A poster gallery of the psychotronic flicks we’ve been watching over the past month.
A poster gallery of the psychotronic flicks we’ve been watching over the past month.
The Initiation of Sarah
aka En lo más profundo de la mente
Director: Robert Day
Starring: Kay Lenz, Shelley Winters, Morgan Fairchild, Morgan Brittany, Tisa Farrow
Running time: 96 minutes
Genre: horror, thriller
Whenever you see the word “tact,” replace it with “bitchery.” Two lovely girls–sorry, one mousy girl and one stunning girl–kick it at the beach during what appears to be an eclipse (I have no idea how else to explain the simultaneous brightness and darkness in this scene [Bill: Day for night shooting and a blue filter on the camera? Fisty: All I know is it’s even worse than the opening scene of Dirty Harry.]), listening to some groovy tunes. It’s the last party of the summer, and the mousy blonde frets over going off to college on the morrow. A faceless dude comes up and offers to help our stunning brunette with her breaststroke, and they traipse off into the water, where he proceeds to grope and gnaw her, presumably leading to eventual rape in the ocean in full view of the party. Mousy girl watches in mingled fear and fury, before shrieking “Stop!” as Faceless Rapist falls on his ass into the water. While our stunner gets away, he can barely crawl out of the water. Wait, what just happened?
No matter. It’s the next day now, and our two girls are preparing to drive off to college on a beautiful day that glows in a way only days in the Seventies can. Mom dispenses some advice to the brunette beauty about impressing sorority bitches, gushing over what a wonderful time she wants her to have. “Oh, and you too, Sarah,” she adds. It’s now that we learn that the pair are the Goodwin sisters, half-sisters that is, somehow of the same age. They share a dad, so it’s a safe bet there were some shenanigans about eighteen years ago. The blonde is Sarah, a shy introvert, and the brunette is Patty, who has the world by its tail. That tail starts wagging as soon as the pair arrive at the picturesque liberal arts college campus of Waltham College, where Patty instantly enchants beautiful Bobbie Adams and OH MY GOD, IT’S MORGAN “TURKEY’S DONE” FAIRCHILD. Oh yes, there will be blood.
Bobbie reappears in the “freshman dorm” (apparently a quad inhabited by a dozen girls) to explain that tonight’s the big night: All the freshman girls get to go around and introduce themselves at the sorority houses. Once the girls are invited to join a house, they’ll make their choice of one, move in and go through a probationary period before a final Hell Week and initiation. It seems awfully early for that sort of thing–and why even have freshman dorms if practically everyone just moves right into sorority houses?–but I’m not complaining.
Outside the Alpha Nu Sigma house Patty hesitates, wondering whether maybe they shouldn’t forget the whole thing. Is it a sense of foreboding? Whatever, Sarah points out that they’ll just end up living in a dorm if they don’t check it out–oh, so they DO get lived in!–and they enter the Temple of Doom. Morgan Fairchild immediately introduces herself as “Jennifer Lawrence” (nice try!), and though Patty makes an effort to include Sarah, it’s clear that Jennifer is admiring only Patty’s good looks and antecedents. She bears Patty off to meet some actives while minion Kathy shepherds Sarah over to the refreshment table no-man’s-land and abandons her. Seeing Patty surrounded by the Chosen Ones, Sarah makes her way through the crowded room, a goldfish in a school of neon tetras, and awkwardly insinuates herself into the group. As Patty and Sarah excuse themselves, an ANS tactfully suggests they check out PED–Phi Epsilon Delta–a house Jennifer tactfully calls both very old and “intellectual,” then demonstrates yet more tact by “forgetting” Sarah’s name. Once the sisters leave, the ANS girls declare that they’ve got themselves a winner AND a loser. Ouch.
Outside the PED house, the girls are suddenly menaced by a barking Doberman. While Patty cringes in abject terror, Sarah gives it a meaningful glare, accompanied by intense close ups of her eyes, and the confused canine runs off. The music reaches a crescendo, and we understand that Something has Happened. Inside PED, we find a much different scenario from that of ANS. Though the house is massive, there only seem to be three girls living there: twitchy Mouse, sardonic Allison, and orally-fixated Barbara. When Patty mentions this, Barbara declares that “rushing’s not [their] thing,” and that the others are all out … or busy … or something. Patty demonstrates some ANS-worthy tact by declaring the visit “interesting,” and drags Sarah out, but only after Mouse makes a meaningful connexion with Sarah.
As you might guess, Patty is invited to pledge three sororities, and chooses ANS, while Sarah’s lone invitation is to PED. Though until now Patty has made a determined effort to boost Sarah’s ego, the girls are on their own at this point, with everyone from Mrs Goodwin to ANS promoting the divide. Though Sarah finds real friends in PED, and makes nice with her Psych 101 TA, she’s also hurt by the way ANS forces Patty to disown her, even to announcing, “I will not associate with pigs, elephants, or dogs” right to Sarah’s face. Matters are complicated by Sarah’s growing awareness of her own powers and the involvement of crazy housemother Mrs Hunter, who encourages Sarah to strengthen them, but Sarah has her doubts. Tensions mount, with Sarah and Jennifer facing off publicly. When Sarah comes off the winner, she is motivated to encourage her PED sisters to really become a sorority again. But Jennifer plots to humiliate Sarah, and Patty is torn by her loyalty to her sister and her desire to remain pretty and popular. Mrs Hunter’s machinations, which may have killed a girl once twenty years before, bring this soup to a roiling boil of Mean Girl tact and downtrodden dork uprising with Satanism and witchcraft for some extra goodness.
An Imitation of Carrie? In the Seventies, you hardly had to see a movie in the theater, because sooner or later one of the networks would release a copycat right onto the airwaves for free. The Initiation of Sarah was ABC’s answer to Carrie, and remains a memorable example of that Seventies boom. Populated by pretty faces of the day (the dueling Morgans and Kay Lenz), featuring the late, great Shelley Winters, and helmed by capable director Robert Day, TIoS is a nifty little knock off that reminds you just how cool made for TV movies could be before Lifetime and Syfy cornered the market on them.
