THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982) is a biting, feminist satire of slasher movies
#31DaysOfHorror: October 22
This October, I’ll be reviewing 31 horror movies in 31 days! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.
The Slumber Party Massacre is a title that just sounds exploitative; right away, you imagine gratuitous shots of vulnerable teenage girls in pajamas, talking about boys, maybe getting a little racy, before they are brutally murdered by an inevitably-male killer. And, the film delivers on exactly what’s promised by its title, to be sure. However — it does it in such a way that the film manages to subvert these expectations, too, turning them on the audience and morphing into a treatise on the slasher film itself and its objectification of female characters for the pleasure of a presumed-male spectator. The movie was written by feminist activist Rita Mae Brown, after all, and was directed by a woman, too: Amy Holden Jones, who went on to direct Beethoven. It’s funny, and uncomfortable, and silly, and frightening, all at the same time.
The story of the film is a rather simple one, and the movie itself is slight, clocking in at only an hour and thirteen minutes. It concerns an 18 year old girl named Trish, whose parents are leaving her alone for the weekend. Even though there’s an escaped killer on the loose, she decides to have a bunch of friends over for a sleepover party; inevitably, the murderer shows up, comically-large drill in tow, and he begins to pick off the partiers one-by-one.
In one of several debts owed to Halloween, there’s also another house involved — the one across the street, where a girl named Valerie is babysitting her younger sister. (I’ve written about babysitter horror movies a few times this month, here and here). Valerie got in an argument with the other girls at school that day, and so she was disinvited from the sleepover. That’s fine with her, though, because it means she can sit at home, watch horror movies on TV, and, in a brilliant reversal of the male gaze, delight in looking at a stashed-away copy of Playgirl.
Horror movies — especially slasher movies — delight in objectifying female characters. In fact, Slumber Party Massacre itself has several scenes where the female characters walk around in the nude. In many cases, though, they’re being watched by creepy boys from school who are lurking outside the window, just like the killer; as opposed to encouraging the audience to identify with the lurking boys, like, say, Porky’s, we’re meant to think they’re abusive and invasive. And, in offering up to the camera lingering shots of the Playgirl models in the buff, the film also offers gratuitous male flesh for erotic consumption, which is far more rare in slasher films. Valerie is owning her sexuality, and (spoilers) she isn’t punished for it later in the way that most slasher movies punish women who give in to sex.
The scene where Valerie is watching a slasher movie that seems to mirror the events going on just outside her door is incredibly effective. A boy escaping the killer has run across the street to her front door, and while she is watching the movie, she doesn’t quite hear his screams for help.
It’s tempting to read this as a pat “horror movies are desensitizing us to real violence” sequence, but I think the film is doing something a bit more. Instead, it’s implicating the (real-world) audience directly in the deaths of the characters on screen; after all, without us watching, none of this would be happening. Like Valerie sits and watches her screen passively, so too are we watching the “real” death happening outside her window. There’s a real masochistic pleasure in this sequence, as we enjoy the realization that we’re being made to feel bad about watching a horror movie, while we’re watching a horror movie.
Slasher movies frequently give their killers a weapon that’s quite obviously meant to be phallic, which makes stabbings and slashings a form of rape. Some slasher movies really use this to their advantage — see, for example, the way Leatherface holds his chainsaw throughout The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 — and The Slumber Party Massacre is one of them. Russ Thorn, the villain, carries a gigantic drill throughout the film; it’s comically long, and he frequently carries it crotch-level, so that the allusion is clear.
Interestingly for a slasher movie, he doesn’t wear a mask, and we see his face pretty much from the first time he kills someone. He’s a creepy fellow, for sure; his eyes are wide, lolling back and forth, his teeth grinding, but he looks like an average guy, the sort of serial killer whose neighbors would describe him as “normal” after he was arrested by police who found a dozen bodies buried in his basement.
When he finally gets the main character under his drill, he speaks. He looms over Trish, drill dangling, and says, “I love you.” She looks repulsed. “You know you want it. You’ll love it.”
They’re the words of a rapist. The film is making the connection between slasher-penetration and rape-penetration explicitly clear… or, as explicit as can be without coming right out and saying “I’m going to rape you with my drill.”
Towards the end of the film, the movie manages the most direct, uncompromising castration of a slasher-killer that I’ve ever seen. Valerie is one of the only girls left alive — crucially, there isn’t just one “final girl” in this film — and she’s found a machete, a weapon just as phallic as the drill carried by Russ Thorn.
And then this happens:
I haven’t seen the two sequels (released in 1987 and 1990), but they both had female directors, too, making this the only horror franchise to have all of its installments directed by women. I can only hope the sequels are even half as clever and political as this one.
But where can I watch it? The Slumber Party Massacre is available on Amazon Prime.