Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Pranks For The Memories

Year: 1986
Director: Fred Walton
Cast: Deborah Foreman, Amy Steel, Clayton Rohner
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Sad April Fool's Day! 

Just kidding! Happy April Fool's Day!

That's about all the pranking energy I have in me at this point, I'm afraid. As a kid, I was the best in the business, but I'm retired now. Luckily for us, today's slasher feature has us covered for all of our practical joking needs. April Fool's Day, released by Paramount in 1986, is a film birthed from a congregation of slasher royalty.

Friday the 13th producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. pulled together some of the biggest names in the business for April Fool's Day, including Nightmare on Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein, Fade to Black/The Funhouse/Friday the 13th 4, 5, & 6/Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo/Everything You've Ever Loved casting director Fern Champion, When A Stranger Calls director Fred Walton, and Friday the 13th Part 2 Final Girl Amy Steel. It's kind of like the Avengers for the slasher set, if you will.

Only they do battle with terrible 80's hairstyles instead of world-eating aliens.

April Fool's Day tells the story of one Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman of 1988's Destroyer), a tragically rich young woman who hosts an April Fool's/birthday/spring break getaway weekend for her college friends at her secluded island mansion. After a prank unintentionally leads to a gory ferry accident, the constable and the ferry captain head to the mainland, leaving the unfortunate kids all alone for the weekend. Of course a mysterious someone begins picking them all off, but let's Meet the Meat before they're seasoned and sliced, shall we?

The group in April Fool's Day is considerably large, but each of the kiddos has a distinct, multi-faceted personality that renders them unique and compelling. The one thing this diverse group has in common is that none of them seem to like Muffy all that much. 

There's Nikki (Deborah Goodrich), the clever, promiscuous sexpot with a Mad Magazine sense of humor; Chaz (Clayton Rohner of I, Madman), Nikki's boyfriend, the kinda cute, really horny film major who doesn't take anything seriously; Arch (Thomas F. Wilson aka freaking Biff Tannen from Back to the Future), Chaz's bestest buddy, and one of those straight dudes who spends an improbable amount of time pretending he wants to bang his friend; Hal (Jay Baker), a kinda dorky Southern gold digger who fears for his own inheritance; Skip (Griffin O'Neal), Muffy's jovial stoner cousin; Nan (Leah Pinsent), a bookish, prudish, bubbly girl who packs a separate suitcase for her homework; Kit (Amy Steel), who, thanks to her androgynous name and veteran performer is without a doubt our Final Girl despite her only character trait being that she's a tad irritable; and Rob (Ken Olandt), Kit's boyfriend who feels like he isn't worthy because he goes to a state school. 

He's wrong. He's not worthy because of his terrible mullet.

Their interactions are underscored with a truly intriguing element of class anxiety. Most of the guests are sheltered and privileged in their own right, but many are envious of Muffy "On a Clear Day You Can See the Kennedys" St. John's considerable means, and Rob feels inadequate because of his lower socioeconomic status. It is perhaps too much to ask for a late-period slasher to explore this topic in a full, satisfying manner, let alone worm its way into a decent thesis, but April Fool's Day uses this unconsummated motif as a bedrock for incredibly solid characterizations.

The yuppie movement having come into full swing by the mid-80's, these obnoxious but lovable characters plant the film firmly in a historical context, far more than the typical slasher ephemera of feathered hair and neon legwarmers. Compounded with one character's expression of nuclear fears, and another's shamefully hidden abortion, April Fool's Day becomes a half-decent social piece on the futility and anxiety of the upper and middle class in the materialistic 1980's.

It's a good thing, too, because as an out-and-out slasher film, April Fool's Day isn't exactly a peach. The dialogue and filmmaking are solid, and there's some decent atmosphere, but the Thought Police MPAA crackdown on slashers in the latter half of the decade stunts the film considerably. The one sex scene is about as un-exploitative as Nancy Drew's dream journal, and the gore is light, to say the least.

When your climactic gore reveal could be fixed up with some Tampax and a teaspoon of Alka-Seltzer, it might not be ready for prime time.

BUT! The tone is jovial and the atmosphere is decently spooky, in the best evocation of the spirit of April Fool's. While the kiddos have fun with dribble glasses and gimp masks, Bernstein's remarkably held-back synth music keeps the creep factor up for scenes that have actual, genuine tension from time to time. Though the kills may be muffled, the preceding moments can be deliciously tense and one sequence in a well actually manages to dredge up a goosebump or two.

