Continuing with Women in Horror Month, Set the Tape’s own staff writers Jenn Reid and Greg Mucci revisit one of the genre’s most uniquely seminal slashers, Slumber Party Massacre, and discuss what makes the first of this female directed trilogy so pivotal. So put on your pyjama’s and lock the doors, because no discussion is safe from the driller killer!
Greg: Well, I now have a new-found disgust for the Canadian tuxedo! No offence, since I know you’re Canadian…
Jenn: You leave our denim on denim out of this!
G: Seriously, that attire reduced what was already a pitiful little man into a murderous man-child that hit up a Bugle Boy before drilling and killing. Though it’s amazing what removing the mask will do for the audience. I held so much more disdain and hatred for Russ then I think I have for 90% of the slashers out there.
J: I kept thinking how he’d be so much more ominous if he had on a Michael Myers mask! Instead he’s some creepy dweeb with crazy eyes.
G: But there’s no longer this Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees supernatural element. I think it just being the face of any guy ratchets up the terror. Like, this can be anyone you pass on the streets!
J: Definitely! Like when the coach comes over and sees a guy lying under the blanket. I was thinking “that must be the most terrifying sight; just a fully grown man who isn’t supposed to be there, staring up at you.”
G: Totally! I mean, especially for its time, placing male aggression as the face of the killer is incredibly audacious. Director Amy Jones kind of stuck her middle fingers out to all the slasher directors beforehand by saying “for us, men don’t hide behind play things; their faces are our terror!”
J: Interestingly the film was written by a woman who intended it as a parody of slashers, but the producers/director wanted it to be more serious. I think I see both elements in the film, with the villain just being a regular schmuck, because any guy could prey on women. Then there’s the characters being straight up mean girl archetypes, acting like boy-crazy ditzes and *always* getting naked, so it’s a weird contrast between subversive and parody.
G: Oh yeah, it totally plays off the basic elements of the genre, and I mean, it’s only 4 years after Halloween, thought to be fair I wasn’t sure how to take that in the beginning. Like, whether Amy Jones knew she was catering to a certain demographic, and that it’s a trope that will draw audiences and please the male demographic that wants T&A, or if it was a parody of what Cunningham, Carpenter and the like had already done, because as a guy, I can only assume that isn’t exactly how women interact…right?
J: Personally, I feel like it was catering. There are other moments where I see the satirical aspects, but a lot of the nudity, especially at the beginning, was done in such a way that it serves no other purpose than to titillate. I mean, there was like a five-minute ass shot in the shower, immediately after a five-minute basketball scene with a ton of close-ups on their bodies. If the same shots came from a male director, I don’t think we’d question it, we’d just accept it as typical gratuitous nudity in slashers.
G: Yeah, that was a mighty long ass shot! Though, I applaud the camera observing Trish change through her reflection in the mirror, which feels more like her POV rather than a male.
J: Right, compared to the slumber party scene where it’s literally from the POV of the dudes watching them change; yet they still invite the guys in…
G: I feel like their decision to invite them in is giving them their own agency, and their own abilities to determine a threat, which is liberating in a way for women in horror, because too often their actions are decided for them.
J: The girls inviting the men inside makes perfect sense too, as a send-up of the slasher and other popular 80s genres, like all those Revenge of Nerds films, where men are celebrated for being creeps. Same with the guys automatically wanting to play hero and save everything; I think that scene works better however because they ultimately fail. Or trusting the man to protect you, and he’s the killer all along! Scream, anyone?
G: Scream pays a ton of tribute to this, seen through the first victim getting killed in the van like Randy from Scream 2. I mean, De Palma paid homage to the drill two years later in Body Double! What I really love is how the entire film carries with it this message of comradery, or togetherness; the only ones who want to split up are the two guys, Jeff and Neil!
J: I really love how the girls talked about sports and smoked weed! It’s a very normal teenager hangout, give or take the changing in front of your friends next to an open window. One giant missed opportunity for me is how they take down the killer, though. He’s been wielding an extremely phallic drill around for two hours, why aren’t we turning that back on him?
