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Tag Archives: Halloween

Is the Pizza Cold?: The Slumber Party Massacre as Subversive Feminist Parody

The Slumber Party Massacre will be released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory tomorrow. The following essay is adapted from a lecture I gave about this disreputable film at Facets Multimedia in 2012.

The Slumber Party Massacre, produced by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1982 during the height of the original “slasher movie” boom, has developed a well-deserved cult following over the past three decades. In the words of the critic Dave Kehr, the film seems “fascinatingly conflicted” because of the way it seems to simultaneously, and perhaps hypocritically, fulfill and critique the dubious conventions of the slasher subgenre. Some commentators have dismissed it as just another low-budget horror quickie, while many fans enjoy it as a “so bad it’s good” B-film. Still others see it as an intelligent deconstruction of the slasher, while some — including director Amy Holden Jones — view it not as a horror movie at all but rather as a comedy instead. Through tracing the lineage of the slasher film and providing a close examination of what exactly Jones does with its conventions, I hope to illuminate why The Slumber Party Massacre should be taken seriously even while simultaneously being appreciated for the hoot that it is.

Released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the big bang of the slasher, the first horror movie to feature a sexually frustrated homicidal maniac killing young women with a butcher knife. Although other important slashers were made throughout the ’60s and early ’70s (most notably Bob Clark’s underrated Black Christmas), it wasn’t until John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which itself owed a huge debt to Psycho, that the modern-day slasher was born. A lean, masterfully made thriller, Halloween was the most profitable independent film of any kind made up to that point and it spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of imitations in the years that immediately followed. All of these knock-offs, however, which tended to ramp up the gore while falling far short of Carpenter’s craftsmanship, were inferior to the original. Over the years, the conventions of the genre eventually crystallized into universally recognized rules: the mentally disturbed male killer picking off a group of attractive young women one by one over the course of a long night or weekend, an isolated and/or claustrophobic setting, the one-dimensional victim characters (the funny girl, the slut, the token minority, etc.) all of whom make stupid decisions (separating instead of sticking together, running upstairs or hiding in the basement instead of fleeing through the front door) and, of course, the lone survivor, who has by now come to be known in unofficial critical parlance as “the final girl.” I will argue that The Slumber Party Massacre was the first movie to come along and not just parody these conventions but subvert their disturbing ideological underpinnings from a feminist perspective.

Two of the more dubious conventions of the slasher genre are the use of subjective shots from the killer’s point-of-view and the sometimes related trope of not showing the killer’s face until the very end of the movie (if at all). Halloween begins with a legendary tracking shot of epically disturbing proportions as the viewer is asked to peer through the eyes of a character who breaks into a house, steals a butcher knife from the kitchen, puts a mask over his face and then stabs a young naked woman to death immediately after her boyfriend has departed the house post-coitus. It is not until Michael Myers, the character whose point-of-view viewers are privy to, leaves the house that the audience is presented with the first objective shot: the camera reveals that this killer is in fact a six-year-old boy. It should be noted that this opening scene is the only time in the entire movie that viewers are asked to see through the killer’s eyes and, even then, a big part of the reason why is the shock factor of revealing the character’s young age at the end of the scene. For the rest of the film, the audience is firmly on the side of the victims and not the killer (who, after flashing forward 15 years into the future, has escaped from a mental institution and returned to his old neighborhood to finish what he started). Because Myers wears a mask, we also never see his face as an adult until the end of the movie. Unfortunately, many of the exploitation merchants who ripped off Halloween took the “killer P.O.V.” concept from the film’s opening and decided to extend it to their entire movies. The end result, as in Friday the 13th (to name one prominent example), was that viewers were asked to primarily identify with the killer instead of the victims. Some critics, including Gene Siskel, in the classic Siskel and Ebert At the Movies episode titled “Women in Danger,” have persuasively posited that the slasher was a reaction against the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

Both of the above conventions receive a refreshingly original workout in The Slumber Party Massacre, the original screenplay of which was written by feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown before being rewritten by Amy Jones. The Slumber Party Massacre certainly starts off like a typical slasher: Trish, a popular high-school girl, decides to throw a slumber party after being left home alone for the weekend by her parents. The party attendees soon find themselves being terrorized by the splendidly named “Russ Thorn,” a mass murderer who has recently escaped from prison and whose weapon of choice is a large power drill. Atypical for the genre, Jones makes it a point to show Thorn’s face in the movie early on and he comes across as a pathetic, middle-aged sad sack, thus arguably robbing him of the near God-like powers imbued in most movie serial killers. Jones also studiously avoids killer P.O.V. shots — although there are many “false scares” throughout the movie that involve what the viewer assumes is the killer’s P.O.V. but which turns out to be that of an innocuous character instead. While such false scares are, of course, ubiquitous in modern horror, Jones piles them on top of one another in such creative ways (my favorite involves the creation of a peephole in a door) and to such an absurd degree that they end up becoming the film’s strongest parodic element.

