If it had done nothing else to distinguish itself, 1982's The Slumber Party Massacre would stand out in the crowded glut of early '80s slasher films by virtue of being written by a feminist. Not, please understand, the kind of everyday feminist that anybody could be who believes in equality between the sexes and calls out discrimination and anti-woman behavior when she sees it: an actual leading light of movement feminism, Rita Mae Brown, the lesbian activist and author of the pioneering novel Rubyfruit Jungle, a radical so devoted to her causes that she publicly sparred with Betty Friedan.

In other words, the last sort of person on Earth who you'd expect to have anything whatsoever to do with a genre that, from almost the first moments of its existence, was being identified (fairly, and often accurately) as being a hotbed of misogyny and the objectification of women, a narrative formula that offered a chance for nervous teenage boys to ogle naked girls and then watch them get sliced in half by sexually puritanical psychopaths, and sometimes very little else besides that.

The story behind this is among the best-known in slasherdom, but we'll run through it real fast anyway. Brown's original screenplay, titled Don't Open the Door, was a parody of the slash form, one that mocked exactly the things that a feminist activist author (or, y'know, a decent human being) would find most problematic about the subgenre: the unmotivated nudity, the violence against women, the phallocentrism of insane men stalking girls and penetrating them over and over again with their long knives, penetrating them to death. And I would be darned interested in seeing the movie she had in mind when she wrote that screenplay. But something happened to Don't Open the Door that Brown wasn't prepared for, which is that Roger Corman got his hands on it. And while Corman was a man who did much good for many independent filmmakers in the horror and thriller genres over the years, he had the soul of an exploitation huckster. There's little room for feminist satire in exploitation films, and Brown's vision was doomed from that moment. In the end, Corman received no official credit as producer, and the film was handed off to an editor in his sphere of influence, Amy Jones (now going professionally as Amy Holden Jones), who made her directorial debut with the film.

Pause for an anecdote: Jones cinched the job by cobbling together an eight-minute prologue to show to Corman. Just a quick and dirty bit of backstory that, as she's observed, looked better than the film itself, despite its on-the-fly nature, because the DP on the project was her husband, Michael Chapman. Which means that at one point in this world, there existed a sequence from a slasher movie shot by the cinematographer of Raging Bull right after he completed that project, and if that's not just the damnedest thing I ever heard. Unpause.

Perhaps owing to an innate lack of humor, and perhaps hoping to please the boss, Jones revised Brown's script to make it more of a straight slasher film and shot it without a trace of obvious comedy, irony, or satire. In fact, despite being helmed by a woman working from an explicitly feminist screenplay, The Slumber Party Massacre somehow manages to be one of the slimiest, trashiest slasher films of the subgenre's early period. It is male gazey in ways most films directed by males can't even manage: in a shower scene which the film lingers on and attends to with a stateliness and unhurried air that recalls the descriptions of battles in War and Peace, there's a shot that starts on a naked woman's soapy back, tracks straight down to look at her ass, looks at it for a few seconds, and tracks back up. If this is satire, it's on some unbelievably rarefied level that I am completely unable to comprehend; there's always the "parody through sheer exaggeration" argument, but that takes a fantastically deft hand, and Jones, who I reiterate was making her directorial debut on a film that had to make money for Roger Corman, does not have that hand. No, woman in the director's seat or not, this is just one big pervy adventure in objectifying the every-loving shit out of every female character the film can get its hands on. As it were.

At any rate, on the face of it, you couldn't ask for a more pure, direct, unimaginative slasher. In Venice, California, a high school basketball player named Trish (Michelle Michaels) is alone at home for the weekend, and she and her three teammates and BFFs have decided to have an old-school slumber party, just for the girls, to relive their glorious days of youth. Those friends include Kim (Debra De Liso) and Jackie (Andree Honore), distinguishable solely in their hair color and skin tone, and Diane (Gina Smika), the designated bitch. This first comes up in the locker room after practice, when Trish suggests inviting the new girl in school and on the team, her next-door neighbor Valerie (Robin Stille); the group consensus is to send the invite, but Diane so noisily complains about what a violation of their group dynamic that would be, with Valerie only about two feet away, that the new girl politely declines and runs home to be with her smutty-minded younger sister Courtney (Jennifer Meyers) all night. To spice things up, Diane's boyfriend John Minor (Jim Boyce), whom the other girls all dislike, is hoping to sneak over to the girls' night to make out and probably more; and a pair of boys, Neil (Joseph Alan Johnson) and Jeff (David Millbern), who are not distinguishable at all, have gotten wind of the party and decide to spend the night peeping in windows.

