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APRIL FOOL'S DAY (1986)
“What’s going on? Sam, what
Director: Fred Walton
Starring: Deborah Foreman, Amy Steel, Deborah Goodrich, Ken Olandt, Clayton Rohner, Thomas F. Wilson, Leah King Pinsent, Griffin O’Neal, Jay Baker, Tom Heaton, Lloyd Berry, Mike Nomad, Pat Barlow
Screenplay: Danilo Bach
Synopsis: A group of college friends waits for the ferry that is to take them to the island owned by the wealthy Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman). A latecomer is Nan Youngblood (Leah King Pinsent), who explains that she knows Muffy from the Drama Society, and embarrasses the others with her fulsome praise of Muffy’s acting talents. As the ferryman (Lloyd Berry) prepares for departure, Kit Graham (Amy Steel) begs a few extra minutes for those running late. Even as she speaks, a car screeches to a halt on the dock and disgorges Rob Ferris (Ken Olandt), Kit’s boyfriend, and Harvey “Hal” Edison Jr (Jay Baker). As the ferry pulls out, Chaz Vyshinski (Clayton Rohner) warns the others, only half-jokingly, to be careful what they say in front of Skip (Griffin O’Neal), is he is Muffy’s cousin. Skip insists a little grimly that he is a very distant cousin or he wouldn’t have been invited, as Muffy prefers to keep her family and her friends separate. He then, to the slight alarm of the others, produces a flick-knife, and taunts Arch Cummings (Thomas F. Wilson) into a game of ‘Stretch’. Meanwhile, Nikki Brashares (Deborah Goodrich) sunbathes, while Hal tries – unsuccessfully – to put the moves on her, and Chaz rather cruelly teases Nan over her bookishness. Suddenly, the game between Skip and Arch turns ugly. As Arch tries to back out, Skip tosses the knife to him derisively, accusing him of cowardice. Arch catches the object and, in a surge of anger, throws it back. The knife embeds itself in Skip’s gut. He staggers, and falls into the water. As the onlookers cry out in horror, Rob and the ferry-hand, Buck (Mike Nomad), dive in to the rescue. As they search desperately for Skip, he emerges at a distance waving the apparatus with which he staged the gag. He and Arch howl with laughter as the others react with various degrees or amusement and annoyance. Rob climbs back on board but, as the ferry prepares to dock, Buck announces that he will help moor it from the water. As he concentrates on his task, the ferry slides towards him, finally pinning him against the pylons. He surfaces screaming in pain and with his face horribly disfigured. Constable Potter (Tom Heaton), nearby in his motorboat, is a witness. The ferryman commandeers the boat to take Buck to hospital. As they leave, the injured man screams that it was all the visitors’ fault. Muffy is waiting on the dock. The constable inquires rather oddly for her father and, learning that he is not on the island, insists on borrowing Muffy’s boat, warning the young people to stay together. Muffy and the others head for the house, which proves to be a mansion with magnificent views. Gathering in the luxurious dining-room, the guests are bemused at being served a meal of beans and franks. Then the practical jokes begin: whoopee cushions, tumbling chairs, dribbling glasses. As the visitors retire to their rooms, still more jokes are unveiled. Some are harmless, like detachable doorknobs, backfiring taps and a portrait with moving eyes. Others are not so harmless. Nikki discovers a drawer full of bondage gear; Hal, another containing newspaper clippings of fatal accidents. Arch’s bathroom cupboard contains drug paraphernalia, while a distressed Nan follows the sound of a crying baby to a hidden tape recorder. Outside, Skip, still deeply troubled by his part in Buck’s accident, is rapidly getting drunk. Hearing noises, he moves with uncertain steps towards the boathouse, convinced that there is someone lurking inside. He’s right….
Comments: We are so used these days to thinking of the 1980s as the decade of the slasher film that it comes as some surprise to realise how rapidly the genre became stagnant. After surfing along for four swift years on a tidal wave of blood and body parts, by the mid-eighties the slasher had wiped out. Jason Voorhees, flag-bearer for his generation, was killed off in 1984, while 1985 saw his remains buried deep in manure. But like the killers for which it was famous, the slasher genre proved remarkably difficult to dispatch, continuing to twitch no matter how enthusiastically the critical machete was wielded. The liberal application of fertiliser that was Friday The 13th: A New Beginning would spawn a sturdy new crop the following year, while in two more the world would witness the co-resurrection of Michael Myers. In the meantime, the genre stubbornly coughed and spluttered along, tossing up traditional but unmemorable efforts like Slaughter High and Nail Gun Massacre; going in new directions by grafting its teen-kill plot onto a supernatural backbone, as in the Nightmare On Elm Street movies; and producing the occasional interesting exercise in Trying Something A Bit Different – like April Fool’s Day.
