I have mixed feelings about April Fools Day, and though it doesn’t tarnish my overall appreciation for Fred Walton’s somewhat innovative slasher, I struggle to fully embrace a film that approaches the sub-genre in the spirit of the annual event it aspires to. It’s a clever concept, providing a cute commercial hook for teenage moviegoers, but for a bare bones genre that delights in the barbaric simplicities, it’s perhaps just a little too cute to satisfy in the long-term.
Before I continue, I must first address something: April Fool’s Day lives and dies by its twist, and since that twist is at the centre of my relationship with the film, those who haven’t seen it should stop reading now. If you know the twist going in, chances are it will spoil the whole experience, and not just in the traditional sense. Go into it blind and you’re almost certain to have fun, though the revelation in question may leave slasher purists feeling rather disappointed.
Without giving too much away, watching April Fool’s Day left me with a feeling similar to the one I had after watching the hugely divisive Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. First time around it’s your typical Friday the 13th movie, heavily censored thanks to the impositions of the MPAA and Paramount, but you still get to see Jason bumping off a batch of vacuous teens, which is essentially what fans pay to see. Then it hits you with a revelation: this time it’s not Jason committing the murders but an impostor killer. At first I felt cheated. Sure, I got to see some stuntman bounding around in a hockey mask, same as always, but knowing it wasn’t Jason devalued everything that went before. Over the years A New Beginning has grown on me; I can appreciate what is essentially an X-rated Scooby Doo mystery with its tongue firmly in its cheek without mourning the loss of our marquee star, but April Fool’s Day is an entirely different animal.
I first heard about April Fool’s Day back in high school when a friend came to class all excited, though his eyes told the story of a particularly late night. The reason for this was a rather unusual slasher showing on late-night TV that he had somehow managed to stay the distance for — lucky, since he had ultimately experienced the greatest twist of his young life. I was eager to learn more, knowing full well it would ruin the movie for me, and he set about explaining the plot of April Fool’s Day with the kind of play-by-play detail only a child deems necessary. Being a horror fanatic, it all seemed like standard slasher fare, but then he hit me with it, not only a twist but a double twist, one that I found ingeniously fresh and anarchic.
Looking back, not only was April Fool’s Day clever, it was commercially savvy in an era of pedantic horror movie censorship. That same year, Tom McLoughlin had reinvented Jason Voorhees as an indestructible meta killer who resembled one of the Universal monsters of yore, partly to overcome Jason’s supposed demise in Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter, but also to give the movie the kind of edge the MPAA’s unquenchable moral crusade had laid waste to. It was still cut to ribbons, but an increased emphasis on humour meant that it didn’t rely so heavily on the graphic extremities once synonymous with the series.
April Fools Day takes a similar approach, but for many it makes one fatal error. A New Beginning may have swapped Jason for a man who underwent arguably the quickest, most unlikely emotional breakdown in horror movie history, but slasher fans still got what they came to see in the form of a series of grisly deaths, even if you did have to use your imagination like never before. In April Fools Day, everyone dies yet no one dies, and by the end you may as well be back at the beginning. If you embrace it for what it is, the movie is an intriguing deviation that combines slasher antics with classic murder mystery elements, but if you’re baying for blood you may be spitting teeth by the time the credits roll. In pure April Fools fashion, the joke will be on you.
As much as I enjoyed the film for the most part, the finale did feel a little abrupt and ill-fitting this time around, and there is a very distinct reason for this: April Fool’s Day is missing its entire final act. In Danilo Bach’s original screenplay, the second act would end with the revelation that the utterly convincing and dubiously orchestrated gallery of deaths was actually an April Fool’s prank that let the rest of the gang in on the joke victim-by-victim, which in the finished movie is actually the third act. The original idea was for one of the gang to completely lose it, pissed at being subjected to such a cruel and elaborate prank and beset on a very real rampage that would go largely ignored thanks to a familiar case of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. That’s why the infamous and completely deflating double twist was tacked-on, one that sees one of our guests seemingly take revenge on Muffy for her elaborate charade, only for us to realise that this is yet another prank thanks to a high-tech practical effects knife that you would struggle to find outside of a Hollywood studio.
It was years until I discovered this rather telling bump in the movie’s development, but suddenly it all made sense, and I must admit April Fools Day left me feeling just a little hollow this time around. It begins admirably enough, a group of teenagers setting sail for a private island owned by their friend Muffy (Deborah Foreman) with designs on tearing it up. It doesn’t take long before disaster strikes. While fooling around in the water following one of the most realistic-looking accidental murder pranks this side of Tom Savini, one of our motley crew has his face crushed by the boat’s edge, a gruesome incident that leaves his eyeball dangling on his cheek. Our cast don’t seem particularly perturbed by their friend’s horrific hospitalisation and commence partying like it’s 1999, but this stroke of gross misfortune is just the beginning. Before long, bodies fall thick and fast as our host begins acting rather strangely, slowly transforming into a teenage version of Annie Wilkes from Misery, and when a series of clues leads us to the plainly obvious, our two remaining survivors are up against it, or at least they think they are.
In the echelons of slasher tomfoolery, April Fool’s Day is a relatively well made movie. It features a couple of 80s faces who immediately lend proceedings a certain pedigree: the always watchable Thomas F. Wilson, who just a year earlier had almost stole the show as perennial McFly scourge Biff Tannen in Robert Zemeckis’ cult sci-fi flick Back to the Future, and slasher royalty Amy Steel, who for my money is the best final girl in the Friday the 13th series, and she is equally luminous this time around, despite a much weaker role. Steel had turned down the chance to return for Friday the 13th Part III, which was originally set to take place on a hospital ward. Steel later regretted not returning in favour of a short-lived TV career, especially since Frank Mancuso had plans on making her the franchise’s answer to Laurie Strode. April Fool’s Day ultimately marked her return to the slasher fray, and she could have done a lot worse.
Compared with the majority of slasher fodder, April Fool’s Day actually attempts to give its characters personality, though the somewhat throwaway nature of the film’s payoff negates its efforts for the most part. It has shades of George Pollock’s 1965 Agatha Christie adaptation Ten Little Indians and benefits from a typically inspired score by A Nightmare On Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein, but a movie that is little more than an elaborate prank sacrifices sure footing for a killer blow.
That said, April Fool’s Day is arguably the most unique holiday-themed slasher since John Carpenter’s Halloween. In fact, it’s something of a shock that someone didn’t think of using the gimmick sooner, though two other movies set on April Fool’s Day would be released in the ensuing months in Killer Party and Slaughter High. The film may be light on violence, which is what slasher fans invariably clamour for, but it certainly stands out from the crowd and has garnered quite the cult following in the years since its release. It even manages to sidestep the supernatural element that had long-since replaced killers of the more mortal variety.
Still, one can’t help but wonder how the original script would have played out onscreen. Presumably it would have precipitated those long, character-building scenes, as well as ditching that incongruous and wholly ineffective final scare. It also would have given us what is the staple ingredient for all slasher pictures. When you think about those elements which are essential to the formula, a unique weapon comes to mind, a scary disguise, a worthy final girl, the nature of the movie’s onscreen deaths. One thing you don’t think of is the act of killing itself, and why would you? What would ever possess anyone to make a slasher in which precisely no one dies? It completely defeats the purpose.
Ultimately, Paramount felt that axing the entire third act for a tinkered finale would end things on a crowd-pleasing note. Like a whoopie cushion, it’s a memorable jolt to the system first time around, and you continue to smile in spite of yourself, but when the joke inevitably grows old, you can’t help but feel just a little deflated.