Martin Scorsese, real-life suicide and a phallic weapon for the ages. Welcome to the fascinating world of The Slumber Party Massacre
The Slumber Party Massacre. It’s a title that leaps out at horror fans, particularly those with a taste for stalk and slash depravity. Straight out of the Tobe Hooper playbook, it screams exploitation, promising violence and nudity by the bucket load. The film certainly delivers in those terms, but there’s more to Amy Holden Jones’ quasi-feminist slasher, which was actually conceived as a parody under the title “Don’t Open the Door” until producers decided to play it straight. It was probably a wise decision. Horror spoofs rarely work, particularly on a paltry budget using student actors hired from the University of California, but women’s rights activist and screenwriter Rita Mae Brown’s pastiche approach certainly shines through, lending The Slumber Party Massacre a unique vibe that makes it one of the superior entries in a notoriously uninventive sub-genre.
Despite being the brainchild of a feminist author, Jones has been heavily criticised by female activists who claim that the director exploited her own gender for personal gain. It’s understandable. Cult producer and low-budget hit machine Roger Corman agreed to finance the film after previewing the first three scenes, and if anyone follows the ‘exploitation sells’ philosophy, it’s him. There are several cute and ludicrous moments that allow the film a self-aware levity, but The Slumber Party Massacre is incredibly violent for the most part, with more than a foot in the grainy, dead-eyed world of golden age slashers. It’s also dripping with nudity. The film’s notoriously voyeuristic shower scene is a prime example. Breasts are at a minimum since several cast members refused to be shot naked, even taping their nipples in case cinematographer Michael Chapman ― Jones’ husband ― tried to sneak them in, but we do get bare ass shots in abundance, the kind that linger like steam in a happy endings bathhouse. At times it’s as if Chapman has fallen under some kind of woozy spell. It’s all rather exploitative, but Brinke Stevens, who plays early victim Linda, was under no all illusion as to what was expected of her back in 1982. “Early in my career, nudity was simply the rule . . . what was expected of us,” she would explain. “We just went along with it because we wanted to work.”
Those were different times, but the film manages to provide a commentary on the slasher genre while remaining very much a part of it, which is really quite the achievement. Sure, it’s downright misogynistic at times ― this is giallo’s bastard offspring after all ― but our female cast aren’t your typical deadheads running barefoot into the woods with their arms flailing pathetically; they have much more personality than that. We spend lots of time getting to know the girls. Not on an emotional level, it’s more camaraderie and in-jokes, but it’s enough for us to be able to relate to them. Their fates may be rooted in convention for the most part, but beyond that they’re a bunch of smart asses who make their male co-stars look like lamewads by comparison, and when Andree Honore’s gobsmackingly buxom Jackie decides to claw a pizza out of a delivery boy’s lifeless corpse for an impromptu snack, you know our cast of nubile beauties are a cut above. The fellas are absolutely peripheral in this film. There isn’t even a final girl per se. The closest we get to a traditional slasher heroine is high school newbie Valerie, though the fact that she keeps a nudie magazine under her bed strays rather wide of Laurie Strode territory.
Kim: He’s dead, all right. So Cold.
Jackie: Is the pizza? [takes a slice of pizza] Well, life goes on after all, and eating makes me feel best when I feel bad, and boy do I feel bad. [takes a bite of pizza] I feel better already. Really, I do.
Other than this seemingly conscious dissimilarity, Halloween is a huge influence here, and I don’t mean in the general way common to most golden age slashers. We have a rather familiar suburban setting shot in a rather familiar way, a cast of nubile teens and the usual drunken high-jinks. While revealing a more sexual side, Valerie is very much the movie’s Jamie Lee Curtis, an outsider reduced to babysitting duties having turned down the film’s titular sleepover after overhearing your standard dose of horror movie bitchery. The movie’s score, performed entirely on a Casio synthesiser, bears more than a passing resemblance to Carpenter’s iconic theme. It doesn’t conjure the same levels of tension, but it’s a fine effort that carries enough self-awareness to set is apart. In fact, it’s all done rather admirably, from the witty dialogue and cute genre nods to Jones’ suspenseful builds and entertaining set-pieces. The editing is also surprisingly flawless for a movie that cost approximately $220,000. Jones had quite the background in editing before making the step up to director, and had even turned down the chance to edit Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial released the same year. This may seem like an odd career choice, but you have to admire the force of her conviction.
