Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Slumber Party Massacre Trilogy

(R, New World Pictures, 77 mins., release date: Nov. 12, 1982)

(R, Concorde Pictures, 75 mins., release date: Oct. 30, 1987)

(Unrated, New Concorde Pictures, 87 mins., release date: Sept. 7, 1990)

You have to admire the Roger Corman-produced Slumber Party Massacre series in providing the exploitation cinema's equivalent of affirmative action. The glass ceiling of schlock was shattered in 1982 when Amy Holden Jones made her feature debut, having worked up the ladder from assisting Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver to becoming a prolific film editor, even turning down the prospect of cutting together Spielberg's stellar E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial to have a go behind the camera. Not only that, but Jones was fascinated by a script from Rita Mae Brown, an activist/novelist in the feminist and lesbian societies. Never mind that in the same year, another first-time director named Amy was at the forefront of the definitive teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (whose most memorable song cue is recycled in the trailer for the first film, suprisingly), as we were still in the era of the Dead Teenager Movie, and there was a marked estrogen famine in that quick-buck field.

Thus New World Pictures' original The Slumber Party Massacre, with its familiar-sounding title and proverbial slasher scenario, managed a cult reputation as subversive and satirical. Jones and Brown have made a film with a predominantly female cast, all of whom are uninhibited in their bodies and attitude to the point of parody, and their persistent panicked screams are matched by the rather wimpy male characters. Even the killer, an unmasked sanitarium escapee brandishing a portable power drill, is taken down a beg by Freudian means.

It all begins so demurely, as Trish Devereaux (Michelle Michaels) rises from bed on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, inspecting her budding figure in front of the closet mirror and clearing her dresser drawer of girlish trinkets like stuffed animals and plastic dolls. Trish's parents are heading off for a vacation, conveniently affording her the chance to invite her close friends on the basketball team over for a pajama party with plenty of alcohol, marijuana and pizza. One of Trish's pals, the catty Diane (Gina Smika), jealously tears into a luminous transfer student, Valerie Bates (the late Robin Stille), who declines Trish's gesture of atonement, deciding to spend her night babysitting her firebrand kid sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers). But they are all uniformly ignorant of the news of a killer on the prowl, Russ Thorn (Michael Villella), who stalks the night hoping to put his depraved love into the chicks.

Around the halfway point of Thorn's massacre, the withdrawn Valerie switches on the TV to watch Hollywood Boulevard, the 1976 Allan Arkush/Joe Dante patchwork picture on which Amy Jones served as co-editor. The moment resembles an inversion of Laurie Strode's desperate pleas for rescue at the Doyle house from Halloween, with the damsel-in-distress here being one of the leery boys who crashes Trish's sisterly soiree. It ends with Thorn stabbing the kid to death out of Valerie's sight as Jones cross-cuts between that and clips from the televised film, thus sowing the seeds for Scream a good decade or so early.

But Jones' overall approach is less post-modern than Wes Craven's, which means that most of The Slumber Party Massacre is pro forma pandemonium, replete with an synthesizer-based suspense score akin to Rick Wakeman's soundtrack for The Burning and a handful of "Psyche!" scares not limited to suspicious-seeming hands over unsuspecting shoulders, characters feigning death for practical jokes and, lest you forgot, the classic "It's Only a Cat" standby. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with such tactics, as they sometimes are followed by a traditionally grisly pay-off, but wasn't this supposed to be more clever than this? The deadening devotion to cheap tricks coupled with the rigid interchangeability of the film's starlets, all of whom given short shrift by a screenplay stuck between the poles of dry academia and dull convention, allow for instances of compromise to leap out of the shadows just as much as the villain does.

Villella, who gives the film's liveliest performance as the rape-minded slaughterer, bears a striking resemblance to Mal Arnold, a.k.a. the psychotic caterer Fuad Ramses from H.G. Lewis' Blood Feast, his motivations distinctly Mansonite ("I love you"). He also affects a peacock's body language as he pursues his victims, and the demented mannerisms of this Method-heavy performance are admittedly humorous. Top it off with the phallic nature of his murder weapon, which dangles down his groin with every intent of penetration (Brian De Palma was surely watching when he recycled this in 1984's Body Double), and you can sense the female empowerment manifesto teased at in the film's distinct pedigree.

