Judge Ike Oden finds it hard to believe no one has heard of this excellent series of documentaries.
Close your eyes for a second…and sleep forever.
In 1982, Roger Corman decided to muster up his own spin on the emerging slasher trend. With his New World studio backing up-and-coming director Amy Jones, the first feminist slasher film was born—Slumber Party Massacre. Rather than making a straight up slasher, Jones reworked Rita Mae Brown's spoofy script (originally titled "Don't Open the Door") into a straight faced satire of the entire cinematic movement. The film, featuring a killer wielding an oversized electric drill who stalks a group of teenage girls during their titular soirée, became a major success for Corman, who followed it by green lighting two sequels and a series of spin-offs (Sorority House Massacre and its sequel; Hard To Die, Cheerleader Massacre, and more).
After going out-of-print in the early 2000s, the complete The Slumber Party Massacre Collection finally arrives on DVD thanks to Shout! Factory. Now, does the series hold up to its innovative legacy, or sink under the weight of '80s excess?
Slumber Party Massacre
Slumber Party Massacre sets up the following four principles for the entries to follow.
1. All the male characters (especially the killer) border on eunuchs and try desperately to make up for it through giant drills or latent homosexuality, usually to great comedic effect.
2. All of the female characters, while semi-moronic, are also semi-competent. Sure, they get killed by making stupid mistakes, but most of them get their licks in on the killer (if they've managed to make it to the final reel). They all become Junior Laurie Strodes, and it's anyone's guess who will make it out alive.
3. A preoccupation with the group dynamics of teenage girls is front and center, building toward a stand-off against the killer that sort of presents a unified sisterhood between the victims against the killer. As the killer's actions devolve into a living room melee, these kittens fight back!
4. A dude is running around drilling people with an oversized power drill. That's just awesome. The most memorable of these is the original, Russ Thorn, who is arguably one of the most unintimidating slasher killers ever. He's short, dressed in tight denim, moves like a peacock (according to extras, this is what Villela was going for), and sports a salt-and-pepper crew cut. There's no mask to hide behind, just his phallic drill. Villella's performance taps into a certain Manson-esque intensity that brilliantly balances the sort of silliness director Amy Jones brings to the film, creating a villain that borders on iconic (just barely).
If I was in a pinch, I'd describe the original Slumber Party Massacre as the Robocop of the slasher genre. Much like said cyber-punk classic, the first film borders on classic; a straight-faced satire with oodles of quotable lines, inventive set-pieces, and a sharp sense of humor. These elements are aided by a cast who clearly isn't in on the joke, resulting in pure, unadulterated performances from a cast of cut-rate actors hired less for their ability to deliver lines than their ability to go topless.
While this isn't the case for some (Villella's Driller Killer and Jennifer Meyers supposed 12-year-old Courtney remain clothed, thank God), the film's first order of business is to fulfill Roger Corman's T&A quotient. Amy Jones' camera lingers on butts and boobs in the opening shower sequence to hilarious effect, with dialogue like "Hey, I think your tits are getting bigger" being accompanied by some of the most awkward ass-and-boob panning you've ever seen. These sequences are all Corman and you can feel Jones' apprehensiveness about this sort of crass exploitation and objectification.
Depending on your view of gender politics, these sequences may kill the film's chances at being a totally intellectual, feminist product, making Slumber Party Massacre as moralistically low as the trash it imitates. On the other side of the argument: they are boobs. Boobs go a long way for some people. Not me or anything, but, um, y'know…sleazy horror fans who like that sort of thing. Poor bastards.
Speaking of sleaze, not to be mean or anything, but watching Slumber Party Massacre after a decade of new-wave slasher tripe like Friday the 13th (2009) and Hatchet, one remembers a time when, shall we say, "normal looking" girls were cast in the roles of sexpot teenagers. Nowadays, said roles would be filled by up-and-coming Maxim models or recovering porn stars. The entire Slumber Party Massacre gives us, ahem, "girl next door" types like Brinke Stevens (Sorority Babes in the Slime Bowl-A-Rama) or Debra Deliso (October Moon) for gratuitous nudity/sex fodder. Sure, there are a few former Playboy models thrown into the sequels, but you'd never guess from the looks of them. I mean, I didn't (Ahem).
The collective cast of The Slumber Party Massacre Collection makes the female fodder of the Friday the 13th series look downright glamorous by comparison. It is a novel element that certainly amps the sleaze factor, especially in the first movie, whose amateur cast, shoe-string budget, and cinema-verite style remind one more of Deep Throat than Halloween—only serving to amp up the off-kilter gender politics of the script.
If Slumber Party Massacre has any faults, it's going to be your typical Corman criticism: it's a crude, poorly acted, cheap, exploitative, violent, and an unabashed cash-in of better films. If you like Roger Corman films to begin with, these aspects will probably endear, rather than alienate, as the film rises above it all by being smart, funny, innovative, and, most importantly, massively entertaining.
