**½/**** Image C+ Sound C- Extras C
starring Michelle Michaels, Robin Stille, Michael Villella, Debra Deliso
screenplay by Rita Mae Brown
directed by Amy Jones
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987)
**½/**** Image C+ Sound C Extras A-
starring Crystal Bernard, Patrick Lowe, Kimberly McArthur, Atanas Ilitch
written and directed by Deborah Brock
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III (1990)
*/**** Image C Sound C Extras A-
starring Keely Christian, Britain Frye, M.K. Harris, David Greenlee
screenplay by Catherine Cyran
directed by Sally Mattison
by Alex Jackson 1982's The Slumber Party Massacre isn't a film so much as a work of film criticism. It was produced and directed by Amy Holden Jones, perhaps better known today as the screenwriter of Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal, and written by established Lesbian Feminist poet and author Rita Mae Brown, who is perhaps best known for the 1973 book Rubyfruit Jungle, typically considered one the earliest coming-of-age lesbian novels.
Brown had intended TheSlumber Party Massacre as a parody of the slasher genre and somewhat disowned it when Jones revised the script and shot it "straight on." I don't know how exactly Brown's first draft differs from the finished product, but I found the movie to be completely unsatisfying in conventional terms. As satire, however, it's considerably smarter and more ambitious than something like Student Bodies or the Scary Movie quartet. I confess that the idea of a slasher film written by a feminist and produced/directed by a presumably like-minded woman sounded absolutely insufferable to me, but the feminist perspective in The Slumber Party Massacre goes beyond, far beyond, reductive moralizing against misogyny. The picture is as much an argument against the anti-pornography feminism of the late-Seventies and early-Eighties as it is an argument against slasher movies.
The Slumber Party Massacre accepts the premise that these movies promote and glamorize rape and that they are made by and for men who want to see women punished for being sexual beings. And rather than be alarmed, Brown and Jones are bemused and maybe even a little tickled by this. The filmmakers are like pubescent girls examining their budding breasts in the bathroom mirror and pondering how these things could possibly be the root of all evil. How can the nude female form have that much power? Jones and Brown take the sexual liberation of women as a fundamental, natural right--as fundamental and natural as breathing air. Thus, while you can say that the oppression of female sexuality is a moral wrong, Jones and Brown's argument against it is even more basic: they see it as positively gratuitous. For Pete's sake, sexy women are nothing to be afraid of. Why would you possibly need to rape and destroy them in self-defense?
The genuine misandrist attitude you see in films like I Spit on Your Grave or Hostel Part II effectively reinforces a culture of rape. In I Spit on Your Grave, a woman is gang-raped by a pack of small-town hicks. One of them tells her "suck it bitch" before violating her mouth. She survives the encounter, recuperates, then tracks down and murders each of her attackers. When she reaches the last one, she tells him "suck it bitch" before chopping him up with a boat motor. The film is saying that the world is divided between the raped and the rapists. You're gonna wanna be one of the rapists. It's all pretty straightforward.
Yet I think The Slumber Party Massacre is implicitly arguing that anti-pornography feminists reinforce a rape culture as well. By keeping women covered up and chaste we perpetuate the idea that female sexuality is something to be ashamed of and feared, effectively giving rapists the motivation they need to put women in their place. The Slumber Party Massacre has a lot of nudity. A lot. In a sense, this is a big "fuck you" to Andrea Dworkin and others of her ilk. The nudity is very casual and has absolutely no significance whatsoever to the "plot" of the film. The Slumber Party Massacre is basically saying that naked women are beautiful; there's nothing wrong with appreciating the form.
That phrase, "rape culture," is kind of giggle-inducing in that context. Jones and Brown simply have no respect for it and refuse to legitimize it by buying into rape-revenge fantasies or anti-porn demonizing. The killer in The Slumber Party Massacre is so over-the-top, so obviously crazy, that he doesn't pose any real threat to us. He kills people with a large power drill, which the film repeatedly frames to look like a phallus. The symbolism is so overt that it takes the piss out of the whole association between sex and murder. If he just wanted to kill people, you'd think he would find an easier way to do it. This whole power-drill method reeks of overcompensation.
Ah, but The Slumber Party Massacre doesn't stop there. While I maintain that it's anti-anti-pornography and has strong sex-positive underpinnings, the filmmakers still have a desire to satirize and warp the male gaze. Tits are tits, I guess, but it's clear that the movie is making fun of anyone watching it just to see naked women. Jones underlines the infantilism of the traditional female sex object. We're tipped off by the title: Nothing says "kiddie-porn chic" quite like a slumber party. In the first scene, Jones directs our focus to a teddy bear in the heroine's bedroom. That is, in itself, fairly inconspicuous, but a couple of scenes later Jones pushes the erotic convention to its breaking point by showing us a basketball practice with the female players tucking their shirts into their gym shorts, making them look like diapers.