Bill: The Bermuda Depths, Don’t Go to Sleep, The Day After, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Satan’s School for Girls, The Initiation of Sarah… Man, the ’70s and ’80s kicked some made-for-TV ass. They used to pop out some fun little thrillers. The closest we get to quality TV flicks like those now are shitty TV remakes, whatever “mega reptile versus giant amphibian” movie Syfy can find a desperate enough has been to star in, and, of course, Lifetime movies starring Markie Post. I mean, I love the shitty Syfy originals and there’s occasionally something good that comes out around Halloween on, say, ABC Fam (who premiered the “reimagined” TIoS) but they are never quite as great as they used to be in pre-cable TV days. It’s a shame, because I love the format. There’s just something so dramatically perfect about the music-cued fade to black followed by a fade in, book-ending the commercial breaks. Even without the commercials, they’re just perfect, like reaching the end of a chapter in a book and turning the page.
Fisty: And speaking of books, you left out Stranger in Our House, aka Summer of Fear, by the queen of Seventies/Eighties YA girl horror, Lois Duncan. (Note that Stranger was directed by Wes Craven and starred Linda Blair!) That’s a big fat FUCK YEAH because no one does scary for pre-teen girls like Duncan: Summer of Fear, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Stranger with My Face, Daughters of Eve, Killing Mr Griffin, Down a Dark Hall, the list just goes on and on. Seriously, you ought to check them out. Maybe it’s the adaptation of several of her suspense novels into tv movies, or maybe it’s just that overall spooky Seventies vibe, but TIoS has a distinctly Lois Duncan feel to me, which helps it to stand out as not just another piece of Carriesploitation.
Also great about made for TV movies are the familiar faces, from television stalwarts to new up and comers. In TIoS you’ll find Shelley Winters reprising her blowzy dame role as the creepy Mrs Hunter, the antithesis of cheerful tippler Mrs Mac in Black Christmas, blithely planning ritual sacrifices to SATAN. We’ve also got two of the most beautiful and famous faces of the Seventies, Morgan Fairchild and Brittany Morgan, the former demonstrating her usual porcelain bitch-goddess character, while the latter is just luminous as the has-it-all-yet-is-sensitive-too Patty. Also familiar are TV movie and show staples Talia Balsam and Nora Heflin, Airplane!‘s Robert Hays–oh! And did we mention TISA FUCKING FARROW? You know, Anne from Zombie?!
Farrow, by the way, is nearly unrecognizable as Mouse, whom she plays very twitchy and high-strung. And lest we forget, Sarah herself is played by Kay Lenz, who somehow buries her own usual radiant, if Gelfling-like beauty behind Sarah’s diffident loner mannerisms. Kay Lenz was absolutely a star in the television firmament, bringing home two Emmys and marrying the likes of David Cassidy (when he was all that and a bag of chips), not to mention her appearance in House. What does this all mean? In a nutshell, we’ve got an experienced cast who really sell their roles, every one of them, from the most silent ANS minion to the frat boy girl raters. It also means we’ve got some of the prettiest faces ever all collected in one neat package. I’d kill for Morgan Brittany’s hair. IT’S SO BOUNCY.
Bill: Robert Hays! He’s so great. It was nice that his character actually had a conscience, too. He totally faced that bitch Jennifer, and walked away rather than let her lead him around by the johnson.
All I know about frats and sororities, I learned from watching movies. They can’t really be like that, can they? No one short of Joan Collins can bitch it up like Fairchild and she makes this Jennifer Lawrence person so cunty as to be near inhuman. Why would anyone want to be “sisters” with her?! Ugh. I’d much rather hang with the
Omega Mu Phi Epsilon Delta girls, especially Barbara. Hellooooo, Barbara! Are TV movies supposed to be so obviously erotic? But, yes… Why would anyone want to be an ANS? Blah. Though, as we saw in the opening near-rape, Patty can be pretty naive. I mean, she all but climbed onto a pinball machine and did a Jodie Foster impersonation. If Sarah hadn’t been there … So, I suppose I can see her buying into Jennifer’s “charm.” It’s kind of funny that Sarah, who is supposed to be the socially awkward of the two, seems to have a much better idea of the nature of the people she meets than Patty. She even seems to try to shield Patty from the reality of how snooty the ANS girls are, knowing that that sorority means a lot to her.
Fisty: See, what’s so great about La Fairchild as Jennifer Lawrence is that she actually DOES fake being human sometimes, like when she offers a pseudo-heartfelt apology to Sarah. Most movie sorority bitch stock characters wouldn’t bother, but she can and does. She knows that the only way to maintain a high level of bitchdom is to fake humanity. It’s easy to imagine her being super nice–as long as you’re not ugly and don’t cross her. That’s one of the nice things about what the writers for TIoS did with it, they really created solid characters from classic examplars of high school and college movies, from our beautiful mean girl Jennifer to rejected introvert Sarah. Day and Ingalls et alia focus on these strong characters and the atmosphere and story–without relying on clunky exposition, we never do quite get how the Goodwin family dynamic formed, and it’s only implied that Mrs Hunter is *ahem* more than she seems with respect to Sarah–rather than effects-driven scares, a strength that makes TIoS still a damn effective little movie thirty-odd years later.
Now, speaking of Carrie … though Brian de Palma’s film really laid out the foundations of the downtrodden-nerd-rises-up-and-has-revenge-with-possibly-tragic-consequences genre, none of the imitators have ever really come close. And not because it’s a perfect film (it’s not), but in part because of the intensity of the awfulness, the real tragedy of the story, they pale in comparison. That doesn’t mean they’re terrible (they’re not), and sometimes they’re much more, well, real in a weird way. In TIoS, Sarah isn’t really an outcast. Yes, she’s a shy loner, and her mother doesn’t really like her, but she isn’t the victim of unceasing torment and humiliations like little Carrie White. (Which, incidentally, cheapens the rip-off Carrie moment when Sarah is pelted with mud and garbage.) She’s not popular, but she does have friends in the PED girls, especially Mouse, but most importantly in Patti. Where TIoS is strongest is in the relationship between Patti and Sarah, a story as old as any in the Judeo-Christian world–after all, are not siblings born to squabble? With sisters, too, you always have the hot versus the not, the smart versus the dumb’; we love to dichotomize sisters (or brothers), to separate and pigeonhole into neat little categories. And it sometimes damages both individuals. Yet these two are close; Patti does her best to look out for Sarah and care for her, and if her love is tinged by pity, it is still love. And that Carrie White never, ever had.
