Classic Corner: The Slumber Party Massacre

They say the best satires are indistinguishable from the real thing. It certainly helps in the case of movie parodies, which only really work if they’re also sturdy examples of the genres they’re sending up. I’ve always argued that the original Scream endures not for the winking, self-referential dialogue that became one of the most annoying meta-trends of ‘90s cinema, but rather because it’s still a seriously scary movie and nobody can guess the ending. This is presumably thanks to director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson being experts on the tropes they were toying with. After taking something apart, you intimately understand how it fits together.

Fourteen years before Scream, lesbian activist and Rubyfruit Jungle author Rita Mae Brown wrote a screenplay called Don’t Open the Door, in which she attempted to spoof the then-ubiquitous slasher films that were the packing multiplexes in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, causing Siskel and Ebert all sorts of tsuris every week as they railed against what Roger described as “Dead Teenager Movies.” Rewritten by director Amy Holden Jones and rechristened The Slumber Party Massacre, the resulting picture is a fiendishly funny parody played completely straight. (So straight that a lot of dismissive critics confused it with the genuine article. But then again, as a horny pubescent I rented the movie on VHS more than once for obvious reasons, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t in on the joke, either.)   

Produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, The Slumber Party Massacre delivers all the blood, gore and leering T&A one would want from one of these derided Dead Teenager Movies, but it does so with droll wit and a sly sense of self-awareness. It’s a movie that always knows exactly what it’s doing, from the early, contractually obligated girls’ locker room shower scene during which the camera makes an ostentatious point of panning downward after all the dialogue is done, just to make sure we get an unobstructed view of our heroine’s bare behind. 

Her name is Trish, by the way, and her parents are going out of town this weekend. She wants to have some friends over, but no boys are allowed. Played by Michele Michaels (who like most horror movie teenagers, doesn’t look a day over 25) she’s first seen putting all her old stuffed animals and Barbie dolls in the trash, signaling to the audience – and her creepily over-attentive, trash-picking neighbor – that she’s on her way to becoming a woman. Trish has also got what’s pretty clearly a crush on Valerie (Robin Stille), the girl next door. But then, most of the female characters we encounter in The Slumber Party Massacre are unsubtly coded as lesbians, from the hottie hard-hat telephone line worker to our old standby, the girls’ gym teacher. When we meet the men in the movie, we begin to understand why.

What a bunch of mewling, ineffectual losers, the worst of which is Michael Villela’s recently escaped mass murderer, Russ Thorn. He’s hardly an iconic figure of fright like Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, but rather a sniveling psychopath in a Canadian tuxedo, prowling around the neighborhood with an electric power drill that’s just the tip of this movie’s endless phallic symbols and penetration gags. 

Jones went to Wellesley College and studied film at MIT. Her thesis project won the American Film Institute’s student competition and so impressed a judge by the name of Martin Scorsese that he hired her to be his assistant while he was making Taxi Driver and later had her edit his documentary short American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. Saying she was too good to be an assistant, Scorsese recommended her to his old pal Corman, who quickly had her cutting films for the likes of Joe Dante. Jones was soon so in demand that she’d actually been hired to edit E.T. for Steven Spielberg when she walked away to make The Slumber Party Massacre. (This has to be the only time in history anyone ever quit a Spielberg picture to go shoot a slasher movie for Roger Corman. But then directing gigs weren’t easy to come by back then, especially for a woman.) 

If you grew up watching enough of these things late at night on cable television, what’s most striking about The Slumber Party Massacre is how elegantly assembled it is, with vibrant colors, crisp editing and clearly defined action that makes clever use of background and foreground planes. The studiously terrible acting – which I’m assuming must be part of the joke – adds to the half-kidding vibe of a slasher movie in scare quotes. Jones gets a lot of comic mileage out of our characters failing to notice corpses (or in some cases, actual murders) in their midst, with a sublime bit of slapstick involving a dead body in the fridge while the Playgirl-reading little-sister wants to steal a beer. Lots of folks point to the film’s final castration gag as their favorite, but to this critic, the film’s most relatable message can be found in its silliest scene: Just because the delivery guy showed up with his eyeballs drilled out doesn’t mean you need to let a perfectly good pizza go to waste.

“The Slumber Party Massacre” is now streaming on The Criterion Channel, Shudder, and a variety of AVOD services.

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