THE’ is often neglected in synopses and was left out completely from the sequels) to describe the events depicted in the film – it gives you exactly what a horror audience would expect from the title, so there’s no wonder it was a hit that spawned a franchise.  (Hell, even the similarly-titled THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE gives you extraneous information about the movie’s locale – while the Lone Star state is certainly part of the film, it’s not really necessary to the plot.)

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There’s a little bit more to it, of course, but just enough to kill a little time and establish a few characters.  The slumber party in question is being thrown by Trish (Michelle Michaels), who invites over his basketball team friends for some pizza and pillow fights when her parents leave town.  The only notable non-attendee is her next door neighbor Valerie (Robin Stille), who questions her popularity amongst the group, and chooses to spend the evening at home with her sister instead.  An older, male neighbor is also around, and of course some boys show up for shenanigans.

But, lo!  They’ve picked the wrong night to gather in an easily-ensconced pack, as a psychotic killer with a very phallic power drill fetish (Michael Villela) has broken out of prison and is making his way through killing various ladies, eventually arriving at the slumber party.  A massacre ensues.

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Making the case for MASSACRE as a feminist film is certainly an interesting philosophical exercise, and one that’s been taken up by plenty of writers and film studies majors, but it’s not really an argument that you can expect to have a conclusion.  MASSACRE is, after all, a product of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and any “feminist” traits that Brown may have had in the script or Jones may have ingrained it with during her revisions (in the commentary track, Jones explains that Brown’s script went through a lot of changes) are filtered through the Corman desires for making an exploitation film – an action sequence every so often, a fair share of nudity and a smattering of bloodshed.  MASSACRE isn’t really either “feminist” or “not feminist” – it’s just a meshing of a number of different voices that came together in a package meant to sell tickets.  It’s like trying to figure out the political affiliation of a bowling ball.

Regardless of intention, MASSACRE works as well as it does, and is remembered fondly today, because of the meshing of the different voices, and the fact that the film’s ideology can even be debated is something of a miracle.  The film certainly benefits from a sense of humor, a winking quality apparent in the film’s opening scene with a radio contest winner’s muted response to her prize of a T-shirt.  It’s that humor that makes the whole film never feel as dark or unseemly as many paint-by-numbers slaughter flicks of the time, and to the credit of Jones and the cast, the humor never overtakes the plot to turn the proceedings into a parody. Jones and company were clearly not making a STUDENT BODIES-style yukfest, they were just embracing the natural humor in the characters and situations to a degree few horror films bothered.

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THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE works just as well today because it’s such a good-natured film, even if a majority of the cast meet their deaths by being on the wrong end of a giant power drill.  This attitude even extends to the sex quota – while Jones throws in the prerequisite shower scenes, the nude girls spend most of the time talking about boys’ physiques, making a nice turn on the male gaze.  It’s also surprisingly chaste – sure, there’s nudity, but nobody around seems that interested in having any actual sex.  It’s as though the phallic drill bit is actually doing all the horndogging for everyone involved, and it’s a bit polyamorous, so the film doesn’t fall into the anti-woman trappings that make plenty of exploitation films more than a little squicky.

Still, if “not being overtly cruel to exclusively women” and having female actors playing traditionally masculine roles (a contractor, a telephone repair technician) really counts as “feminist,” you’ve got pretty low standards for acceptance for the term.  It’s more that MASSACRE doesn’t fall down a lot of the clichéd trappings of gender roles than that it’s trying to make a statement about them, though that’s honestly reason enough to make it a memorable film.  It’s also clever, funny, and well-paced, and at 77 minutes, basically a quick snack of slasher nostalgia that goes down as easy as a candy bar.

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THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has had three incarnations on DVD, twice via New Concorde and most recently from Shout Factory as a triple feature with the two sequels.  The Blu-ray, however, marks a notable improvement on picture quality, especially as Stephen L. Posey’s cinematography makes good use of shadows to atmospheric effect.

Special features include a commentary track ported from Shout’s previous DVD, with Jones, actresses Debra Deliso and Brinke Stevens (though it sounds like Stevens was recorded separately, which makes sense due to her character’s early exit) and Tony Brown, the webmaster of hockstatter.com, the fan site devoted to the franchise.  The segment of Jason Paul Collum’s “Sleepless Nights: Revisiting THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE” dealing with the first film is also ported over, a nifty retrospective documentary from the man who also directed the highly recommended SCREAMING IN HIGH HEELS.  Both make for a great look at the making of the film, and Jones talks candidly about the production, Corman and Brown, and Deliso talks about showing the film to her teenage daughter.

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A new inclusion to the features is a 13 minute interview with Rigg Kennedy, who played the role of the neighbor under the name “Ryan.”  It may not sound that exciting, but Rigg is a trip!  He’s colossally entertaining as he talks about his experiences with glee, and regrets having used a pseudonym.  He then recites a poem.  It’s amazing!  Trailers for the three films in the series and a still gallery round out the nifty set.

If you picked up Shout Factory’s 2010 DVD release of the three films, upgraded audio and video and a new interview, as entertaining as it is, may not be enough to warrant a second purchase unless you’re a die hard fan.  If you haven’t, however, this new Blu-ray release is a great deal, one that should please any self-respecting slasher movie enthusiast – it’s the kind of bloody, nudity-filled early ‘80s horror flick that manages to be genuinely likeable, a rare feature borne out even by repeat viewings.

@Paul Freitag-Fey

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