SLEEPLESS NIGHTS: DRILLING DOWN THE ‘SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE’ FRANCHISE

 

One of the most frustrating and depressing statistics of the horror genre is the lack of female voices. The industry seems to be getting this rectified, with films cropping up like Jenn Wexler’s punk-rock slasher THE RANGER, the new CANDYMAN sequel directed by Nia deCosta, the all-female directed XX, and the upcoming feature for Hulu, Blumhouse’s INTO THE DARK: NEW YEAR, NEW YOU, an all-female ensemble horror film directed by indie goddess Sophia Takal. It’s a start for sure, but it’s also truly bizarre that producers and film executives act like this came out of nowhere. It’s not like there aren’t talented women out there who are willing to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into creating celluloid nightmares for the movie-going masses, but that’s another raw-throated scream into the void for another day. But if we just centralize the menace down to one facet of the fright genre that’s anemic with x chromosomes, we could talk about franchises. Of eleven horror franchises I researched, there is a stunning deficiency of women shepherding a film. There are three total that have female involvement, (four if you count PET SEMATARY as a franchise, directed by Mary Lambert, of course): CRITTERS 3, directed by Kristine Peterson, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, directed by Rachel Talalay (who has had a good directing career post-NIGHTMARE), and our main attraction today – the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE franchise.

The SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE franchise is the first all-female horror franchise, and the key figure involved in making that happen is low-budget genre maverick, Roger Corman, who in addition to being Patient Zero for some of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, often had a roster of women working in various capacities throughout his long and illustrious career. From directors like Katt Shea (STRIPPED TO KILL), Penelope Spheeris (SUBURBIA), and Barbara Peeters (the controversial HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP) to his story editor, Frances Doel (who discovered John Sayles) and his wife, Julie (who produced the killer robots film, CHOPPING MALL) – Corman surrounded himself with women who had a passion to make independent art, and nowhere is this more evident than in this franchise. Let’s take a journey through the driller killer trilogy, bit by bloody bit.

 

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982)

I’ve never known the creature comforts of life in the suburbs of California. However, I have lived vicariously through the cinematic exploits of teenagers safely living in their palm-tree-flooded neighborhoods, unaware that a deranged lunatic is on the loose and he’s going to upend their world. That’s the simple reason why, despite the carnage on display here, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is one of the more inviting and comforting slasher films from the 1980s.

Directed by Corman editor, Amy Holden Jones (who passed on editing ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL to make her directorial debut here), THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is a lightning fast, bite-sized slasher film, running just seventy-seven minutes from head to toe. The plot is relatively simple: a killer named Russ Thorn escapes from a mental hospital (off-screen) after having been incarcerated for violent murders he committed in 1969. Elsewhere, there’s beautiful and popular Trish, who is having a slumber party with all her gal-pals from school. Living next door, there’s the equally pretty, but new to school, Valerie who is babysitting her sister (who is unintentionally dressed like Angela from SLEEPAWAY CAMP). Add to the mix a series of horn dog boys, an odd neighbor, and a killer with a newly-acquired drill, and you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned horror movie, complete with an old-timey Casio keyboard score.

The summary makes the film sound like a riff on HALLOWEEN and yes, to an extent it is. But it’s interestingly three movies at once – the traditional slasher movie (the killer stalking the girls), a teen sex farce (the boys peeping in on the girls and trying to scare them), and an old-dark-house movie (Valerie watching her sister and hearing creepy noises). As the film winds closer to its end, the three separate films intersect, but prior to this, they never feel like individual parts, but a cohesive whole. Horror fans will know that the film was originally envisioned by its author, Rita Mae Brown, as a parodic take on the slasher films that were already flooding the market, her script going by the title SLEEPLESS NIGHTS, which was then reconfigured as a straightforward slasher film, much to her detriment. One would think that this would make the film feel disjointed, but it balances the film quite nicely.

