The slasher sub-genre has long held a complex relationship with women in horror – both onscreen and in the audience. Dually criticised for its misogynistic representation of – usually naked – women as passive victims, it has been simultaneously praised for its progressive portrayal of active, strong female heroines.
In the 1960s, the emergence of the women’s movement in America was a symptom of second-wave feminism, which subsequently permeated the western world. This built upon the core values of the first-wave, which fought for gender equality in the early 1900s with such campaigns as the suffragette movement. Second-wave feminism extended the focus of this quest for equality – taking on issues in the workplace, at home within the family dynamic, and in relation to women’s bodies with reproductive rights – and lasted well into the 1980s.
Though second-wave feminism had a profound effect on cinema at this time, it was particularly resonant within the horror genre, and the slasher film in particular. This was most evident in the character of the ‘final girl’, a trope defined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover proposed that the audience aligns with the killer in the slasher film originally, largely due to the adoption of this character’s perspective via the camera, but that this affinity is displaced on to the character of the final girl by the end of the film.
This fluidity of gendered identification among spectators is mirrored in the characters, as the final girl becomes masculinised in her final confrontation with the killer through “phallic appropriation”, when she wields a phallic weapon and actively uses this against her – generally male – attacker. This masculinisation is enhanced by the androgynous names often given to final girls, such as Chris, Laurie or Sidney. Typically, the final girl survives due to her eschewal of the hedonistic lifestyle that her friends indulge in – vices such as sex, alcohol and drugs – as well as her intelligence, cautious observation and determination.
Earlier incarnations of the final girl don’t necessarily correlate with Clover’s rules, as the contemporary slasher film was still being shaped. Examples include Lila Crane in Psycho (1960), Sally Hardesty from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978). These women are effeminate, often passive and, most importantly, though they survive, are rescued by a male figure.
Cut to the 1980s, when the slasher film had considerably evolved along with its women. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre2 (1986) is emblematic of a shift in gender politics during the rise of second-wave feminism, which was particularly prominent in America during the 1980s. Compared with the character of the final girl in horror films from the previous two decades, Stretch, the final girl from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, had a masculine name, dressed in male or androgynous clothes, was confident and career orientated, actively seeking advancement in journalism, and was proactive in her fight to survive.
In 1982, Slumber Party Massacre was released and was additionally notable within the slasher subgenre for two reasons: screenwriter Rita Mae Brown and director Amy Holden Jones. While full creative control cannot be attributed to the two women – the extent of external influences such as that of the production and distribution companies cannot be measured, for example – the specifically female authorship of the film cannot be ignored.
Rita Mae Brown is an author, poet, scriptwriter and political activist, campaigning for women’s and LGBT rights since the 1970s. Her most notable written work is Rubyfruit Jungle, penned in 1973, which is an autobiographical record of Brown’s adolescence, sexual experiences and career as a lesbian author. The book was notable upon its release for its explicit references to lesbianism; a copy is included within the set design of Slumber Party Massacre as a testament to its scriptwriter and, arguably, the progressive nature of the film.
Amy Holden Jones is somewhat of a prodigy in the film world. After studying film at MIT, she won the American Film Institute National Student Festival in 1975 and was offered a role on Taxi Driver (1976) by director Martin Scorsese as a result, who was one of the judges in the competition. From this, despite being still only 22 years old, she landed the role of Editor on Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976). In 1982, at age 27, she released her directorial debut: SlumberParty Massacre. Despite the authorial and creative influence of these two trailblazing women, many critics, such as Richard B. Armstrong and Mary Willem’s Armstrong in the Encyclopedia of Film Theses, Settings and Series, argued that Slumber Party Massacre ‘exploited young girls in true stereotypical slasher fashion’. But was this the case?
Though Brown’s original script for Slumber Party Massacre, originally titled Sleepless Nights, was penned as a parody of the subgenre, the creative decision was taken to film the project as a straight horror. The resulting film, thought uneven in its tone, is a fascinating exploration of the representation of women in horror.
