This has been on the “important genre film to watch when time is found” stack for a while, because as the alleged inspiration for Halloween, the film that spawned the 80s Slasher craze, it’s one you’ve got to see even if it is a low-budget indie. So, because it’s coming up to Christmas, it got scheduled as a watch-along and we sat down for a bit of snark-along exploitation cinema. Which meant we were totally unprepared for what we ended up watching.
This is, without a doubt, one of the tensest films I’ve seen. It starts out slow and menacing, with an all-women group of college students getting ready for the festive season, by drinking and mucking around, being harassed by an obscene phone caller. From there, it slows down and gets more menacing as someone starts murdering them and hiding the bodies, so we know they’re dead even whilst the girls go looking for them. Eventually, it slows down even further and gets even more menacing, as the grim truth of what’s actually going on kicks in, with the viewer only one air-gulping heartbeat ahead of the character’s realisations.
Normally during online watch-along, a lack of chat normally means people have lost interest or the pacing has lost us. This time it meant we were absolutely glued to what was going on on-screen, even though not a lot was actually happening at any given moment. At one point there was a ten-minutes long gap between comments, a record-breaking pause broken only by the single understated work of “yikes”.
And all this with very little actual on-screen violence. Oh, don’t get it wrong: this is a brutal and bloodthirsty film. People are tormented, people are killed, and bodies are abused. It’s just that the absolute bastard director Bob Clark knew we would scare ourselves shitless even more if he showed us as minimal amount of detail as possible. This also goes to the ending, which had us watch through to the very end of the credits even though, in our heart of hearts, we knew nothing good was going to come.
This is a bleak film, filled with suffering and needless harm (other than for our entertainment). It’s every twist and turn, another chance to beat the last vestiges of happiness out of the season of goodwill. And that’s helped by the core cast being so realistic and likable. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, and Marian Waldman get the standout roles for the Sorority Sisters, none of them perfect but all of them decent enough people. James Edmond does a fine turn as a worried father, hitting the double-notes of the disapproving generational gap and added gravitas, and John Saxon plays a competent but woefully underprepared representation of authority. You get a real sense of community, of people living their lives, of small but meaningful problems. Then that all gets sent to hell by the inscrutable actions of a lunatic.
Watching it now, it makes absolute sense of how the concept was “upped” by the films that followed. Halloween upped the ante on the killer, Friday the 13th made great hay with the kills, The Slumberparty Massacre removed the subtlety. It also makes sense as to why it wasn’t that well-received at the time, and how it managed to slip through the mainstream film memory (even though it reaped it in at the box office at the time). It imparts a sense of hopelessness and inevitability towards violence, and that was probably too one the nose for its era.
We went into this expecting shlock and what we got was a psychological thriller of the finest kind. It is a rough and often exhausting ride, but worth it just to see the mastery involved. It avoids being celebratory, or overly moralistic, and that works in its favour as it keeps it cool and heartless. It’s a solid Treasure of an experiential film, like a ghost-ride that actually scares you. So, give it a go as an amazing horror film in its own rights but have something light to follow it up with.
We watched Duckulla, and started being able to laugh halfway through.