The fortunate side of this is that it does function as both a solid slasher film, and a parody that has good laughs to compliment the slumber party slaughter without either element suffocating each other and tanking the film. The slasher stuff is solid – there are red herrings, POV shots aplenty, a wonderfully tense chase sequence through the locker room (with Brinke Stevens in her debut role as the prey), jump scares, stingers, and a sneakily subtle scare where the girls have barricaded themselves in a room, but neglected to ensure the window behind them is secure (reminds me of the great jolt in HELL NIGHT). Because of its short running time, the killer gets to his wet-work straight away. Hell, I think there are two kills under his belt before we hit the fifteen minute mark. I also enjoy that there’s not a predictability to who will die, because sometimes in slasher films, there’s always a definable order. Also, as a villain, Michael Villella is adequately sweaty and unnerving, even if his getup as a killer is relatively bland (he’s dressed in a Canadian tuxedo).

The way that the script parodies slashers effectively is that so often the victims rarely ever notice that there’s danger afoot. The people constantly ignore radio messages about the killer escaping from the mental hospital, and they’re completely oblivious to the phone van parked outside their house at night (shades of Michael Myers and the car he’s stolen in HALLOWEEN), completely unaware that a person is being murdered mere feet away from them in a van … in broad daylight, no less. There’s a good shot where they reveal the aforementioned victim’s body stowed in a dumpster while the teenagers walk by and they don’t see it, because they’re absorbed in their conversation. The gag with the dead body in the refrigerator is top-notch, and you have to love the sneaky subtle stuff the crew puts in that only eagle-eye viewers catch – in the aforementioned locker room kill, there’s a sign that says “EMERGENCY DRILL PROCEDURES.”

The interplay with the four girls (Trish, Kim, Jackie, Diane) feels like they’re real-life friends – they’re catty, they give each other shit, and they get high– there’s not much to sketch them out character-wise (Diane gets a little nuance, balancing as both mean girl and in private, tender and sweet with her boyfriend), Trish is the only one that’s friendly with Valerie it seems, but otherwise, they’re just of the moment characters. Once all hell breaks loose, they do act logical and smart, barricading themselves up and proving themselves quite the sparring partner against the killer. Valerie and her sister Courtney also have a wonderful and lived in relationship, you can get the sense that they’re actually sisters, even though they’re not. It’s just a sweet relationship, between Valerie giving her sister a makeover and Courtney trying to scare her, it’s the usual sibling stuff – the gag where Valerie ribs her sister about reading Playgirl is a nice touch.

Being a Corman exploitation film, I realize that the whole draw of THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE is to drool over scantily clad girls in thin négligées and stock the film with gratuitous nudity. Yes, the film does just that, but it’s a variation on the male gaze – one done by a female director. There’s a locker-room scene early on where the girls shower and chat with the camera prowling over every inch of their bodies, but they’re trash-talking each other, gabbing about sports and hunky guys, so it feels less like a presentation for the slack-jawed dudes in the audience and more a clinical matter-of-fact thing they’d be doing any other day in their lives. It’s gratuitous, no doubt, but it’s weirdly essential to appease the “ancient ones.” In any other film with dudes, there would be a locker-room scene with them showering or shirtless in towels, so turnabout is fair play. There’s also a sequence later on where they all get dressed in their nighties in front of each other (a recurring element in the sequels) that feels unnecessary, save for the exploitative nature of the film, and brings to mind the question: Do women really do this at slumber parties? The answer is most assuredly, no.

But there’s the subversive nature to the film, a not-so-subtle one, with the killer’s weapon being a stand-in for his manhood (there’s a shot that specifically highlights this), and how they ultimately defeat him by chopping the drill bit off. If you think that it’s easy to write off this film as a low-budget schlock slasher, the women destroying his ultimate destructive tool as the perfect blow to the overwhelming use of phallic imagery in cinema, you ain’t paying attention to what level this film’s working at, folks. It’s this kind of brilliance that get unfairly missed when people trip over their own feet to diminish the quality and nature of these films. There’s something especially empowering about A) the film being entirely stocked with female characters (save for the peeping high-school creeps and Trish’s neighbor – a harmless fellow), ones cast in roles usually taken by men in these films (the woman repairing the telephones, the coach’s handywoman) and B) how these women, perceived fragile to this maniac, all band together to kick his ass from here to there in a viciously bloody climax, which despite the film’s light tone leaves the characters brutally, emotionally scarred. That’s not really the kind of ending you get from these drive-in hitters.