TIoS is at its best when it’s about their relationship, which is tested by their entry into a foreign, adult world of college. And if Patti does something shameful, well, she isn’t alone in that. Who doesn’t have something for which they are ashamed? It’s an understandable mistake on her part, she wants to be accepted by her new ‘family,’ and by strangers, to prove her worth in the outside world, and Sarah is a vestige of her childhood. But in the end it comes back to the love between them. Sisterhood in general is central to TIoS, though. Sarah’s acceptance in PED, the way she ultimately strengthens their ties to one another, and the juxtaposition of their sorority to the toxic relations of ANS, the pretty hate machine all serve as the central motifs of Sarah’s story. And lest we forget, the longing glances shared between Mouse and Sarah speak of yet ANOTHER sisterhood.
Bill:Yes, it’s a damn effective little flick, but not perfect. I agree about the great way they handle the less-is-more style, like with the Goodwin-Hunter backstory you mentioned, and the is-Mouse-gay? subtext. (She is REALLY into Sarah, and that might explain her suicidal history. And there are a lot of longing glances getting thrown around between these girls.)
But then there are a few silly moments of irrational behavior and general WTFness that could have an excitable person yelling at their screen. I refuse to believe anyone would actually let that creepy Mrs Hunter teach any class, let alone a class on Ritualistic Magic Among Primitive Peoples. Sometimes it seems like none of these people ever even go to classes. Or do any school work. I also doubt the guys hoisting a piano up on a string are going to be stupid enough to let people just wander around under it, much less loiter under there, looking like fucking Tanooki Mario pulling his statue routine. How retarded is Patty?! She just stands there with Damocles’ Piano hanging over her head, waiting on her sister to psychic that shit down on her. Everyone does that! They just stand still and wait as Sarah psycho-stares them in the face. She’s not scanning them. No heads are going to explode. She’s not exactly Carrie, who didn’t have to stare at something for 5 minutes to get an effect, so anyone that knows about her power, like, say, HER SISTER, could just step out of the way when she’s aiming her psycho-glare. And why does no one except Mrs Hunter react to this girl’s power? You’d think Jennifer, having been forcefully knocked through the air by an invisible force after pissing Sarah off, would then cut her some slack rather than seek revenge and humiliate the girl that has deadly super mind powers.
Fisty: Yeah, there’s definitely too much standing and waiting for those powers to get going. I love that piano gag, though, because it’s right up there with guys carrying an giant glass pane across a street: SOMEONE is going through that glass, just like SOMEONE’S gonna be under that piano. So dumb, but so funny. It’s not just people affected by Sarah, though, it’s Sarah too. Like when she’s getting humiliated outside the PED house–why doesn’t she just run back in? No, she just stands there screaming like a banshee. Nobody does that.
And the fresh meat playing backgammon in the first dorm scene? I have never in my life seen ANYONE play a game of fucking backgammon, nevermind any eighteen-year old girls on their first night at college. The whole college thing is pretty unrealistic–these writers were going on some aging Fifties memories, I’m guessing. I’m not sure how much of that is clumsiness, and how much is perhaps deliberate anachronism, with that peculiar love for the Fifties they had in the Seventies. But I won’t argue with with Mrs Hunter’s class, which I have totally seen in course catalogs. I’m just not sure why she’d be teaching it since she doesn’t even have a doctorate, unless it were Waltham Community College. Those are some pretty minor quibbles, though, and they even lend to a certain enjoyment of the film. (Bill: Amen. I only “quibbled” at all so that no humorless, stick-in-the-mud can say we misrepresented the movie in our review.) I can revel in that sort of silliness, while also enjoying its good qualities. (Bill: “We,” Fisty, “We can revel in it!”) TIoS is really kind of a perfect nostalgia flick–even for a time I never experienced.
Unfortunately, due to the ephemeral nature of television commercials (trailers for made for TV movies falling straight into that category), we’ve been unable to locate a trailer for The Initiation of Sarah. Rather than head into questionable territory by linking to scenes up on YouTube (they’re there if you look, or you can catch the whole thing on Netflix Watch Instantly), here are some authentic commercials from January 1978, just before TIoS premiered, to get you in the mood. You never saw cotton-reinforced crotches looking so good.
April Fool’s Day
aka Week-end de terreur
aka Die Horror-Party
aka A Noite das Brincadeiras Mortais
Director: Fred Walton
Starring: Deborah Foreman, Thomas F. Wilson, Griffin O’Neal, Mike Nomad, Deborah Goodrich, and Clayton Rohner
Running time: 83 minutes
Genre: slasher, comedy
It’s gotta be bloody unforgettable: Preparing for the arrival of her friends at her island home, Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman) prepares the house, happening upon an old jack-in-the-box in the basement. While opening it, she recalls receiving it as a birthday present, and how the little monster inside scared the bejeezus out of her while all the adults laughed.
Ready for some Spring Break, Muffy’s friends wait for the ferry to pick them up. The company includes the serious A-couple Kit (F13P2 Final Girl Amy Steel!) and her boyfriend Rob, sex maniac B-couple Nikki and Chaz, and Chaz’s BFF Arch. Unknown quantities are
wetblanket shy girl Nan who does theatre with Muffy, the ambitious Hal who’d like nothing more than to make good with Muffy’s wealthy father, and Muffy’s fine-ass cousin Skip. On the ferry over, insta-buddies Skip and Arch smartly play a game that involves throwing knives (yes, exactly what your parents warned you NOT to do), but the fun and games take a turn for the worse when Skip takes a knife to the stomach and falls overboard. Rob and townie crewman Buck leap into the water to save Skip, only to discover that it was an elaborate prank involving a trick knife belt. After all, it’s April Fool’s Day! Oh, you kidders!
But then as the ferry is arriving at the St John dock, Buck, who stays in the water attempting to hook the boat up from below, is crushed and horribly maimed between the ferry and the dock. He’s carted off to the hospital by the ferryman, screaming imprecations at the group, who are also roundly chewed out by the local constabulary, who warns them not to leave the island until the matter is sorted out. Suitably chastened, they repair to Muffy’s secluded mansion.
