SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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By now it’s pretty clear: if you are a horror fan and yet unfamiliar with the films of Danishka Esterhazy, you are missing out. Following on from her powerhouse low-budget feminist dystopian sci-fi film Level 16 in 2018 and the breathtaking audacity of 2019’s The Banana Splits Movie – yes, those Banana Splits – Esterhazy shows no signs of slowing down with her latest genre banger, a remake of Amy Holden Jones’s cult slasher film The Slumber Party Massacre.

Dropping the “The” from the original in a subtle nod to the deviations it makes from its predecessor, Esterhazy’s latest finds itself – like The Banana Splits Movie before it – both playfully affectionate in spirit to its source material, while very much presenting itself as something wholly fresh and new. Just as The Banana Splits Movie pivoted its gruesomely hilarious tale about the classic TV show around a kick-ass mom who will do anything to save her children when a their day spent at a recording of the cult kids programme turns horribly wrong, so too Slumber Party Massacre both acknowledges its predecessor while simultaneously very much doing its own thing.

The film follows a group of girls whose superficial slumber party adventure in the country is soon revealed to be something dramatically less wholesome when it is revealed that Dana’s (Hanna Gonera) mother was a survivor of the drill-wielding psychopath who massacred a group of young women years earlier. Believing that the killer is still haunting the same location, Dana hatches a plan to avenge her mother and cure her PTSD. Dana convinces her friends to join her in posing as bubbly slumber partying teenage girls in an attempt to lure the killer out of hiding so they can trap him. But a group of air-headed himbos staying nearby throw a spanner in the works, complicating Dana’s plan when the killer takes the bait.

Much has been made of the original film being both directed and written by women, yet less discussed is screenwriter Rita May Brown’s documented disappointment with the 1982 version, feeling that it largely missed the parodic spirit which she saw as crucial to her story. Surely no such claim can be made in the case of Esterhazy’s reimagining, where her playful direction seems to perfectly compliment Suzanne Keilly’s witty, satirical and very fun screenplay. On a fundamental level, both Esterhazy and Keilly seem to ‘get’ that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down when it comes to gender politics; delightfully bloody and at times outright funny, that Slumber Party Massacre so aggressively flips the traditional roles of slasher’s stereotypical male and female characters is part of its charm (for example, a slow motion shower scene of one of the unfortunate male victims-to-be hilariously parodies the scopophilic, sexualized gaze when placed in the hands of a woman director).

Slumber Party Massacre revels in its status as a teen horror film but admirably refuses to let that be a reason to dumb down either its gender politics or tame its more visceral, gut-churning moments; the blood and gore might take centerstage here, but the glee with which a particular vomiting scenario is depicted is also worthy of admiration for those of us with a taste for such fare. Never smug and made with genuine affection for both the original film and slasher more generally, Slumber Party Massacre is a vibrant reminder that this oft-derided subgenre has lots of life left in it for directors like Esterhazy who are daring enough to accept the challenge.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).