Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fright Flashback: The Eternal Grinding Of The Hollywood Machine

Welcome back to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will visit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, the fifth of the seemingly endless Mission: Impossible movies. In celebration, we'll be revisiting Slumber Party Massacre III, another late sequel in a franchise with a mystifying number of entries.

Year: 1990
Director: Sally Mattison
Cast: Keely Christian, Brittain Frye, 
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

The Slumber Party Massacre franchise is an alarming combination of fascinating and frustrating: In short, it is a Roger Corman production. The original Slumber Party Massacre was written as a feminist pastiche of the genre, but filmed totally straight, leaving it clever but muzzled and ladled with a steam helping of nudity in levels heretofore unseen this side of the “Adults Only” curtain. Slumber Party Massacre II drops the parody angle but adds a heavy dose of Krueger-ific dreamscapes and a rock ‘n roll killer that noodles tunes on his guitar (complete with nifty drill bit attachment) before mowing down pillow fighting co-eds, one of whom is the little sister of the original survivor’s neighbor. Hey, it makes more sense than the Terminator coming back as a good guy. Sequels are tough.

Slumber Party Massacre III throws its lot wholeheartedly in with the rest, featuring authentic female behaviors in an almost neoreliast, documentary-like fashion, including spontaneous double stripteases, cookie dough finger licking, and the like. That’s all fine and dandy, really. I love me some unabashed tawdriness in a film. Not everything has to be Gone With the Wind. But in a franchise with such a strong subtextual core – the killer’s drill represents his penis, his killings are psychosexual release, and his death is castration - being saddled with such a abundance of shallow exploitation seems disingenuous. The real clincher though, is that this terminally exploitative franchise has been directed and written by women from the start, the only slasher series in existence to do so.

Being a feminist slasher blogger is like trying to hug a cactus.

Slumber Party Massacre III tells the story of – you guessed it – the 1986 NATO summit. Just kidding. It’s about, of all things, a slumber party. After a fun day of volleyball at the beach (this film very explicitly takes place in the coastal town of Playa Vista – one thing I love about this franchise is that it makes no attempts to hide its (cheap) California roots – it feels like home), a buxom group of guys and gals prepares for the night of their lives. For many of them, it will be their last. 

Let’s Meet the Meat, shall we? There’s Jackie (Keely Christian), the girl hosting the party while her parents are out of town looking at real estate; Frank (David Lawrence), her new boyfriend who looks like a Play-Doh statue of Sam Smith; Tom (David Kriegel), a schlub who sucks at volleyball; Susie (Maria Claire), who has low enough standards to overlook Tom’s total lack of personality; Maria (Maria Ford of the arthouse classic Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls), who looks like Elvira but more corpse-like and with a bigger wig, and has a thing for men over 50; assorted light and dark Meat, overstuffed; and Juliette (Lulu Wilson), who I would call the “slut” character if that title hadn’t already been claimed by literally everybody else.

As the party goes on, the attendees begin to get picked off one by one (and then all at once) by a killer in a clear mask brandishing a power drill. Could it be the creepy lurker, credited only as Weirdo (Yan Birch), who wears a black gi and a hideous blonde goatee that makes me want to break some Entourage DVDs in half, who found the house thanks to an address book that Jackie left at the beach for some inscrutable reason? Or is it the creepy neighbor Morgan (Michael Harris), who spies on the girls with a telescope, walks through unlocked doors at random, peruses anatomy textbooks in his downtime, and who clearly attended the Creepy Suspect seminar of the raw meat-eating Orville Ketchum from Sorority House Massacre II?

Or maybe it’s one of the newcomers to the party: Duncan (David Greenlee), the nerdy outcast who has been shunned by the group, and Ken (Brittain Frye of Hide and Go Shriek), the too-perfect hunk who Juliette met at the beach, whose ex-cop uncle just mysteriously committed suicide.

Also his name makes Ken doll jokes suspiciously easy.

The most striking thing about Slumber Party Massacre III is that for a crappy direct-to-video slasher sequel it actually serves up a pretty decent mystery for a good chunk of the time. This is an entirely new feature. In the first two films, there is absolutely no question that the murders are being perpetrated by Russ Thorn and… Weird Elvis Guy. So it’s doubly unexpected when this DTV 1990 flick with the dialogue about hips and thighs and Barbie commercial performances manages to keep you on the hook for so long. And the mask is genuinely creepy, too! Halfway between The Purge and Alice, Sweet Alice, it’s a slick little number that has no business being anywhere near a dunghill like this.

At least this film is honoring the franchise tradition of staunchly defying black or white categorization. But we’re here to attempt to review this rat’s nest, so let’s step back and take a look at the facts:
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is the worst Slumber Party Massacre movie.
The law of diminishing returns strikes again. Never a big budget franchise, this films seems to have been made for less than the cost of a routine nipple reduction surgery (at least, circumstantial evidence seems to prove that this is so), with a series of kills that are either goreless or intimately repetitive, presumably so they could reuse the same prosthetic over and over again.
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is not scary.
Well-crafted scares require a well-crafted, well, anything. Beyond an attack in a car that introduces the drill via the rearview mirror and stages the killing pretty explicitly as a penetrative sexual act, there is an utter lack of style evident in the film. Non sequitur dialogue and bland medium shots smash into one another at regular intervals, occasionally combining serendipitously into something borderline coherent.
  • Slumber Party Massacre III is still… kind of good.
Damn it!

The profoundly vexing thing is that the frequently bad-good campy charms sometimes (though very rarely) shade into genuinely good-good territory. Now what am I supposed to do with that? In addition to the aforementioned first act mystery (which is no Agatha Christie but keeps you guessing for longer than most rote hack ‘n slash whodunits), there are some laugh-out-loud comic relief moments that betray this film’s buried parodic pedigree. I’ll only spoil one of these for you: Frank wants to go check out the basement, but Jackie urges him to take Duncan’s fireplace poker with him.

“Actually, these are tongs.”

OK, maybe you had to be there. But the fact remains that this film is actually a half-decent slumber party flick. You and your friends can place bets on the murderer, shiver (but not too much) at the masked driller killer, laugh yourselves silly at the wooden performances and genuine humor, and shout at dumb characters to not go in the basement when there’s an open sliding glass door twelve feet from you, ya dipstick! And thought the low budget prevents the kills from spilling more than a thimble or so of blood, there’s some extravagantly cheesy compensation, including someone being stabbed with a swordfish and a particularly clever death involving the house’s “For Sale” sign.


Of course, Slumber Party Massacre III still isn’t a good film, as the entirety of the third act labors tirelessly to prove. The killer turns out to be Ken, which is interesting in its own right (the handsome, unassuming killer brings Psycho to mind – plus I like to think of it as backlash against the yuppiefied 80’s), but Frye plays psychosis like a six-year-old having a temper tantrum, and his implied, undernourished molestation backstory gets too dark too quick. After he reveals himself, there are still a good five or six girls still alive, and he begins chasing them around the house in a scene that begins exciting but rapidly deteriorates into a sloppy Caligula of idiocy.

The girls scuttle right past one another as they bleed to death, refusing to render aid or exit through the unblocked front door. Time endlessly unspools as scene after scene ticks by of girls hiding, smashing lamps over Ken’s head, then practically handing his drill back to him and starting it all over again. It’s like the final scene of Halloween, only Jamie Lee Curtis has been lobotomized and it’s played simultaneously on five different screens like one of those a cappella YouTube videos.

Nothing can take away the surprising quality and fun of the first half of Slumber Party Massacre III, but its third act can damn sure try. With some proper editing, this film could have been just as memorable as its wacky brethren, but as it stands, it’s still one big hunk of crap that I can’t say I’m sorry I saw. This unknowable, ineffable franchise is finally finished. It’s been a bumpy ride, but certainly a wild one.

Killer: Ken (Brittain Frye)
Final Girl: Jackie Cassidy (Keely Christian)
Best Kill: Juliette is electrocuted when a vibrator is tossed in the tub. It’s not even hers. She’s borrowing it.
Sign of the Times: Jackie’s jeans have a higher proportion of patches on them than actual denim.
Scariest Moment: The masked killer pursues the Pizza Girl (Marta Kober of Friday the 13th Part 2) down a moonlit street.
Weirdest Moment: After Tom complains that his ankles hurt sometimes, Ken chainsaws his Achilles tendons, admonishing, “Never ever admit your weaknesses.” Somehow, I feel like pretty much everyone has a weakness to being chainsawed in the ankles.
Champion Dialogue: “If you can’t stop your parents from moving, why don’t you just move in with us? My mom wouldn’t notice. She’s going through menopause.”
Body Count: 11; I’m not counting Tom, because unless he bled out through the ankles, he sure as patoot didn’t die.
  1. Sarah is drilled through the back.
  2. Michael is stabbed through the chest with a For Sale sign.
  3. Pizza Girl is drilled in the gut.
  4. Juliette is electrocuted with a vibrator.
  5. Weirdo is stabbed in the mouth with a swordfish.
  6. Duncan is slashed across the stomach with a drill.
  7. Frank dies from being hit in the face somehow.
  8. Janine is drilled in the gut.
  9. Maria is drilled in the gut.
  10. Diana is stabbed to death.
  11. Ken is drilled in the gut.
TL;DR: Slumber Party Massacre III is a bad-good movie with more than occasional glimmers of brilliance.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1837
Reviews In This Series
The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, 1982)
Slumber Party Massacre II (Brock, 1987)
Slumber Party Massacre III (Mattison, 1990)

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