The girls talk sex while heating up beans n’ franks for dinner, and the boys goof around outside, but Skip stews over the accident and Buck. At dinner, Nan is mortified by sitting on a whoopie cushion, while Arch is somersaulted by his trick chair. Nan drippily offers a toast in appreciation of college chums, only to be outshone by Muffy, who quotes Boswell’s Life of Johnson. (You really cannot go wrong with Dr Johnson or Boswell, kids.) A touching moment. As the guests raise their glasses to their hostess, Muffy looks on smirking, enjoying the wine dribbling down everyone’s chins. “April Fool,” she says archly. That isn’t the end of the gags, though. As everyone settles in for the evening, each room’s occupant stumbles upon more yet more pranks. Some of the pranks are innocuous–exploding cigars, trick faucets, lights that won’t turn off–but others seem aimed at dark secrets: clippings about questionable deaths, drug paraphernalia, S&M gear, and more.
Even Muffy seems off-kilter when they come down in the morning, looking unusually frowzy and acting totally out of it. Despite the previous night’s minor contretemps, everyone spends the day relaxing and trying to enjoy their vacation. At least until Kit and Rob sneak off to the boathouse for some nookie, and catch a glimpse of what appears to be Skip’s body floating past. Rob, Chaz, and Arch investigate and find Skip’s trick knife covered in blood, and speculating on a connection to Buck’s accident, the three split up, intending to search for either Skip or the possible maniac. Only, Arch doesn’t come back.
Reassuringly, Muffy offers to make tea, because that’s definitely what’s needed in times like these. Discovering that the water main is broken, Nikki and Hal go out to the well where they discover Arch’s head and Nan’s body and flip their shit. When the constable calls that evening, he assures them that he’s been with Buck all day, but that he’s on his way to the island with some important information. While they wait, the group battens down the hatches, locking doors and windows. Everyone but Muffy hangs tight in the den, where they speculate on how odd Muffy’s been acting–and looking. As they discuss the pranks from the night before, tempers flare and suspicions are raised.
What exactly is going on at the St John house, and will anyone survive?
An essential lack of seriousness: Despite initial low returns at the box office (due in large part to a crap advertising campaign), April Fool’s Day ended up a cult classic due to success as a staple on late-night television and as a video rental. It is a perfect blend of comedy and horror featuring a quintessentially ’80s cast, and directed by Fred Walton who helped kick the whole slasher craze off with ’79s When a Stranger Calls. It’s a lighthearted mid ’80s slasher that manages to pay homage to the antecedents of the genre while epitomizing the decade in which it was made.
Bill: Writing reviews in the two person format we’ve chosen here at PB&G can sometimes be a pain. With a single voiced review, you can just bang it out whenever you feel like it, but with a partner, you sometimes find yourself hostage to your “co-anchor’s” schedule, health, even mood, and sometimes your desire to crank one out gets stomped on by your 2nd voice’s (my) laziness. Such was the case with last week’s review of French Sex Murders. I slacked off and we didn’t finish on time. Because of that and because I love April Fool’s Day, I figured I’d surprise Fisty by having this review all primed, synopsis written, and ready to go, so we could turn this mother out and start on our next, The Initiation of Sarah. …but I got sidetracked. By the time I was ready, she’d already done most of the work and been waiting on me. My response upon seeing this, being as I’m a jerk, was not, “Wow! You’ve been busy. Good work. Let’s get into this.” It was, “Aw. You already did the synopsis for AFD. I was going to do that.” Now, since Fisty isn’t talking to me (this has happened before – it’s temporary) and this review has to be done by tomorrow, I get to review April Fool’s Day all by myself. Prepare to be underwhelmed!
First thing I want to talk about is the cast. As our crew of possible killers and would be victims arrives, ready to ship on out to friend Muffy’s island for the week, you’ll notice a lot of faces that any child of the ’80s will recognize. Ginny from Friday the 13th Part 2, Larry the narcoleptic male stripper from Summer School, Biff motherfucking Tannen, the wholesome girl from the S&M scene in Waxwork, um … the boyfriend from I, Madman … and … others. I wish Fisty were here. She’d love to talk about these folks and their ’80s pedigree.
Fisty: Mr Passive Aggressive, you forgot to mention the hot, popular girl in Just One of the Guys AND Rick, the made-over nerd into cool dude also from Just One of the Guys! Plus Stu Charno, from BOTH Friday the 13th Part II AND Just One of the Guys! And last, but certainly not least, that truly dazzling Julie chick from Valley Girl! Totally trippindicular fer sher!
Bill:Fisty! I am NOT passive aggressive. And I’m pretty sure the Julie girl from Valley Girl is the sweet girl from Waxwork, but I’ve still never seen Valley Girl, so… Hey, did you know the guy that played Buck was in Jason Lives? He was the stunt coordinator on that, too. That movie ties with The Final Chapter for my favorite Friday the 13th movie.
Fisty: BILL! Yes! I know that! Actually, he’s also Thornton in Jason Lives, which is why he’s got his own category. Nyah. That’s how we roll here, by the way; we have categories for every actor, director, sometimes FX or composers or writers, that you might possibly find in another movie we might conceivably write about one day.
On topic, this movie is chock-a-block with familiar faces from myriad other classics of the Eighties, which is one of the reasons it’s so fun. Even Aristotle would agree. Also agreeable in that they satisfy certain expectations are the genre conventions that April Fool’s Day upholds, then transposes. Like gialli before it, AFD takes a murder mystery–in this case, one of the ur-mysteries, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None–and applies the slasher formula, slowly picking off pretty young things in inventive ways.
Bill: AFD is a lot closer to its gialli forebears than most slashers. In ways I think it resembles Bay of Blood even more than Friday the 13th does, with all the mystery and talk of inheritance, the possibility of sinister local boatmen, the missing bodies, scheming for money (by Hal), and the wooded setting. It even slightly resembles 5 Dolls for an August Moon, even if that is mainly due to the island setting and the healthy sense of humor. I love that it feels so akin to a giallo or straight up mystery.
