There's something wonderful about the beginning of April. Maybe it's the knowledge that June and summer vacation is a mere two months away now (a stone's throw compared to what it was back in January), or perhaps its because all the lovely plants are in bloom, or maybe its due to the fact that I have only one day of work left until a much needed 5 day Spring Break (after a winter of no snow days, me and my students are one bad day away from murdering each other). Either way, things are feeling fresh and new again and it puts me in a great mood. There are several early April traditions I usually take part in during these early days...one is to begin getting back out to the movies (the summer blockbuster season keeps starting earlier and earlier and this year it was The Hunger Games which jump started it), another is to begin wearing more colors, and another is watching a sneaky and subversive little film from the 1980s. Most holidays have been immortalized as a horror film concept, and other days like birthdays and Friday the 13th (which happen much more sporadically) have also taken a stab at the genre (though I'm still waiting for "Arbor Day" and Eli Roth's Thanksgiving)...but few have been quite as ambitious and ahead of their time like the one based on the day where we all play little pranks and jokes on each other in early spring. It was funny, suspenseful, witty, and just the tiniest bit satirical of the privileged "Me" generation. Mention it and you will find polarizing reactions to it that hinge on the film's finale, which fits perfectly and could only be disrespected by someone expecting something other than a well-formed story from a horror film (and yes, there are people who honestly believe that a good horror film need feature nothing more than blood and tits). Either way, this little film gets many more raves than it used to and I think that is the real measure of a film's worth...longevity. So now, without further ado I bring you the playful nastiness that is April Fool's Day.
Muffy St. John is "the" quintessential college hostess. She has a diverse group of friends, a lot of money to toss around, a promising student career at Vassar, and she's beautiful. Her cousin Skip often laments that nothing bad ever seems to happen to her, and it does indeed seem that she is flying high. On one fateful Spring Break weekend, Muffy's luck may change. It all begins harmlessly enough, Muffy invites several of her slightly-acquainted and close friends to her lake house on a secluded island for a weekend of partying (the roster includes Kit, the down-to-earth beauty, and her boyfriend Rob, the previously mentioned cousin Skip, Harvey, a Texas golden boy, Nikki, the resident sex pot, Chaz, her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Arch, a goofy and horny gentleman), and Nan, a shy and bookish theater friend of Muffy's). The mood is light and leads to many practical jokes (it is nearly April Fools day afterall). However, pranks turn deadly serious when a ferry worker is injured following one of the kid's jokes and the mood turns grim. Skip, feeling guilty about the accident, goes off by himself and is grabbed by an unseen attacker. The next morning, the kids begin to slowly realize that someone is picking them off one by one and that something is really wrong with Muffy (she is ducking around corners like a frightened animal and is wearing frumpy clothing). Is someone getting revenge on them for the ferry prank? Or are they being slaughtered by one of their best friends?
April Fool's Day was rather ahead of it's time in 1986 when it was released. Horror films were fun at that point, but they always took themselves deadly seriously and featured copious amounts of gore by then. This film took a different approach by showing very little in the way of gore effects in favor of featuring it's young and likable cast more and playing it more catty with the suspense (which was not merely a stylistic choice but to say more would spoil the fun). It was also one of the first films to really poke fun at the slasher genre (which had only really become a money making industry a few years prior) and that is where the brilliance (and a lot of the fan backlash) lies in it. April Fool's Day, like Scream, sets up slasher cliches and situations and then subverts them and sometimes even plays against them for either a laugh or a scare. The one difference is that Scream is constantly referencing the fact that it is a slasher film that exists in a universe where slasher films exist, and April Fool's Day is much more like Friday the 13th if it had been written by Oscar Wilde. It is full of obnoxious characters who we wouldn't mind seeing something happen to, but who are also humanized by their performances and their development (for example, I can't help but feel bad for Nikki when she falls in a well full of dead bodies because of her realistic portrayal and hints at her own inadequacy thought...and when she is given a glass of water after the event, her reaction is priceless). Each character is like a textbook example of each facet of the privileged class at that time, and in a way it functions much as The Importance of Being Earnest did...playing these cliches and stereotypes off of an extreme situation to see how they would really react in a crisis. Special mention must be given to Deborah Foreman who plays Muffy with absolute relish. She is equal parts bubbly heiress and creepy whacko in this film and it makes me sad that I haven't seen her in more things. Women in slasher films often are given the role of the 'final girl' survivor, but in this they cast a strong woman as a possible suspect (who becomes more and more possible as the running time wears on) and it helps raise this film above the heap of other slasher imitators. Amy Steel is also a delight as the down-to-Earth Kit who seems out of place with this group because she is so grounded...however that is clearly her strength and that is probably why Muffy is friends with her (to play off the 'cockiness' of her other friends). She manages to play a character who is much different from the 'final girl' in Friday the 13th Part 2 and who is strong and smart, something a subversive slasher film needs (aka, she isn't weepy and whiney and she doesn't fall down every two seconds). Of course, April Fool's Day lives and dies on it's ending which I will not reveal here...suffice it to say that if you can 'get' the film's humor and wit...you will 'get' the ending. I met Amy Steel recently at a convention and we both agreed that this is truely a great movie. Amy called it an "IQ Test" for horror viewers...she couldn't be more right.