So that's the Expendable Meat, and the Horny Kids Who Will Die For Their Sexual Trangressions. While all of this has been brewing, we've also been introduced to our killer: Russ Thorn (Michael Villella), a psycho who went on a killing spree man years ago, and who's just escaped from prison. His first onscreen action is to ambush a telephone repairwoman (Jean Vargas) in her van, with a gigantic power drill; this gives him a spooky white vehicle to drive around and appear in the edges of shots, as he heads straight for the high school to gaze at the young women leaving. How he finds out about the slumber party, what his deal is anyway, and whether he has some eerie psychic connection to any of the girls is totally immaterial. He's a psycho killer, they're nubile young women with drugs and drink, and that's an attractive force stronger than gravity.

In 77 minutes that are brief even for junk food horror movies from the '80s, Thorn kills a startlingly large number of people with his massive tool, with Diane's death in particular (not a spoiler; the Designated Bitch never lives) finding Jones and cinematographer Stephen L. Posey consciously framing it as a rape and the drill as a metaphorical penis. And that's it as far as obvious traces of any kind of feminist reading on the slasher genre; there's also the bit where the drillpenis is castrated, but Jones underplays it severely. "Jones underplays it" is a useful phrase to hang onto while watching The Slumber Party Massacre: it's a film rife with things that, even if we don't know the film's history, feel like they're kind of supposed to be jokes, except that they're not playing that way. There's a repeated bit where Trish keeps not noticing news stories about Thorn's escape, and another, even more frequently repeated bit where men who are not the killer and have no apparent ill motives grab women by the throat from behind, and both of these seem kind of like running gags; but they're staged with exactly the same timing and framing as any tension-building beat from any slasher film. There's a defiantly odd scene where the somewhat creepy neighbor, Mr. Contant (Rigg Kennedy) - whose creepiness is not built up at all, not even where he basically tells a bunch of teenage girls that he won't tell on them for smoking pot if they don't mention that he was stalking around the house, wink wink - is out hunting snails at night with a meat cleaver, and that's not even good as comedy, though at least it's explicable. Here it's just treated as a generic false scare.

What we learn from The Slumber Party Massacre ends up having nothing to do with subverting male power, or giving women control, or challenging male gaze, or any goddamn thing at all, but this: when you make a parody and decide not to have any of the jokes be funny, you've basically just made a shitty version of the shitty thing you were parodying, and if there's a distinction between "this is very bad" and "this is an exaggerated version of a bad thing", it's wholly academic. This is a crappy film with bland performances - in a film crazily awash with gratuitous nudity, the actresses willing to show up would be from a rather shallower pool than even the normal slasher film could boast - and a brutally perfunctory plot that almost explicitly treats the undifferentiated characters as dominoes to be set up in the first 40 minutes, so that they can then be killed off at a pretty fucking steady clip. From the 45-minute mark until the film ends 32 minutes later, there's a death, on average, every 3.5 minutes, a pace that would make Jason Voorhees himself stand back impressed. And they are not very interesting deaths, either - one scene, the film's single good one, finds two of the girls unaware that Thorn is creeping in through the window behind him, and it's nicely tense, but the deaths themselves are mostly hidden behind quick cuts (naturally, the boys die in shock moments and the girls get stalked a bit first), and the stage blood looks positively chintzy.

And that's really the worst of it: it's not just bad at the level of storytelling and direction, it's genuinely poorly made. There's a scene early on where Michaels rushes a line and Smika fumbles her through dialogue that suddenly comes across as redundant, and they just left it right there in the damn movie. And the sound - Christ's love, the sound mixing! - if it's not the loudest curtains in the whole wide world being closed with a rustle that sounds like the house's foundation shattering, it's a moment between Trish and a lady carpenter (Pam Canzano) - the presence of multiple women in traditionally male jobs also being something that feels like it's not nearly as important as it could and should be - that includes an amazingly balanced line that goes something like "YOUR BOOKSHELVES WILL BE READY nexsht Tueshday".

It's so easy to see the film that The Slumber Party Massacre isn't quite - the absurdly overly emphatic, self-mocking, weird, and caustically satirical one that may or may not be what Brown had in mind, but would still qualify as a parody - and be angry at it for existing in this half-assed form, but I'll say this for it: it's distinctive as anything. The strain between content and tone leaves it feeling like no other slasher film of that period, and while it also leaves it more frustrating and ineffective and just plain crappy than the great majority of slashers... it stands out. In a subgenre as routine and formulaic as this one had already become by 1982, that counts for an awful lot.

Body Count: 12, not all of whom I actually got around to naming, because of the characters who show up for literally no narrative reason other than to die. Again, if there's a difference between exaggerating for effect and just being trashy, The Slumber Party Massacre does not know what it is.
Breasts: 8, by which I mean 8 distinct occurrences of breasts, not 8 breasts overall; it is in fact six pairs and two individually, some of which are duplicates.
Asses: 4 belonging to girls, 1 belonging to a man in a Playgirl spread.