3 out of 5 stars

Slumber Party Massacre is a remake of the 1982 slasher film of the same name, directed by Danishka Esterhazy, whose previous credits include comedy-horror The Banana Splits Movie (2019). The screenwriter is Suzanne Kelly, which means the all-female filmmaking team is continued from the ’82 version, which was directed by Amy Holden Jones and Rita Mae Brown. This is distinctive in a genre frequently criticised for sexist elements. But the new Slumber Party Massacre is more diverse than its predecessor and has a less misogynist poster, as the original’s featured a group of scantily-clad women cowering before a man with a phallic power drill.

The film opens with a typical slasher prologue set in the distant past (in this case, 1993), as a group of young women spend the night at a cabin in the woods. This cabin, at least, is well-appointed, the kind of place you can imagine young people in the early-1990s wanting to spend time at. Trish (Masali Baduza) is seen running through the woods until she reaches… the boot of her car, from which she calmly pulls a case of beer. The sequence is filled with such false alarms—those moments in a slasher film where it seems like something sinister is happening but, whadda ya know, it’s just your housemate looking for something to wear and for some reason behaving like a creepy home invader. (An example taken from 1998’s I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.)

The prologue establishes the tone, which is tongue-in-cheek without being exactly comedic. This isn’t a full-on parody, as it clearly wants to provide some level of suspense and a coherent story, but it knows its genre and that the people watching are au fait with everything. The heroine’s ex-boyfriend, Chad (Arthur Falko), is what today would be called a fuckboy (meaning a sexist and somewhat pathetic male), who in a Norman Bates-ish moment spies on his ex through a window while, ahem, ‘enjoying himself’.

I was a bit disappointed that his inevitable fate didn’t involve grievous genital injury, a la the publicly urinating chap who gets shot in the crotch with a nail gun in Nail Gun Massacre (1985). I almost consider this a dramatic failure on the part of the filmmakers. If we see a man masturbating in a slasher prologue, we expect grievous genital injury. Call it Chekov’s Wank.

At any rate, Trish inevitably escapes and subdues Russ Thorn (Rob Van Vuuren), our driller killer, and so ends the prologue. The present-day plot then kicks in and we see adult Trish (Schelaine Bennett), now a nervous and somewhat housebound woman, reluctantly sending her daughter Dana (Hannah Gonera) to her own slumber party at a cabin in the woods… 

Through what seems like a series of accidents, Dana and her friends end up in the same town where the original murders took place, and eventually, we get our first twist. It’s a clever one and genuinely surprised me. Though the film isn’t exactly subversive and feels quite retro at times (pillow fights, guys mocking each other for moisturising), it provides a gendered twist on the slasher formula. The sexist tropes are inverted, for example in how the camera’s traditionally straight male gaze is turned on the male characters. We follow one man’s butt through a scene and even see the guys pillow fight in their undies. This was a pleasant surprise, and no doubt will be for other slasher fans who aren’t straight males. The genre came about with a young male demographic in mind, hence the boobs and the gendered archetypes, with largely strong male killers (Mrs Voorhees aside) versus good girls who generally scream, cry, and run away, while her “sluttier” friends are butchered. So this remake is interesting if only for its inversion of that.

Plus, the film’s at its best when providing twists on the formula, regardless of what any of them “mean” in feminist/gender political terms. The Russ Thorn plot concludes earlier and differently than expected too. The film’s mystery element is obvious, but that there does turn out to be a mystery element is in itself surprising, given that what you expect is just a series of murders carried out by a big guy with a drill.

Russ Thorn, called the Driller Killer in a reference to The Driller Killer (1979), rarely speaks, but when he does it’s to recite creepy platitudes (“you’re pretty… all of you…”) in an effete redneck voice. Like Leatherface with his chainsaw in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), his drill is a phallic symbol, expressing impotence when faced with powerful women. The comedian Van Vuuren’s performance is well-measured, being creepy and campy without becoming too silly.

Having female filmmakers means the main characters get better characterisation than they’d like have been given in the 1970s and ’80s. There isn’t really a Good Girl who stands out from the rest for her virginity, impeccable morals, and overweening sweetness. In keeping with the aforementioned inversion, the male characters they meet, a group of guys in a cabin across the lake, are sexualised in the way that the female characters normally are. It’s not exactly ground-breaking to invert sexist tropes in this way, nor especially meaningful since it’s just the same objectifying male gaze, just turned on men rather than women. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy all the toned and lovingly shot manflesh on display, such as during a reference to the shower scene from Psycho (1960).

For me, the most interesting thing about the original Slumber Party Massacre was that it was written by Rita Mae Brown. Released in the UK as The Slumber Party Murders, she actually wrote it as a parody of the then-dominant sub-genre, but it was shot like just another iteration of the form. Brown’s a feminist writer who was involved in the civil rights and various other progressive movements of 1960s and ’70s America. That’s not your typical pedigree for a slasher hack! Her authorship is a bit like finding out that Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) was written by Truman Capote.

Is Slumber Party Massacre 2021 better or worse than the 1982 one? That’s not a question with anything like an objective answer. With a Golden Age slasher, the plot’s boilerplate, the characters types rather than people, and any filmmaking “technique” is based on how quickly and cheaply the gimmick can be executed. These days the genre is essentially comedic, even parodic. The murders in this movie and its modern-day slasher peers are gory, but in a way intended to be amusing more than shocking. The slasher in 2021 exists to make fun of itself and be played at drunken get-togethers. Or watched by savvy fans who just want to turn their brains off and enjoy some silly carnage. If that’s your jam, then turn up the boombox and enjoy Slumber Party Massacre. You might especially enjoy it if you like a feminist twist on old genres, as well as the occasional steamy and wet man’s bum.

SOUTH AFRICA | 2021 | 86 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Danish Esterhazy.
writer: Susanne Keilly (based on the film ‘Slumber Party Massacre’ by Rita Mae Brown).
starring: Hannah Gonera, Alex McGregor, Schelaine Bennett, Mila Rayne & Rob Van Vuuren.