The film's dominant satirical strategy is to show gay men lusting after butch lesbians. In the shower scenes, the camera lingers on the girls' butts. This is objectifying women in the way that gay men and straight women alike typically objectify men. In an earlier scene, two teenage boys ogle an electrician from behind. Jones starts with the butt and pans up to reveal that this electrician is actually female and the boys are actually heterosexual. There's also a strange bit involving a younger girl stealing a look at her older sister's copy of PLAYGIRL. I believe it goes without saying that PLAYGIRL is not the female equivalent of PLAYBOY and that this scene does not reflect conventional sexual habits of teenage girls.
The idea seems to be to show women acting like men and to make men the objects of their affection, so that everybody is at least nominally straight. This has a certain novelty, I suppose. We might consider it a precursor to that wonderfully creepy parody of straight sex in Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader, wherein a gay teenage boy practices moral heterosexual behaviour by doing push-ups over his lesbian partner. The film successfully challenges and disrupts the things we tend to take for granted while watching a slasher without exactly compromising its sex-positive ethos. And yeah, it's all pretty funny. But it's not a real movie. By design, true terror and eroticism (as opposed to theoretical) have been drained out of the picture, and consequently it doesn't have the archetypical resonance of the most mediocre horror films. The problem isn't only that it's too academic or too cerebral--it's that all that braininess is a defensive front against the idealism necessary for great art.*
Although I haven't read any of Brown's novels, I have seen Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal and they are accordingly fine if hardly groundbreaking or spectacular. Indecent Proposal has a neat hook in that it's essentially a horror film for men and something of a fantasy for women (there is evidence anecdotal and scientific that many women would gladly sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars), but the hook isn't enough for a whole movie, and the end result is meandering and thin. Jones sees the solution to the objectification of women as making them three-dimensional human beings and putting them in realistic situations, yet when you start thinking like that, the energy and pulse begins to leak out of the work. Naturalism and realism are vaguely pronounced aesthetic systems that don't really do anything to contextualize the world around us. To truly defeat misogyny, you need effective countermyths that have the same power and resonance as the original ones.
Deborah Brock's Slumber Party Massacre II (they dropped the "the" when titling the sequels) is something of a step in the right direction. Like Jones and Brown, Brock accepts that slasher films are a celebration of rape, but she sees the movies as fantasy fulfillment instead of as a formative social influence. Slasher films don't cause rape. They might even prevent it, as they allow potential rapists to live out their fantasies vicariously. No, rather than a male fantasy of raping women, Slumber Party Massacre II suggests something arguably more inflammatory: a female fantasy of being raped. You could call it a slasher film tailored to women who like slasher films. Brock's basic point is the same, though--whether you are an aspiring rapist or an aspiring rape victim, rape is still something safest experienced through the movies.
There's something brazenly, almost naively post-feminist about the film's gender politics. Brock entertains this sadomasochistic dynamic entirely without judgment. As it doesn't appear that she has given much thought as to how these rape fantasies could be viewed as offensive, she probably didn't stop think of the film's potential to undermine the cause for women's rights. Nor does she consider that these fantasies may be a by-product of male domination. And there's no attempt to justify any of this. Brock basically does Jones and Brown one better: she believes not only that female sexuality is perfectly natural and normal, but also that sexuality favouring female submission is perfectly natural and normal.
The thing is, you don't think like that unless you have the heart and soul of an artist. Brock loves film and filmmaking. Slumber Party Massacre II isn't a good movie, per se, and I feel obliged to give it the same two-and-a-half-star rating I'm giving its predecessor. Yet I think it shows that Brock has the capacity to make a great film, the sort of great film that is beyond the grasp of Amy Holden Jones. It doesn't have anything to do with talent or skill, it's about seeing the emotional resonance of the cinema itself as more valuable than ideas or people. A good movie must, first and foremost, be exciting to watch. To quote Francois Truffaut, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between."
Slumber Party Massacre II makes a half-assed attempt to pick up where the first film "left off." Courtney Bates, the kid sister who peeked at the PLAYGIRL magazine in the first film (played by Crystal Bernard here, Jennifer Myers in the original), is still haunted by memories of the massacre. Her dreams and daydreams of sexy Matt (Patrick Lowe) are routinely interrupted by the Driller Killer (Atanas Ilitch, recast from Michael Villella in the original), now rebranded as a rockabilly singer with a power drill embedded in his guitar. It seems that whenever the virginal Bates thinks about sex, she sends out signals to the killer that she's ready to be drilled.