I also love that it’s successful at being damn funny (that sense of humor I just mentioned.) Chaz and Arch are the primary funny men, and they are great as the class clown types. The girls’ sex quiz talk is genuinely funny, too, but Muffy’s pranks, childish as they are, are the best. Whether it’s dribble glasses, whoopee cushions, trick chairs, rigged faucets, whack-a-mole lighting or whatever, it all gets at least a smile. Most of these actors have had some comedic experience as well, and they know how to sell the sense of merriment you feel whenever you see someone get gotten. It really makes the first half of the film super fun to watch. It also creates a sense of total uncertainty. From the very beginning of the movie, everything is a joke. You’re never quite sure when something is real or just another trick. When the mischief begins to darken to the point of upsetting people, you don’t know if you’re seeing actual clues to the real mystery, genuine malice, or just more jokesterism going a bit too far. This carries on through the whole film, so that even in the very last moments, you can’t be sure where things will go.
Fisty: Walton creates and sustain tension beautifully throughout the movie, right from the beginning, which has a “found footage” feel. Perhaps this is a metamodernist interpretation (since Cannibal Holocaust was really the only such genre film before it), but Chaz’s video footage gives the feeling that it’s the only surviving testament to their weekend, that perhaps no one survived. And that’s from the very first frame! The creepy boatman that Bill mentioned, the accident, the isolated setting, and the possibly malicious pranks–Walton harps on all of them to keep heightening the tension, and then lessens it with moments of good humor and gregariousness as the narrative rolls on. By the time people really start disappearing, the mood is well-established, and Walton never lets it up right until the finale. But he couldn’t do any of it without the superstrong (mutant strong?) cast.
As noted above, pretty much everyone in the cast was a regular on the psychotronic scene by the time they hit AFD, and their combined experience–particularly in working together previously–lent a genuine camaraderie to their acting. The first part of AFD is very much an ensemble piece, depending on those actors to create likeable, real people, and they get it right. As does Walton’s direction, and even more, Danilo Bach’s script, of course. Though they’re all spoiled preppies–they (mostly) attend Vassar, and Muffy OWNS an ISLAND, for crying out loud–they’re still not just walking, talking stereotypes, nor do we get Twenty Minutes with Jerks. They’re just ordinary, if over-privileged, young people, concerned with their nearing entry into the post-collegiate adult world, with very real concerns like career-planning, “what will I do with my life” nerves, and whether to do anal or group sex. This weekend, they might have their choice.
Now, I don’t know anything about Bach, other than that he also wrote Beverly Hills Cop, and it makes me curious about his agenda with AFD. Because seriously, there is no other pre-Scream slasher that has anywhere near as much gay subtext as does AFD. It’s not even all subtext; we’ve got the subliminal, the liminal, and the superliminal! So we’ve got Vassar students–a college renowned for its resistance to heteronormativity–and we’ve got at least three men who are very comfortable playing dual roles with their sexuality. Chaz plays bottom to Nikki’s top and camps it up with his New Wave look. Arch, despite vowing to bed multiple women over the course of the weekend, also indulges in a lot of mincing, and is comfortable rolling around on a bed with not only his BFF Chaz, but gets up close and personal with Skip, whom he’s only just met.
Rob is kind of a nonentity, but he does like to prance around in half-shirts and short-shorts, displaying his wares for men and women alike. With the women, we have first Kit, who like Rob is the control, though she is fond of mannish attire (contrasting with his slutty togs?). Next we have Nikki, a mostly confident and sexually adventurous young woman, who is comfortable experimenting though she might sometimes feel insecure. And then there are Muffy and Nan, our Vassar theatre girls. There is definitely something going one with those two; not only is Nan completely out of place with the group, she’s also unreasonably upset when she thinks Muffy may have betrayed her secret. Her toast celebrating the particular importance of college friends seems to hint at the particular importance Muffy has for her, and notice her role at the end? Very telling! My interpretationof their relationship casts Nan in the role of Serious Sapphist, maybe new to it, but sprung on Muffy, while Muffy is a bit of a playgirl–maybe she’s just experimenting, maybe she’s an honest to goodness bi Ethical Slut. Muffy is a bit of an odd fish, with her past with
Biff Arch; contrast that with her interactions with Nan and Nikki, and she comes off as very much as smooth operator, a genuinely self-assured coquette, even a femme fatale of sorts. Deborah Foreman OWNS Muffy, and she OWNS this movie. Hats off to Amy Steel for another outstanding Final Girl, but it’s Foreman who gets the standing ovation here. No other Val girl can touch her.
Bill: Speaking of homo-subtext, I really would’ve loved to see Muffy get it on with Nikki. Or even just see Nikki get her kit off. (See what I did there?) Man, Nikki was hot. There’s no nudity in AFD, however, and less gore than you’d expect, a certain boating accident’s victim being the main exception. Even the three – count ’em THREE! – severed heads aren’t particularly gruesome. Believe it or not, I’M NOT COMPLAINING! This a movie that doesn’t need any more red than it has, would, in fact, suffer by its inclusion. This is a movie that needs a bit of mystery to the kills for it to work. You have to be kind of uncertain about what happened and how. Is someone just missing or are they dead? Where did they go? Who startled them? Are they kidding? Is it just a joke or did something terrible happen? The less you know, the more tense it gets.
Charles Bernstein’s music adds to that intensity. He’s done plenty of horror scores before, for movies like The Entity, Cujo and, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street, but there’s something different going on in the music for AFD. There’re no discordant sounds meant to disorient you. It’s not about some unrelenting chase theme or crazy stinger. It gets at you the most during calm, quiet scenes. It’s simple and serene. It sounds like secrets and childhood. It reminds me a little of the music from Poltergeist, but even more so, it reminds me of the opening of Tales from the Darkside. It makes me feel like I did when I was a kid, when it was so easy to be scared. It makes me think of the opening sequence of Darkside, where everything looked nice and sunny and pretty, but you knew there was something else, something you couldn’t see, that needed to be feared. I don’t know much about music, but I know when it’s effective and the music in April Fool’s Day really creeps me out.
So, we dig the cast, the music, the direction, the tone, the writing… What do we have to bitch about in this movie? I know the most common complaint thrown at it and I suppose we can address that after this…
SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING!
