Returning to my retrospective look at 1980s film, the weather is cooling, the leaf colors are changing and thus the Halloween season of late September/October is again upon us.
The first set of films I’ve watched are all under a genre that was particularly popular for the decade: the slasher. Though it really kicked off in the prior 70s, the 80s was the era that defined it with the first entries in Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. Last year I watched the first seven entries of Jason’s Friday series and wanted to watch the tenth, Jason X or “Jason goes to outer space” but it was unavailable at the time.
None of the following six movies are from Jason or Freddy’s lineups. I do plan on delving into Freddy’s career hopefully this season. Instead, I have three that are considered part of the “Massacre” series, two that are seen as stand-alone cult classics and one that is a crazy gory and plain crazy American-Spanish co-production starring one of John Wayne’s costars.
The House on Sorority Row (1983)
The House on Sorority Row, according to sources like Complex and Wikipedia is considered to be one of the best slasher movies of all time. Such praise should put it in the same ballpark of quality as the original 1978 Halloween, the first and maybe third Nightmare on Elm Streets and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
What made this night of sorority house mayhem stand out in a way that made critics, more likely retroactive than not, give a thumbs up?
At first glance, not too much. It involves many of the slasher genre favorite conventions. A sorority house, as the title infers. A bunch of girly girls up to no good in more ways than one that include sex, alcohol and more than a drop of mean girls bitchiness.
In most examples, the killer must have some motivation for why when night comes, the blade comes out and he( sometimes she) carefully and inevitably goes through the cast. In most instances, a final girl is left standing and often acts as the killer’s downfall, temporarily or otherwise.
A House on Sorority Row is no stranger to any of this, but it is in part the build up to the cascade of death and screams where this 1983 production stands out. Most slasher films, as is readily apparent in all six of the films I saw, love fake-out scares. Basically, a character, main or not, suddenly jumps from an occurrence that is not of any perilous concern like someone touching them from behind and getting startled.
The majority of the fake outs here actually happen before the killing starts. The best example is when the old, curmudgeonly House Mother for the Sorority uses her sharp-tipped cane not to fatally interrupt the act of coitus between two college students but to deflate the water-bed where the action is happening.
This fake out also serves to show the house mother Mrs. Slater’s mean temperament with the sorority girls and to motivate the “wronged” girl to perform an act of retaliatory pranking. Vicki (Eileen Davidson) performs a pretty dark prank involving a gun with mostly blanks while the other sorority girls including protagonist and obvious final girl Katherine( Kathryn McNeil) reluctantly playing along.
Due to Mrs. Slater’s constantly abrasive behavior over the four years of their college lives, the girls seemingly threaten the old woman with death, but don’t intend to actually harm her: just to take her down a few pegs and to show them they can dish it out as much as they take it.
Most unfortunately, there is not one but two live rounds in the chamber of Vicki’s gun and the last one shoots Mrs. Slater dead into the nearby pool. The six girls, especially Katherine, are mortified at what they’ve done. Quickly, they put Mrs. Slater into a tarp and set it deep in the pool, hoping no one ever finds her. Obviously, someone does and he is very, very unhappy about it.
It is seeing the direct catalyst take place in the first act by the set of characters being targeted and them dealing with their guilt and fear of exposure that creates an extra layer of suspense and consideration over the proceedings. By comparison, Jason Vorhees’ motivation in Friday the 13th is for avenging the death of his mother at the hands of the first movie’s final girl. And then extends that vengeance to countless others later on.
His mother is famously the killer of the first movie and she herself was motivated by Jason supposedly drowning in Crystal Lake while the camp counselors in charge of caring for him were off busy getting busy. A scene that we never saw in those movies.
Another added layer is Doctor Beck, in charge of Mrs. Slater both when it came to the presumably failed birth of her son and for caring for her psychologically in the years since. Like Dr. Loomis from Halloween, he is the one who soon realizes that something terrible has happened and fills in for Katherine and the audience exactly who is avenging Mrs. Slater’s death and why.
