With a title like The Slumber Party Massacre, you know what you’re getting into – or not. Written by activist Rita Mae Brown as a parody of the slasher genre but directed by Amy Holden Jones as straight horror, the clashing visions result in a unique for the time (if discordant) mishmash of dark humor, graphic gore, and savvy commentary. It’s charming, one of the first horror pieces helmed by not one but two women, and a meta experiment decades before they became mainstream.
At age 20, director Amy Holden Jones’s student film A Weekend Home won the American Film Institute National Student Festival’s first place prize, and Martin Scorsese loved it so much he hired Jones as his directing assistant for Taxi Driver. At 22, under the tutoring of schlockmeister legend Roger Corman (who jumpstarted the careers of many male directors), she edited three movies between 1976 and 1981. At 27, she championed herself to direct Slumber Party Massacre, and Corman agreed – as long as it was played straight.
Screenwriter, novelist, and poet Rita Mae Brown has been a lifelong advocate for the feminist, Gay Liberation, civil rights, and anti-war movements. She holds degrees from New York University in Classics and English, a Ph.D. in literature, a doctorate in political science, and a certificate in cinematography. In the late ’70s/early ’80s she wrote a comedy originally titled Sleepless Nights, until Corman reformatted it into the low-budget Slumber Party Massacre.
The plot’s deliberately threadbare: an escaped mass murderer who favors power drills stalks attractive teen girls at a slumber party. (How’d you guess, right?) Despite the serious tone none of Brown’s jokes were removed, leading to a horror film far funnier than most. There are numerous fake scares, jokes about not going outside alone in the dark, booze tinged blood-red, and the girls humming The Twilight Zone theme. Jones executes impressive visual gags, like an unnoticed corpse in the fridge and one of the characters eating pizza over the pizza delivery guy’s dead, mutilated body. (Girl, same.) My favorite bit involves said pizza guy, when a partier asks “What’s the damage?” and he answers “Six, so far.” Aka, the same number of victims that our villain has dispatched, but in reference to the pizza’s price. Cue your blogger’s snicker.
Nevertheless, less than a minute in we see main character Trish’s (Michelle Michaels) boobs. There’s also a naked mass shower scene where the camera literally slides down a woman’s back to center her ass. Given Corman’s legacy of exploitative trash – alongside legitimately excellent films like his Edgar Allen Poe adaptations – this is hardly surprising. The man added graphic rape scenes to Humanoids of the Deep without informing director Barbara Peeters. (Upon learning, Peeters asked her name be removed from the film; Corman refused. I may love his Poe series, but a decent human he’s not.) Holden Jones does as Corman’s style requires, but her light, wink-wink directorial touch lets the audience know she’s in on the conflict between the script’s deeper subtext and the porn-like execution. Humor gushes as fast as blood, even if some jokes fall awkward.
Characterization is flimsy, but that remains in tune with the parody angle, and our imperiled women are hardly hapless victims. They’re competent, supportive of one another, and sexually autonomous. The remaining group take down their attacker together by chasing him with a hacksaw and slicing off the bit of his power drill in an obvious phallic reference, before impaling him on said hacksaw. No boyfriends ride in as rescuing white knights. In fact, the male characters wind up on the wrong side of the drill and have the most blank-slate characterizations of all. The women are the brains; the women take the initiative; the women survive through their friendship. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in more coherent films, but it’s both satisfying and entertaining to see Brown’s themes shine through what would otherwise be slapdash exploitation. Especially considering Slumber predates the popularity boom of horror meta, begun by Scream, by seventeen years.
Fun fact: Corman produced two loosely connected sequels, Slumber Party Massacre II and III. Both were also helmed by women directors, making this the first and only horror franchise directed solely by women.
“It takes a lot of love for someone to do this,” the killer murmurs lovingly to Michelle in the film’s finale. “You know you want it. You love it.” In response, Valerie (Robin Stille) races up waving a hacksaw and severs his hand. He tumbles down in a shower of blood. Terrified, worn, shaking, the girls embrace. It’s not just the chosen one who makes it out alive. I’ll take that ending.
Women In Horror is a series examining the roles of female characters in the genre. You can read all entries here.