Amy Holden Jones would go on to have a lucrative screenwriting career, penning such films as MYSTIC PIZZA, INDECENT EXPOSURE, BEETHOVEN, and THE RELIC. Cinematographer Stephen Posey would later lens SAVAGE STREETS for Danny Steinmann and partner with him again on FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING. Lead actress Robin Stille (who has sadly passed away) would later re-team with Brinke Stevens for the horror dive, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA.

Released by New World Pictures in 1982, THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE grossed $3.6 million dollars on a $220, 000-dollar budget, making it a success and garnering another sequel down the line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987)

Why do we have so few slasher musicals? Both slashers and musicals are two great tastes that should go great together, imagine dropping hot tracks and spilling hot blood. It’s fertile ground that hasn’t been mined all too often, and when it is, it’s usually with mixed results. With 1987’s SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II, its working title being DON’T LET GO, we saw a tonal shift from the slasher/parody blend to lesser plumbed genre depths of the slasher/musical with extra emphasis on humor and effects heavy nightmare imagery, courtesy of writer/producer/director, Deborah Brock, and the result is pure ecstasy.

Shedding its definitive article, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II is a hot-rodded, thinly connected sequel to its 1982 predecessor, this time focusing on Courtney (now played by Crystal Bernard – who definitely tripped over her feet to come back and be interviewed about this film), the younger sister of the previous film’s lead, Valerie. She’s now a high school senior, balancing her life in a new wave rock band (the ’80s!) alongside a gaggle of gorgeous babes (Sheila, Amy, and Sally), while struggling with the post-traumatic stress disorder she has after surviving Russ Thorn’s rampage, which has been retconned slightly with Thorn no longer being the killer. Instead, our Driller Killer is a rockabilly maniac (an absolute hunk in leather) with a guitar topped drill, who hilariously reminds me of Bill Paxton’s Severen from NEAR DARK. Anyhow, Courtney and her girl group head up to a condo with brain-hanging bozos in tow to practice music and get slayed by power tools, or … do they?

There’s an admirable sense of continuity from the previous entry. Rarely do we have a slasher film that follows up what happened to the final girls and their coming to grips with survival – SCREAM 2 and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 come to mind, but that’s really it. Courtney is mentally wrecked from her encounter with The Driller Killer (they reshot a key image from part one, this time with Crystal Bernard in place of the previous film’s actress and subbed in the rock n’ roller madman for Russ Thorn) as well as her sister Valerie, who is locked away in a mental institution. We see Courtney is keeping newspaper clippings detailing the maniac’s reign of terror, and is reticent to discuss her involvement in having to murderer her attacker, carrying it like a badge of shame instead of a badge of triumph which feels very real.  It’s heavy stuff but unfortunately feels a little out of place in such a wacky slasher.

The film is very oddly-paced. THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE was just as short, but the movie and the killings moved along at a decent clip. Here, we pad the run time with sequences where the girl band performs songs in full, a long champagne soaked pillow fight (not complaining, but again, is there something guys don’t know about girls?), another musical performance and the various nightmare sequences – which are pretty trippy and lend the film a waking nightmare feel that gives it a different shade from its predecessor. Freddy’s dream-demon shenanigans were a clear influence on this title, as there are several over the top effects sequences (the monstrous zit, the bloody bathtub, a grotesque burger, a fucked-up mutant chicken), and various nightmare sequences peppered throughout. And of course, The Driller Killer himself, a clear expy of Freddy – constantly popping off one-liners (mostly song lyrics) amidst his slashing and slaying.

The slasher stuff is well-earned – very gory and very efficient, but it’s so late in the film. The deaths don’t start until 51 minutes in, and nearly the entire cast is wiped out less than ten minutes after that. That’s nuts, especially for characters who are genuinely likable (except for Sheila’s dumbass boyfriend, TJ, who has the most obnoxious laugh in horror-film history). The single best part of The Driller Killer’s spree is the two-and-a-half-minute music video where he struts around the condo and smokes while stalking Sheila (the stunning Juliette Cummins) and Atanas Iltich (whose father is the founder of Little Caesars Pizza – thanks, dad!) as the Killer chows down hungrily on the scenery like he’s been starving for days. Like The Rake Gag from THE SIMPSONS, the longer it goes on, it becomes funnier and funnier. It’s bar none one of the greatest moments in horror movie infamy, along with the “Bastaaard!” scene from PIECES and “Garbage Day!” from SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2.

