Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Ultimate Driller Killer Thrillers

Roger Corman’s biggest attempt to break into the lucrative '80s slasher genre was the notorious THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, which is most notable for having a female director (Amy Jones went on to make THE RICH MAN'S WIFE with Halle Berry) and a female screenwriter (noted feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown). Brown’s script was greatly rewritten by Jones, and Brown had little to do with the final release, which is not very distinguishable from slashers made by male filmmakers.

A bunch of high school girls and some guys who want to lay them are stalked one evening by a madman (Michael Villella) who just escaped from a mental institution. Jones works a bit of suspense at the end, but, even by New World standards, this is not very good, even if it did spawn a few sequels, spinoffs, and loose remakes. Villella’s killer is dull, and the action is neither gory nor thrilling.

SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has been lauded in some circles for its satire and feminist subtext, but I’m afraid I don’t see it. Yes, there is humor in the obvious sexual symbolism of the killer stalking his nubile, negligee-clad victims with an electric drill, but any under-the-surface elements are just barely there and unworthy of serious study.

What did capture my thought, however, was that this movie and its sequels (which played theaters after the slasher genre had waned) are the only slasher flicks Roger Corman ever made (and they’re so campy that it’s a stretch to call them horror). It seems odd that Corman, who definitely had his finger on the pulse of what was popular and what he could sell, never really jumped on the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher-movie bandwagon, outside of these movies.

It's possible the urbane Corman found the concept tasteless, I suppose, but it doesn't seem like a dozen dead teenagers would stand between him and making big bucks (and the fact that few slasher movies present material as tasteless as HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP). Brinke Stevens is memorable as a victim attacked in the girls’ locker room. You can see ANDROID director Aaron Lipstadt, the film’s co-producer, pressed into service as an actor delivering pizza.

Sisters Courtney (a pre-WINGS Crystal Bernard) and Valerie (Cindy Eilbacher), who survived the original 1982 SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, are back in the first Concorde sequel, released as SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II in 1987. Valerie has gone mad and is living in a mental institution, while Courtney, who suffers from PTSD nightmares, has joined an all-girl band with her high school friends. The weekend of Courtney’s 17th birthday, she and her bandmates Amy (Kimberly McArthur), Sally (Heidi Kozak), and Sheila (Juliette Cummins) head to Sheila’s parents’ condo for an unsupervised weekend of rocking out and making out with Courtney’s studly new beau Matt (Patrick Lowe).

Everyone falls prey to a ridiculous ‘50s rocker killer dressed in black leather and carrying an electric guitar with a huge power drill into it. The screenplay by director Deborah Brock (ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL FOREVER) makes no dramatic or logical sense, breaking up the narrative for a series of unwanted music videos and ludicrous dream sequences ripped off from the Freddy Krueger movies. Brock plays up the camp factor, so that there’s no tension or suspense, just a bunch of scenes of teenagers running around a condo screaming while the cackling killer chases them and spouts dumb one-liners.

Brock, who earned her spot in the director’s chair by working in post-production on earlier Roger Corman movies, went on to direct two more Concorde filmes, neither of which is thought of highly. Bernard had done a lot of TV and YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE before snaring the starring role in SPM II, and is pretty good in the role. Playmate McArthur is surprisingly good, and redhead Cummins (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING) supplies the requisite nudity. Musically, the film is impressive with the girl band providing some bouncy numbers and Richard Cox an imaginative score. Corman got SPM II into a few theaters, though many more people saw it on Embassy Home Entertainment’s VHS release.

Roger Corman managed to get SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III into a few 1990 theaters, but it’s unlikely it entertained many people there or on home video. Keeping consistent with the first two SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs, SPM III was written and directed by women who do little to distinguish it from any random slasher flick directed by a man.

Cute Malibu teen Jackie (Keely Christian) invites a few friends over for a party while her folks are out of town. Director Sally Mattison (her only film) and screenwriter Catherine Cyran (who wrote, produced, and/or directed two handfuls of Corman movies) set up red herrings with a creepy stranger in black (Yan Birch) who watches the teens play beach volleyball and Jackie’s bent neighbor (Michael Harris) who spies on the girls through his telescope.

SPM III is a marked improvement over its predecessor, if only because Mattison takes the thrills seriously and actually generates a bit of tension during her kills. The tone is much darker than the earlier movies, the deaths are grimmer and more brutal, and the killer has a solid motivation for his actions. SPM III is not a good movie, though it gets props for casting B queens Maria Ford and Hope Marie Carlton, but its doses of sex, violence, and mystery may surprise those who were unimpressed with the other SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs.

While none of the MASSACREs are very good films, considering Shout Factory has plastered its 2-disc Roger Corman Cult Classics DVD set with commentaries for each film, still galleries, trailers, and a one-hour documentary covering all three films, for the price, the set may be worth picking up. It's nice that many of those involved with the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACREs look back fondly on their experience (though not Crystal Bernard, of course), and directors Jones, Brock, and Mattison (who's now a Philadelphia attorney) are glad to talk about their films.

Most astonishing is the ageless Hope Marie Carlton, the Andy Sidaris B-movie vet who played one of the SPM III victims and barely looks a day over 30 in her interview on the documentary.


Brandon L. Summers said...

I've maintained that Part 2 is one of the worst films I've ever seen, worst than "Hobgoblins." It's from that late 80s cluster of horrible rock n' roll teen slashers. Since Part 3 looks to be exactly the same, I just couldn't be bothered to see it. This is an excellent article, neat and concise. Thanks!

Stephen Langlois said...

Another great article. I haven't seen any of these, but your review makes me want to check them out, if only for the kitsch value. In fact, all the bad things you mention in Slumber Party Massacre II--dream sequences, one liners etc.--are all positives in the so-bad-it's-good category. If it is, indeed, worse than Hobgoblins I'll probably enjoy it, since Hobgoblins is one of my favorite bad movies. Thanks.

Paul said...

I know I'm late to the party here, but I'm watching S!F's set this week (first two films so far). I agree with you on all points except the feminist subtext-- only I'd just call it a "feminine" subtext.

Corman-mandated shower scene aside, the first film is quite feminine, virtually all told from a female POV--it totally avoids the one-on-one "final girl" battle and goes for a collaborative take-down of the killer, as unique a conclusion as I've seen in the subgenre.

As opposed to the typical slasher teens who are killed when they violate some kind of sex and drug moral code, the victims here were guilty primarily of being catty and inconsiderate of others.

Both the first and second films (moreso in the first) spend all their time developing the female protagonists--as opposed to most slashers, it's the guys who are bland, barely sketched characters who primarily exist to drool over the talented, pretty and popular girls. I actually liked the girls' characters from the first film and felt much more sorry for them when they are killed than in similar films.

There's also an honest attempt here to depict female teen sexuality, including how they think about boys and romantic fantasies.

And then there's the hyper-masculine leather-clad "bad boy" killer of the second film who sings and dances. If that's not pitched primarily at a female (or gay) audience, I don't know what is!