It would be fair, I think, to call April Fool’s Day a slasher film for people who don’t generally like slasher films – simultaneously acknowledging that those people who do like them are liable to be driven into a frenzy of exasperation by it. Superficially, the film could hardly be more traditional. An “event” title, a group of young adults gathered in an isolated location, a mysterious killer, a series of gruesomely improbable deaths.… And yet – and rightly so, for a film with such a title – it is apparent throughout that something about the events that we are witnessing is a bit---well, off; that this is not so much a who-dunit as a what-the-heck-is-going-on-here? Part of this feeling stems from a bit of deliberate rug-pulling on the part of the film-makers. Like many slashers, April Fool’s Day opens with a prank gone wrong, with the appalling injury suffered by Buck the ferry-hand being the direct consequence of the practical joking of Arch and Skip. The disfigured victim out for revenge is one of the genre’s most beloved stock characters, of course….meaning that the viewer may well be caught off-guard when the film demonstrates unequivocally that Buck could not be responsible for the disappearances and killings that are whittling down our cast of characters.
Nevertheless, the off-kilter feel that pervades April Fool’s Day is predominantly the result of the fact that, certainly by slasher film standards, its emphases are all in the wrong places. Like the Friday The 13th films, April Fool’s Day was a Paramount production. Unlike them, however, there is never a moment when it doesn’t look and feel like a “real” film; there is never a sense, as you tend to get with the adventures of Jason, that the studio executives were rather ashamed of it. The film’s production values are comparatively high, and the cinematography, and the use of the story’s setting, quite beautiful throughout. The screenplay is also solid, without being brilliant, and pleasingly studded with humour both overt (Nikki’s sour-grapes summation of the view from Muffy’s palatial home: “On a clear day you can see the Kennedys.”) and deadpan (my favourite line: Kit’s desperate insistence that, “Muffy hasn’t been in an institution for the past three years! She’s been at Vassar!”). However, with respectability comes restraint. Although spiced up with plenty of gruesome post-killing shots and shock find-the-body scenes, there is no explicit violence in April Fool’s Day. Nor is there any nudity (and boy, don’t I wish I had a dollar for every howl of indignation I’ve heard from a male reviewer over the moment when Nikki, while wearing an open shirt, leans forward out of a window….but not quite far enough); while the only sex scene is both discreetly shot and played for laughs.
By now I might have said enough to turn some people off April Fool’s Day altogether – not to mention off this review. To those few hardy souls still travelling with me, I shall further declare that where this film really separates itself from its less reputable brethren is, of all places, upon the strength of its cast. In a genre where mere competence is uncommon enough to be startling, April Fool’s Day features an unusually able group of young actors. In fact, it may not be too much to say that only Halloween can beat it for across-the-board on-screen talent. And with this talent at their disposal, it is not surprising that the film-makers chose to put more weight than is usual upon the character scenes; nor that for once these scenes are not mere padding, but an important part of the set-up. Rarer still, you can actually believe that the characters really are friends – and that the couples really are couples, not just ciphers with no interest in one another beyond getting into each other’s pants. (Or perhaps we should say, with no purpose in the film beyond titillating the viewer with a gratuitous sex scene.) The various backgrounds within the group, their likes and dislikes, the alliances and tensions, are lightly but convincingly drawn – which makes it all the more effective when it finally dawns upon the survivors that one of them must be responsible for the killings….
It’s a funny thing about slasher films: that in a genre often, and often justly, condemned for its misogyny, it is nevertheless the women that we remember, and the men who are truly disposable. Lord, I sound just like Carol Clover, don’t I? Well, that’s okay. As it happens, I agree with a lot of what Carol has to say, not least her highlighting of this singularly perverse contradiction. Let’s suppose that you’re a frequent horror film watcher. You have, almost by necessity, seen a fair number of slasher films. I bet if I asked you to name half a dozen Final Girls, you could do it without too much difficulty. But what if I asked you to name half a dozen male characters? I’m not sure I could do it; not by name, anyway; possibly by mode of death: Ol’ Machete-In-The-Forehead, Ol’ Harpoon-In-The-Groin…. The place where April Fool’s Day is most strongly in step with its fellows is in this sexual division: even more than most, this film belongs to the ladies. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the work of the male cast members; merely that they tend to fade from the memory beside three particularly strong female performances – or, to be fair, four. Leah King Pinsent adds nice support as Nan; her painfully fixed smile and involuntary squirmings convey most convincingly the discomfort of the outsider playing hanger-on to a group of close friends; but as it happens, Ms Pinsent’s contribution is, uh, rather brief. It is the other three girls who carry the film – not least because none of their characters quite fits the usual slasher film template.