G: Oh, I loved that it wasn’t! It’s like, “you can’t kill someone with their own dick, but you can cut that shit off!” She totally disabled him as a man, and from that moment on, he was unable to kill.
J: In a lot of slasher movies the weapon is incredibly phallic, and the symbolism is that the final girl “castrates him” or “renders him impotent” by taking it away. I guess I just wanted this to take it a step further. While her chopping the drill in half was great, I feel like it would have been so satisfying to see him drilled! But maybe for men the scariest thing in the world is castration, whereas for women it’s forced penetration. I wonder if we’re assigning too much credit to a film simply because it’s a female director. When I first saw this, I thought it was pretty sexist, though learning the authorial intent has made me look at it a different way. But should it? Does the intent behind it change what’s in front of us? If it was directed by a male director would we give the same reading?
G: I think we have to remember how early and pioneering a lot of what we’re seeing is! We haven’t seen this kind of overt symbolism before, and with this much female empowerment!
J: Was it empowering though? I tried watching this with fresh eyes but I kept finding myself thinking if this was a male director that we’d dismiss it as much more typical.
G: These women come together in the end to stab the shit out of this guy! I think that has to speak to empowerment a little! Each woman, in the face of danger and imminent violence, stood by one another, showing immense courage, especially for Valerie, who to an extent didn’t go to the party because she was afraid. In the end, she searched the house and fought off the killer with the help of her sister and Trish!
J: Hmm, that’s interesting! This is part of why I wanted to do this film. It’s often talked about as almost a ‘feminist’ slasher but I always watch the movie and don’t quite see it. I think there are shades of it, like you could see where a different cut would take it, and like I said the authorial intent was there, but as for the film itself? I don’t see it as a feminist text.
G: Damn, Jenn’s too tough for Slumber Party Massacre’s feminist critique of the slasher genre!
J: I’m just not feeling it! It’s pretty male gaze-y, and the characters act like airheads too much for me to get any satisfaction from the ending!
G: I totally see what you mean, but like, the three women sticking together is really refreshing in the face of so many characters throughout the genre just bailing on friends, splitting up and essentially having to fend for themselves.
J: Yeah, but at one point Trish is *totally* willing to let Valerie die, and even suggests she might be working with the killer to stop her friend from going to help her!
G: Uh, true, but isn’t that what women do? Act catty one minute then loving the next? I’m asking for a friend.
J: Oh yes, us ladies are all catty and fake! Another thing that bothered me is when the three girls are hiding inside, and the one guy is drilled at the door. I was like wait a minute — you are three girls with knives and he’s distracted, you can take him down! Let’s Death Proof this shit!
G: Yeah, they could have totally had him! Random observation, and not to bring up Quentin Tarantino at a time like this, but I wonder if he mirrored the scene with Valerie in the basement deciding what weapon to use after his scene with Butch from Pulp Fiction. Of course, she chooses the electric saw with a cord!
J: I know! Valerie, you’re killing me. There’s a fight to the death upstairs and you’re taking 20 minutes to decide, and you eventually choose something *plugged in*?! But given his penchant for borrowing, I totally wouldn’t put it past him.
G: Poor Valerie! But still, and going back to its elements, I kind of feel like Amy Jones couldn’t help but cater to some of the genres molding, you know? It’s almost an impossible task asking her to reconstruct the genre so early on.
J: Yeah, get that, but I think we can look at movies as what they were for the time, as well as what they are for us today. And at the time, this movie was a critical failure, and kind of still is (that was harsh; I just wanted to get a dig in there!)
G: Damn, that’s cold! But seriously, I just don’t want to place too high of an expectation on this film for tropes that weren’t quite fleshed out. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t what I was hoping for either, but it’s better than I expected, and definitely important within the slasher cannon.
J: I too agree it’s important in the canon, but I think that people are sometimes seeing things that aren’t quite there, or looking over flaws to make it fit their idea of what the movie really is instead of just seeing what the movie is.
G: But isn’t that what it’s meant for; to be dissected and analyzed and interpreted?
J: To an extent, but I think at a certain point the film has to speak for itself. Just because I can see something in a film doesn’t mean it’s there or there for everyone.
G: Like the awesome empowerment of its women?