Showing posts with label film history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film history. Show all posts

Monday, June 2, 2014

Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Repost from 2011.

Dir. Amy Holden-Jones || 1982 || USA

For the next month, I'm going to be writing about the Slumber Party Massacre series of films, along with Sorority House Massacre. The Slumber Party Massacre series, along with the first Sorority House Massacre film, were all written and directed by women. The films were also distributed by two Roger Corman companies, New World, then Concorde (or New Concorde). Corman also produced all but the first Slumber Party Massacre film.


Slumber Party Massacre is considered the godmother of feminist horror films. Some credit it as being the inspiration for Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, although the film is mentioned only a few times throughout the course of the book (Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and I Spit on Your Grave are given more consideration). The film is notable as being  the first slasher film written and directed by women. Feminist author Rita Mae Brown co-wrote the script with Amy Holden Jones, who also directed. The film focuses on a group of high school girls that are on the basketball team together who have a slumber party for "old times sake" while the lead girl, Trish Devereaux's parents are out of town. Of course, that very weekend, a serial killer has escaped from prison. Brown and Jones intended it as a parody of slasher films, which in 1982, was still doing well as a genre, although there were already at least two parodies out, Student Bodies and Wacko. At some point, Jones decided to shoot the film as straight-forward, although there are a few amusing moments throughout the film. Brown later disowned the film claiming that the film added more to the problem rather than turning slasher films on its head, while Jones claims in the documentary Going to Pieces: the Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film that she remains proud of the film.

I think the feminism, as well as the horror and the humor in Slumber Party Massacre is more in the little details rather than the big picture. Upon second viewing, I forgot how T&A filled this film is, and between watching the second film and reading a little about the third film so far, it is my understanding that the T&A becomes less gratuitious and copious as the series wears on. Since the first SPM comes roughly 14 years after the height of the Second Wave feminist movement, it's a bit bizarre having to wonder if the braless-ness is due to feminism or due to wanting to appeal to guys. In retrospect, it seems like one of the rare times feminism and sex appeal intersect, but in the odd realm of the time before Third Wave feminism where people were sometimes more comfortably combining the two (of course this makes me wonder why bra burning is still not considered a tenet of feminism, whereas not shaving and constantly talking about not shaving is considered a rite of passage for most baby feminists). Watching the basketball scene early on in the film, I noticed both the braless-ness (logically, wouldn't that chafe while playing sports?) and that the actresses were perhaps not that great at pretending to play basketball, although most of the actresses are tall. Even with all the bouncing and nudity, the film still occasionally carries the air of an old Summer's Eve commercial.

Then there are the other little details. Besides the fact the film is about a girls basketball team, which is rare not just in horror films, but in other types of films; the film also features a telephone repairwoman and a general handywoman. All the girls seem obsessed with sports statistics, a point driven home quite often throughout the film. The most petite member of the team flips her much larger boyfriend after he sneaks up on her. The ostracized new girl, Valerie, and her younger sister Courtney, read Playgirl while occasionally keeping an eye on Trish's house (signaling that Brown and/or Jones are not anti-porn feminists). Trish did invite Valerie over, but Valerie overheard the snobby petite girl saying mean things about her and declined the invitation. These scenes sort of play as the anti-Carrie, displaying that some teenage girls can be nice and appreciative towards classmates who are talented and pretty and not make everything a competition.

The thing that has stood out for me with both viewings is that once they understand that a killer has been hanging around the house, characters both inside of the house and outside of the house make a valiant attempt to work together so as many people as possible are saved. The two goofy male classmates of the girls who came to the house to spy on the party seem to understand that in their attempt to go find help outside of the house, that they may not make it back alive. They're normal dorky teenage boys, they do not pretend to have machismo. Valerie has an intuition that something is not right and calls their coach as well as checks out the house herself, both from afar and eventually, up close. The film has this communal feel to it in these scenes as well as earlier ones where the girls do not fall trap to the usual horror trope of "I'll be right back, I'm gonna go check out the fusebox in the garage" by having everyone go check the fusebox together. Yeah, the kids do fall victim anyway due to things like not locking the garage door and not keeping all the window and doors in the house closed and locked, but there are interesting attempts to buck the tropes a little.

The humor in the film is somewhat amusing. Throughout the film, there are sort of faux-jump scares. They do not work, but I'm not sure that they were intended to most of the time. This mostly consists of assorted male (and sometimes female) characters coming up behind one of the girls and inadvertently scaring them. The weirdest attempts at humor come towards the end of the film, as one of the girls decides that fear makes her hungry and that eating will make her feel better, and she starts eating a slice of pizza atop the dead pizza delivery guy, much to the disgust of the other girls. There's also the scene where a girl searches for a suitable deadly and threatening tool in the basement, and charges up the stairs with a plugged-in circular saw.

I was flipping through my copy of Clover's book, and she mentions in the afterword that a lot of horror filmmakers do read Freud, and that some other directors had changed their films a bit after reading the first and early-released chapter of her book, including the director of Slumber Party Massacre III. So yes, everyone knows that the drill that the killer uses is one absurdly huge phallic symbol. As is the machete that one of the girls uses to dispatch the killer. While I haven't read Clover's book in years, I have the vague remembrance that she discusses the sort of fluid sexualities of most slasher film killers. I think the killer in SPM is perhaps no exception. Yes, he kills a couple of women at first, but for a good stretch of the film, he mostly kills males. However, there is the feeling that he is killing the males just to be able to get to the girls easier. The killer is psychotic to the point where he kills a person in a front yard, so he is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of the girls. I don't think he is telling the males that they are pretty and that he loves them and that is why he has to kill them, but then again, Brown and Jones do not have him utter a word until the final scene of the film.

