First Female-Helmed Horror Movie for October:

Slumber Party Massacre
Directed by Amy Jones
Written by Rita Mae Brown, with uncredited rewriting by Jones
1 hour, 17 minutes
I watched it on iTunes with my husband.

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Oh man, I loved this movie. It absolutely lives up to the hype of a super fun and yet still sneaky slasher flick. Directed by Amy Jones and written by Rita Mae Brown, “Slumber Party Massacre” rocks a uniquely female perspective as it follows teenage Trish (Michelle Michaels) as she hosts a slumber party while her parents are out of town. She’s invited over her trio of friends, Kim (Debra Deliso), Jackie (Andree Honore), and Diane (Gina Smika). Against her friends’ wishes, she also invites the girl next door, Valerie (Robin Stille), but Valerie overhears the other girls talking crap about her and declines. So Valerie spends the night at her own house, hanging out with her preteen sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers) and spending way too much time explaining away the crazy sights and sounds she observes coming from Trish’s house.

So all this female bonding and relaxing is lovely but of course, a mean man has to come along and ruin all the fun. Russ (Michael Villella), an escaped killer, wields a power drill, genius in its unsubtly, the perfect murder weapon for a feminist parody of a slasher film. He works his way through the people around the girls and then gets to work on the party itself.

Despite the consistent comedic lines throughout, there’s a tremendous gravity to the proceedings. Every time, the driller killer closes in on a victim, I felt real dread and loss at what was about to happen to these women. It hurt. That’s amazing for a slasher. I love this subgenre – it was my gateway drug into horror – but an emphasis on character and making you feel the loss of them is not something you see too often. That was one of the many elements that made me feel the female perspective in the writing and directing. These women also just felt entirely more like real women. Sure, they did silly things like wear a lingerie set to a slumber party or give out strange compliments like “Ya know, I think your tits are getting bigger!” But those seemed to be plays with the male gaze that we see in almost every other slasher. My husband thought it was hilarious how exactly she got the severe male gaze right.

The film was full of right-on moments of the female experience. In the opening scene, we see Trish’s radio, where you hear a woman scream and ask what she’s won. An excited male DJ declares, “Are you ready for this? You’ve won your own KDET t-shirt!” And the woman sounds so genuinely disappointed, “Oh.” She’s supposed to be excited about a damn shirt? This is such a smart, small detail to start us off: that women are going to be greatly disappointed by what a man will think is exciting. (The killer’s deluded mind thinks the women love being drilled.) We even see the beloved basketball couch at home, making a lonely little quesadilla and drinking wine. Preteen Courtney is hilariously obsessed with sex, stealing her sister’s Playgirl magazine and talking to friends on the phone about kissing with tongue. I don’t remember ever seeing a preteen girl in a movie do all of this and yet, it’s so relatable. My friends and I were never as preoccupied with talking about sex as we were at that age.

There are so many plays on Trish and the other girls riding that line between childhood and womanhood. Her mom reminds her to lock all the doors and windows. Trish retorts, “Mom, I’m 18 years old remember?” But her mom futiley explains, “And you will always be my baby.” Now that I’m a mom, I so get that though it sounds like an annoying platitude, it’s so the truth. And then she throws away a bag of toys she’s just plucked from her room for maximum symbolism and then some creepy man’s arm grabs her freaking Barbie doll out of the trash.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it continues the slasher tradition of otherwise smart or at least capable people doing dumb, dangerous things. There’s a killer right outside so let’s run right outside. Why call the cops when you can see a man lurking outside your house? Let’s just ignore it instead. And why doesn’t Trish lock all those doors and windows anyway? I know your brain doesn’t fully form until you’re, what, 23, but my God, they knew for a while there was a killer nearby and nobody bothered to go through the house and secure it in even the most basic way? Why do people do so many blatantly stupid things in horror movies? It’s always so much scarier when you see characters doing the right things and still being usurped.

The killer himself is fascinating. Jones only waits a few scenes until she shows him outright. She gives him a good amount of lines and shows him at “work,” hiding bodies in difficult places and cleverly hiding himself. This all makes him more formidable but also echoes the traditionally female work of clearing things out, arranging things, having to do the “mental load” of all the details around the house. I mean, it would take a lot to clean out that fridge.

The blatant nudity is so intentional and goes on for so long that it’s like Jones is saying, “Here ya go, now look at it for a real long time. Does this feel like too much to you yet?” Despite the snuck-in criticisms, there’s a real affection for the genre. Jones knows the tropes and her audience and plays them well. On top of that, she’s just a consummate filmmaker. There are so many downright elegant shots in here, particularly some masterful wide shots. Things are consistently revealed in clever ways, including the famous fridge bit and the starting on Trish and her boyfriend, following the boyfriend and then landing on Valerie, smoothly establishing that the girls are next-door neighbors.

In an effort to move from editing to directing, Jones and her husband (Michael Chapman, the legend who DP’d “Taxi Driver,” “Ghostbusters” and on and on) shot the first three scenes of the script to prove herself and then Roger Corman financed it after seeing her work. Way to make it happen for yourself, Amy Jones! She even passed on editing “E.T.” to direct this. I love that she made that choice. She went on to direct more films and wrote several of my childhood favorites, “Mystic Pizza” and “Maid To Order.” But she never used her husband as her DP, beyond those few test scenes, because she was worried people would say he was the real director. That’s so accurate and so sad because I would have loved to see something they made together.

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Bonus points for these two lines:
One of the girls laughs to her friends, “It’s not how big your mouth is. It’s what’s in it that counts.”
As the killer fires up his power drill in a girl’s face: “You know you want it. You love it.”

The film ends with such strong hits on its themes and is so satisfying. But the thing that will stick with me the most is that image of the trio of girls sitting together with their knives in front of them, waiting it out, trying to be ready for what this man, and in extension, all troubled men, will bring for them. We all need our girlfriends to help us navigate life and stay strong.