Thursday, October 17, 2013

April Fool's Day (1986)

(R, Paramount Pictures, 89 mins., release date: March 27, 1986)

In 1986, it seemed that the slasher subgenre seized upon every holiday in the calendar with the exception of April Fool's Day. There was already a movie called "Pranks," in actuality 1982's The Dorm That Dripped Blood, which could've easily been retrofitted into a first-of-the-month festival of jokes and japes, yet it wasn't until rather late in the game that such a device was engaged. What made it more interesting is that two April Fool Killer titles were unleashed in that same year, from competing personnel behind the trend-setting Friday the 13th films. On the one hand, producer Stephen Minasian was teaming up again with schlock merchant Dick Randall, in the wake of the immortal Pieces ("BAAASTAAARD!") and Don't Open Till Christmas, to bring Slaughter High to the world. But beating them to the punch was Frank Mancuso Jr. at Paramount, working with Beverly Hills Cop screenwriter Danilo Bach and When A Stranger Calls director Fred Walton for what is the official winner of the "April Fool's Day" title.

Each of the produced movies played right into the designated producer's respective trademarks. Slaughter High was another cheap, openly ludicrous Z-movie with established genre credentials in the casting of British starlet Caroline Munro. April Fool's Day was a mainstream effort with a younger cast and the typical pastoral ghastliness found in every camp or forest-themed slasher movie to that point. And they had their own humorous attitude, whether or not the viewer had to condescend to it (Slaughter High) or it was intentional from the start (April Fool's Day). The biggest difference between them is that Slaughter High had greater freedom and lack of shame, delivering on the exploitation hallmarks of splatter and skin, whereas April Fool's Day tones down the exhibitionism to the point where you are supposed to take it as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery and not merely just another Dead Teenager Movie.

Christie is directly referenced in the dialogue very early on, as are fellow authors Milton and Ibsen, which gives this film a more literate pedigree than a lot of its ilk. Indeed, of this film's Ten Little Indians, there were three left by the conclusion to confront each other in the posh St. John family manor in which several of its guests had already been dispatched and disappeared. There was friction between the disturbed denizens, suspicions were slung about and windows and doors became bolted down to cage in the last remaining few. However, with a film titled April Fool's Day, it would be wise for the fresh audience member to expect the unexpected, namely a nice poke in the ribs from its prankster personnel.

It duly begins with eight college students of varied affluence invited to spend Spring Break weekend at the lakeside home of mutual friend Muffy St. John (Deborah "The Val Gal" Foreman). Amongst them are the requisite cadre of pranksters and pretties, played by a number of faces recognizable to anyone with fond memories of Back to the Future (Thomas F. Wilson as perpetual buffoon Arch Cummings), Just One of the Guys (Clayton Rohner and Deborah Goodrich coupled up as camera-wielding clown Chaz and wild oats-reaping bombshell Nikki) or Friday the 13th Part 2 (Final Girl extraordinare Amy Steel as the equitable Kit, girlfriend of Ken Olandt's buff med school applicant Rob). New to this circle of friends are Muffy's broodingly distant cousin Skip (Griffin O'Neal), bookish thespian Nan (Leah King Pinsent) and gawky Southern gent Harvey "Hal" Edison, Jr. (Jay Baker), seen chomping at the bit, and perhaps literally on his cigar, to ingratiate himself into Muffy's profitable lineage.

Tragedy strikes when boat hand Buck (Mike Nomad) fails to rope in their ferry before it closes in on him and causes grisly damage to his face. No matter, as Muffy and friends continue to eat, drink and be merry until the next morning, as lonesome Skip turns up missing and presumed dead after Kit and Rob discover his lifeless body in the midst of making out in the boathouse. The situation becomes more dire as the guests systematically turn up murdered and the survivors scramble for help. And eccentric hostess Muffy already seems a bit more aloof and dodgy than usual, mispronouncing Arch's name and striking a raw nerve in Nan via a tape recording of a crying baby. Could this all be Muffy's idea of a joke?