The details are predictable but no less creepy once the girls realize they are going missing during a graduation party and subsequently learn more and more about the sorority house and its dark connection to Mrs. Slater.
It helps that the third act where Dr. Beck gets directly involved in Katherine’s survival takes an unusual direction for a film of its genre not to mention have a suitably ambiguous conclusion for the night of terror.
Perhaps it’s the commendable attempt at building tension for the sorority girls’ predicament and making good use of the house’s exterior as backdrop that has aided A House on Sorority Row to rising to a higher level of appreciation. It wasn’t my favorite of the six I saw but I could tell where all the hubbub was mostly coming from.
Sorority House Massacre (1986)
Keeping with the subject of sororities and implacable killers, here we have a 1986 entry in the slasher genre that in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that remarkable. It is the first of a spinoff series for the Slumber Party Massacre series( more on that later) that makes up what is considered the “Massacre” franchise. No relation with Texas or chainsaws that I know of.
It is certainly an enjoyable mid-decade affair, though its connection to one of the fathers of the genre, Halloween, is apparent even without me looking up that people already felt that way.
Though the next movie featured delves deeper into it, Sorority House Massacre surprised me by being a slasher written and directed by a woman, Carol Frank.
The slasher genre, fairly or not, has been called out as a misogynist, male fantasy experience. A lot of victims of these movies are female, especially the ones that get in bed with the opposite sex and of course is want to show off nudity just as well.
Of course, men are just as likely to get slain and in some cases make up more of the count than not. The killers generally don’t care and are equal opportunity monsters, with some exceptions.
I’m not even going to begin to ponder on whether having a female director/writer automatically makes the proceedings less problematic or more.
I suppose it did make me consider this particular example less of a guilty pleasure than before and hey, I do believe women are known to enjoy and watch these films just as much as men. The Scream series has been seen as promoting that worldview. But does it really matter?
What’s important is how I felt about this particular movie. I thought it was quite good and surprisingly expedient, clocking in at just 76 minutes. All three of the movies with “Massacre” in the title all run similarly. It reminds me how all seven of the Friday the 13th films I saw last year just about clocked at 90 minutes, more or less. Helps really sell that there is a bona-fide formula to examine. You don’t need Scream to tell you that.
One of the things that draws me in to this genre and this could be extrapolated to other horror works and especially many John Carpenter films is how the time of day can act as a good way of judging how far along you are in the proceedings.
As it is here, many slashers begin either with a expository prologue or at the middle of the day preceding the night. Slowly but surely afternoon turns to late afternoon, the sun starts setting, night falls and to paraphrase Gandalf, the pieces move into place.
We establish who is almost certainly going to be the final girl, rarely boy, of the movie as the main character. Here, the final girl is Laura and she is joining her friends for a fun night at the sorority house, with their boyfriends bringing some native themed party treats, such as a mock teepee.
All the while, Laura seems to share a psychic connection with the killer, locked up in a mental institution. Later on, it’s revealed that the connection between the two isn’t just psychic, it’s in the blood as well. This killer just insists on getting out, finding the sharpest blade from an antiquities store and ruining the night for everyone pictured in the image above.
Halloween was mentioned earlier as this film has been accused of being a copy of sorts of the 1978 classic. After all, he’s not just after her estranged sister, the sorority house just happens to be the siblings’ former home. For those who haven’t seen Halloween 78′, Michael Meyers returns on Halloween night to his home neighborhood to renew his mentally disturbed rampage.
Like Michael, there are hints that SHM’s killer isn’t entirely cognizant of his actions, almost like a man possessed. All of Laura’s friends and associates at the party he sees as the family he slew years ago, Laura being the sole survivor and having conveniently repressed memories of the tragedy.
