Mary O’Toole O’Riley O’Shea’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Undeserving: An Appreciation of “April Fool’s Day”
So I’ve been writing this blog for a while now, rabbiting on the way I do, reminiscing about some of my favorite books and movies from my youth and trying to figure out what made certain things stick with me over the years. But in all that time, it never occurred to me to write about this movie, and I honestly can’t goddamn believe I forgot it (*slaps dumbass self in face*), since I probably watched it about a gazillion times on cable and battered VHS tape in the late eighties. For real, I had the shit memorized; dialogue from it is still firmly etched into the wrinkles of my prefrontal cortex, I’m sure. The only thing that recently reminded me of the movie, in fact, was that duh, it was April Fool’s Day last week, and one of the movie channels decided to be as literal as it is possible to be and show a marathon of this under-appreciated, sorta-horror flick of the same name in some kind of bizarre celebration of this lamest of holidays. So I settled in to watch it for the first time in many years. And know what? Shit holds up, and I still remembered pretty much every single line as though I last saw the thing yesterday. Such is the spongelike nature of the teenaged brain.
Directed by Fred Walton (who also directed the 1979 classic When a Stranger Calls), and released in 1986, April Fool’s Day was something of an odd duck in the horror film landscape of the mid-eighties. Not really gory or violent enough to be a slasher, and played a bit too straight to be a horror comedy, April Fool’s Day could in fact be seen as something of a precursor to the self-aware, ironic horrors of the 1990s that kicked off with Scream, though it’s not so patently meta as Wes Craven’s series, and also much less zany than some of the horror parodies (i.e. the Scary Movie franchise) that followed in its wake. Most of the humor in April Fool’s Day is comparatively subtle, like the hilariously WASPy names of the main characters and their rather wry interactions with one another. The movie’s only really wacky flourish, in fact, came during the end credits, with the use of the quasi-vaudevillian Charles Bernstein-penned tune, “Too Bad You’re Crazy,” which I kinda love the shit out of, if I’m being completely honest. One of the things I like best about April Fool’s Day, actually, is that it was essentially a horror parody without obviously being one; it could be enjoyed as a straight horror flick or as a comedy, but with none of the self-conscious or self-referential schtick of a more overt parody.
Starring a handful of familiar eighties teen-movie faces like Deborah Foreman (Valley Girl), Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part 2), Clayton Rohner (Just One of the Guys), and Thomas “Biff Tannen” Wilson (Back to the Future), the movie follows a standard slasher setup whereby a group of privileged college kids are invited to their friend Muffy’s private island one spring weekend, and then proceed to get mysteriously offed one by one.
Most of the eighties slasher laundry list is dutifully checked off: There’s a red herring concerning the killer’s identity, there is a purported “evil twin” angle, there is the expected scene where a survivor stumbles across the (alleged) corpses of her compatriots as she desperately tries to escape the murderer. All par for the course, or so it would seem. What made this film stand out from the pack — for me, at least — was not only that the movie largely refrained from the gratuitous violence and nudity common in slasher flicks of the era, but also that the acting was fairly above par for this type of thing. The characters were genuinely funny and likable, and there was a sort of easy chemistry among the ensemble that made their on-screen relationships feel natural, believable, and entertaining to watch. Plus you have to admit it had some great lines, from Nicki laconically cataloguing a list of names that Muffy might be short for (The Muffster, Muffinstuff) to Chaz referring to himself as “the birdman of S&M” to every delightful pronouncement by Thomas Wilson’s character of Arch, who was probably worth the price of admission all by himself.
Of course, the major aspect of the film that set it apart was — SPOILER ALERT FOR A 30-YEAR-OLD MOVIE INCOMING — that none of the “victims” of the slasher were actually dead. The entire murderous scenario endured by the guests was simply a well-planned dry run for a murder mystery weekend Muffy wanted to implement when she eventually turned the house into a country inn. As each of her friends was “killed,” Muffy would let them in on the secret, until the whole scheme was revealed to “final girl” Kit when she ran screaming away from her “killer” into a room that was just chock full of her supposedly dead buddies, all of whom were very much alive and amused by Kit’s terror. As is customary in this type of movie, there is also a “gotcha” ending, as it appears that after the festivities, wallflower guest Nan has snapped and killed Muffy for real, but this turns out to be just as fake as the rest of the murders.
Does this essentially slashless slasher work? I think it does, though I can understand if other viewers might have felt it was a cheat. Personally, I thought that the humor and fun creepiness of the story carried it to such an extent that it didn’t really matter that the murders had all been staged in the end. And if you’ll indulge me as I put on some pretentious film-school pants for a moment, in a way you can argue that April Fool’s Day is really one of the most honest slashers ever made, because it showed the strings on the puppet, the zipper on the monster suit. Yes, all the murders in the movie were shown to be fake, but the murders in all slasher movies are fake; the difference with other slashers is that they want the viewer to take them as contextually real. Huh, maybe this movie was as meta as Scream after all. Or maybe I’m just talking out of my ass again. Could be either thing, really.
Until next time, I’ll be looking forward to dessert (please God let it be Ding-Dongs) and trying to keep my Hostess Twinkie from hanging out. Keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.