And wait! There's more! The cast is packed with actors who had more than just a simulacrum of a career, so the performances are across the board pretty decent. The only weak links are the flaky Deborah Foreman as Muffy "It's OK, It's Perrier" St. John, who for the life of her can't figure out just what to do with her damn hands, flapping them wildly around her face like rabid bats, and (unfortunately) Amy Steel, who is brought down by a dull character and reduced to a kind of drowsy irritation for too many of her line readings. 

Kit only becomes interesting in a historical context when she comes on to Rob, providing the actress her second consecutive non-virginal Final Girl character. I don't know what it is about Ms. Steel, but directors love to film her jumping dudes' bones, and this scene is certainly more sultry than her chaste pre-coital scene with Paul in Friday the 13th. Despite her lackluster performance, this scene is more than enough to launch her into the Final Girl pantheon for defying stereotypes. Go Kit! Feminism!

On another note, the film is also quite well-shot, with picturesque scenery and nighttime lighting that manages to avoid drowning the frame in darkness. You'd think that slasher filmmakers would pick up a book or two on night cinematography when they prepare to shoot a film almost entirely after sunset. But you would be severely overestimating how much the people behind the camera cared about these things. Most of the time, I count myself lucky if I don't see a boom mike in frame, but here the cinematography is skilled and professional and I can't respect that enough.

Also whoever picked out that outfit deserves an Oscar.

Alright, here's where things get SPOILERific. If you care about the ending to a 30-year-old B-slasher, skip ahead to the image of the homoerotic frat bros.

As you might have been able to guess, the ending of April Fool's Day reveals that the Agatha Christie-esque body count antics are all one big prank. Muffy is performing a dry run for a murder mystery getaway weekend she plans to sell to the public, in which her evil twin Buffy escapes from an asylum and mows down the guests. Her friends are her unfortunate first victims. 

This ending is a sprightly reversal on slasher expectations from a team intimately familiar with the formula, but it also prevents the film from being a classic example of the form. For obvious reasons, all the deaths are kept offscreen, reducing the impact of the kills and irritating the horehounds in the audience. The film is clever enough to spring back from this deficiency, but it causes the third act to drag something fierce before the Final Girl sequence kicks in.

Speaking of the finale, the film's premise also prevents the Final Girl from fighting back against the killer. It wouldn't exactly be a classic prank if Kit stabbed Muffy in her smug face, so she is reduced to panicked running that is rendered interesting by some inspired set design, but doesn't have the dynamism of her chainsaw tussle with the truly dangerous Jason Voorhees. The final reveal is chilling thanks to some subtle, jarring sound design, but in the end its clever reversal is not quite worth the losses it inflicts on the film as a whole.

Welcome back, my love.

All in all, April Fool's Day isn't a film that I would recommend to a casual horror fan, but for those willing to explore its coy depths, it's a rewarding character slasher with a well-honed sense of fun. It won't change your perspective on the genre or anything, but it's a more than acceptable romp through the social climate of 1986 with some puckish mayhem thrown in for good measure.

Killer: [Buffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) but actually nobody]
Final Girl: Kit (Amy Steel)
Best Kill: Chaz is castrated while wearing a gimp mask, so that's fun.
Sign of the Times: As much as I love Chaz's baggy jacket/V-neck/patterned pajama pants combo, I'm pretty sure it's a capitol offense to wear it in today's fashion climate.

Scariest Moment: Arch is hung from a tree above a lunging snake.
Weirdest Moment: In an attempt to nail the classic Spring-Loaded Cat scare, April Fools Day launches a forlorn feline directly down onto poor Skip from the stratosphere.
Champion Dialogue: "Your fly's open and your Hostess Twinkie is hangin' out."
Body Count: 8 [But actually 0]
  1. Skip is killed offscreen.
  2. Arch is decapitated. 
  3. Nan has her throat slit.
  4. Chaz is castrated.
  5. Nikki is stabbed to death.
  6. Hal is hung.
  7. Muffy is decapitated.
  8. [Muffy has her throat slit.
TL;DR: April Fool's Day is a demure slasher, but makes up for it with great characters and a fairly suspenseful twist on the genre.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1650

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