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slumber party massacre

The girls of Slumber Party Massacre

Can a 31-year-old movie featuring a drill-waving maniac be feminist? Well, yeah

Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue for Halloween. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Chucky creator Don Mancini. Check our Dark Arts section for more. 

In the 31 years since Slumber Party Massacre was released, the horror landscape has changed somewhat for the fairer sex. These days, all-female horror movies like The Descent can achieve cult status, while female actresses are usually afforded equal – if not top – billing in a cast. But even by today’s relatively progressive standards, Slumber Party Massacre stands out.

I love you… You know you want it, he implores one victim

Written by lesbian erotica novelist Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Holden Jones, the 1982 slasher film is unique for having both women in front of and behind the camera – and for having an unusually laser-sharp, if sometimes unwieldy, view of gender politics. 

Cult horror fans still argue over whether Slumber Party Massacre is meant to be a spoof (Jones herself describes it as a dark comedy). With its paint-by-numbers set-up – attractive, frequently naked high school girls attend a sleepover, only to be killed off by a drill-waving maniac – and almost deliberately awkward line delivery, it certainly ticks the boxes for straight-to-video trash.

But dig a little deeper, and the movie is a delightful hybrid of gruesome B-horror, girl power and some admittedly heavy-handed sexual metaphors. It’s also an interesting experiment in how feminist a piece of cinema can be, within the (very strict) confines of a slasher film.

As with most slasher films, the body count is overwhelmingly female: seven girls snuff it, compared to five men. There are long, lingering shots of women soaping themselves in showers; and for teenage girls, the female characters seem to be inordinately fond of lacy, grown-up negligees.

But the film’s gender commentary becomes more obvious with the portrayal of Russ Thorn (Michael Villella), the killer driller of the film. He’s no Leatherface; in fact, he resembles a mouth-breathing Spanish teacher in 80s double denim, with a weirdly feminine voice to boot. 

In one shot, he holds his beloved 12-inch drill between his legs. “I love you… You know you want it,” he implores one victim. When – spoiler alert – his drill bit is sliced in half by a plucky survivor with a machete, it’s hard not to cheer.

Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically feminist about teenage girls being snuffed out by a psycho. Horror films have always explored and interrogated the boundaries of female sexuality, as we’ve pointed out before.

But the specific subgenre of slasher films, marketed at horny adolescent boys (with its requisite amount of tits and ass) is one ripe for subversion. And who better to do it than a female director and the novelist of the queer pulp novel Rubyfruit Jungle?

It’s why, unlike most slasher heroines, the girl who defeats Thorn isn’t the virginal type, as Neve Campbell is in Scream – in the first half of the film, we see her casually flipping through a Playgirl with her kid sister. 

It’s why the most gruesome violence is reserved for the killer and other secondary male characters (in fact, the female deaths all occur offscreen, out of sight).

It’s also why – in one of the funniest scenes of the film – one girl reacts to the murder of a pizza boy by sitting on his body, eating a slice and musing, “Life goes on”. In Sleepover Party Massacre, girls don’t only get to be the hero – they also get to be the comic relief.

These days, the slasher has taken a back seat to more contemporary horrors like the found footage film. The last gasp of the genre was probably Scream 4, which tanked at the box office.

As for feminist horror, there’s an emerging trend towards woman-centric independents like American Mary and May, which dares the audience to empathise with a female killer as a protagonist. 

But there’s something to be said for the pure, almost comfortingly familiar genre conventions of the slasher. You know there’ll be a false scare, probably involving a friendly suburban neighbour. You know there’ll be, inevitably, high schoolers getting drunk off jungle juice.

The last Scream instalment was dismissed by critics as stale and formulaic – but maybe one way to save the slasher is to present its gender politics front and centre. Maybe it’s time for another Slumber Party Massacre.