Slumber Party Massacre is not the greatest slasher film, but it is an interesting one and deserves its place in horror history. The characters are likeable. The way the film is shot is gritty and more technically adventurous than most female directors' first films. While perhaps not a straight parody, it has a lot of different details to it and it was attempting to buck the tropes a decade or two before the most recent horror trend of neo-slashers playing with the tropes and usually with middling success.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

(Film) books, check 'em ouuuuuuuuut!

Repost from 2011, pre-grad school days. I re-read the two middle books at least twice during the course of my graduate education. The nitpicking may still stand, but I can discuss the theoretical issues with the two books pretty well when I want to.
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Here are some of the film books I was reading a month or so ago. Other than the Jonathan Lethem book, I felt the need to start out with some classics and basics

Feminist Film Theorists (Routeledge Critical Thinkers Series) - Shohini Chaudhuri
I think the number one thing I learned from this book is of the divide in early feminist film criticism that was American (sociological) versus British (psychological). And for the most part, this book puts forth the more psychological theorists. It's a minor fact, but it sort of explains why I do not absorb the psychological aspects too well. I was very close to minoring in sociology during various points in college as well. This book is mostly good as a starting point, but not much else.




Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle - Vera Dika
This was released roughly a year before Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover's book is more in-depth. Dika has some fleeting good ideas and it's not too bogged down with psychological theories; but it's a basic book that monotonously outlines the monotony of slasher/stalker films by discussing the plots of about a dozen films; in particular the Jamie Lee Curtis ouevre. Dika's jumping off point is Psycho, but from there she goes straight to Halloween, while only giving passing and brief references to Peeping Tom and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My problem with this book and Clover's book is that it skips over Black Christmas. I do not know the history of Black Christmas past what Wikipedia tells us, and it wasn't a film I remember seeing around often in video stores when I was a kid and teenager. Was Black Christmas that obscure? Did Dika ignore it because it was Canadian or because it had an experienced cast in John Saxon, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea; a post-Sisters, pre-Superman Margot Kidder, and a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin? Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas do not completely fit in the checklist of plot occurrences that Dika outlines for the films she discusses in this book, but neither does Psycho. By and large, The Burning seems to be more obscure than Black Christmas, yet that film receives a section in this book.

Other issues I had with this book: the frequent misspellings and typos. She misspells Steven Spielberg's name quite often. It was also hard to tell whether or not Dika was approaching these films from a feminist POV (and then a feminist POV as to whether or not slasher films can be feminist). And the way she used a Freudian binary system to declare characters as valued or devalued did not sit well with me. It's not a terrible book, but it has some issues that made me twitch.


Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film - Carol J. Clover
I have read this book twice now and in regards to the first book I reviewed in this post, I am perhaps still finding trouble absorbing most of the psychological criticism in this book. The only thing I feel as if I better absorbed this time around was the chapter on possession films and the chapter on the sort of meta horror films that concern viewing horror films (Peeping Tom, Demons). I did check out a lot of the films mentioned since having first read this book in 2006, like the oft-mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I Spit on Your Grave. In fact, I checked out so many of these films that I could parse out some of Clover's mistakes (wrong dates, the implication that Motel Hell was inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 when Motel Hell was released six years before that sequel - also TCM2 is a terrible movie and I don't understand why anyone would want to write at length about it). I can't get too mad at Clover about them though, because for one thing, she's an expert in something like Nordic history. Film is not her primary academic interest, although the dates thing bugs me a bit because most VHS boxes back in the day did have dates on them, and it's not that hard to figure out dates from the roman numerals on copyrights at the end of films. And again, nary a word on Black Christmas, although at least Clover does cover Peeping Tom extensively. Also, for better or for worse, I can't shake off the fact that it is acknowledged by Clover herself in the Afterword that the writer of Slumber Party Massacre 3 changed the story significantly after reading the first chapter of her book, which was released in an academic journal in 1987; making for that film's ugly and brutal third act three years later.


Proof of my marginalia in Men, Women, and Chainsaws.




Deep Focus #1: A Novel Approach to Cinema: They Live - Jonathan Lethem

They Live is the first book in a new series of books published by Soft Skull press that allows fiction writers to discuss their favorite films. I haven't read any other books in the series yet, so I don't know if all the other writers take the same approach as Lethem. Lethem writes about John Carpenter's They Live on a almost shot-by-shot or scene-by-scene basis, each with a timecode reference. Some scenes receive only a paragraph of discussion, others receive up to four pages. It took me awhile to get used to this approach as I was sort of expecting something akin to the short books the British Film Institute publishes on films (although it is mostly film critics and academics who write those) that are long essays or treatises on a certain film. But after getting used to Lethem's approach, I found that he does have some interesting things to say about They Live, especially in connection to the art of Jenny Holzer and Shepard Fairey.