Do not read past this point unless you’ve seen the movie!
Fisty, what do you have to say about the people that hate the twist ending of April Fool’s Day?
Fisty: Well Bill, they’re fools. I’ll admit it, the very first time I saw AFD back in high school (after years of admiring the VHS cover), I was like, “Wait, WHAT?” I can understand the shock, really, I can. But any long-standing ire or complaint is completely unwarranted. It’s just so cleverly done, so much misdirection and hinting–with very few stretches of imagination–that you just have to applaud. And it’s so fucking funny, too. Kit’s reaction when she runs into the parlour, and everyone silently pretends to ignore her, is fucking priceless. It’s absolutely perfect. And poor Rob! Still locked in the pantry while Kit’s getting the lowdown, wailing and pounding on the walls–oh, I may just faint. Hilarious. Absolutely worth it.
Bill: Damn right, they’re fools! I watched this A LOT when I was younger and I can’t really remember my very first reaction to the twist, but I imagine I must not have had a problem with it, since I went on to watch it so many more times. As it is now, I love it. It’s a slasher movie with a truly happy ending. How often does that happen? Everything about the reveal is perfect. Even better, Walton did such a great job of keeping you on your toes and questioning everything in the movie (even when you hear a dog howl in the dark, it turns out to be one of the guys getting drunk outside) that you doubt the happy ending. The denouement reveals everyone to be ok, it was all a big joke, they partied down and had a good time and, yet, you, as the viewer, can’t relax. You’re still expecting something horrible at any moment. So great.
Fisty: And you do get a final jump scare, one of my favorites!
Now that we’re in Spoiler Town, let’s touch on how AFD handles those slasher tropes, shall we? Attractive young people: check. Any questions? Remote location: check. There’s no boat back to the mainland till Monday. Stalking victims into an And Then There Were None scenario: check. AFD is relentless and creepy about it. Nil authority figures: check. Our constable is the only one, and he’s only nominally involved, long enough to disappear. Bodies disappearing so that no one knows what happened to them: check. It’s essential to the plot. Inventive deaths & Poetic Justice: check. We’ve got F13P2’s caught in a Looney Toons trap, Hall’s trussing, the Chaz bondage mask murder, and Skip’s being stabbed with his own prank knife all fit. Holiday theme: check. It’s the whole gimmick of the movie! Yes, yes, these qualities are all in line with what we expect from our slashers. What’s different?
As mentioned above, the characters aren’t two-dimensional assholes, and we’re not rooting for any of them to die. We also don’t have any expendables, people who wander onscreen long enough to die and show what a Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day the Real victims are going to have. The Psychotic Evil Twin of Happy Birthday to Me and Blood Rage is inverted not only by being not a psychotic evil twin, but by being a fraternal twin, not Buffy but Muffy. And then there’s Death By Sex: Doesn’t happen. Yes, all of our characters are sexually active, but the first to “die” is the most morally upright and virginal-seeming, Nan. Darling Nikki is the last girl–barring our Final Girl–to go, and she and Chaz were getting it on all weekend. Our Final Girl Kit herself is a pretty ordinary, non-virgin type: monogamous, but not with the guy she lost it to, gregarious, happily participating in the sex quiz. She and Rob even sneak off for some midday booty without being impaled in the middle of it. The guys are all pretty similar; Arch and Hal are both intent on getting some, while Rob and Chaz actually are. Now if only the many slasher imitators had had the brains to be similarly original, then perhaps the slasher genre wouldn’t have peaked and devolved into self-parody quite so quickly, effectively murdering the horror genre for years.
THUS ENDETH THE SPOILERS! SPOILERS HAVE ENDED THUSLY!
You may resume reading. Or just go watch the movie and come back, jerk.
Bill:So, no real complaints about April Fool’s Day at all. It’s a solid flick. I’d put it right up there with Friday the 13th, The Burning and Halloween as one of the best. Do yourself a favor and watch it, if you haven’t already.
And thank you, Fisty, for forgiving me and being the consummate pro that you are. I couldn’t do this without you.
PSYCH! I got this shit, man. I got it by the ass! HAHAHAHAHAHA! April Fools, sucka!
The Toolbox Murders
aka Der Bohrmaschinenkiller
aka La masacre de toolbox
aka Lo squartatore di Los Angeles
Director: Dennis Donnelly
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Tim Donnelly, Aneta Corsaut, Kelly Nichols (as Marianne Walter)
Running time: 93 minutes
Genre: exploitation, slasher, thriller, psychodrama, video nasty
“If I had a hammer…”: Toolbox Murders shows its giallo roots in an extended opening credit sequence of a black-gloved killer driving though darkened city streets. Only, instead of a pimptastic score by the likes of Riz Ortolani, we hear a more generic thriller/psychodrama piano score, overlaid with the sounds of a hellfire n’ brimstone preacher on the car radio. The vehicle cruises smoothly along, but then FREEZEFRAME! The sound of screeching tires! Illuminated by arc-sodium lights, a car has crashed on the side of the road. A young girl tumbles out of the passenger side door. A crowd gathers as paramedics place her on a stretcher. She’s young, blonde, with a bloodied face and staring eyes. Her hand falls limply off the stretcher as they cover her face. Something Significant has happened. Cruising resumes, and the Mercedes pulls up outside El Patio del Sequoia apartments, and a man with a toolbox gets out and enters the complex. Once inside, he cuts a gruesome swath through the apartment’s female residents, beginning with faded beauty and lush Mrs Andrews. Though surprised by the killer’s appearance, she clearly knows him … . Finishing her off with his powerdrill, our skimasked killer hums a little tune and contemplates his work.
