The Slumber Party Massacre ★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“That’s odd. None of the fuses are blown, but some of them are missing.”

In her seminal 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote at length and persuasively about the pervasive male gaze in movies. Positing a psychoanalytic approach to film interpretation heavily indebted to Freud, Mulvey spoke of the patriarchal system in which classical Hollywood cinema had developed and the way in which that system interacted with male and female characters. Male protagonists and women to be looked at with both lust and fear (their lack of certain key organs symbolic of castration). A phallocentric approach, with men associated with activity and women associated with passivity. It is truly a must read for anyone interested in the academic side of film theory.

And what, those of you not already nodding off may be asking, has this got to do with The Slumber Party Massacre? Why, absolutely everything and absolutely nothing, of course.

Viewed through one lens, The Slumber Party Massacre is a deconstructionist parody of the slasher genre, a phallocentric, male-gaze-dominated arena if ever there were one. (The fact that the screenwriter is noted feminist activist/author Rita Mae Brown further confirms this reading.) Almost all of the primary characters (save our killer, Russ Thorn (Michael Villela)) are female. The focus on looking is almost comical, with Jeff (David Millbern) and Neil (Joe Johnson) ogling a female telephone repairwoman and, later, Trish (Michele Michaels) and her friends changing into their pajamas at the titular slumber party, with John (Jim Boyce) and Mr. Contant (Ryan Kennedy) watching and sneaking up on the girls, and with Thorn leering wild-eyed at every turn.

Our heroine, Valerie (Robin Stille), and her sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), get in on the gazing game themselves, looking at and chatting about the naked men in the Playgirl hidden under Valerie’s bed—and unlike the usual slasher formula, this sexual interest doesn’t lead to their deaths. And of course there is the obvious symbolism of Thorn’s murder weapon of choice: a long drill, constantly framed at or near his crotch, the tip of which he ends up getting chopped off by Valerie’s even bigger, even more phallic machete. An exercise in subtlety it is not.

And yet all of this talk of psychoanalytical jargon and gender-based subjugation and penis synonyms overlooks one very important point: The Slumber Party Massacre is loads of fun. At seventy-seven minutes, it never overstays its welcome. It’s got scene after scene of inspired mayhem, both comic (Jackie (Andree Honore) eating the dead delivery man’s pizza; Courtney repeatedly failing to notice Kim’s (Debra Deliso) dead body stuffed in the fridge) and frightening (Thorn sneaking up on Kim and Trish through a window after they’ve barricaded Trish's bedroom door; the closing confrontation between Thorn and the surviving women). The pace is brisk, the jokes are funny enough, the scares are thrilling enough—it’s not classic horror, but it’s tremendously entertaining.

For some, the combination of Brown’s subversive script and Amy Holden Jones’ straightforward Roger Corman-thriller direction won’t work. And at times the partnership is uneasy. The requisite early 1980s nudity of the girls’ locker room shower isn’t entirely titillating or entirely clinical. The campiness starts early on, with Trish's candy princess bedroom and a hand stealing Trish’s Barbie doll from her trash can, and never completely lets up while also never completely taking hold—an issue exacerbated by the fact that the cast often seems not to be in on the joke Brown has asked them to tell. The tonal shifts are sometimes a bit jarring (a slow-motion attack by Trish, in particular, seems to strain for an emotional resonance within which the film is never in striking distance). It’s a marriage that shouldn’t work, yet somehow, more often than not it does.

Those looking for a purely feminist critique of the slasher film, a cinematic response to Mulvey’s theories, are bound to be disappointed—there is too much uncritical nudity and straightforward horror here to fulfill that wish. Those looking for an uncomplicated slasher are likely to be let down as well—there’s too much humor and too much weirdness around the edges for that crowd. But those open to something else, something different and fitfully inventive and wildly fun, if not altogether successful, might be pleasantly surprised. You know who you are. You know you want it. You’ll like it.