Perhaps the film’s closest slasher sister is Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas (1974). Often conflated with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween as the first examples of the contemporary slasher film, Black Christmaspresented one of the most considerate and genuine representations of women within the genre. Unlike the more archetypal characters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween, the film is extremely honest in terms of its dialogue and interactions between the largely female cast; the women drink, smoke, swear, have sex and discuss issues relating to reproductive rights via an unwanted pregnancy.
Slumber Party Massacre is thus very similar in its credible depiction of women. It follows a group of high school women who are terrorised by an escaped mental patient, Russ Thorne (Michael Villella), during a slumber party led by Trish (Michelle Michaels) when her parents are away for the weekend. Valerie (Robin Stille) is new to the school and makes an impression on the women’s varsity basketball team. Trish responds by extending an invitation to Valerie, her new neighbour, to join the slumber party, but Valerie hears the rest of the clique insulting her and declines.
With a penchant for the phallic power drill, Thorne easily dispatches the majority of the women, as well as several men: Mr. Contant (Rigg Kennedy), the nosy, strange male neighbour tasked with checking on Trish but, in actuality, stealing mementos and creeping around her house and garden; two boys spying on the girls, Jeff (David Millbern) and Neil (Joes Johnson); and Diane’s (Gina Smika) boyfriend John (Jim Boyce).
Valerie and her younger sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), are also alone in their house for the weekend, unaware of the bodies piling up next door until Valerie is telephoned by the girls’ basketball coach, Mrs. Jana (Pamela Roylance). The coach was speaking with the main group of girls on the telephone but was suddenly cut off and now can’t reach them and is worried. Valerie and Courtney check on their neighbour’s house and a final battle between Thorne and the surviving women ensues. Mrs. Jana arrives and tries to help the girls but is killed for her efforts. Unusually, unlike its contemporaries, the film has three final girls that face off with the killer and survive: Trish, Valerie and Courtney.
In addition to the extended number of final girls, the women subvert Clover’s classification system relating to this trope in that they have traditionally female names and participate in a hedonistic lifestyle. Not only does Trish smoke marijuana and drink alcohol at the slumber party but the younger Courtney has a comical exchange with her sister teasing her about her ‘beating off boys in the fifth grade’. Courtney also receives a telephone call from a boy, talks on the phone about kissing him with a friend, and sneaks into Valerie’s room to look at her stashed magazines containing images of male celebrities, pretending to be doing her homework until Valerie knowingly tells her not to remove the centerfold again.
Sexuality is thus presented from a specifically female perspective. Courtney, as a young teen, is overtly framed in regards to her sexual curiosities and awakening, which is generally an ignored or taboo subject in relation to women within popular culture. Similarly, Diane’s relationship with her boyfriend, and her sexual naivety, is expressed in a single line, “am I getting better?”, which is in turn ridiculed by several of her friends listening in on the telephone call and giggling.
Despite this, a big issue for critics was the nudity of the women; the camera slowly pans across the naked women in an early communal shower scene, lingering over their bodies, and adopts the static viewpoint of Jeff and Neil as they watch some of the women undress during the slumber party from a window. The latter scene in particular, in addition to the creepy neighbor, overtly aligns the audience members with a male voyeuristic viewpoint. But, taking into account the fluidity of Clover’s gendered audience identification within the slasher subgenre, and the focus on female sexuality within the film, is the nudity sensationalist spectacle, enforced by studio executives, and designed to draw male audiences into cinemas and video rental stores despite the film’s female creators? Or is the nudity a clever construction on behalf of the female authors to draw male audiences in to a familiar subgenre, before they were exposed to feminist ideologies and an authentic account of female interactions and conversation?
The latter can be argued in regards to the satirical elements of the script. This injection of comedy throughout the film is a residual result of the parodist tone of the script, which acts as an extension of the honest portrayal of the female characters and resonates in the dialogue. After the pizza delivery man is killed, Kimberley (Debra De Liso) states, “He’s dead all right. So cold,” to which Jackie (Andree Honore) replies, “Is the pizza?” Similarly, during the initial shower scene, Diane states, “Y’know, I think your tits are getting bigger”, to which several girls respond, “Mine?”
