By Andrea Thompson
The 1982 film “The Slumber Party Massacre” may not seem too feminist in the beginning, but that's because it seems to think it needs the male gaze to draw in the audience. Just keep watching, even if it's difficult not to wince at the topless scene, the closeup on the posterior of a repair woman who is later murdered, and the camera's outright lecherous gaze as it travels down the body of the high school girl showering in the school's locker room. All within the first ten minutes.
But patience is rewarded, since “The Slumber Party Massacre” actually offers up some pretty good slasher scares. It's not only directed by a woman, Amy Holden Jones, but also written by noted feminist Rita Mae Brown. The film would become something of a modest franchise, spawning two sequels, also directed by women, with each film subsequently garnering worse reviews.
Not that the reviews for the first installment were exactly glowing. It's easy to see why, since the film is pretty straightforward. There are no twists, the villain's sole defining characteristic is his incredibly phallic weapon of choice, a power drill, which is played up in several shots, as well as much of the marketing. There's none of the gimmicks which define the most famous horror movie monsters, and the fact that this guy even has a name feels like an afterthought. The closest thing he gets to a backstory is revealed in various news reports, which are mostly limited to a newspaper headline and a few radio announcements.
What it amounts to is that Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) is a mass murderer who has recently escaped from wherever he was being held and is currently at large. His face is shown pretty clearly as the movie goes on, and anything remarkable about it solely due to the deranged energy Villella brings to the role. But just because he's a simplistic villain who's attacking girls in sexy nightwear doesn't mean there's not a whole lot of commentary and outright subversion in “The Slumber Party Massacre.”
In a genre that's often defined by its misogynistic glee in literally tearing apart women and girls who violate traditional standards of behavior, what the movie seems to subvert is the genre itself. As main girl Trish (Michelle Michaels) throws a party with her friends, who mostly interact with each other and actually have personalities, there's also three male characters who turn out to be surprisingly okay, even the pervy high school boys who spy on the girls while they're changing clothes. A very non-creepy neighbor, David Contant (Rigg Kennedy), is far more concerned with the the girls' safety rather than what they're smoking and drinking, while the two high school boys risk their lives to help Trish and her friends once the extent of the danger they're all in becomes clear.
While there are the usual plot holes, such as people seeming to hear weird noises only when the script demands it – so much so that I wondered if their hearing fluctuated throughout – Trish and her friends make several smart decisions. Even before they realize they're being hunted, they stay together, always have one of their friends accompany them when they check if doors are locked, and they arm themselves with knives and stay in a tight circle once they realize what's happening.
“The Slumber Party Massacre” also has some truly hilarious comedic sensibilities, which include a girl opening a refrigerator door twice without noticing on there's a dead body inside, only for the third time to be the charm. While the massacre is happening, one of the girls even gets hungry and starts eating a pizza right on top of the deceased pizza delivery guy. “Well, life goes on after all!” she states as she sates her hunger.
The most notable thing about “The Slumber Party Massacre” though, is how it knows that a horror movie bad guy doesn't really need to be an unkillable monster to be frightening. He just needs to be a guy intent on murdering women. Practically the only intelligible lines he has speak volumes. As Thorn gazes on his terrified would-be victims, he quietly says, “Takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You love it. Yes.” To this, one of the baffled women responds, “Why? I don't even know you.” It's one of those simple exchanges that's nevertheless chilling for the realities many women must face, both on-screen and off..
Tellingly, it is the outcast, Valerie (Robin Stille), who spends most of the night next door at her home babysitting her little sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), who emerges as the movie's true heroine. She doesn't just literally cut Thorn's weapon down to size with a machete she discovers, she is the one who causes Thorn to flee, then mutilates him as she strikes multiple blows, finally killing him. With the help of other women, she and the other survivors manage to triumph over a patriarchal symbol who is brutal, but can eventually be beaten.