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Friday, November 13, 2020

‘The Slumber Party Massacre’: Slashing the Patriarchy

Knife wielding killers, synth scores, and premarital sex are the language of slasher films. Rising to popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this subgenre of horror is known for its violent and exploitative nature. Films like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helped create the formula, and ever since films have been copying, subverting, and reinventing the form. Amy Holden Jones’s 1982 film The Slumber Party Massacre dissects the slasher with feminist ferocity, commenting on the misogyny of slasher films as well as the generally male dominated genre. 

As the film begins, the audience is informed that a mass murderer has escaped from prison. Within the next few minutes we meet Trish (Michelle Michaels), a high school basketball player who seems like a nice girl. She is shown topless in the very first scene in which we meet her, the gratuitous nudity not wasting a minute of time. Since her parents are going away for the weekend, Trish plans a small get together between her and her friends on the basketball team. With boyfriends, mischievous jocks, and the new girl next door, the night is already primed for trouble. Throw in a drill wielding psycho killer, and you have yourself a slumber party ripe for a massacre. 

What distinguishes this film from most other slashers is the approach it takes in portraying the female characters and how it satirizes the elements of the genre. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, the film was originally meant to be a parody of slashers. The producers went against her ideas and wanted a more straightforward horror flick, but Jones’s direction still accomplishes what Brown might have originally intended. Through using the known tropes of slasher films to an exaggerated degree, Jones is able to comment on the stereotypes of the genre in a clever way. 

The gratuitous nudity is the most obvious example. At nearly every possible moment, topless women are shown, with the camera slowly gazing over their nude bodies. This happens within the first few minutes when we meet Trish, as well as when the girls are showering after basketball practice. During a later scene in Trish’s house during the sleepover, their jock friends peer in through the window of the living room and watch the girls change into their pajamas. The constant leering at the women’s bodies, done so in an exaggerated manner, highlights the obsession horror has with nude women. They are constantly murdered, raped, and tortured in horror films, seemingly punished for their bodies. The excess of nudity in this film calls attention to itself, highlighting the ridiculous, often senseless disregard filmmakers have for women’s bodies. 

Apart from the commentary on female bodies, the film also explores female sexuality. Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), the younger sister of the new girl Valerie (Robin Stille), steals her sister’s porn magazine to look at out of curiosity. Valerie teases her and they talk about masturbation. Courtney’s interest in sex is discussed naturally, not something to be afraid of or something that girls don’t experience. This contrasts with the voyeuristic way in which the girls’ jock friends sneakily look into their window to watch them undress without their consent, which is treated as normal in most films. 

Where the most blunt commentary lies, however, is in the portrayal of the killer himself. Russ Thorn (Michael Villella), the escaped mass murderer whose weapon of choice is a power drill, chooses Trish and her friends to terrorize. The immediate irony is his weapon, which is a phallic symbol and is oftentimes held at his waist to appear as so. In an iconic shot, Thorn closes in on one of the girls with his drill, but the shot is taken at a lower angle through his legs so that it looks as if it is his penis. Thorn also doesn’t speak until near the end of the film when he has Trish cornered. She asks why he chose them and he states, “You’re pretty, all of you are very pretty… It takes a lot of love for a person to do this. You know you want it. You’ll love it.” This language is clearly very similar to things that victims of sexual harassment and assault hear, which plays as the killer’s motivation. 

In the final showdown, only Trish, Valerie, and Courtney are still alive. It takes the three remaining girls to defeat him, which features Valerie using a machete to slice the drill in half, rendering Thorn useless. The symbolism of her destroying the phallic symbol — the weapon of the killer and a patriarchal stereotype — is a powerful image even if overt in its imagery. A satisfying ‘plunk’ sounds as the end of the drill falls into the pool water beside Thorn. He falls into the pool after Valerie cuts off his hand. Celebrating their victory, Courtney and Valerie don’t notice that Thorn rises from the water — it’s a slasher, the killer always comes back for one last scare. Trish, Courtney, and Valerie struggle with him as he tries to strangle Valerie. Then she grabs her machete and holds it upward as Thorn falls onto it.  

Interestingly, the girls are only able to defeat Thorn by also using a phallic shaped weapon. Valerie’s machete is what slices through his power drill, and she also holds it at her waist as he falls onto it. The phallic shaped power drill can be seen as a metaphor for the patriarchy, misogyny, and hypermasculinity. By Valerie cutting through this with her own phallic shaped weapon, it can be seen as her reclaiming power that she has never been granted under a patriarchal society. This extends to how a lot of women are treated in other horror films, their helplessness usually resulting in only one final girl surviving. That doesn’t happen here. There is no final girl. 

Slumber Party values its female characters, something that many other slashers tend to disregard. The girls, despite being objectified by the camera in the first half of the film, are rounded out beings with greater depth than their male counterparts. Valerie and Courtney are not sentenced to death because of their interest in sex, and Trish is able to make smart enough decisions to fight off Thorn and survive. After an era of horror films featuring massacred naked girls covered in blood, this underseen gem shines bright amongst the onslaught of slasher movies made in the 1980s. Although overt in its satire and feminist message, The Slumber Party Massacre is a cleverly executed criticism of the slasher genre that still holds up today.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3641446/slumber-party-massacre-slashing-patriarchy/

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