Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 1, 2019

A YEAR OF SLASHERS: April Fool's Day (1986)

The company executives might've been ashamed to admit it at the time but the “Friday the 13th” series was a steady money-maker for Paramount in the eighties. So, even if the slasher genre was starting to burn out by 1986, it probably made sense to the studio to greenlight another horror film based around a holiday. “April Fool's Day” was even produced by Frank Mancuso Jr., the same man who stewarded Jason Voorhees' journey through the decade. Perhaps realizing a masked killer hacking up horny teenagers had a been-there, done-that feeling by this point, “April Fool's Day” would attempt to put its own spin on things. This has made the movie divisive among hardcore slash-heads.

Rich girl Muffy St. John has invited a group of fellow college students – few of them are truly friends of her's – to her family's island mansion for a spring break celebration, that happens to coincide with Muffy's birthday and April 1st. On the ferry leading to the island, a prank goes wrong and results in a guy getting an eyeball gouged out. This accident doesn't dissuade the pranks and japes played around the island, the students quickly getting used to the practical jokes. However, ti soon becomes apparent someone on the island isn't joking around. People are disappearing and dead bodies are starting to pile up.

To characterize “April Fool's Day” as a slasher movie is slightly misleading. The film, in fact, belongs to an older murder/mystery tradition. A group of people being invited to a mansion isolated on an island, to be picked off one-by-one, blatantly recalls Christie. The movie draws attention to this influence, by hinting at tragic back stories for each of the characters – presented via props in their bedrooms – that seems to link them in vague ways. The movie also subverts the old “moving eyes behind a painting” cliché on two separate occasions. This seems to connect “April Fool's Day” with the old dark house tradition, which it also resembles a little, what with a disparate group of people being drawn to a large home or a secret backstory involving an evil twin.

Despite the obvious difference it has to older, classier breeds of horror, “April Fool's Day” still participates freely in slasher movie cliches. Most of the characters fit the stereotypes of the genre.  The story naturally lends itself to at least two prankster characters, one of which is played by Tom “Biff” Wilson. There's Chaz, the sleazy pervert who carries his movie camera everywhere. He soon hooks up with the sexually adventurous Nikki. There's a virginal, book smart good girl. She's weirdly not the final girl, that duty falling to a bland couple played by Amy Steel and Ken Olandt. Aside from that, the film hits many of the other expected beats. Such as a weird old dude providing an ominous warning – a spooky ferryman in this case – or a crime in the past setting up the current situation. There's even a spring-loaded animal of sorts.

One big break from slasher tradition “April Fool's Day” makes is its general lack of gore. We never actually see any of the murder scenes, only witnessing the occasionally bloody aftermaths. With no blood and guts to rely on, the film attempts to generate tension the old fashion way. Director Fred Walton previously made “When a Stranger Calls,” so that should've worked. Occasionally, the movie finds a suspenseful moment. Such as a decent scene involving a well, where a character is left dangling over the water by a slick handle. Or a decently orchestrated set-up involving a snare and a poised-to-strike snake. Ultimately, the lack of interest in the thin characters and the decision to keep the mortal peril largely off-screen prevents much genuine tension from being generated.

There is, of course, a reason why we never see the murders in “April Fool's Day.” As the title suggest – spoiler alert for a thirty-three year old movie – there are no deaths at all. The disappearances, grisly crime scenes, and evil twin plot are an elaborate April Fool's Day prank Muffy is playing. Some see this easy-to-guess twist as a clever subversion of expectations. Others, myself included, can't help but feel cheated. You'll have to excuse me but I actually expect some bloodshed from my slasher flicks. Then again, “April Fool's Day” almost had a far more satisfying double twist. In the novelization, after the prank is over, Muffy's brother goes on a killing spree in the mansion, to secure a family inheritance. There's evidence to suggest these scenes were shot, not to mention the film's brief 89 minute runtime certainly leaving room for it, but I guess producers decided this was a downer ending or something.

If that original last act had been maintained, I probably would've enjoyed “April Fool's Day” a lot more. Maybe if that footage is ever dug up, it can be slotted onto a special edition Blu-Ray that amazingly doesn't already exist. You figured Arrow or Kino Lorber would've gotten on that by now. As it stands now, I find the film to be a not-especially-compelling act of misdirection. Nevertheless, the movie has its fans. Even some critics at the time, probably well sick of traditional slasher flicks, appreciated its spin on things. While I love this movie's poster, the very dumb and very sleazy “Slaughter High” – released in the same year and originally entitled “April Fool's Day” – will always be my April 1st slasher flick of choice. [5/10]

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