Slumber Party Massacre II
Slumber Party Massacre II is by far one of the worst movies I've seen in my lifetime, situating itself somewhere above The Beast of Yucca Flats and below Black Roses, veering into a kitchen sink territory. As a sequel, its utterly different and totally abysmal, broad humored endurance trial. As a "bad movie," its one of the greats; A Nightmare On Elm Street knockoff starring a greaser with a giant drill/guitar and some of the most contrived rockabilly songs you could ever hear.
Everything about the movie is bad. The camera work ranges from sitcom to student film level (there's more than one out-of-focus shot). The acting is embarrassing, at best. The direction is non-existent. Besides the aforementioned rockabilly music, most of the other songs are by new wave girl band Wednesday Week. They range from awful ("Tokyo Convertible") to okay ("If Only"), but the awful songs get the most play in the most painfully dull garage band jam sequences you'll ever see. The sets, a barren condo re-used from an earlier Corman picture (The Nest), represents some of the worst architectural designs of 1987. The screenplay is an utter mess, resorting to "Is it all in her mind?" psychological wankery that fails to engage on any level. Even from a nudity stand-point, the film barely delivers!
To top it all off, beyond recycling a few character names, the film has nothing to do with Slumber Party Massacre. Apparently, this is a virtue auteur Deborah Brock wears with pride, the film being almost completely and utterly hers. Perhaps someone should tell her of the monstrosity she unleashed upon the world. For God's sake, I can barely even call this a movie—its like a Kenneth Anger film written under the influence of heroin and absinthe, handed off to be directed by a first-week film school drop-out and re-titled Slumber Party Massacre II.
It should also be noted that the gore effects are passable and sometimes even a little inventive; a scene where a human head turns into a giant, exploding zit is actually really impressive, gag inducing work. Also, while far from good, Alanis Illitch's performance is delightfully gonzo and really fun to watch, a slice of overacting that reminds one more of gorgonzola than Strazinsky. I can't tell if it's intentional or not, but we're going to give him points for effort.
Also, despite (or perhaps because of) a laundry list of flaws, the film manages to be a thoroughly entertaining blast of '80s exploitation trash. It's good natured, unintentionally hilarious fun that is best enjoyed in the company of bad movie loving friends, alcohol, or maybe Elmer's Glue (any combination wouldn't hurt).
Slumber Party Massacre III
Slumber Party Massacre III tries to bring back the respectability of its origins ("respectability" being the loosest of terms) but ditches a sense of humor completely, replacing it with a sort of stark mean-spiritedness that might alienate fans. The murder mystery angle orients itself toward the type of rough misogyny commonplace in rape/revenge Grindhouse greats Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave, as filtered through the structure of the original Friday the 13th (which was itself an Agatha Christie-esque plot).
I won't spoil the big reveal. It's pretty obvious from the get-go, but slasher noobs might have a fun time playing Guess Who with all the red herrings. When the big reveal finally comes, it shifts the film from playfully cheesy early '90s slasher, to an extremely brutal assault on the glossed-over tropes of the genre.
Director Sally Matison and screenwriter Catherine Cyran display a kind of vindictiveness toward their audience, with scenes and subplots about sexual abuse that are both challenging and a little depressing. You will walk away feeling more than a little dirty, by the time the film ends. Whether or not the idea of an anti-slasher film appeals to you or not is for you to decide, but it is this aspect of the film that made it among my favorites when I was but a teenage pup devouring every VHS with a stabbing implement on its cover.
In spite of the film's uniqueness, the twist may also prove a burden on slasher fans looking for simple thrills. In their heavy handed, confrontational style, the filmmakers seem to miss the entire point of the franchise—to have fun. With its dark third act turn, the film distances itself from parts one and, God help me, two by simply ignoring the spirit of the series.
A lack of inventive gore effects only hurts the situation, with most of the stabbings and cuttings resulting in mere red dye and Karoe syrup, rarely give us a grisly money shot. For some slasher fans, this will make the film more of a chore to watch, as some killings are far less memorable than others, creating an inconsistent pace. Sure, camera work is certainly slicker than the preceding entries, but it seems to me sticking with the gritty visual pastiche established by Amy Jones would've only helped make the film more consistent in tone. The acting is passable and the nudity plentiful. Take it on its own terms and you'll be rewarded with an ambitious, distinguished take on the Slumber Party Massacre formula. Just don't forget that shower afterward.
The touted "Collector's Edition" label from Shout! Factory more than lives up to its title. Included are newly remastered transfers of Slumber Party Massacre and its follow-up. In widescreen for the first time ever, it's safe to say these films have never looked better, especially considering the source material. While there is still a fair degree of scratches and knicks on the original film's print, along with some fuzziness in certain scenes, the new transfers give more definition to the shoe-string cinematography.