In addition to the realistic and witty dialogue spoken by the women, traditional male roles are undertaken by women in the film to further establish the gendered focus. For example, a female phone company repairwoman and an odd job woman / carpenter are introduced early on, and the central group of friends are members of a female basketball team, instead of a female defined sport such as netball, with a female coach. This plurality of female characters, and subsequent focus upon female sexuality and issues, ensures that the film operates within a distinctly feminine subjectivity.
The film thus endures as an historical and cultural cinematic commentary on second-wave feminism in America during the 1980s. Instead of an iconic male killer acting as the main focus for the film, as is true with so many slashers, it is the sisterhood of the female creative forces that shaped Slumber Party Massacre, and its resulting respectful, realistic and progressive portrayal of women, that resonates with the viewer. Though the creative team of Holden Jones and Brown may be alone of all their sex in the world of 1980s slashers, they speak to sisterhood on a much wider social, cultural and political platform.
Diabolique would like to thank Amy Holden Jones for the following detailed response to this article, which has been published with her permission:
“Thank you so much for the lovely and complex analysis of my film, “Slumber Party Massacre.” There are a few facts you might be interested to know. I’ve seen it reported many times that Rita Mae Brown’s script was “Sleepless Nights.” This isn’t the case. She wrote a script for Roger Corman titled “Don’t Open the Door.” I read it gathering dust on his shelf. It had a prologue, which I rewrote, then I shot those first pages on my own dime. I gave the ten minutes of film to Roger to prove I could direct and to my surprise, he asked me to direct the whole thing. That’s how I got the job. Only then did I read the rest of the script. It was not a satire, contained no humor, and in my opinion didn’t work. I went into preproduction while I rewrote it cover to cover. The wonderful set up of a slumber party menaced by a driller killer are crucial to the finished film, and it came from Rita. I wish I still had a copy of her draft but I don’t. I’m afraid I did not even look at it as I rewrote. I gave my new script, which I now called “Sleepless Nights,” to Roger. He told me, “You can do this, you can write.” The new version contained all the humor and virtually every single line and every scene. The prologue was jetisoned completely. It was not a union project and I could have claimed the screenplay credit, but I felt the set up contained the theme and that Rita as original writer deserved the credit, so I gave it to her. In retrospect, I should have shared screenplay credit for the sake of honesty, but I’m glad I did not claim the whole thing. It was Roger Corman who retitled the project “Slumber Party Massacre” after he saw the first cut, and he was so right to do it. His creative input was to give us 200,000 to make the film and he required the nudity. I delivered it as simply as I could. Corman gave no notes on the script at all. He gave a few small editorial pointers and sent us back to make the ending bigger. The pool sequence was largely reshot. I’m sorry to say we pretty much destroyed that pool. Overall, it was a blast making it. I remain proud of it to this day. It is, in my opinion, feminist. The women solve their own problem. More men die on camera, by far, and the boys in it, though dear, are largely ineffectual. The metaphor of a driller killer menacing teenagers clearly relates to a young woman’s fear of getting laid for the first time, or even raped. That comes from Rita but I understood it, and kept it throughout. Most horror has an underlying metaphor and we did, too, and ours is uniquely female which is rare. I shot the poster myself and even that crazy image relates to our theme. It remains the only slasher film written and directed by women. Since we were excoriated when it came out, as critics personally attacked me. “How could a WOMAN show violence against women?” They both missed the point of the film, and the fact that working for Roger was the only way to get in at that time. Everyone from Scorsese to Jonathan Demme did it. But somehow we were supposed to advance making no compromises. He was and is a great producer who recognized and nurtured talent, and was completely indifferent to whether the people he hired were men, women, or any color of the rainbow. Sadly, after I quit working for Roger, I never encountered that even handed fairness, or ability to instantly spot talent, again.”