Whereas in the first entry we dealt with the phallus as a weapon, in the sequel, it’s a metaphorical take on the awakening of burgeoning sexuality: something that gets touched on in other 1980s supernatural frights like HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE. The girls comment on Courtney’s “celibacy,” and at one point during a dream sequence, her sister urges her, “Don’t go all the way.” Seemingly everyone in the film is horned-up and ready to go. The message is, “Sex, huh? What a nightmare!” Naturally, once Courtney gives in, The Driller Killer bleeds over into our reality and begins his killing spree, which the film never adequately explains, so we’re left with some hand-wavy dream logic, which is always a rattlesnake to deal with. The whole reality/nightmare tableau gives off a nicely unsettling vibe, even at the film’s end, where it’s clear that it’s all a dream within a dream within a dream. The last shot is even shot in miniature a la 1984’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, with the drill ripping through the floor of a mental hospital in forced perspective.

On another note, cribbing style and influence from other horror films is all right, as long as you make something of it, but naming characters after famous horror icons is never going to be something that’s in vogue. Bequeathing your characters with namesakes like Craven, Bates, Burns (Sally, in this case), Krueger (it’s not even spelled right), and Voorhees (again, spelled incorrectly) is distracting and leads people to want to gag themselves with roughage. Even the best films are guilty of it, like NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, but that doesn’t make it okay. We’re better than this. Though there are other franchise connection herein, with Juliette Cummins, who appeared in both PSYCHO III and FRIDAY THE 13TH PARTV: A NEW BEGINNING and Heidi Kozak as the ill-fated Sandra in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD. Also, the trailer features something I don’t think I’ve ever noticed in my long and storied history of devouring old horror trailers on YouTube – a scene highlighting the aforementioned pillow fight segment, that has blurred-out nudity! Usually in these old trailers they didn’t give a shit and just let the gore, guts, and nudity go unhindered by restrictions, so blurred boobs is a real “WTF” thing, because they didn’t need to include it all!

Distributed by New Concorde, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II nabbed a decent take of $1.3 million, on a budget of $500,000 (released perfectly around Halloween, no less), thereby ensuring that when the time was right, and the story was there, the drill would be back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III (1990)

As we wandered into the ‘nineties, things got grittier and therefore, we needed a little edge to our horror films that we rarely had in the ‘eighties, we needed to step out of our safe and soft slasher bubble. Thus we got 1990’s SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III, the final entry of the trilogy, which is the kind of standard, straight-forward slasher fare Rita Mae Brown fretted they would turn her script for SLEEPLESS NIGHTS into, one that’s largely devoid of the humor that the other two films had and one that has a nastier, more somber bent to it. From the get-go, it’s clear we’re in for a different slice of slasher – you’ll see that the credits are scored to an ominous piano track, the tone is cantered toward being mean-spirited, and the ending is a pitch black descent into hell.

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III feels a lot like a semi-remake of the first film, the story follows Jackie (the infinitely cute Keely Christian) and her friends as they hold a slumber party in her parents’ for-sale house. Soon, per usual, some boys show up, and following in their footsteps is a killer wielding a power tool. The film is traditionally paced like a typical horror film at eighty-seven minutes, and there’s a healthy body count that’s spaced out to keep the blood flowing regularly. There’s some odd stuff sprinkled into the movie, like the exchange between one of the ill-fated boys trying to worm his way into the house of hotties by bargaining for the shirt of the pizza girl (played by Marta Kober from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2), the useless police force (who just ignore their calls without any care), the boys breaking into the house to peep (this time, wearing Halloween masks) and of course, a tradition at this point, a long sequence of strip-teasing (seriously, anyone, tell me is this a thing?) that allows for Corman regular Maria Ford to show off her body while the girls hoot and holler, which bucks the trend of women getting naked and men catcalling them, so that’s a plus in my book.

Beyond the first film’s crackerjack pacing, the sequels could never figure out how to keep the film’s flow right. The second one has a back-heavy murder spree, and in this entry, there’s too many victims left as we approach the end credits. This means that we’re left with long scenes of the killer chasing the girls around the house, until they eventually overpower him and stop him once and for all, which is a trap that most slasher films tragically fall into, and this one is egregious because it leaves us with the killer hurling mean-spirited lines of dialogue at barely dressed women and that’s not fun for anyone.