The movie does have some particularly entertaining, borderline-camp ideas about female sexuality, from the giggly small talk of Trish's clique, the lingering close-ups of butts (step forward and turn around, Brinke Stevens!) to prepubescent Courtney's restless curiosity, which prompts her to raid Valerie's stash of Playgirl mags. At times, it gets hard to believe this wasn't written by a gay man. Still, The Slumber Party Massacre is a clearly Corman affair, a tried-and-true amalgam of bared and bored flesh which has its rewards (one of the gags involves the therapeutic ingestion of cold pizza crushed by a dead delivery boy because, hey, "life goes on") and is not too shabby for a 77-minute hunk of nostalgic ephemera. It's just a shame it's too leaden to truly embrace its playful side.

Deborah Brock, on the contrary, puts an even more outlandish spin on the original with her Slumber Party Massacre II, writing/directing a phantasmagoric quasi-musical which may as well be one of the guiltiest pleasures I've ever witnessed. In the spirit of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and Sleepaway Camp II, tragedy gets reborn as dopey farce with the surviving Courtney (Crystal Bernard, of TV's Wings) still traumatized by her encounter with the Driller Killer as she experiences her own Birthday Girl sexual awakening. Hormones and horrors kick in simultaneously as her fantasies of hunky athlete Matt Arbicost (Patrick Lowe) are interrupted by eerie flashbacks (many of which, naturally, she wasn't there for), premonitions and regular visits from both her insitutionalized sister Val (Cindy Eilbacher) and a perverted Elvis impersonator (Atanas Ilitch) whose guitar, which resembles a Satanic trident, has a functioning drill bit where the neck should be.

Courtney herself carries a six-string given that she is in a girl band with her best buds Amy (Kimberly MacArthur, 1982 Playboy calendar girl), Sheila (Juliette Cummins, from Friday the 13th V and Psycho III) and Sally (Heidi Kozak, from Friday VII and Society). The quartet arrange a festive weekend away at the condo owned by Sheila's dad, but Courtney's mental state continues to worsen until finally she and Matt are alone and the temptation to "go all the way" brings out the Driller Killer from her subconscious.

Despite not salvaging the original's squandered theme of sisterhood under pressure (once the kangaroo meat hits the grinder, its practically every woman and man for themselves), Brock's central characters have a greater sense of camaraderie at the start. Even better, the roles at played earnestly and with a measure of natural charm by the four ladies. Bernard makes for a fetching, sympathetic lead star, whilst Cummins has waaay more fun as the requisite exhibitionist than her previous credits allowed. Kozak gets the wildest acne-based gross-out gag in history, and even if Sally's songwriting prowess is hardly on the level of the solid power pop on loan from Wednesday Week (whose "If Only" and "Why" are mimed rather adorably), Kozak is bubbly cute, as is MacArthur. There is a more casual sense of sexuality (read: swimsuits), too, that makes up for the noted lack of T&A.

And then there's Atanas Ilitch, a real life Detroit Rock City underdog who cackles and preens his way into slasher film infamy, a homicidal goofball who fires off quotes classic rock song titles with deranged gusto ("I can't get no...satisfaction!") and even turns a routine murder into a sock hop ("Let's Buzz!"). Not even Pamela Springsteen's reconfiguring of Angela Baker as a cheery psycho-Puritan can compete with Ilitch, a nutty send-up of John Travolta's Greaser image. Call that description a stretch, if you must, but he's the most talented, charming Fred Krueger clone of them all.

You know what they say, "Trixters are for kids."

Brock's screenplay and direction are the right kind of unpretentious, although the ending is pretty much a doozy in what is already a succession of moments worth inducting in the WTF? Hall of Fame. What's better is that she's taken the original's fanatical insistence on love-as-rape and comes up with some jubilantly dark comedy in Ilitch‘s presence (listen to him sing "I can't stop loving you, I won‘t stop until I do" as he chases after Courtney and Amy in a construction site). Some of the visual effects are dodgy, especially the fiery conclusion, yet Slumber Party Massacre II produces a couple of nasty prosthetic delights and boasts more ingenious production design and camerawork for its low budget than the original. Forget about the film's curmudgeonly one-star reputation; this is certainly the most hummable, quotable and repeatable entry in the series.