Although it wasn't a reversal of fortune for the stagnating slaher genre at the time of its release, April Fool's Day has gone on to some measure of acclaim as one of the missing links in the postmodern revival of body count terror solidified in the 1990s by Wes Craven, the father of Freddy (the even carried over Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein). Walton, Mancuso and Bach decided that if they're going to pay tribute to the one day of the year which encourages amiable treachery, they'd work the practical jokes into the plot as well, thus April Fool's Day attempts to trick around with the conventions of the genre. None of the kills are actually depicted, a definite departure from the FX-oriented brutality of every other 1980s slasher film, even if some of the aftermaths look duly unpleasant. The simple-minded archetypes of sexually-active teens are shaken up with a considerable attention to character detail and camaraderie, as even Arch, who falls for the breakable chair gag more than once, is aware that this "privileged, independent, hope for the future" gang still can't settle upon their goals in life. The character of Nikki, who in a lazier screenplay would've been merely a snobby bimbo, is handled with more wit and vulnerability than one would find.

Even the performances are a cut above the norm by comparison. Surely, there was no lack of naturalism in most casting of early 1980s horror films, but there weren't many as generous to their actors as this. One the one hand, you've got Tom Wilson, best known as Biff Tannen, giving a loose and highly enthusiastic comic performance as Arch, an attitude which infects equally laid-back work from Clayton Rohner and Jay Baker. And then there's Deborah Foreman, a normally effervescent screen persona, starting out atypically charming as Muffy and becoming curiously dowdier and more cagey, finding just right touches of quirk to suggest she's truly not acting like herself. Foreman's natural perkiness instead passes on to Deborah Goodrich, who possesses a wonderfully silky voice which went criminally underused amongst 1980s babes (see Jeff Lieberman's Remote Control). The reliably droll Amy Steel, who was the first worthy adversary to Jason Voorhees as Ginny Field, was actually hired at Mr. Mancuso's suggestion and her solid straight-woman pluckiness is just as engaging.

With a healthy self-awareness and uniform sense of gameness amongst the ensemble established, April Fool's Day does have a proper set-up for the ensuing carnage and twist ending. The latter development managed to irk a lot of die-hard horror fanatics, but on second thought actually comes across much less like a cheat and more of a natural extension of the film's playful qualities. An off-hand reference to "taxes" by Nikki and the introductory scene with Muffy raiding her basement for trinkets and toys, coming upon a jack-in-the-box of sentimental if scary value, do prepare you in their own subtle ways. And this acknowledgment of subtlety in characterization and conflict is what's most intriguing about April Fool's Day compared to the bottom-line, bottom-barrel bloodlust of its progenitors.

That doesn't mean Fred Walton builds upon the iconic "Have you checked the children?" opening of his When a Stranger Calls, as April Fool's Day has minimal suspense even in its conclusion, which feels terribly rushed in order to get to the Big Reveal. Say what you will about Scream, but at least Wes Craven knows how to stage a tense chase sequence which really tightens the screws. The pacing feels a little too quick for April Fool's Day at times, so it doesn't do proper justice to the intended satire and instead plays like merely a straight-up rehash.

Yet, in my previous evaluation of House, I talked about the big boom in humorous horror which started to thrive in the mid-1980s, with 1986 in particular having a veritable slew of them, many of which deliberately wallowed in their frivolity. April Fool's Day fits right in with the best of them, especially in a moment where Chaz jokes about the frightening possibility of somebody exposing their penis and then the camera cuts to a hot dog being pushed out of a pack as the ladies cook up beanie weenies. Or the moment of awkward silence in which Kit suddenly comes to terms with a moment of grave fear revealing itself to be the mother of all April Fools. Or the exaggerated but spirited treatment of its interchangeable expendables, resulting in such sublime juxtapositions where a character trying to lighten up his lover by donning a gimp mask is immediately found in a fatally compromising position.

Luckily, Paramount didn't let this movie's relative obscurity (there was a 2008 "remake" which debuted on DVD, more closely resembles another sucky in-name only adaptation in Sorority Row and has not a single chance of even matching the original's newfound cult reputation) keep it from coming out on disc in 2002 in the kind of crummy budget release that combines a washed-out full-frame digital transfer (they shot this with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in mind, damn it!) and tinny "Dolby stereo" soundtrack (no tasteful 5.1 surround sound remix) for a painful home entertainment experience more befitting of a Artisan Entertainment atrocity title like the Watchers series or Shadows Run Black or even...[gulp] SLAUGHTER HIGH!

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