Lined Lips and Spiked Bats is a monthly column devoted to women in genre cinema.
I love slasher films, but they don’t love me back. Being a woman who is interested in genre cinema means that she is in a constant game of negotiation with the films that she is watching. She will search for images to reclaim for herself or find the truth of a character who may only be in the film to get hacked to bits by the latest knife-wielding madman. To understand why she gravitates toward movies which often hold no respect or common decency for her gender it becomes necessary to ask the question: “How does a woman watch anything?” There’s no easy answer to that question, and filmmaking has nearly always been an industry in drought of women directors and the perspectives of women in the field of film criticism.
Genre cinema offers no such tonic for the place of women in films and has historically disposed of bodies like mine with relative ease. Slasher films in particular use women for body parts, framing them in the throes of sex and then murdering them, but making sure to emphasize their breasts at all costs. The close-up on a woman’s face in a slasher film is almost non-existent, the camera usually always pulls back just far enough so her torso will be framed hand-in-hand with her death. This is the perceived usefulness of women in slasher films in terms of cinematic language. Slasher films are conservative by nature, but even though the genre was built upon the notion of appealing to male audience members through the sex appeal of women and the misogynist violence as follow-through, the genre has the strange effect of asking those same teenage boys and young men to identify with the “final girl.”
Historically, the final girl is a virgin, has survived the brutal violence of the villain in question while her friends have died, and is the only person who can stand up against the monster. The end goal of all of these stories depended on audiences to understand this woman’s perspective and root for her survival. Carol J. Clover’s seminal text, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), was the original entry-point for this idea, and nearly comes to the same conclusion I do about slashers: they’re ultimately about women. If one is willing to dig beyond the surface level misogyny and violence there’s something in the genre to be reclaimed and repositioned, not as feminist, but curious about how women navigated violence. In the 1980s, boys went on adventures in movies like Back to the Future (1985), The Goonies (1985) and Stand by Me (1986), but women? Women survived. Hasn’t that always been true?
In the heyday of the slasher film it wasn’t common for women to direct these movies, but in 1983 Amy Holden Jones helmed The Slumber Party Massacre, which is now considered a classic. Jones’s career is a fascinating one and her path leading up to directing The Slumber Party Massacre is dotted with interactions with some of the most significant North American filmmakers of her time. Jones took filmmaking courses at MIT and majored in art history at Wellesley College and during that time period she was working on a short film called A Weekend Home (1975), which won first prize at the American Film Institute’s National Student Festival. Martin Scorsese was one of the judges at the festival and was impressed with the film. Holden Jones moved to Boston shortly after and started working on documentaries but was couch surfing and barely getting by when she heard that Scorsese had started work on his newest film, Taxi Driver (1976). Jones wrote Scorsese a letter inquiring about any positions she could potentially fill on this new movie and because Scorsese was so impressed with Jones’ short film he brought her on to work as an assistant to the director and she would cut her teeth in feature filmmaking with his guidance.
Scorsese put her in touch with low-budget film producer Roger Corman shortly afterwards and insisted that she was too good to merely be an assistant, and she began her career as an editor, working on films for Joe Dante and Hal Ashby. In 1981 Holden Jones had caught the eye of Stephen Spielberg and she was offered the editing job on what would eventually become E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), but she wanted to direct and was finding the process of editing a frustrating one. She stated about that time her in life that she could make a film better, but it wasn’t hers. With all this in mind, she took a chance on herself and a slasher script titled “Don’t Open the Door” and directed a 10-page excerpt for about $1,000 and sent it to Corman looking for funding to shoot something that could really be hers. Corman was impressed with what she delivered and asked her to turn “Don’t Open the Door”into a feature and after a complete script re-write from Jones it became The Slumber Party Massacre.1
The Slumber Party Massacre immediately feels different from most slasher films of the period because women are not shoved into character types and they occupy more space on the periphery of the narrative. Little things, such as unimportant character roles like that of a handyman or a telephone repair person being filled by a woman, speak volumes for the sort of intent being presented by Holden Jones. The plotting for The Slumber Party Massacre is typical of the genre, but distinct in the follow-through. The film follows Trish (Michelle Michaels), an 18-year-old high school senior who decides to throw a slumber party with all her best girlfriends while her parents are away for the weekend. The girls invite new student Valerie (Robin Stille) to the party, but she can’t go because she’s babysitting her younger sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), and much of the film is devoted to that sibling relationship as they talk about boys, make-up, and whether or not Sylvester Stallone is a hunk.