If the first film had all the nudity and the sequel all the fun, Slumber Party Massacre III, made under Corman's bottom-scraping New Concorde banner, has all the unpleasantry. It's a blunt retread of the original that literalizes the maniac's impotence and his reliance on the power drill as substitute for his limp manhood. The very first drill kill in this one involves a young woman cornered in her car, with her hands bound behind the headrest and the murder thrusting his drill pornographically. Once again, we have a female director looking for her break in Sally Mattison, as well as an intellectually-gifted writer in Harvard grad Catherine Cyran, but watching this queasy-making, assembly-line gorefest only makes me pine for the minor subtleties of Jones and Brown's original.

What else is there to say about the plot? Much like the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacres, it's plug-and-play-and-slay stuff in which a gaggle of close-bonded girls try to enjoy a night of revelry, are interrupted by their boy toys and end up falling prey to a vicious killer. The few cosmetic differences include: hostess Jackie Cassidy (Keely Christian) is selling her childhood home and the party is kind of a long goodbye; there is a hapless dork named Duncan (David Greenlee) filling the woobie position, who trades places with the pizza delivery girl (Marta Kober from Friday II) to assert himself into the party; two red herrings are on hand to provide devious glares; and there is a back story for the psycho involving Uncle Touchy, also a recently suicidal retired cop.

The character roster is overstuffed with uninteresting characters, as there are now seven spunky girls and five horny guys in attendance. Mattison has trouble managing her cast of twelve, and after duly isolating a couple off for a quick bumping off, there are at least seven survivors by the time panic ensues. This is about 30 minutes until the end of the film, which means the last act is a protracted, tedious chase sequence where some will conveniently stand off to the side whilst one of their ranks is assaulted. The villain will continually have objects broken over his head to slow him down, and even takes a bucket of bleach to the face, but the girls continue to stand around like idiots. And this is even when poor Maria (Maria Ford as one of the two characters who doff their tops) desperately tries to reason with and console the killer to delay her inevitable death. You start to miss the proactive courage of Trish Devereaux and the Bates sisters something fierce.

I don't get how anyone could say this is an improvement over SPM II. At least the women in that had personality and pep and were distinguishable by virtue of their musical hobby. They were so appealing, I myself fantasized about crashing their party. The chicks in this film seem utterly directionless and ditzy. It gets so dire that one character (played by Hope Marie Carlton, the fantasy girl in the waterbed from Nightmare on Elm Street 4) leaps through a glass pane out of defiance and commits suicide. I guess that's supposed to be funny, but the cynicism and brutishness prevalent throughout the rest of the movie just made this particular viewer want to say "Lucky lady. Give me Atanas Ilitch or give me death of Preppy Terminator already!"

Slumber Party Massacre III doesn't quite know the drill as much as either of the previous films and just ends up coming across as straight-up boring. That pun-heavy sentence both sums up my final thoughts about this flick as well as provides the one chuckle the film failed to give me. The poster is art is also amusing, in that none of the models who pose for it bear any resemblance to the film's stars, including the likes of Ford and Carlton. If Roger Corman doesn't care, why should I?

With only the original being planned for a BD upgrade, all three films can be found in Shout! Factory's The Slumber Party Massacre Collection DVD set, which in the company's proud tradition goes the extra mile in supplemental material. Each of the film's have their own full-length commentary track, moderated by diehard fan Tony Brown (webmaster over at the Old Hockstatter Place), and twenty-minute retrospective piece which recounts the experiences of working for the notoriously thrifty Corman, the juiciest anecdotes going to Deborah Brock and producer Don Daniel of SPM II. The mogul himself is missing, but the stories told do a good job of making you feel like he's monitoring your living room, too. Amy Holden Jones and Sally Mattison provide frank remembrances of their own, and we also get to hear from the likes of cast members Michael Villella, Debra Deliso, Brinke Stevens, Heidi Kozak, Juliette Cummins, Jennifer Rhodes, Brandi Burkett, Hope Marie Carlton, and Yan Birch. Also included are original red-band trailers and photo galleries corresponding to each entry.

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