Although I watched this as a teenager, I have no recollection of it whatsoever, so it was with some trepidation I dusted it off and played it. I shouldn’t have worried, though, as it’s a surprising forgotten gem, funny, scary, and female-dominated (although not behind the camera, sadly). I do love a good 80s horror-comedy!
“Killer Party” really tries its best to confuse you from the off, though. The opening five minutes are a film-within-a-film-within-a-film (the star, watching a movie where a woman is watching a movie). Top that off with the simple old film-within-a-film finishing with a song and dance number with zombies in it, and, well, it’s all a bit curious. I did wonder about accidental cremation being played for laughs, and honestly I’d have liked to see that one perhaps even more than the one we got.
Anyway, our stars are three women who all sort-of want to pledge to a seemingly unpleasant sorority – since I discovered you have to pay a lot of money to live in a sorority / fraternity house, I’ve got zero idea why anyone would want to do it – Jennifer, the obvious heroine / Final Girl; Vivia, the super-cute nerd; and Phoebe, the other one (I’m sorry, they don’t give her a ton of characterisation). They’re accepted, after some seriously gross-looking initiations, just in time for the annual April Fools’ party, co-hosted by the sorority and the Beta Tau fraternity, which is due to take place at the old abandoned frat house, which has lain empty for 20 years after a frat guy was decapitated there.
Vivia is tasked with setting up some pranks inside the house, as her faux-decapitation during one of the hazing rituals impressed the head sorority sister. Jennifer seems to have some sort of psychic connection to the house as she freaks out every time she goes inside. And there’s plenty of decent supporting characters too – Blake, Jennifer’s love interest; Martin, the nebbish guy who Vivia likes, but he’s way more into Jennifer; Professor Zito (the great Paul Bartel), the head of the Greek letter council; the House Mother who has some mysterious connection to the dead frat guy; and lots of well-sketched out minor characters from the college. Everyone gives an excellent account of themselves.
The thing I liked most about “Killer Party” is how it ignored slasher conventions, set in stone even as early as 1987. You’re tricked into thinking it’s a zombie movie, then it switches gears to be a teen sex comedy, then when it gets round to remembering it’s supposed to be horror, the slasher element is quickly dealt with, the Final Girl is revealed to be anything but, and it ends up with some possession and being a “spam in a can” movie (a phrase I just learned, people trapped in one small location all getting butchered, and one I’ll be using a lot I think). It’s not like it was made this way by accident – the scriptwriter was also responsible for “Friday 13th: The Final Chapter” (one of the less rotten ones, and he gives this one some decent dialogue too), so they knew what they were doing. I think that’s a large part of the reason for its poor reception critically, because there’s a lot of people for whom watching a horror movie is to watch a set of clichés mechanically slotting into place, and any deviation from those norms is irritating. Now, some clichés are a thing because they work and make sense, but the rules of the slasher movie were made to be broken pretty much from the beginning.
Now, all this seems pretty positive, but it’s certainly not perfect. The central section of proceedings, what could largely be called the teen sex comedy (despite most of the cast being in their mid-to-late 20s), is that it goes on too long, and the horror section is too short. As the survivors are walking through the party, and we see some fairly central cast members just lying off to the side dead, the thought does wander through your mind “I wish we’d had less of that asshole Martin” (who just drunkenly stumbles out of the movie with 20 minutes left and is never seen again). In their glee to ignore the tropes of slasher cinema, they throw a bit of the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps.
The now-obligatory gender discussion! While the lead actresses are all pretty strong (Sherry Willis-Burch, who played Vivia, was great, and it’s a damn shame she only appeared in two movies, this and 1981’s “Final Exam”), you need to have some space in your head between how they’re treated and what the subtext of the movie is telling you about the rightness of that treatment. Two guys, called “Bee Guy” 1 and 2 in the credits, exist to maul at women at the party, but they’re seen as almost subhuman (one of them is Jason Warren, who long-term ISCFC readers will remember from “Screwballs 2” as Marvin Eatmore). Vivia is getting with Martin but he’s obviously way into Jennifer as he constantly asks about her; she rolls her eyes and insists he carry on, which is low on the self-respect scale, but, goddamit, she has needs too! All the other ladies have a healthy attitude towards sex and there’s no coercion or trickery or anything – so good on the makers of the movie for absolutely ignoring the T&A aspect.
Also, as it’s over 30 years old (released in 1987 but made in 1984), I think I can spoil the ending a little. It turns out Jennifer is possessed by the spirit of dead frat guy Allan, and her facial and physical acting as a demonic creature are pretty damned good. The rug-pulling aspect of the Final Girl actually being the killer (disguised with a full diving suit for most of the movie, lord knows where she got it) is handled really well, too.
So, its status as a largely ignored gem is perhaps understandable; but if you’re prepared for your horror to go off the beaten track a bit, I reckon you’ll love this one. The long time between filming and release I can’t explain, but I can help with the title – it was originally called “April Fools”, but the classic “April Fools’ Day” was released earlier in 1986 so a name change was sort of forced on them. Good alternate title too!
Rating: thumbs up