The big question is, who will live, who will die? How will they die? How will the killer be stopped? Will he be stopped? Again, while not the most remarkable entry in the genre, it is still worth viewing and as much as it apes one of the few critic-liked slashers out there a little too much, it is not painful as a retread.
Being set waist deep in the 80s’, especially with the lowkey yet great synth soundtrack helps it out.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
The background of this particular slasher that is the first of the overall “Massacre” series is what makes this one of the more fascinating behind the scenes movies of its genre. It certainly helped expel a lot of notions I had for the genre and those that have worked in it.
Again, there is a female director: Amy Holden Jones. There is a female writer of some repute: Rita Mae Brown, best known for the lesbian feminist work, Rubyfruit Jungle, and an ongoing to this day series of mystery novels with a cat as the protagonist: Sneaky Pie Brown. It comes with an endless array of cat puns that make up the nearly 30 entries in that series. An…interesting choice for the writer of a slasher movie.
To balance the scales I suppose, one of the producers of the Massacre series is Roger Corman. Yes, that Roger Corman. Originally, Slumber Party Massacre was going to be a comedic satire of the genre, almost Scream before Scream. It was to highlight many of the criticisms and observations made about the genre and spend some time taking the piss out of them which really helps explain how a feminist writer took the job.
Corman, however, wanted the film to remain a more “orthodox” slasher movie, so some of that send-up attempt didn’t happen. I Imagine Jones and Brown were probably not happy getting overruled about the picture’s direction. Nevertheless, a semi-satirical black comedy is visible in the end product and that makes for a more memorable than usual viewing experience.
The killer Russ Thorn himself is part of Brown and Jones’ unique enough take. For one, Thorn’s face is explicitly shown right off the bat. Most slashers have their faces masked or kept in the shadows, partly to allow a “whodunit” component, which is especially the point of Pieces, more on that one later.
A newspaper clipping shown at the opening immediately explains that Thorn was arrested at an earlier altercation but has now broken out to continue his insane killings. He choses a power drill as his weapon of choice and that would be more or less the defining object of the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy.
Thorn and his “drill” also play on the symbolism that a killer wielding a knife or some other sharp object is meant to be a “phallic” expression of violent power, to violently express on others. Toxic masculinity at its psychopathic peak.
I think even Hitchcock’s Psycho was meant to suggest that and the master of suspense was no stranger to utilizing sexual innuendo in his filmography as the famous final scene of North by Northwest demonstrates.
It should come as no surprise then that the film’s framing of Thorn and his drill is meant to come off across that way especially when that same drill is shot between his legs. Also, the scenes of Thorn in pursuit of his mostly female prey and act of killing them are viewed as both genuinely terrifying and sad. I felt, compared to most slashers, really bad when Thorn succeeds and it makes you hate, fear him.
This culminates in the awesome final sequence where there is not one but ultimately three final girls. Valerie and Courtney Bates are two of the three, sisters who weren’t even at the slumber party until the incident became impossible for them to ignore and they started to investigate. There they come across the last slumber girl standing: Trish. Eventually, the three manage to team up on Thorn near the swimming pool and in a not too subtle manner, manage to break off his drillbit. Hmm…
While I’ve tried not to spoil the conclusions so far, me just mentioning that last part and that they’re three rather than one girl alive at the end might have given away that yes, Thorn is defeated, but at a great cost.
The sheer extent of that cost is actually explored surprisingly well in the sequel five years later. That sequel threw me for one hell of a loop.
Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)
On some surface level details, Slumber Party Massacre II is nothing out of the ordinary. Once again, a group of late high school/ college age gals and guys go to one of their relatives’ summer home for a rad slumber party.
Sex, drugs, and alcohol are there and imbibed in. What they were not expecting or wanting, is some truly hellish rock and roll. Courtney, who was the younger sister in Slumber Party Massacre I, has grown up and is unsurprisingly still trying to cope with the traumatic events of last time. Her sister Val is at a mental hospital and no mention is made of the third survivor Trish, but she’s probably not doing all that well either.
