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The Slumber Party Massacre offered a (somewhat) feminist spin on the slasher

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. Because it’s Horrors Week here at The A.V. Club, we’re highlighting some of the best unsung slasher movies.

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, who got their start working for B-movie impresario Roger Corman, often talk about the creative freedom afforded by Corman’s commercial formula. So long as they stuck to the budget and delivered enough action, violence, and sex to satisfy the audience—or at least enough to cut into an exciting trailer—they could play around some with style and content. That’s how Joe Dante was able to turn the shameless Jaws rip-off Piranha into a sly parody, and how Jonathan Demme could make Caged Heat into a women’s prison picture that didn’t feel like sleazy exploitation. And that’s why director Amy Holden Jones and feminist firebrand writer Rita Mae Brown figured that Corman’s New World Pictures would let them skewer the overt misogyny of the slasher genre with their horror satire The Slumber Party Massacre.

It didn’t quite work out as they’d planned. Jones, who’d been in the business for a few years and knew what Corman expected, reportedly scaled back some of Brown’s outrageous ideas, and included more of what Roger Ebert would’ve called the Dead Teenager Movie elements. Decades later, on a DVD commentary track, Jones sighs resignedly at the long girls’ locker room shower scene she begins the movie with, noting that she may have taken “give the customer what they want” too far by slowly panning up and down her actresses’ nude bodies.

When The Slumber Party Massacre came out in 1982, most critics ignored or dismissed it as a by-the-numbers version of an all-too-familiar slasher plot, where a group of partying teenagers get killed in increasingly disgusting ways. But in a way, the straightforwardness of The Slumber Party Massacre makes it even more subversive. The movie doesn’t telegraph its points through exaggeration; instead, it’s unpretentiously effective just as a gory horror exercise, with all the giggly, half-naked high school makeout sessions and shock-impalings that fans had come to expect since Halloween and Friday The 13th. The big difference is that Brown and Jones make their female victims into actual characters, who enjoy each other’s company and spend more time than usual conversing between murders.

Granted, most of the sisterhood happens while the ladies are wearing skimpy nightgowns. But Jones also works some gender-specific criticism into her imagery, from an insert shot of a discarded Barbie to the way the killer’s long, menacing drill often dangles between his legs. The bonding between the would-be victims matters, because what tends to doom them in this story is when they peel off from their girlfriends to go spend time with a fella. The Slumber Party Massacre emphasizes strength in numbers, especially given that these women aren’t being stalked by a superhuman masked monster, but some ordinary nobody with a power tool. Like the patriarchy, he’s brutal, but beatable.

Availability: The Slumber Party Massacre is available on DVD and Blu-ray.