Meanwhile young divorcée Debbie arrives home and–in one of the least logical sequences in movie history–prepares to take a shower fully dressed, for the sole reason of creating a wet shirt effect and leading to a lengthy change of clothes. Fortunately, boobage redeems the scene. Debbie evidences poor decision-making skills when she pops into the apartment hallway in her underclothes to pick up some … debris left outside the door? Fortunately, our killer happens upon her and, popping her on the chin in a singularly goony moment, renders her unconscious and bears her off to the firestairs, where she is summarily dispatched with the claw end of a hammer. He then removes her corpse from the stairwell and carries it BACK to her apartment (and we thought only Debbie was crazy!), where he lays her out on the floor only to be interrupted by roommate Maria. Pissed at Debbie for leaving trash in the hallway, Maria is both shocked and saddened by her grisly discovery, then surprised by our killer. The shock renders the poor sap apparently speechless, and when the slayer slaughters her with a screwdriver, it’s all Maria can do to sum up a sorry little scream. (That was excessive, and I am sincerely sorry!) The killer then takes a moment to spy upon the neighboring Camelot Apartments, where a temptress gyrates in her underwear before a wide open window, while one floor below an innocent schoolgirl chats on the phone. His bloodlust not yet sated, the killer ventures back into the hallway, where he opens a door and glimpses a couple discussing the merits of drugstore wine. Discouraged by the presence of a man, the killer leaves and the killing stops … for the evening.
The next morning briefly introduces us to the Ballard family: Matriarch and alcoholic B-girl Joanne, perky teenager Laurie (Pamela Ferdin, also the voice of Charlotte’s Web‘s Fern Arable and Charles Schultz’s Lucy van Pelt!), and older brother Joe.
Evening falls again, and we meet Dee Ann (played by Penthouse Pet and future porn star Kelly Nichols!), the window siren from the previous night. As she all unknowing draws herself a bath, the Toolbox Murderer approaches the Camelot Apartments, eponymous toolbox in tow. What follows is surely one of the most gratuitous nude/masturbation scenes in all slasherdom as Dee Ann soaps up an lets Calgon take her away to her special place to the dulcet tones of George Deaton & Terry Stubbs’ “Pretty Lady.” After she achieves orgasm, Dee Ann comes out of her stupor to the sound of the killer’s humming. As suits her more sexually forthright character, when faced with his nailgun Dee Ann not only actively tries to evade him, but also fights back, scrambling around her apartment naked and wet as a frog and tossing vases. She feigns submission, offering him “anything,” but tries to run again, finally catching a nail to the abdomen. The killer props her up beneath a nude poster of herself, then nails her right through the head. End “Pretty Lady.”
Finished with the whores of the world–for now–the killer sneaks downstairs to the Ballard apartment, where Laurie is again demonstrating her virtue by refusing to sneak out (presumably with a boy). After all, she doesn’t want to end up like her mother said, “either divorced or with a bunch of kids and a crappy job like [hers].” Who knows how she’ll end up, however, since the killer kidnaps her. At least she isn’t dead yet! When Joe gets home late that night, he finds the security chain cut and Laurie missing. Jo Ann stumbles in moments later, and orders Joe to go looking for his sister–and that’s when we hear the shrieks from the discovery of Dee Ann.
Convinced that Laurie’s disappearance is related to the murders, Joe pleads for help from the police, who are content to dismiss her as a typical runaway teen. Total Dick in Charge of the case Sergeant Cameron scoffs at Joe’s concerns, mocking the poor guy, who departs in a huff, vowing to find his sister himself. Sgt Cameron is no Lt Fuller. Armed with earnestness, Joe goes to El Patio del Sequoia looking for clues, and meets up with the super’s nephew Kent. Kent enlists Joe’s help to clean up the bloodied apartments, and Joe in turn enlists Kent in the search for Laurie. With the murders largely over at thirty minutes in, and the murderer revealed to the audience at fifty minutes (for any halfwits who haven’t yet figured it out), The Toolbox Murders takes a sharp turn into psychodrama as the young men investigate Laurie’s disappearance, and scenes of their search alternate with Laurie’s plight as a captive, leading up to a truly bizarre dénouement.
Banned in the UK as a Video Nasty, The Toolbox Murders is preceded by a reputation for unmitigated sleaze–a reputation that’s not entirely undeserved. But the low budget, competing storylines, and pedestrian direction give it the feel of a made-for-TV movie.
Fisty: Holy shit. TTM exceeded my expectations in so many ways. It’s so very, very sleazy, and so very, very nasty, and so very, very bad. It’s a home run of fucking trashy-ass, exploitative cinema. It’s easy to see how it earned its spot on the Video Nasties list; the first thirty minutes is almost nothing but violent murder and nudity. But then after that bang up start the movie settles into a curious police procedural thriller format that, for all its smuttiness–and yes, it is still very sordid if you’ve got the eyes to see it–it very draggy and uninteresting but for the scenes of Cameron Mitchell’s (Blood and Back Lace) lunacy and Ferdin’s terror. Only in the final fifteen minutes does violence appear once more, and it’s of an entirely different breed. By then, many of even the most dedicated horror fans and gorehounds may have passed out from sheer boredom. It takes a certain amount of patience–and attention span–to appreciate TTM’s tacky charms.
Speaking of tacky charms, I did love the look of the movie. I know it’s ugly in that special 70s Saturday Night Special Movie way, but it had a certain nostalgic charm for me. It looked like shitty movies I grew up watching in school (though I grew up in the 80s, it was in Hawai’i, where the 70s had a long reach–especially in the school system). The California setting was probably a big part of it: so sunny, so squalid, so semi-suburban. There are still tacky apartment open-air buildings like the Camelot and El Patio del Sequoia all over the West, and I’ve lived in a few of them.
Bill: It took me three tries to get through the whole movie. Though, admittedly, I made the first two attempts when it was late and I was tired, so it probably had more to do with my condition than the drag in the middle of the flick. I was even dozing a bit during the first thirty minutes and there is nothing sleep inducing in that bit of film. Boner inducing, sure, but sleep? I think, maybe, I could’ve been lulled further into a restful state by that made-for-TV movie quality it has. Kind of like what happens when I watch Matlock, except Matlock is usually less bewildering. There are whole segments in TTM that make no sense, like the coffee scene. The cop offers Laurie’s brother some coffee, the kid declines, then the cop goes to get some for himself, but the pot is empty, so he puts the glass down and that’s it. What the hell was the purpose of that? Then there’s the odd fruit-throwing bit that I suppose was meant to show the siblings as playfully close, but just seems awkward. And just why do the cops let all the neighbors stand around looking at all the naked corpses?
