A 35 Year Anniversary Celebration of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE
This week marks 35 years since Slumber Party Massacre hit theaters, making its limited release debut on November 12th 1982. Coming after the success of films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Halloween (1978), Slumber Party Massacre follows the slasher formulas and tropes from its predecessors, with a feminist twist.
By the 1980's, slasher films had already garnered the critique of feminists, worried that these films glorified violence against women and created a narrow list of acceptable looks and behaviors to be a “Final Girl”. Today we are very familiar with these problematic slasher tropes that only amplified in the boom of indie and big studio slashers in the 80's. In 1996 Kevin Williamson penned Scream and under Wes Craven’s direction they looked to the tried and true slasher themes and tropes to create a smart, self-aware, satirical slasher. Rita Mae Brown had the idea to do this 14 years earlier.
In 1982, Brown, an accomplished scholar, writer, active feminist and gay rights advocate wrote Sleepless Nights, a parody on the slasher genre. A writer with her Ph.D. in literature and a doctorate in political science, Brown’s script turned from satire to serious under producers wishes, and Slumber Party Massacre was born.
Directed and produced by Amy Holden Jones, who just ten years later went on to write the beloved family film Beethoven, she takes Brown’s altered script and brings sincerity to words originally meant to critique.
The first time I watched this film, I went in blindly. Not knowing there was a female director or writer behind the film, I sat down to enjoy another film from my favorite sub-genre. I instantly noticed something was different about this movie. There were breasts in the opening scene (overt nudity was one of the changes to Brown’s original script) but it felt more nominalized than sexual. As the movie continued I couldn’t help but notice the distinct differences in this slasher in the way it treated its female characters. The characters we meet, who we find out to be the guests of the titular slumber party, are athletes. Their friendship bonded in the fact that they are teammates on the basketball team, as opposed to just classmates. The first kill is a woman with a traditionally male job, a telephone repairman. Later in the evening the girls are debating over how many runs were in last nights baseball game, in fact they are so passionate about it they call someone to try and solve their debate.
It’s not just the women in the film, the male characters were treated differently as well. They were secondary characters that were more "dorky" than brawny and who for the most part, made no impact on the film to move it forward. These examples of character treatment and plot points are not commonly seen in any movies, much less a slasher film. I realized what I was noticing was that these female characters felt real, and even more so they felt relatable. When I looked into the history of the film and the women behind it, the pieces fell into place.
Don’t discredit this film as being just innovative for its time, its even more prevalent now. It’s treatment of female characters is important, but I find more interesting our villain, Russ Thorn. A good slasher has a great killer, Russ Thorn is that. To many his small frame, exposed face and phallic weapon may seem less than threatening, but that is the point. Thorn doesn’t need to hide behind a mask or a chainsaw to be threatening. The first two minutes of the film make it clear that he is a dangerous man, there is no mystery and there doesn’t have to be. The dread of what this escaped murderer is going to inflict begins the moment the movie starts, and they take little time before the first kill to prove it.
We search for reasons to be afraid in horror films, and the fear in Slumber Party Massacre is born in the introduction of a murderous man in the first scene. The camera pans over a thrown newspaper stating ‘Russ Thorn Escapes’ as Trish (one of our film’s final girls) waves goodbye to her parents as they drive away to leave her home alone for the night. As a viewer, this is where the anxiety of the slasher starts.
The dread of this character and his rampage hits a pinnacle in the climax of the film, as Thorn stands over Trish smiling, telling her “I know you want it” as he holds the drill over her body. It’s a disturbing scene. A scene that resonates with many women with a phrase that holds so much power. The subtext of rape in this finale is where Brown’s script shines. We see this subtext in the choice of weapon and more importantly in the way the kills were filmed. Brown’s doing exactly what made Scream and Cabin in the Woods so successful, giving the audience a satire grounded with serious messages. The message in this film? Women are everything they are portrayed as in movies, and so much more.
Slumber Party Massacre is a fun slasher but more than that, it’s an important one. As a fan of the sub-genre, I watch this film for the fun kills, the likable characters and the villain. As a feminist I watch it for Brown and Jones’s work behind the scenes and its representation of diverse female characters. This film has flaws and is not the perfect feminist film for a myriad of reasons, but 35 years later it holds its ground as an iconic 80's slasher and makes the argument as a timeless example of feminism in horror.