Kinda sorta unlike the first film, Slumber Party Massacre II doesn't see death as a consequence for sexual behaviour. Were that the case, Bates's fantasies would likely subside once they placed her in mortal peril. Instead, this fear of death is conflated with sexual desire. The more vulnerable she becomes, the hornier she gets; the hornier she gets, the more vulnerable she becomes. The killer is seen only seen through Bates's perspective, but his desire to rape Bate is less vengeful than perversely sadistic. In other words, he's not punishing her or taking her down a peg. Putting his power drill into her is just his idea of a great fuck.
I'm unsure as to how, precisely, the male gaze figures into the early Friday the 13th films. When women take their clothes off in them they are, in fact, objectified for what is definitely an assumed heterosexual male viewer. But the first few entries in the series are characterized by their passivity and looseness. They don't have a specific point-of-view. It's a bunch of stuff photographed in a remarkably dispassionate manner. An audience member isn't given a protagonist with whom to identify, hence these women can't be seen as objects of desire. To some extent, the audience identifies with the killer. Certainly, he's the most interesting character in the movie, and we can't exactly ignore the fact they we often literally observe the world from his point-of-view. On the other hand, while he may view his victims as deserving of death or as objects to be desired, those feelings aren't transferred onto us. Stoned on passivity, we barely differentiate between the women--or even the killer, as a matter of fact--and the trees. The objectification that exists in these films is purely the result of a passive worldview.
Slumber Party Massacre II can be accurately read as a reaction to those early Friday the 13th films, and on those terms I guess you could see it as "feminist." The dream sequences give us a much stronger identification with Bates than the P.O.V.-shots gave us with Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees. Too, they are such a focal point in the film that we never risk becoming mere spectators. Bates is not an object to be desired by an assumed male viewing audience. To the degree that we want to see her get it, it's because we are directly identifying with her sexual masochism. In form, if arguably not in content, the movie embodies the spirit of women's liberation.
Bates's masochism, her equating of sex with rape and her getting turned on by the killer's aggression, is nominally a by-product of the trauma she endured in the first film. At the climax, the killer is actualized from dream into reality when she finally has sex with Matt. He kills Matt and all Courtney's friends and is about to kill her when, with a triumphant smile, she sets him on fire, sending him back to the realms of non-existence. Then she wakes up in Matt's loving arms. She's slain the dragon, lost her virginity, and can now look forward to a brighter future. Alas, Brock can't resist the temptation of one more jump scare, continuing the cycle.
Maybe it's the price we pay for having a filmmaker with fervour, but Brock doesn't care enough about Bates to figure out what makes her tick. Slumber Party Massacre II has a fun, valley-girl aesthetic featuring bright neon colours and goofy ditties written for the film, including the Driller Killer's faux-rockabilly anthem. It's almost as though Brock had the idea to remake Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for the slasher-movie generation. What the film doesn't have is any real weight. The irreverence of the first Slumber Party Massacre was a rhetorical tool with an actual sociopolitical agenda--or, if you prefer, a means to an end. With Slumber Party Massacre II, irreverence is an end in itself. This is a very silly film and it uses that silliness to justify its lack of meaningful introspection.
I remember Brock's third and so far final film, Rock 'N' Roll High School Forever, a sequel to Allan Arkush's Rock 'N' Roll High School (which has an unexplained cameo in Slumber Party Massacre II), as being my favourite film when I was ten years old. It had replaced Night of the Creeps and was later usurped by two Joe Dante movies, first Gremlins 2: The New Batch and then Matinee. As I haven't seen Rock 'N' Roll High School Forever in some fifteen years, that might not mean anything. Still, I suspect that Brock's particular talents are better appreciated when they aren't at the service of such loaded subject matter.
At 87 minutes, Sally Mattison's directorial debut Slumber Party Massacre III is the longest entry in the trilogy by only ten minutes or so, but it feels endless. Mattison doesn't understand, much less like, this type of movie. Where Jones and Brock both saw an opportunity to do something personally interesting with their Slumber Party Massacres, Mattison's primary interest is gaining the experience and credit of a feature director. The film is professionally made in very much the same way you would say an insurance commercial is professionally made. Mattison's central motivation seems to have been proving that she could make it. You can practically hear her saying, "Well, we all have to start somewhere."