Courtney is trying to make her life better with her new friends and hopefully a retreat from it all could be just what she needs. And yet, she is not only haunted by some unwelcome memories but something much worse. Something seemingly supernatural. Something that really loves the greaser 50s’.
This mysterious killer wields a drill like before, except it’s now connected to a devilishly red guitar. For most of the picture, there is no death, only the threat of death. The killer constantly taunts Courtney in her hallucinations, seeming premonitions of an ill future. She would rather focus on daydreaming of her hunky boyfriend Matt and just having a good time.
It’s hard not to see this film having been influenced by the run-away success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, which introduced a novel supernatural element to the slasher genre, with much needed imagination coming with it. Unlike Sorority House Massacre’s obvious aping of Halloween, SPM2 feels more like it’s own thing.
Once the carnage happens late in the film, Courtney’s entire world goes pear-shaped and it becomes impossible to tell if the supernatural has genuinely entered a once mundane series or if something more plausible if also plain sadder is actually at play.
One analysis of the movie I’ve read paints the film not just being allegorical to Courtney suffering PTSD but also experiencing twisted self-doubt even loathing about her sexuality. The director-writer this time was Deborah Brock.
I know nothing about Brock’s background let alone her sexual orientation but I can see how Courtney’s visions of the “Driller Killer” as he’s called is not just callback to the fear of death she experienced before but the fear that she might be in to more than just men like Matt.
Based on my one-time viewing, I can’t tell for myself if it really is an allegory for Courtney’s frightening coming to terms with her bisexuality. What I can say is that a film called Slumber Party Massacre II can be interpreted more cerebrally than is normally expected of for its genre.
Yes, I can say that is a good endorsement to check it out along with the first one. If you’ve got the guts of course.
Prom Night (1980)
Two years after Michael Meyers’s historic night of fictional horror, Jamie Lee Curtis is back to being in harm’s way. The circumstances are just a bit different. Maybe more than that.
In 1974, at an abandoned mansion deep in the Ohio woods, a group of kids are playing a pretty macabre version of “hide and seek” without any parental supervision. You already know that something really bad is gonna happen.
10 year old Robin Hammond wants to join the fun but in doing so ends up falling off a two story height due to the kid’s actions and ends up dead in a really unsettling image involving a shard of glass. She leaves a grieving family consisting of two parents, one played by Leslie Nielsen the same year he did Airplane! and two other siblings: Kim played as a teen by Jamie Lee Curtis and Alex.
Though the siblings look much older than sixteen by the time 1980 rolls around in the movie( Lee Curtis was 22 then) the two are the most broken up by the proceedings, obviously.
The other four kids have also grown up and don’t seem to be as broken up by what they did. One of them, Wendy, has become the “Alpha” mean girl of Alexander Hamilton High( of course Hamilton came to mind while watching this) and she is none too happy that Kim has taken her ex Nick from him.
To further compound her resentment, Kim and Nick have been chosen as the prom queen and king for the dance and that festivity will feature a monumental amount of disco fever. 1980 was when disco was nearing its end (thankfully) and you could almost view Prom Night as a send-off for the now dormant musical genre.
I should also mention that just the disco soundtrack is part of why Prom Night has a considerable cult following. Enough to “justify” a by-most-accounts awful 2008 remake.
Getting back to the slasher aspects of this slasher movie, you almost certainly should have guessed by now that this film’s killer’s motivations relate to poor little Robin. The killer specifically targets and only intends to kill the four that were directly responsible for Robin’s death: all attending the prom night.
The execution so to speak of the masked killer this time around is what I would generally consider to be more realistic and at times disconcertingly plausible. For one, this isn’t some nigh perfect killing machine. This killer makes mistakes, responds to obstacles more realistically.
The best example is at the beginning of his pursuit of Wendy during the film’s most well-regarded sequence involving the two. The killer swings an axe at Wendy but misses, he gives chase but almost forgets his axe. The way he runs and moves in general does not suggest some professional, calculating monster but someone inexperienced, over their head if it wasn’t for who the killer is preying upon.
Even some of the victims manage to do some hits in such as a chubby prom-goer managing to throw the killer off his van with some well done turns of the wheel. It’s a pretty great tip-off that the identity of the killer is someone not too unusual, maybe some you could meet in real life while being none the wiser towards their hidden darkness.
Considering we live in the era of the mass shooter and white supremacist terrorist like Roof and Rittenhouse, this is disturbingly real in a way that I imagine wasn’t quite the same back in 80′.
The conclusion which inevitably ends up on the dance floor is pretty excellent in how it recontextualizes the whole movie and makes it tragic in a manner not often seen for the genre. If I’m being honest, the killer’s chase of Wendy and the dance floor finale are what really holds this film up more than anything else.
It’s more of a slow-burn experience which reflects as not quite being an 80s’ type of slasher movie. 1980 was indeed still a year of the 70s’. As I said about disco, Prom Night can be viewed as a warped denouement for that turbulent decade. Pretty effective considering that decade was notorious for its string of infamous real life serial killers like Dahmer, Wayne Gacy, Bundy and the Son of Sam.
Art does imitate life, whether you would prefer that or not. It is, if I’m being honest, better that happens so we might just learn something from it.
Pieces, an American-Spanish co-production is what I call a bona-fide weird slasher. Slumber Party Massacre II was weird but in a psychologically unnerving manner. Pieces is very gory, very off tempo, very unintentionally hilarious (maybe) insanity. It is a trashy film with lots of surreal gold sprinkled in with those to stomach it.
To start, we begin in 1942, where a young boy is doing a picture puzzle. It just so happens to be of an entirely nude woman. His overbearing, possibly abusive mother finds out, scatters the pieces in contempt and searches through the rest of his belongings for more smut. He returns to his mother with an axe and you can imagine what happens next. Like Michael Meyers, this guy was off from an early age.
Forty years pass. Boston 1982. An urban college filled with promise, prestige and very likely lots of stashed pot. Christopher George, who my dad tells me was a recurring co-star in several of John Wayne’s latter day pictures like El Dorado and Chisum, plays police lieutenant Bracken who will shortly have plenty of work on his hands at that university.
There is a face-obscured killer, who honestly half the time resembles the Shadow from those old timey radio dramas and serials. His weapon of choice: a chainsaw. The reason, well it relates to that childhood picture puzzle of his. Also, refer to the movie’s title.
Eventually, Mary Riggs, an Olympic tennis player turned undercover cop (no, really) joins the case, pretending to be the school’s new tennis instructor. He catches the fancy of Kendall, the college’s resident Casanova and he too ,somehow, is allowed to join in Bracken’s case.
There are several characters who act as red herrings for the real killer, such as Professor Brown, the sheepish anatomy teacher and Willard, the groundskeeper who is a big bear of a guy with a lazy eye but wouldn’t you know it, a heart of gold.
Again, the identity of whodundidit shall remain unspoiled, but what I will say is that this is not a film for the squeamish. I don’t know if it relates to a European exoticism when it comes to this genre but the kills, especially one on a waterbed are much…harsher.
There is some effective black humor to likely counterbalance the gruesomeness and the film’s occasionally, hilariously bad dubbing of lines. The above image is the crème da la crème of the humorous overacting and it is one of the most recognizable moments for those who talk about it online nowadays.
I won’t spoil the outcome, but what I can tell you is that the very final scene is a moment that comes out of basically nowhere and left me in complete and utter disbelief at what had just happened. That final moment is, I’m not kidding, worth a watch on its own. The only hint is that at the last minute, the film goes supernatural and it is a wild, wild sendoff.
Next time will involve less a common theme but more a set of pictures which may share some degrees of connection. Until next time….