Anywhere else, Deborah Goodrich’s Nikki would be your standard issue slut. Here, the worst that can be said of her is that she is a bit of a tease – and not even that with any consistency. A brief, halting conversation between Muffy and Nikki reveals their not always happy personal history: a boyfriend lost, a boyfriend stolen. Nikki’s insecurity about her current relationship with Chaz, in the light of her own past indiscretions and of Muffy’s attractions both tangible and intangible, lends the kind of shading to her character that you don’t often find in a film like this. This is similarly true of the characters of Kit and Muffy. During my examination of Friday The 13th: A New Beginning, the spineless and aggravating behaviour of that film’s Final Girl provoked me to a despairing cry of, Amy Steel, where are you when we need you? Here I got my answer. I was honestly thrilled to find Ms Steel in this film, and even more so when she was finally revealed as April Fool’s Day’s Final Girl: it is her Kit who proves capable of following the trail of clues that reveals the identity of the film’s killer, and who consequently wins at last the dubious honour of going one-on-one with that killer. Kit is, as you would expect, both level-headed and likeable – and as you might not expect, frankly not a virgin: a fact that, thankfully, has no bearing whatsoever on her ultimate fate in the film.
However, fond as I am of Amy Steel, the fact is that April Fool’s Day is stolen by Deborah Foreman, who gives an excellent performance in what turns out to be a duel role. Even as Nikki Brashares is not merely “The Slut”, and Kit Graham is not merely “The Virgin”, Muffy St John is very far from being just “The Rich Bitch”. From the film’s opening moments, during which we are first introduced to her, preparing for her party, it is apparent that there is more to Muffy than meets the eye – and that her friends are for in for something far other than a pleasant and relaxing weekend. Attractive, intelligent and amusing as she is, there is a streak of something less estimable in Muffy’s character, something that leads her to take just a little too much pleasure in her friends’ discomfiture under her barrage of practical jokes. As for the jokes themselves---well, they’re harmless enough….aren’t they?
Perhaps winking at all those other occasion-themed slasher films, April Fool’s Day gains a double benefit from its seemingly jokey set-up. First up, the film’s very title is a confession, a warning to the audience to be on its guard; and if the lesson is not learned at the outset, Skip’s fake stabbing should be enough to convince the viewer to take care who and in what he trusts. In this respect, April Fool’s Day often plays remarkably fair, serving up numerous moments that are overt clues to the story’s central mystery – or so, at least, we recognise in retrospect. However, and alas, hindsight also allows us to see that in many respects – not unfittingly, I suppose you could say – April Fool’s Day is an outrageous cheat. I don’t just mean that in the normal slasher film way, either: the killer being where s/he could not possibly be, teleporting dead bodies, and so on. This film, almost inevitably, has a kicker ending – and how the individual viewer reacts to the final “explanation” of the events that have taken place will almost certainly determine their opinion of the film as a whole. There are other problems, too, like a few too many scenes where a character turns out to have been, so to speak, performing for the camera: that is, acting in a way that would only make sense if another character, and not merely the audience, were watching. Persuasive as they may be on an initial encounter, films that rely primarily on shock scenes for their overall effect rarely hold up on repeated screenings. The extent of their contrivances is simply too apparent. April Fool’s Day suffers from this as much as any other film I can think of – perhaps even to the extent of provoking in the viewer, not merely dislike, but outright hostility.
I spoke of two benefits to the film from its April Fool’s background. One of them is manifest; the other, a more personal reaction, perhaps. April Fool’s Day is really too polite a film to be a successful slasher. There are no rough edges, no verisimilitude through its crudity or technical shortcomings. It is entirely lacking that air of---of meanness that tends to give the most effective slasher films their potency – or at least, so it is with regard to its actual slasher plot. But there is a degree of meanness in April Fool’s Day, as there must always be in any situation, real or fictional, involving practical jokes. I have, as I hope I have demonstrated over the years, a fairly well-developed sense of humour. Nevertheless, I confess that the “humour” that relies upon the shock or embarrassment, even the humiliation, of the individual on the receiving end of a practical joke entirely escapes me. Nor does the usual attempt to remove the sting – “It was only a joke!” – or for that matter, the occasional piece of double victimisation – “What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?” – make things any better. There is undoubtedly an undercurrent of cruelty in this film, but it has nothing to do with any of the murders. The practical joking may start out relatively harmless, but there is a rapid escalation in their execution that is pointed, personal and very, very vicious. Indeed, the prank involving a secret from Nan’s past, and the sequence in which Rob undergoes his final torment, are as cruel as anything non-violent – non-physically violent – could possibly be. Compared to the mental anguish inflicted by these alleged “jokes”, the killings in April Fool’s Day seem almost considerate. I said that the film has a kicker ending, and so it does; but in fact, there’s a kicker after the kicker, in which one surviving character metes out, or so it seems, a measure of revenge. It was, frankly, a disappointment to me when this turned out to be just one more joke, the punchline to an almost unparalleled shaggy dog story. And I can tell you this: if I had been the character involved – or even if I’d just been the screenwriter – that final prank would have been anything but. My final joke would have been, at long last, to have something happen in April Fool’s Day that turned out to be – exactly what it appeared to be….