The film lifts iconic moments from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Friday the 13th Part 2 in a rather literalminded way. It offers no discernable comment on any of these films or their legacies. Rather, it's as though Mattison browsed them for the most effective bits to steal. The movie also follows a giallo-style plot, complete with red herrings and a hare-brained psychological motivation for the serial killer. This storyline immediately differentiates Slumber Party Massacre III from its predecessors as a typical slasher film. Most problematically, the picture concludes with a bona fide rape scene following several more figurative ones. (That includes one particularly brutal power drilling on a hard asphalt street.) The whole idea of the slasher genre is to deal with sexual violence in an abstract, dare I say dreamlike, fairytale context. In literalizing it, the film sacrifices the primal mysticism inherent in the worst slashers and simply becomes about observing the torture of women. It's a cheat besides. Mattison hasn't done any of the work in developing these characters as human beings in the slightest. Because they are as broadly drawn as anyone else in the Slumber Party Massacre franchise, it's unfair to introduce realistic sexual violence at this point.
On paper, this is the same movie as the first Slumber Party Massacre. The girls organize a sleepover and their dorky boyfriends try to crash the party, all while the killer hones in on the house. But wit and humour have been boiled out of the concept to arrive at something "straight." This is a severe miscalculation, as the Slumber Party Massacre movies, by design, can never really compete with established franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. For one, the killer lacks the iconic status of those great movie boogeymen. For another, the success of those films ties largely into their evocative settings. Every October for the last few years I've watched an instalment of the Halloween series, and I've found that a significant amount of the appeal lies in paying regular visits to the town of Haddonfield, Illinois. You could say the same thing about Camp Crystal Lake or Elm Street. They feel like actual communities, albeit ones that must deal with the occasional killing spree. Slumber Party Massacre is just about a house full of teenage girls throwing a sleepover. It doesn't and can't encompass much more than that and so satire is the one thing going for the material.
I guess that's how I justify reading this reverence for the subject matter as cynicism and the irreverence shown by Jones and Brock as something akin to idealism. If there's any lesson to derive from the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy, it is perhaps that ironic distance doesn't necessarily equal derisiveness. I'm not sure I can say that anybody who cares about what they're doing can't help but make a good movie, though I can confidently say that anybody who doesn't care can't help but make a bad one. Nothing damns a film more than knowing that its own director wouldn't watch it if she had the choice.
While the entire trilogy has apparently undergone extensive remastering since a 2002 DVD release for Shout! Factory's "The Slumber Party Massacre Collection", frankly I'm a little surprised the movies ever looked worse than they do here. The three films are split across two discs, with Disc 1 housing The Slumber Party Massacre and the 58-minute "Sleepless Nights: Revisiting The Slumber Party Massacre" and Disc 2 the film's two sequels. The 1.78:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer of The Slumber Party Massacre shows signs of restoration but on the whole is much too grainy and dim to warrant serious praise. Attending the video is Dolby Digital 2.0 audio that sounds muddled, hollow, and post-dubbed.
Slumber Party Massacre II's faded, dusty 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation shows all 23 years of the picture's age. Likewise in Dolby Digital 2.0, its soundtrack crackles with static in the opening shots and is downright painfully shrill at times. Slumber Party Massacre III is inexplicably 1.33:1, which doesn't appear to be its original aspect ratio, what with the film having played on 81 screens in September of 1990. The print is clean this time, but the transfer is dupey and dark and brings to mind an episode of "Red Shoe Diaries". The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound is unbalanced, with dialogue never quite meeting the level of the effects.
Fortunately, the set's bonus features compensate for the poor A/V. The supplementary material is dense and revelatory and benefits immensely from being the product of people who care (rightly or wrongly) about these films. It would be churlish of me to spoil the nature of the disarmingly strange home movie that opens "Sleepless Nights: Revisiting The Slumber Party Massacre", but suffice it to say it gets the featurette off to a rollicking good start. Amy Holden Jones describes how she got a job as a director's assistant on Taxi Driver after Martin Scorsese was impressed by her film-school thesis and worked as an editor for Roger Corman before receiving an offer to cut Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. She passed up the assignment to direct The Slumber Party Massacre. Jones doesn't appear particularly regretful despite admitting that The Slumber Party Massacre did absolutely nothing to help her career and led her to writing and directing the Corman-produced Jamie Lee Curtis "art film" Love Letters. (The woman who did wind up editing E.T., Carol Littleton, earned an Oscar nomination.)
Deborah Brock describes how she found one of the Slumber Party Massacre II guitars in her closet during a move and sold it on eBay to a collector she knows will care for it better than she did. Make-up effects artist James McPherson relates a strange anecdote about how star Crystal Bernard initially refused to get in bed with her onscreen boyfriend, lest she send a message contrary to her Baptist upbringing. She tried claiming that this is something her character would never do.
Meanwhile, Slumber Party Massacre III director Sally Mattison confirms my suspicions about why she made the film. She uncomfortably admits that she would have preferred to debut with a romantic comedy or a historical drama and doesn't much like these kinds of movies. Mattison takes no real responsibility for the film's rape scene and says that Corman demanded it to help pad the picture to feature length (?!). She finds the scene uncomfortable to watch and isn't especially proud of it.
Amy Holden Jones, actors Michael Villella and Debra Deliso, and Slumber Party Massacre superfan/webmaster of "The Old Hockstatter Place" Tony Brown record a full-length commentary for The Slumber Party Massacre. Jones accepts no accountability for the film's nudity, explaining that executive producer Roger Corman required it; and she clearly had little interest in filming it. (She doesn't seem to understand her own movie.) She rails against the heat she took at the time for showing violence against women and says that nobody blamed Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola, or Martin Scorsese for making "Roger Corman films" when they started out. Jones points out that she subconsciously refused to show women getting killed onscreen and minimizes the moments later in the piece where they do by saying that the Driller Killer has the most graphic death scene of anyone.
Villella is fun describing how hard he worked on his performance as the killer. He used the "animalization" of an ostrich in creating his characters' stalking movements and slept with his power drill. He says that although making the film wasn't a joy, it was a great "acting experience." (In the featurette, actress Brinke Stevens remembers observing Villella rubbing Vaseline on his power drill and asking a fellow actress "What is he doing?," only to be dismissed with "Oh, he's a character actor.")
Tony Brown accompanies writer-director Brock, producer Don Daniel, actress Juliette Cummins, and story editor Beverly Gray on the Slumber Party Massacre II yak-track. This commentary double-dips into material covered in the featurette more so than the other two and the repeated assertions that this is the most fun any of them ever had on a film gets to be a little grating, though it goes a long way towards explaining both the film's boundless energy and the fact that it doesn't really leave you with much to talk about. (Brock confesses that they threw no fewer than three wrap parties simply because they didn't want to let go.) There is also a terrific anecdote involving a stunt man whom Brock asked to repeat a particularly dangerous stunt. Despite his macho front, he was scared to do it, and, presumably avenging his feelings of emasculation, called SAG to report that a fight scene was being staged without any stunt people. The SAG representative arrived on set to discover that the scene in question was a nude pillow fight!
For the Slumber Party Massacre III commentary, Brown joins director Mattison, story editor Beverly Gray, and actresses Brandi Burkett and Hope Marie Carlton. The tone offers an unexpectedly lively contrast to a grim closer. Brown, who had confessed with some mild embarrassment to creating his own soundtrack album for Slumber Party Massacre II in the previous yakker, somewhat sheds his strangely reverent attitude towards the franchise, relishing in pointing out the film's many continuity errors. When a deadly sex toy pops up late in the film, he wonders aloud if vibrating dildos ever had extension cords, even in 1990. But it's clear that Brown has retained a deep love for these movies. At the end, once the slumber party massacre house is sick with viscera, he states, with no apparent irony, that the film makes him sad, as he has come to really like these people. Oh, how I wish I could view this series through his eyes.
Rounding out the package are theatrical trailers and exhaustive-on-the-brink-of-obsessive still galleries for all three films, including a fairly tedious one focusing exclusively on the poster-art shoot for Slumber Party Massacre II. Originally published: December 2, 2010.
*There is a sense in which The Slumber Party Massacre objectifies women to illustrate an abstract point as opposed to objectifying them merely to appeal to the prurient interests of the male viewership. That may indeed be an insurmountable problem with feminism in general--you can't educate women to be independent. I'm reminded of a talk-show interview with Gloria Steinem and Linda Lovelace, featured in the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, wherein Lovelace announces that she is now an anti-porn activist but it is Steinem who does all the talking. Earlier, we had seen promotional material for Deep Throat with Lovelace espousing libertarian viewpoints that were clearly fed to her by her handlers. Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano explains that Lovelace had a very malleable personality and basically did whatever people told her to do. Yeah, that docility was probably encouraged if not fostered by The Patriarchy, and yeah, she probably did feel raped during the making of Deep Throat. But in Steinem, the only thing Lovelace found was another puppet master. return