Blu-Ray review: Slumber Party Massacre

MARCH 6, 2014


While everyone focuses on streaming avenues and stripped down, "hit movies only" Redbox type affairs, god bless Scream/Shout! Factory for continuing to deliver top notch special editions of even the junkiest movies, catered to hardcore horror fans and pretty much no one else. Most companies probably wouldn't have even bothered to release Slumber Party Massacre on DVD at all, let alone put together a new retrospective and commentary track (which they did in 2010, along with the two less-good sequels), but they've gone back and put together a new transfer (and a new bonus feature!) for a BLU-RAY release of the movie. That's commitment to the customer.

SPM is definitely a love or hate entry in the slasher boom of the early 80s; the film's confused production history inadvertently created something quite unlike anything else at the time, even if on the surface it seems like one of the most generic offerings in the lot. Depending on who you ask, the movie was either written as a parody of such movies but filmed straight, or was a horribly cliched script that was given a comedic makeover during production - either way it resulted in something that toes the line between parody and straight even better than Scream in many cases. I'm more inclined to believe the former version; screenwriter Rita Mae Brown is renowned for her feminist work and doesn't seem the type to do something like this unless she was actively commenting on it. I suspect director Amy Jones (who lays claim to the 2nd version) just missed the joke and realized it later, rewriting history to save face. Maybe I'm wrong, but it just seems to me that if they were trying to make it funnier during production, it'd be more overtly comic, rather than just occasionally weird.

Ultimately I don't really care - we have a slasher movie where a character puts a pizza box on its dead delivery man to use as a makeshift table while she grabs a slice. Whatever strange combination of "comedy" and "horror" it took to get us there, it was worth the effort (likewise for the hilariously over-the-top shower scene, where the camera lingers on each girls' breasts and rear end for an eternity - again, this is a movie written and directed by women). At 77 minutes with credits, the movie doesn't have much time for a real narrative or deep characterization; in fact it's actually a lot like Halloween in many ways, albeit without the stigma of a real franchise hanging over it (the first sequel is barely related, and the 3rd isn't at all if memory serves). Russ Thorn escapes from an institution and sets his sights on a few girls, kills many of them and their boyfriends, gets killed twice, and the movie ends. There's even a few moments that seem directly swiped from the film, like when the killer partially steps into the right side of the frame as one of the heroines walks off to school on the left - on the commentary Jones claims the script was a Friday the 13th ripoff, but it's plainly clear that Brown was borrowing from Halloween first and foremost.

It's also somewhat overpopulated - there are SIX girls (four at the party, two next door) and three boyfriends, plus the world's most dedicated gym teacher and a goofy neighbor (the pizza boy is dead when we first see him, so we can't really count him as a character). And that's not counting the two ladies Thorn kills at school before the party even begins (our body count is 11, which is pretty excessive for the time as most - including the first Friday - were under 10), which gives the movie a bit of a disconnect. The late Robin Stille is more or less the Laurie Strode character who sits out on all the fun and finally goes next door when things start looking suspicious, but during all the pre-party scenes, it's Michele Michaels (possibly late as well, she disappeared off the face of the earth, it seems) who we follow around, see talking to her parents, etc. Stille's involvement is minimal, and the climax has no choice but to make her AND Michaels the heroine (plus a 3rd character, Courtney - who was the one to appear in SPM2, albeit played by a different actress since this one disappeared as well). Nothing wrong with letting more than one character live for a change, but when she's barely been in the movie or interacted with the other characters, it feels disjointed and sloppy.

I know it sounds silly to make a real critique about this particular movie, but I only do so because I think they were close to hitting a legit home run here. First off, Michael Villella gives a great performance as the murderous Thorn; he had some method actor idea of acting like a peacock, and goofy as it sounds on paper, it works like gangbusters. He creates a memorable character despite not being given a costume or mask - he's just wearing regular guy clothes, with only his drill and peacock-esque head bobbing to set him apart from any other male character. And the girls are all likable and seem to genuinely care about one another, rather than the sort of backstabbing and squabbling that you see too often today. The kills are hit or miss; I loved the guy getting drilled from behind and the shock kill when the girl gets it to the throat when she opens the door. Pointedly, most of the female kills are off-screen, or the impact is below the camera frame - while nearly every male death is shown in all its glory. Maybe it only works subconsciously, but this approach keeps the movie from feeling too sleazy (after all, the drill is quite obviously a phallic symbol), always staying on the side of fun even when they're not actively joking about this sort of thing.

As mentioned earlier, this special edition was released on DVD a few years back, and this Blu debut carries over those bonus features: a commentary with Jones, Villella, and Debra Deliso (she plays Kim, the one in the basketball shirt), moderated by the guy who runs the fan page, and a retrospective featuring the same plus a couple others (again, of the three leads, two of them have vanished and the other is deceased, so don't go looking for too many of the girls). The commentary is fine; the fan page guy could use some tact with regards to Ms. Stille's suicide (he comes off like he's complaining that the details aren't public) and occasionally just butts in with nonsense about someone's hand position or whatever, but otherwise he keeps Jones and the others talking about the usual stuff you'd discuss about a movie you made 25 years ago (meaning, vague memories about where things were shot, things people have said to them about the movie over the years, etc). Jones sometimes gets her facts wrong ("I'm the only female that's ever directed a slasher" she claims, then is reminded that the sequels were directed by women - no one mentions Freddy's Dead) but they're all good sports about the whole thing, with Deliso proudly telling stories about how some of her students (she is a dance teacher) saw the movie where she bares all, while someone else points out that one of the other girls had the film removed from her IMDb at one point. Never got why some folks are so ashamed of their horror past - if George Clooney can laugh about being in shit like Return to Horror High (or Batman & Robin) then there's no reason someone can't admit to being in Slumber Party Massacre when what they're doing now is hardly much better.

The only new feature, besides a top notch transfer (a few Scream releases of late have been a bit disappointing, but this one is glorious - the aforementioned shot of Thorn on the right of the frame watching Michaels walk to school looks like it could have been shot 30 minutes ago instead of that many years), is an interview with Rigg Kennedy, who played the neighbor. I wouldn't dare to spoil what the piece is like; I'll just say it's like nothing I've ever seen on one of these releases, and will likely never be topped. Holy shit. There are also trailers for all three movies (probably carried over too, I can't recall); the first is worth a look to A. appreciate how good the film's transfer is in comparison and B. enjoy a brief appearance from The Cars' "Moving In Stereo", which obviously doesn't appear in a cheap Roger Corman production. Hopefully they'll see fit to do the same for the sequels down the road - if I recall the transfers on those left a lot to be desired, and they've clearly improved their ability to find people they couldn't get last time (even if they're completely fucking nuts), so upgrades would be worth the time if this one proves to be a moneymaker.

What say you?


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