The 1980’s were a peak time for the slasher film. It saw the likes of Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street all receiving multiple sequels while a wide variety of cheap imitations were also released. Cashing in on this boom was vital. 1982 saw the release of The Slumber Party Massacre, which taken on face value could be mistaken as any cheap knock off. If we investigate a little deeper into this film, we can find out why this stands out in the crowd when you compare it to your average slasher film.
It’s hard to argue that The Slumber Party Massacre doesn’t fall into the tropes of the slasher horror sub-genre. Teens are terrorised by a mass murder with a signature weapon. The synthesised music is clearly inspired by John Carpenter’s work on Halloween. There are even nods to the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees with their own iconic weapons making appearances throughout the final act. But how this film is able to push itself ahead of the crowd is the way in which gender is portrayed throughout the film. Director Amy Holden Jones is able to take ideas of gender at the time and both flip certain ideas but also play in to certain expectations.
Just from the marketing, you can see the way in which this film is looking to present ideas of gender differently. The main poster for the movie (seen below) displays Russ Thorn as the framing device. His legs become the frame for which the girls become the main spectacle and the main focus is on them. This style of poster has become extremely common in all types of genre but is often with a woman’s legs and a male protagonist inside the frame. Even just with this simple reversal of roles within the poster, The Slumber Party Massacre puts it’s female protagonists within a position of authority which has often been reserved for the male characters in movies.
Another way in which she is able to flip expectation is through the films liberal use of nudity. Throughout the movie, women are shown in various states of undress but they are all within a context which is non-sexual. The first example that stands out is in the locker room after basketball practice in which the girls are all showering. As they wash they talk about “The great big guys in their cute little shorts” and other locker room banter often associated with a men’s locker room. This scene we would typically see in a horror movie but from the men’s locker room as they sexualise the girls within the film. Flipping the location and gender of the scene already puts different expectations on the audience for who these women are. Often the female victims in horror movies are an extreme of being overly sexual or an angelic virgin. By placing all the actresses within the discussion you create a level playing field in which their sexuality does not turn in to their downfall as often associated with the common horror trope, “Death by Sex”.
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to
successfully survive a horror movie! For instance, Number 1:
You can never have sex. Sex equals death, OK?”
— Randy, Scream
The biggest instance in which nudity becomes sexualised is when a male spectator invades the screen. This occurs when Jeff and Neil are spying on the girls through the window of their bedroom as they are changing. In this instance we are not shown the faces of the girls as they undress putting us in the perspective of the male gaze as we share the image with the two peeping toms. Compare this to the earlier scene in the locker room where the focus in majority on the faces of the girls as they talk, we can see that Amy Holden Jones is able to switch cleverly from the female gaze to the male gaze to show the perverted way women are shown typically with horror movies.
The perversion of men is however best represented by the drill wielding killer, Russ Thorn. Many dissections of Halloween have often drawn focus to the phallic weaponry of Michael Myers, his long knife. Dial that phallic imagery up to 10 and you have the drill, a penetrative weapon which couldn’t be any closer to be any penis while still being a home depot appliance. The scene this becomes most prominent in is with Russ having overpowered the girls, he stands over Trish. The reverse shot sees Trish in frame with the drill forward in the frame obscuring her face. He speaks at her saying things like “such pretty girls”, “I love you” and “you know you want it”. With language like this, he is framed by the director similar to how a rapist would be and the drill becomes a representation of his penis. It’s not until Valerie returns with a machete does Russ retreat. It’s also worth noting that when attacked with smaller knives Russ does little to show fear but once the phallic image of the machete is seen, an image much larger than his own, does he attempt to escape.
I think it’s also worth looking at the fact that while the famed villains of slasher films are often disfigured or masked, Russ is nothing more than a regular man. He has no background history or tragic past in this movie which so often these villains have acquired and he is instead just a man and his weapon. While the fears of Myers, Krueger and Voorhees attacking in the night can be dismissed as fantastical, Russ Thorn could be anyone you find out in the real world. He becomes representative of a very real fear of rape and The Slumber Party Massacre turns from being a simple slasher film, in to an allegory for sexual assault. It’s when Valerie defiantly slices the drill in half that Russ he becomes truly fearful as he looks down at his now dismembered phallic weapon.
The incredible film Amy Holden Jones helped to kick off started a memorable franchise which has perhaps been left underappreciated. It’s had two sequels both also directed by women and rumours continue to circulate about the possibility of new instalments. I think it’s clear to see what a positive influence that Jones had on this film by focusing on the female gaze and reassessing movie tropes which had already started to become stale within the genre. If the franchise continues on this path, it can only get stronger especially with the way horror movies have flourished over the last few years.
by Shaun Alexander
Shaun Alexander is a freelance writer based in London. He currently studies Film with inspirations of screenwriting and directing in the future. His favourite films include the likes of Inside Llewyn Davis, Fish Tank and The Lobster, and enjoys writing on aspects of toxic masculinity and mental health in film. He has recently realised a love for the genre of “Period Drama Women Behaving Badly” Follow on twitter @salexanderfilm
Categories: Feminist Criticism, Women Film-makers
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