Typically plotting around a slumber party would mean boys would eventually intervene and sex would happen while they’re picked off one by one until a final girl stands tall against a killer, but Slumber Party Massacre pulls a bait and switch. The girls have their fun and some of them do die, but the boys who do show up are hardly important, as Holden Jones spends an unusually long amount of time with the girls lounging around and having fun as they read Vogue or discuss their horoscopes. These scenes in-between the bloodshed clearly define each character in a way that rejects the Madonna/Whore archetype that dominated the slasher genre. She also subverts the “final girl” trope, which was a common fixture in horror movies by this point. Here, more than one girl survives, letting both sisters live on. And there’s even some tongue in cheek moments where the killer (Michael Villella), who wields a power drill, has the edge of his weapon chopped off by one of the girls wielding a steel poker from a fireplace. It’s a not so subtle image of castration that a male director would have likely never included. These little touches present the slasher genre as something with room for a woman’s voice.
Holden Jones’s formal choices are also dazzling in the climactic showdown between the killer and the surviving girls. There’s one moment where Valerie is hiding upstairs in her friend’s bedroom and in a medium shot we can see the killer crawl through the window and approach the girls without them noticing. This is eerily similar to a technique David Lynch used while shooting the original incarnation of Twin Peaks (1990–1991) where BOB (Frank Silva) crawls over a living room couch and approaches the camera until he overwhelms the image. In both of these scenes the intent is the same, forcing audiences to sit with an image as someone sinister approaches. The residential/domestic space as a safety net is eradicated in both, and Holden Jones managed to do this years before Lynch. She also injects a level of surreal brutality to the final acts of violence, while cutting around the action so that it feels dreamlike and strange. She uses slow motion camerawork in small doses to emphasize the impact of the murderer’s weapon, and because we’ve spent so much relaxed time with the girls before the violence happened it makes the weight of impact harrowing.
The Slumber Party Massacre proved to be a major financial success for Roger Corman’s production company and Amy Holden Jones went on to make another film for the producer the following year entitled Love Letters (1984), which starred Jamie Lee Curtis. In that film, Curtis plays a grieving daughter whose mother has recently passed away, and falls into the arms of a married man at the same time she realized her mother had an affair years ago that changed her life. Curtis is phenomenal in the role and Jones proved again that she was more than capable of making a film in any genre, as this melodrama simmers while letting the characters make complicated, bad decisions for themselves without demanding answers for emotions as tricky as love. Love Letters was also financially successful, but Holden Jones’s directorial career sputtered out, because no one was looking for women to direct much of anything in the 1980s. It’s a small tragedy that we never had the chance to see her career fully blossom as a director, as her two features she shot for Roger Corman are some of the best American films of the 1980s.
The Slumber Party Massacre series continued on for two more sequels and both were directed by women. Deborah Brock helmed the second installment in the series, while Sally Mattison directed the third. The second film, which came out in 1987, is about the lingering effects of trauma and violence following the events of the first film. It picks up with younger sibling Courtney (played by Crystal Lee Bernard this time around) and her best friends vacationing at a beach house, and she begins to see visions of the driller killer (Atanas Ilitch). This is a gorgeous film, awash in the pastel colors and new wave fashion that defined the decade. It’s a post-Madonna MTV slasher where accessories are king and every girl group in the world had a shot at becoming the next Bananrama or The Bangles. Courtney and her friends are in a band with dreams to achieve just that, but all her friends are dying around her, or at least that’s what she thinks. The Slumber Party Massacre II doesn’t waver from Courtney’s point of view and by doing so gaslights the audience into thinking we can’t be sure what we’re seeing, because while Courtney is experiencing visions, which Deborah Brock films like surreal gushes of bubbling blood, it’s later proven that her friends aren’t dead and what she’s experiencing are hallucinations. It makes for a heady trip of believe-it-or-not that’s rendered with guile and fearlessness by Brock, whose form is strange and airy, like the feeling when you know you’re in a dream, but not yet awake.
The third film in The Slumber Party Massacre series is less successful and restructures the story as an origin of sorts and considers how a killer can be made in the first place. It’s the only film in the series where the original notion of The Slumber Party Massacre, that the girls were more interesting than the killer, is flipped, with the focus being on the murderer. It is the most vicious of the three films, with real attention paid to the blood and gore of the victims. It’s an unfortunate trajectory for the series to have taken, but curious when viewed from a gendered perspective, because allowing women to make films that are little more than exercises in dismemberment is still something of a rarity in the horror genre to this day.
While watching The Slumber Party Massacre films I think about the spaces women make for ourselves in the film world. It becomes necessary to find the moments where we did have a commanding voice, and in horror films this is not usually achieved by looking at directorial efforts, but through the guise of scream queens or the countless relatable stories of female characters in genre. Slasher films are our stories regardless of whether or not a woman directed, because we look over our shoulder when walking the streets at night. We’re the people who make sure the door is locked. We check around corners and cross the street if someone looks dangerous. Slasher films have long been thought of as stories for men, but they’re ours, because we understand what it’s like to feel vulnerable. Men are the ones who have to work to relate to the final girl, but for women we are the final girl. These films belong to us, and in The Slumber Party Massacre movies, when women were directing, more of us survived.