Prior to the endless chase sequence, we get a solid enough body-counter. Though we still have the usual driller killer methods (they’re a bit more vicious this go round) of the previous entries, there’s also some variations on murder – death by vibrator, death by “house for sale” sign, death by bill of a swordfish, and chainsaw to the Achilles heel. Unlike the first two films, this one is more of a whodunit (unless you watch the trailer, which gives the game away), meaning we get a masked killer for once and red-herrings aplenty throughout the first two acts of the film. There’s the “weirdo on the beach,” (a lovely credit to bring home to mom and dad), “the weirdo next door neighbor” – the kind who mouth breathes, peeps on the girls, and reads books on human anatomy, and then disappears from the movie entirely once the killer is revealed. An element of this killer that’s done right is his creepy murder wagon: stocked with bloody Polaroids, lit candles, and dead bodies, and perhaps as unintentional foreshadowing, I noticed it creeping down the street long before the killer makes his appearance.

The killer’s motivation, a first for the franchise, is that he was sexually assaulted by his police officer uncle (who has recently committed suicide) is some heavy shit. Usually in these films, it’s always a prank that’s the trigger for a killer, but sexual abuse is too real-world and frankly, exploitative for a simple scantily clad girls and killer cheapie. If there’s any subtext to be found here, it’s the reductive cycle of toxic masculinity and victims becoming victimizers, similarly to a plot point of 1987’s HIDE AND GO SHRIEK, which coincidentally stars this film’s lead, Brittain Frye. The theme of impotency runs rampant; our killer declines sex, but has no problems penetrating his victims with his other tool. There’s also the repugnant scene where our killer assaults one of the girls, a long and upsetting segment that feels so out of place in a franchise that’s been relatively light-hearted up until this point and disappointingly peddles in the misogynistic tripe that other horror films were long accused of back in the heyday of films like MANIAC. Interestingly, the film bucks the tradition of the killer always being a romantic interest for our lead actress, he’s actually the only one that gets anywhere with a girl. He’s into our lead’s friend, pursuing a romantic relationship and engages in sexual congress with her (a rare component in film, where a woman receives oral sex). Also, the character has a wackadoo personality switch three times during the film – he’s suave, and then he’s whiny and petulant (after the discovery of a dead body he’s responsible for), and then he’s all rage and skewed sexually.

A different change of pace, something that’s reoccurred in films prior, is the unpredictability of who and when the characters will die. I would’ve bet that our lead Jackie’s “boyfriend” would’ve lived to see the credits, but he doesn’t – although the jury is still out on that, because the killer just hits him hard in the face with the drill, and I honestly thought that when Jackie screams that he was dead, it was a ploy and he’d come to help when the time came. I was wrong. Additionally, I thought Diane – Jackie’s closest friend, would’ve lived as well, but no, it’s Susie, who Jackie has less interaction with. I love the proactivity with the girls trying to stop the killer – they’re reaching for the drill when he has them pinned down, trying to stab him when they’re got an advantage on him, throwing bleach in his eyes (shades of the HALLOWEEN II climax) and even having the discussion all horror movie characters should have – when the killer is incapacitated, end him because he’ll always strike back. They refuse, rationally, and he ends up taking another one of them out. The ending with Jackie riding atop the killer, pinning him down, and plunging the drill into him repeatedly is a nice gory capper to the last and meanest SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE entry.

 

 

 

 

 

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The SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE franchise, as a whole, is a consistent series, even with its minor tonal variances. The whole trilogy can be watched in less than four hours, making it a quick, breezy weekend full of all the things that make horror films fun and full of life. It also goes to show the unique identity a female imprint could have on a series of horror films, let alone the distinct touch a female filmmaker could have on a solo horror title. In this age of women’s empowerment and brilliant women filmmakers, I wonder what elements a female genre filmmaker could bring to a remake of THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE. Great things. I just know it.

The SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE franchise is available on Blu-ray via Scream Factory and the first two titles are available courtesy of Amazon Prime.

 

 

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a Dallas-based writer of both films and of Internet goings-on. He's also in a movie on Netflix, but won't tell you the title, for fear of transmitting a RINGU-type curse into your home. He can be found on Twitter as @madmanmarz81.
Nathan Smith

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