Back in the early Eighties heyday of the slasher, the genre was dominated by male writers and directors, but there were notable exceptions. One of these was The Slumber Party Massacre, released in 1982. This was originally written by feminist activist Rita Mae Brown as a horror parody (under the working title Sleepless Nights), and Brown was unhappy that producers repurposed her screenplay as a serious slasher before handing it over to editor Amy Holden Jones to be her directorial debut – yet despite this massacring of Brown’s script, it is remarkable just how much of her humour, not to mention her feminism, survived to see in two sequels (also notably written and directed by women). For, apart from some very funny dialogue, Jones’ original The Slumber Party Massacre also subverted the male gaze that typified the genre by including young female characters who pore over the centrefolds in Playboy magazine – and while it was not unusual for slashers to feature murderous men with phallic weapons, here the Freudian subtext was unusually foregrounded, with the killer Russ Thorn expressly sexualising the power drill that he uses to penetrate his victims’ flesh (“I love you. It takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You’ll like it.”), and with his defeat being signalled by the emasculating destruction of the drill’s bit.
Having already helmed The Banana Splits Movie (2019), a radically re-horrification of a beloved late-Sixties TV series for children, Danishka Esterhazy is well placed for the canny updating of old IP – and the fact that her reimagined Slumber Party Massacre is a witty, postmodern, strongly feminist take on the slasher movie, once again boasting a female writer (Suzanne Keilly) and director, demonstrates just how closely her work matches the spirit, if not the letter, of Jones’ original. Relocating the action from the Halloween-modelled suburban home to a comically ‘generic’ cabin in the woods (!) by a crystal lake (!!), Esterhazy’s film opens in Holly Springs, 1993, as deranged driller killer Russ Thorn (Rob Van Buuren) slaughters partying teenaged women one by one, with only the resourceful Trish Devereaux (Masali Baduzi) surviving – and Russ apparently drowned. Decades later, Dana (Hannah Gonera), daughter to the now adult Trish (Schelaine Bennett), goes on a road trip with best friends Maeve (Frances Sholto-Douglas), Breanie (Alex McGregor) and Ashley (Reze-Tiana Wessels) — and younger stowaway Alix (Mila Rayne) – for a slumber party of their own, only to end up at Jolly Springs (minimally renamed, much as Esterhazy’s remake has lost the definite article from the original’s title), in the cabin across the lake from the one where Trish’s friends were massacred. With the woman (Jennifer Steyn) at the nearby gas station issuing a classic (if regendered) Old Man’s Warning™, with a group of young men partying nearby, and with a drill-wielding figure circling outside for the kill, history seems set to repeat itself – but maybe this new generation of adolescent girls, like the movie that they inhabit, are savvier than the last.
A meta-remake about a massacre that is, even within the story itself, remade across the decades, Esterhazy’s film gives Jones’ original a revisiting twice over, and delivers one narrative surprise after another. Here clichés are slashed no less than characters. The male campers – true-crime podcasters chasing the story of the 1993 spree killing – are sweetly geeky, appear in slo-mo pillow fights and shower scenes, and are reduced to eye candy for the empowered women peeking through the window. African-American mother and daughter Trish and Dana are certainly, in their respective timelines, the first to be seen, but are by no means the ‘first to die‘ – and even the similarly black ‘Guy Two’ (Braeden Buys) will at least outlast his appropriately named-and-numbered white counterpart ‘Guy One’ (Richard White). And there are other tables being turned in this knowing take on the conventions of Friday the 13th – where revenge is rife, where the kids are alright, and where mother still knows a trick or two. The result is a super-smart reckoning with the horrors (and outmoded misogynistic values) of the past, as sisters show solidarity and prove to be the best predators as well as prey.
strap: Danishka Esterhazy’s postmodern remake slashes clichés, inverts male gazes & refuses to let ‘the first to die’ die.
© Anton Bitel