There’s also more than a shade of Bob Clark’s seminal slasher Black Christmas in The Slumber Party Massacre, a movie that predates Halloween and directly inspired it after Carpenter approached Clark with the idea of a sequel, only to be told, “If I was going to do one, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it “Halloween”. Black Christmas famously had its TV debut cancelled after serial killer Ted Bundy bludgeoned two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death before attempting to murder two others, and in some ways The Slumber Party Massacre is a riff on that particular incident. A film that gives us a killer who isn’t averse to taking impromptu naps amid the carnage, gleefully counting the corpses stuffed comically into a car boot is no real reflection of a notorious, real-life serial killer like Bundy, but the parallels are there to be drawn.
The Slumber Party Massacre‘s own resident killer is something of an odd card, simultaneously the most nondescript slasher villain this side of Final Exam and utterly unique and entertaining. Rather than cutting an indomitable figure shrouded in mystique, Michael Villella’s aptly named Russ Thorn is as generic as it gets in the realms of slasherdom, falling somewhere between Joe Strummer and a long-retired Levi’s model with a receding hairline. He’s closer to a greasy mechanic than an ominous masked figure, but when it’s time to get down to business he can slay with the best of them. Despite his average Joe get-up he’s also deliciously insane; so over the top he creeps around the place like a fiendish supervillain, climbing through open windows and sneaking up on his prey like a masked robber with an ostentatiously marked swag bag. With the film’s comic origins and feminist leanings he doesn’t really require any personality beyond the caricaturistic. He’s all sexual iconography, his weapon of choice the ultimate phallic symbol, and when that weapon is symbolically castrated during a scene that reduces our ‘alpha male’ to a bumbling oaf of flagrant inadequacy, his gender irrelevance is confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt. The fact that we get more than one female survivor speaks volumes for gender solidarity.
That’s not to say our killer doesn’t cut a fearsome presence amid the silliness. For every blinded pizza boy there’s a kill that makes you wince, for every quirky action there’s a moment of sheer nihilism, and Villella is truly unsettling at times, manhandling his many victims like a mountain bear and exhibiting a perverse relish that recalls slashers of the more devastating variety. The film’s development may have been something of a contradiction but Jones, Corman and the now-defunct New World Pictures knew just what was needed to make the movie a hit, regardless of the moral naysayers. The violence, the nudity, the flagrant exploitation, it’s all part and parcel, whether your aim is to produce a straight-up slasher flick or one which leans more towards the self-reflexive. “That’s what Roger Corman, the producer wanted, and that’s how it’s done, you give the studio what they want,” Jones would explain. “Nobody complains that Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard made exploitation pictures, but when a woman tries, she gets called a hypocrite and a turncoat. That’s B.S.”
The film also harbours a degree of real-life sadness all these years later. When I first laid eyes on protagonist Robin Stille I was totally blown away. As well as being unusually beautiful, she possessed the kind of natural grace and aesthetic purity that the most memorable scream queens are made of. If I had been a casting agent in 80s Hollywood, my eyes would have lit up. In reality, Stille was something of a wild child, and no environment is crueller to such a temperament than the movie business, be that the temptations of fame and fortune or the trappings of a notoriously fickle industry that has been known to promote both ageism and beauty discrimination. In reality, no one really knows exactly what led to Stille’s suicide at the tragic age of just 34, though a well-publicised drinking problem coupled with a lack of work almost certainly contributed.