Other parts are just painfully obvious and unnecessary. Like trying to establish the innocence of Laurie by having her do the exact opposite of gyrating DeeAnn? But I do appreciate the seminude dancing.
Fisty: Yeah, the director, Dennis Donnelly pretty much just did TV; this was his sole feature film–and it shows. Too much exposition, weird experimental editing, problems with pacing …
Bill: Who the fuck was in the car that wrecked?
Fisty: Oh my god, Bill. It was Cathy. Dude’s daughter/other dude’s lover.
Bill: But it seemed like she died way before then. Didn’t it seem like he started killing the women right after the girl in the car died? Like, the same night?
Fisty: How could there be flashback shots from her funeral interposed with shots of him entering the building to START the killing spree if she died that night?
Bill: I know the funeral shots were flashbacks, but there’s no break between driving and killing, it all looks the same. Donnelly could have made that a lot clearer. But my framerate was stuttering a bit at the start, so …
Fisty: And you’re abominably literal sometimes … but I suppose if one were drunk, it could be confusing. The editing is mostly shit.
Bill: Debbie’s shower scene is the most bizarre that I have ever seen. She puts on a shower cap while fully dressed, turns on the water, sees her dress hanging in the shower, steps in still fully dressed, presumably to get her little black dress before it’s soaked, but then doesn’t even touch the dress, steps out and takes her shower cap off! I am fully convinced that this was originally meant to be a normal, typical shower scene, but they rewrote it into absurdity, just for that wet shirt yumminess, after seeing how hott Debbie the braless wonder looked in her sheer white top.
Fisty: That’s one of my favorite parts–teeth-gnashingly aggravating (as I shriek, “Why? Why are you getting in the shower fully dressed? Why aren’t you even bathing and just putting on a succession of shirts and then removing your pants? WHY?!?” at the television screen) and unintentionally hilarious as it is. I also love the way she goes down like a ton of bricks from the most ineffectual right hook I’ve ever seen. Pretty much all the victims except Dee Ann are ineffective wimps.
Purists will declare that TTM isn’t a slasher, and I’m with them on that. Like Don’t Go in the House, it’s a curious blend of genres, teetering as it does on the edge of sleazy 70s psycho-thrillers and gleefully self-aware by-the-numbers 80s slashers, and coming down straight in the exploitation zone. After the gialli-inspired opening and kills that seem to promise an endless parade of titties and blood, TTM downshifts into an amateur detective psychodrama, a confusing change for many viewers. Though one might argue that amateurs investigating crimes in the face of an inept police force is a clear marker of a giallo, it seems just as likely that Joey and Kent’s sleuthing owes as much to Donnelly’s directing credits in TV–including an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. (And many episodes of Adam-12, Emergency!, Hart to Hart, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team, Simon & Simon … is a pattern developing? To be fair, most of those were post-TTM, but I think it shows a decided slant.) Knocking any confusion about the killer’s identity out of the way lets the film settle in on the bewilderment of the bereaved on one side, and the suffering of the victim and the lunatic on the other.
Bill: I think the movie may’ve benefited from being more slasher-like. As much as I’d hate to see a dilution of the concentrated sleaze at the start of the flick, it would’ve been nice to have some tits & murder interludes tossed in somewhere during the Hardy Boys episode in the middle. That really is the weakest part of the movie. I mean, you can only get so much entertainment from watching skeevy cops hit on the mother of a missing girl. He really was kind of sleazy. “Look, your daughter is missing and maybe we’ll find her but, in the meantime, can I give you another?”
Fisty: Damn it, I LOVE that singles bar scene! That fucking cop is a real piece of work. And the way Joanne shuts him down? Masterful!
Speaking of which, Aneta Corsaut (The Blob) is magnificent as Joanne. The rest of the casting is pretty spot-on, too: Ferdin evokes pathos as the victimized Laurie, Mitchell–though no longer the hottie of the How to Marry a Millionaire days–chews up the scenery like it’s Red Man.
Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness: The Toolbox Murders makes for a primo exploitation experience because that’s all it was ever meant to be. Tony DiDio reportedly saw a reissue of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre four years after its initial release and said to himself (and his team), “I want to cash in on that.” (My paraphrase.) Don’t go into it looking for subtext on the alienation of the American family in the juxtaposition of an affectionate but struggling family with a highly dysfunctional yet loving one. Don’t look beneath the sleaze for something less sleazy, because it’s sleaze all the way down.
Bill: I think there is one area where it under-sleazes: The climax of the film. There’s some real frying pan/fire jumping at the end, but, while you know Laurie goes through a wicked nasty ordeal, they don’t show any of it. It’s a big change from the beginning of the movie, where everything was very in-your-face. I guess Donnelly felt he had to be respectful when it comes to letting us know what happened to this sweet, virginal character, but the other victims were just dirty sluts, so their pain doesn’t matter. Damn it, I want to see the nice girl’s pain and degradation, too! Eh, it was a true story, according to the bit of text that flashes on the screen at the end, so maybe he was just trying to protect the real Laurie, in case she ever watched the movie. (My eyes are rolling so hard that I just got dizzy.)
Fisty: Can we recommend The Toolbox Murders? Though it at times reminded me of bad 70s afterschool specials in which someone ruined their life by sniffing goofballs in a ditch, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. Though it doesn’t live up to its reputation of relentless blood n’ smut, it has some solid splatter moments, oodles of titties n’ bush, and pure insanity–and all in the first half hour. (Bill: And you really don’t want to be the only one of your friends to have missed seeing that beginning.) Plus, there are tons of familiar TV faces from shows like Emergency!, Land of the Lost, and The Andy Griffith Show–and fucking FERN from CHARLOTTE’S WEB!!! Even the dreck is worth sitting through for Mitchell’s scenery-gnawing performance and Ferdin’s understated terror, a few genuinely chilling moments, as well as an ending that will not only surprise the hell out of most viewers, but will also have them running for the shower. Just remember to take your clothes off before getting in the tub.
Did anyone else notice that the victims in the trailer in no way match up with those in the movie?
PROTIP: Order a pizza just before pressing play. Your pie will arrive just as the movie slows down, giving you something extra to chew on while you sit through the downtime in the middle of the flick.
The Toolbox Murders is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix!