Collins’ Crypt: The April Fools Slasher Trilogy Of 1986

Three April Fools' themed slasher movies came out in 1986. They're all weird.

The slasher wave of the '80s had mostly died out by 1985 or so, as your standard masked killers were phased out in favor of more imaginative and FX-driven fare like Fright Night and The Fly. Apart from the ongoing franchises (Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, mainly), there were precious few films that reveled in racking up a morgue's worth of dead teenagers thanks to the hacking and slashing of a deranged killer. However, those exceptions tended to be a little "off" to say the least, often tossing in supernatural elements with no explanation and allowing more oddball humor than you'd tend to find in the golden era entries. The thinking seemed to be that these movies had to not only satisfy as slasher films for the hardcore horror fans that were still demanding them (as opposed to more mainstream hits like Halloween and Friday the 13th), but also set themselves apart from those "tired" films in any way the filmmakers and/or producers deemed necessary.

So with that in mind, it's kind of weird that 1986 offered us not one, not two, but THREE slasher movies that revolved around April Fool's Day, and that they're all kind of anomalies in the sub-genre. The most famous here in the US is probably the simply titled April Fool's Day, as it not only had a wide release (from Paramount, still riding the Friday wave) but also featured a few recognizable actors, such as Friday the 13th Part 2's beloved Amy Steel, and Thomas Wilson, aka Back to the Future's Biff (how often does someone go from the highest grossing film of the year to a slasher film?). The others were Killer Party, which is probably the LEAST known and yet was somehow the first of the lot that I ever saw, and Slaughter High, which was a video store favorite (info on its theatrical release in the US is spotty) and has a strong enough following for Vestron to opt making it the latest release in their line of special edition blu-rays showcasing those '80s cult favorites.

(Spoilers for all three films follow!)

It's also the only one of the three that actually has the expected violence and gore, as the "all a prank" nature of April Fool's Day meant everyone died ("died") off-screen, and the MPAA just went to town on Killer Party, leaving it a bloodless affair not unlike the later (Paramount) Friday the 13th entries. No, Slaughter High gives you what you came for, which should be no surprise since it comes from the producers of Pieces, aka the slasher film with the tagline "It's exactly what you think it is!". It's also got the most traditional slasher of the trio: a group of popular kids pull a prank on a nerdy misfit (named Marty) and it goes too far, leaving him disfigured. Then we cut to five years later when they all return to the school for a reunion, at which point they begin being knocked off one by one by a guy in a Jester mask. There's no real "whodunit" element here even though he has a mask on - even a child could figure out it's Marty seeking revenge, but the mask is creepy (much better than the "skeleton holding an apple" box art that has no relation to anything) and it allowed the producers of this very low-budget production to use whoever they had on-hand to play the killer that day.

But when I say "traditional" to describe this movie I mostly mean the script, as the production itself is anything but. Right off the bat any astute film viewer would notice something amiss, as the credits are all out of their usual order, listing the cast *after* the composer and editor, before informing us that it has three credited directors, which I have literally never seen on any other film besides anthologies. Then we meet our protagonists, who all look far too old to play high school students - lead Caroline Munro was 35 when the film was shot, in fact. This sort of thing isn't too uncommon for a film that needs a prologue set in the past, but the problem with Slaughter High is that the actors are still too old even for the present day scenes (which only take place five years later, so they should all be in their early 20s). Wet Hot American Summer's prequel was easier to believe and the aging there was an intentional sight gag! Then it takes a full twenty minutes for Marty's accident to occur; to compare, by that time in Terror Train (a very similarly plotted film) the killer was already about to off his second victim in the present day. 

Things get a bit more normal when we cut to the present day and get everyone back at the school. Again, they're too old, and almost none of them are pulling off their American accents (it's a British production but set in America - more on that soon), but it's delivering the goods and features some memorable death scenes, including an electrocution during sex that allows the victims to die while having very pronounced orgasms. Nothing particularly new, but again, by this point we weren't exactly being flooded with this kind of thing anymore, so it was a fine throwback... until it got to the end. After a lengthy day-lit chase throughout the school (according to the directors on the commentary, the film came up short so they had to pad it out with an endless cat and mouse sequence), Marty manages to kill the would-be Final Girl, only to then be confronted by the zombie/ghost/whatevers of all of his victims. Then he wakes up in the hospital - it was all a dream! Then he kills his doctor and nurse before peeling his face off, and the credits roll. Huh? Did any of the movie really happen? Is he going to go off and kill all these people for real now, since he's escaping the hospital again? Your guess is as good as mine, and 13-year-old BC was plenty pissed off about this "twist". 

Then again, I should have known better given the April Fool's setting, as I already experienced this same copout trick in April Fool's Day. The plot of this one was notably free of much drama - a girl named Muffy invites all of her friends to her parents' isolated summer mansion and they start getting killed off, sans any obvious revenge plot or old legend to give the murders any reason for occurring. As I was only seven or eight when I saw that film (directed by When A Stranger Calls' Fred Walton), I didn't notice all of the editing tricks that kept anyone from dying on-screen - to me it was not much different than the TV cut of Friday the 13th Part V or whatever, where they'd show Jason (or whoever the killer was) come up behind someone and then cut to the next scene before we even saw an impact, let alone the ensuing bloodspray. So when it got to the end, and everything was revealed to be an elaborate prank, I was pretty angry - I demand true bloodshed, dammit! Years later I'd learn that the film did indeed at least have one real death, as a few characters would attempt to prank Muffy back only for one of them to snap and try to kill her for real (at which point he is killed in order to save her). This was seen as too downbeat, so it was cut and, as far as I know, has never been seen (though the details are available in the film's novelization).

I have to say, whoever made the call to cut this epilogue was probably right - tonally it would not fit the movie, which is actually quite a bit of fun (and better if you know that everything's fake). Again, this is something that would not have registered with me when I was a kid, but now as an adult, after seeing literally hundreds of slasher movies, I really love how much the characters seem to genuinely like each other and how they act like normal human beings for the most part. Slasher characters by design have to be kind of stupid (or at least, very easily cracked under pressure) for the plot to work, and I've ranted in the past at how many of them seem to hate their so-called friends (even Halloween is guilty of this; Annie treats Laurie like shit throughout the film). But since there's no actual danger here their actions are largely believable, and even though they're all rich college kids they're actually pretty charming and even witty at times, making it actually kind of OK that none of them actually died. 

Plus, they don't cheat the fakery at all, and there are a number of pranks early on to tip you off that these people have morbid senses of humor (and since they're rich, the money to pull these things off). So it lives up to the spirit of April Fool's Day (a holiday I always celebrated at Horror Movie A Day; one year I told everyone I was lying and there were five of us writing the reviews - a shocking number of people believed it), and unlike Slaughter High - which was also titled "April Fool's Day" at one point - doesn't mess up the holiday's "rules". Apparently in the UK, April Fool's Day ends at noon, with anyone who plays a prank after that time being considered the true "Fool" - this is not how we do it in America, where Slaughter High was set. So the characters believe that they only have to survive Marty's rampage until noon (hence the daytime-set climax), which confused the hell out of me until I found out the history. The American (well, actually Canadian) April Fool's Day doesn't mess up its namesake holiday as there was no need to "localize" it, making it the more satisfying "holiday horror" entry.

It also has this amazing end credit song, which I have embedded for your enjoyment:

That leaves Killer Party, which is the only one of the three that actually has a body count. Fittingly, it's also the one with the flimsiest connection to the day; it's mentioned over and over but the real thrust of the plot concerns a sorority that is celebrating the recent inductees (in April?) with a costume party in conjunction with one of the frats. For reasons I could barely follow, the spirit of a guy who died during an April Fool's prank (I think?) possesses one of the new sorority members and after a few attempts to keep the spirit subdued she snaps and kills everyone during the party. Ironically, the MPAA's censoring of the film almost works as a misdirect - it's so bloodless and so many people die off-screen that you might think it's going to end up like April Fool's Day and turn out to be an elaborate prank. It wouldn't even be out of nowhere; one of the girls has a dummy head and uses it to prank a few of the others early on with a guillotine trick that, as shown, would be impossible for someone to pull off (she's literally screaming as the blade drops down). So when it turns out to be all for real, it's almost kind of stunning in a weird way - a non-twist twist!

But that's pretty much only the last twenty minutes of the movie. Most of it is spent setting up the sorority stuff, the party itself, a romance or two, etc. It's also got a double fakeout opening, where we spend a few minutes in a mausoleum before finding out that it's just a movie the characters are watching, and then THOSE characters are revealed to be the stars of a music video our *actual* protagonists are watching. Don't get me wrong though; all of this is delightful and adds to the film's batshit charms, and it was an ideal kickoff film for this year's New Beverly All Night Horrorthon (my annual recap is up at HMAD if you'd like to read), as it fits their rules of showing rarely screened films but also offered a crowd-pleaser to start things off on a high note (as you might expect, if a film was something that a crowd loved, chances are it wouldn't be that rare in Los Angeles when there are so many repertory theaters). It was my third or fourth time seeing the film, and while I still don't quite understand everything that's going on (there appear to be a few murders that occur before the girl gets possessed - who killed them?) I find its kitchen-sink attitude very satisfying. Honestly, of the three films, it's probably my favorite just because it's so damn random. Did I mention Paul Bartel shows up?

Curiously, April Fool's Day was rarely used as a backdrop for any other horror films of note. There were two in the '00s (one of which was originally announced as a proper remake of Walton's film, though it was a completely different plot) that are rightfully forgotten, but otherwise - unless my research and the IMDB has failed me - there aren't any others, making it kind of remarkable that we got three of them in the same year. It's actually a good fit for a horror movie in the same way that Halloween is - there's a sense of playfulness and the license to do things people might not believe really happened, which is key to suspense and mystery. Plus it's something more likely to be celebrated by younger folks (read: potential slasher victims) and doesn't require set dressing and massive party scenes to really sell the audience on the setting, which should make it appealing to penny-pinching producers who don't want to go broke decorating for Christmas when shooting in the spring. You basically just need a calendar showing April 1st (indeed, Slaughter High does this, albeit in a very awkward manner) and a few pranks before getting to the scary stuff. The fact that none of these movies are exactly iconic should also be beneficial to a filmmaker, unlike Halloween and Christmas. It can be intimidating (cripplingly so) to make a film that has to compete with the likes of Trick 'r Treat and Black Christmas, but as all of these films have their faults, the "quintessential" April Fool's-based horror film has yet to be made, as far as I'm concerned. But these are all worth a look, if for no other reason than to prove that slasher movies aren't all cut from the same cloth, as their critics like to believe.

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