Stille is most famous for appearing in cult B-movies American Ninja 4: The Annihilation and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, starring alongside trash-horror royalty Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer. As the roles dried-up, Stille became something of a recluse, losing touch with her fellow co-stars and industry contacts. According to those who knew her, she basically just vanished. “I know Robin had a huge drinking problem,” Quigley would recall. “She had kamakazies all the time on the set, and I think she lied about a lot of stuff, but I feel bad. I still don’t know what the real truth under it all was. I think she was a good person and something happened to her. I don’t know what. She got so drunk she actually hurt me on set and that never happens as I’m very careful on stunts.” “I have no idea why she would kill herself,” co-star Andras Jones would lament. “But she must have had her reasons. Stille, who would leave behind twin sons, was laid to rest in 1996 at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
[The doorbell rings]
Jeff: Who is it?
Russ Thorn: [distorted voice through the closed front door] Pizza. Delivery.
Jeff: What’s the damage?
Russ Thorn: Six… so far.
The Slumber Party Massacre didn’t pull up any trees critically, but that was to be expected. Thanks in large part to influential mainstream critics and sub-genre detractors Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the slasher picture was already being pegged as the ultimate symbol of society’s moral decline during the early 80s, and by 1984 the home video market had been regulated following prosecutions to independent filmmakers accused of everything from animal cruelty to real-life murder, the British Board of Film Classification working alongside the UK government to devise a list of 72 movies deemed unfit for public consumption, a list that would live on in infamy under the ‘Video Nasty‘ slogan. Though the movie was passed uncut for theatrical release, The Slumber Party Massacre didn’t make that list, but it had all the ingredients to qualify, including that unforgettable title. Believe it or not, there were actually unions who looked to castigate horror flicks with violent-sounding titles when the video nasty scandal reached its apotheosis. When is came to civil liberties and censorship, the powers that be meant business.
The majority of critics were content to lump Jones’ somewhat innovative debut in with the overabundance of by-the-numbers titles rushed into production with the sole purpose of exploiting the genre’s popularity and turning a quick buck. Jones, who would soon ditch the camera for a successful production career, was no doubt motivated by the same reasons, but she certainly cared about the final product, and she often exhibits commendable skill, turning what typically would have been a gauche and slackly-delivered outing into an impressively tight production. This was a young filmmaker who, despite some notable directorial stumbles, would go on to pen mainstream Hollywood hits Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal, whose list of admirers included both Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
Jones had made contacts early. She had written a letter to Scorsese — who had previously been a judge for an AFI Student Film Festival that Jones had won — after seeing an article about his latest picture. Jones asked Scorsese if he remembered her, and sure enough he did, inviting her to New York City and hiring her as an assistant on Taxi Driver. “Marty advanced my career again because he said to me, ‘OK, you’re too good to be an assistant,’ Jones would recall.” Everyone started with Roger Corman, and Scorsese had too. And Roger called him and said, ‘I’m looking for a talented, inexpensive young film editor.’ Joe Dante and Allan Arkush did a feature together called Hollywood Boulevard for Corman, and they hired me to edit it… I went back to Corman and said, ‘I want to direct.” And he said, “You have to show me you can do it.” So I took a script off of his shelf that he had never made called Don’t Open the Door written by Rita Mae Brown. It had a prologue that had an action scene, a dialogue scene and a suspense scene. I shot it with a crew of four people on 35mm film.”
The notoriously thrifty and commercially savvy Corman was certainly impressed with what he saw, as were the film’s initial test audience, leading the producer to cite The Slumber Party Massacre as “the best preview in New World history.” Jones was somewhat taken aback by the reaction. “They went ape! From the very beginning, they were screaming and laughing and there were people behind me making drilling noises and talking back to the screen!”
An appropriate reaction to a movie that sets out to thrill and amuse, ticking all the commercial boxes while bringing something fairly refreshing to the table. The Slumber Party Massacre may ‘only’ be a slasher, a humble outing from a notoriously derivative sub-genre that the majority of critics are quick to dismiss, but Jones’ underlying talent is there for all to see. The movie still holds up almost four decades after its release, and is as good a monument to the slasher’s golden age as any film of the era, a worthy debut for both Jones and the tragic star who, as the film’s snow white protagonist, would etch her name in the annals of horror movie history.