The barely concealed subtext of most slasher films is that the mysterious, faceless killer is sexually frustrated at best and impotent at worst; the idea is that he can only achieve release through the act of murder, which most often involves the employment of a big phallic knife. The murder scenes can thus be seen as a symbolic form of rape as it is frequently the promiscuous female characters who tend to die first after inflaming the killer’s sense of sexual frustration through their “provocative” behavior. This often leads to the unfortunate and reactionary moral that these young women have in fact been “asking for it” and that it is precisely their sexual promiscuity that has led to their untimely deaths. The Slumber Party Massacre humorously makes this subtext explicitly clear and then promptly subverts it: in the most infamous shot of the film (and one that inspired the equally notorious poster art), Thorn is seen from behind, his large drill dangling between his legs while a female victim cowers in fear in front of him. When viewers finally hear Thorn speak at the end of the film, he actually says, “You know you want it” to another potential victim. Shortly thereafter, when the women band together and finally decide to fight back, Thorn is killed only after being symbolically (and fittingly) castrated when one of them chops his drill bit in half with a machete. If I’m making this sound “academic,” believe me, it’s not. When seen with a group of people, this climactic scene never fails to produce screams of both fear and laughter.

While most discerning viewers will “get” Brown and Jones’ feminist angle, they still might be put off by the stilted acting and paper-thin characterization. I would argue however that any attempts to make the characters more “three dimensional” would only make the film resemble the bad horror movies it is deftly sending up (and who really wants to see a movie like this running any longer than its refreshingly fleet 78 minutes anyway?). The filmmakers’ approach to characterization is to take the typical female victim characters of the genre and have them behave more like how we’re used to seeing young men portrayed: these girls play basketball, are obsessed with baseball scores and statistics, look at pornography and repeatedly dominate their weak and ineffectual male counterparts both physically and intellectually. But because The Slumber Party Massacre was produced by Roger Corman, there is also a certain quotient of nudity, another staple of the genre, that must be met. Even in this area, though, Jones arguably succeeds in subverting the convention by making it transparently obvious that she does have a quota to fill. Early on there is a requisite post-basketball-practice shower scene in which Jones’ camera tracks alongside her female characters as they engage in superficial dialogue. At one point, Jones egregiously and hilariously tilts the camera down to show off a character’s nicely shaped ass. It’s as if she’s saying “Okay, this is what I have to do and therefore I’m going to be as obvious as possible in how I go about it.” (Jean-Luc Godard essentially did the same thing with a nude Brigitte Bardot in the opening of Le Mepris.) Similarly, in a scene where two teenage boys spy on the slumber partyers as they change into their pajamas, Jones essentially retards the inherent titillation factor by having the boys speak and act in such a childish manner throughout (“I don’t think we’ve been giving Kim the attention she deserves!”) that it seems as if she is chiding an assumed male viewer.

The Slumber Party Massacre is a fascinating relic of a bygone era, the era of my own vanished youth. Although, like most Corman-produced movies of its time, its initial theatrical release was extremely limited, the film gained new life on home video. At the dawn of the VHS era, when horror movies lived and died by their video box art, the clever VHS-cover artwork for The Slumber Party Massacre soon made the film a cult hit. Although I was a young horror movie aficionado in the mid-1980s and remember the VHS cover very well, I somehow never managed to see the film itself until a couple years ago when it was released as part of a triple-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory (alongside of its inevitable and inferior sequels). I immediately recognized it as the very best of the post-Halloween slashers, not only for its feminist critique but for its goofy humor and warmth as well. Unlike most movies of its kind, The Slumber Party Massacre refuses to have contempt for its characters and portrays them as a group of fun and likable girls instead. This is epitomized by my favorite scene in the film: the hapless heroines, expecting a pizza delivery, open the front door of Trish’s home only to find the delivery boy standing there, dead, with his eyes drilled out. A few minutes later, one of the girls touches his lifeless corpse and remarks that it’s cold. “But is the pizza?” asks another, who then promptly opens the cardboard box and begins to enjoy a slice. Every time I watch the film I feel something like a sense of love for both that character (I would’ve done the same thing, sister!) as well as the women who created her.

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Happy Halloween from White City Cinema!

For this year’s jack-o’-lantern, I decided to try and carve a face identical to one that can be seen in the opening credit sequence of a certain Halloween-themed movie of renown. I think I did pretty good.

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He Said/She Said Director Profile: John Carpenter

This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of White City Cinema and my wife Jillian’s feminist blog Exploring Feminisms. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.

MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that Halloween, Escape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?

JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?

MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)

Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?

JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, then The Ward.

The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.

Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.

Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.

The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.

Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.

Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.

Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward, Halloween, The Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?

MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.

I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine in Ghosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.

Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Christine
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
7. Starman
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
2. Halloween
1. The Thing

MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
3. Halloween
2. Starman
1. The Thing


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