dir. Danishka Esterhazy
In a cabin in the woods a group of college-aged girlfriends party in their PJs, eat pizza and talk about their sex lives, blissfully unaware of a shadow at the window. Perhaps it’s a skeezy ex-boyfriend; perhaps it’s someone else. Either way, before long a killer with a phallic shaped weapon will invade their home, and then their bodies. It’s a familiar trope, one steeped in sex and death, oft-repeated throughout the 1980s and – for better or worse – one that shaped Western horror with its blend of gore and conservative gender politics.
However, despite the clearly misogynistic set-up for a lot of slashers, there has always been a feminist perspective on the sub-genre. Black Christmas (1974) – often considered the first slasher and a direct inspiration to genre giant Halloween (1978) – is undeniably a female-centric narrative, the characters rich and rounded rather than the non-persons forced through a meat-grinder that would later come to typify the boobs-n-blood formula. Similarly, the original Slumber Party Massacre (1982) achieved an incredible volte-face: the name may have intentionally implied a lurid Porky’s-esque peep show, but the film itself – along with its hypnotically bizarre 1987 sequel – was a celebration of female friendship and survival. There are other examples of course, which – along with the popular “final girl” trope – speak to the enduring strength of the female-gaze in a space constantly under assault from male violence. Taken together, this feminist reading of slashers subverts, re-interprets, re-invigorates and even re-weaponizes the sexism against would-be assailants, taking a blade that was meant for them and slipping it between the ribs of the patriarchy.
All of this is to say that director Danishka Esterhazy’s reboot of Slumber Party Massacre plays specifically with this legacy, pulling sub-text into text and painting it in broad, self-aware strokes. To map out the twisty-turny plot would be to court spoilers, but suffice to say that its gender critical lens is both joyous and on-the-nose, laying the discourse bare.
At the heart of the narrative is Dana (Hannah Gonera), the daughter of a survivor from the opening bloodbath. With her mother now apparently plagued by post-traumatic anxiety and agoraphobia, Dana sets off with her own girlfriends for a weekend away to unwind and – maybe – confront the intergenerational ghost which has haunted her family. Gonera is on charismatic form, as are her besties (played by Frances Sholto-Douglas, Alex McGregor, Reze-Tiana Wessels and stowaway Mila Rayne), whilst Suzanne Keilly’s script offers clever character work that plays against type, as well as understated representation along ethnic and sexuality lines. Taken together there’s a perpetual interest in how these women are perceived, and who they actually are.
In this, the film unfolds like a treatise on Carol J. Clover’s seminal work Men, Women and Chain Saws, putting its thesis front and centre: the first time we see shirtless men having a pillow fight in slow-mo there’s a thrill to flipping the male-gaze back on itself; however as further scenes hit similar beats the impact is gradually lessened, the wry tone coming across as a little one-note.
Still, this is gory, splattery fun, and represents a step up from Esterhazy’s previous outing, The Banana Splits Movie (itself a re-imagining of a retro IP). The slasher genre has plenty of patriarchy, but this entry – despite its uneven execution – has enough air-punching, #MeToo satire to cut deep: a blood-stained calling card for female-fronted horror, both in front of and behind the camera.