Part Two has slightly fewer flaws, but still maintains most of the same problems. Honestly, it's hard to imagine watching these films without a certain degree of grunge caked on the prints. For me, that's part of the charm of '80s slasher movies. Slumber Party Massacre III, sadly, boasts no remaster, saddling us with what looks a lot like the video transfer that appeared on the original New Concorde DVD release—merely a notch or two up from the VHS.
Sound is a definite problem here. Both films are saddled with Dolby Digital stereo mixes that sound conspicuously recycled from earlier DVD releases. Dialogue and sound effects blare over each other unevenly, and you'll find yourself reaching for the remote to adjust the volume levels on your TV, if you're sensitive to such things. This is especially irksome. If you're going to bother to remaster the transfers, it seems appropriate to remix the audio to match.
The set makes up for this shortcoming in the extras department. To begin with, we're treated to a fairly thorough, three-part documentary entitled Sleepless Nights, covering each chapter in the series. Directed by Jason Paul Collum (October Moon), the film opens with some home video footage of a young man, maybe ten years old, opening his presents on Christmas morning. Upon unwrapping the gift, he freaks out in delight: "Oh my God! It's Slumber Party Massacre! It's Slumber Party Massacre!" This sets a uniquely personal tone for the rest of the documentary, which is clearly a love-letter to long-time fans of the series. Among the interviewed are Amy Jones, Deborah Brock, Sally Mattison, part two producer Don Daniel, as well as actors Michael Vilella, Brinke Stevens, Juliette Cummins, Hope Marie Carlton, and a handful of others from the series.
From the get-go, the documentary already has a few marks against it. First, Roger Corman isn't on hand to offer any insight into the making of the film. This wouldn't be such a big deal, if more actors and behind-the-scenes crew from the series were willing to come back and offer their insights. Sadly, many of them have languished into obscurity or distanced themselves from the series entirely, embarrassed for themselves and their loved ones for having participated in such sleaze. Thankfully, there's enough information on hand to satiate long-starved Slumber Party Massacre fans for behind-the-scenes info. Of special mention is Tony Brown, the webmaster of the unofficial Slumber Party Massacre fansite—The Old Hocksatter place—which, before the arrival of the DVD, was practically the only place to garner behind-the-scenes info on the film. He's interviewed at great length, as the series' historian, and is later revealed to be the little boy from the prologue. Overall, this is a satisfying retrospective worth the purchase of the DVD alone.
Brown also returns to moderate commentary tracks for each film. Amy Jones headlines a track for the first film, bringing Villela, slumber party fodder Debra Deliso, and Brink Stevens along for the ride (though Brink might be absent—no one identifies themselves at the beginning of the commentary, so I had to play it by ear). The track takes a little while to get off the ground, with Jones putting heavy focus on technical aspects of the film, but the group soon gets comfortable enough to dispense some actual stories.
Slumber Party Massacre II, featuring Brock, Daniel, and Juliette Cummins, is much more laid back, emphasizing the film's lame-brained conception as well as behind-the-scenes stories. It's a fun track, albeit a little pretentious and thin-skinned in defense of one of the worst movies ever made.
Finally, Slumber Party Massacre III gathers up director Mattison, along with stars Hope Marie Carlton and Brandi Burkette. This one's a little more awkward than the other two, if only because of Mattison's defensive, hot-and-cold emotions toward her film. Like many of the non-participants, she seems a little embarrassed to be returning, even a little antagonistic at times toward the series. That said, she's open and honest about her view on the film (so much so she comments on one absent star's "weird nipples"), and especially warm with the film's actors. Each track is worth a listen for the hardcore fans, with little dead space and lots of neat behind-the-scenes tidbits that have just now come to light.
Finishing up the disk are trailers and image galleries featuring original artwork and rare behind-the-scenes shots. Also worth mentioning is an excellent retrospective essay included in the DVD liner notes by Jason Paul Collum recounting his history with the series.
To negate virtually everything I've long-windedly written above, let me make it easy for you.
Do you like old slasher movies? Would you be interested in watching a movie called Slumber Party Massacre? Would you be interested in watching a whole trilogy of these movies? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then this set is for you. Like any good piece of exploitation, each entry lives up to the title, and at least two of them do so with a hell of a lot of brains and creativity. If you aren't a slasher fan, these movies sure as hell aren't going to sway you. Go watch Nosferatu (1922) for your Halloween festivities. The rest of us will be having shirtless pillow fights over here.
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Scales of Justice, Slumber Party Massacre
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Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Slumber Party Massacre
Scales of Justice, Slumber Party Massacre II
Perp Profile, Slumber Party Massacre II
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Slumber Party Massacre II
Scales of Justice, Slumber Party Massacre III
Perp Profile, Slumber Party Massacre III
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Slumber Party Massacre III
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