Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Classic Slasher Commentary: April Fool's Day

One of the last slasher entries before the second coming of the genre with Scream, April Fool’s Day is one of those typical films written off at the time of its release but for which public appreciation grows slowly like good cheese ages. Released as one of the last holiday-themed slashers behind the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Mother’s Day, Black Christmas, and New Year’s Evil, April Fool’s Day is actually a step above many of its brethren in terms of production, acting, and its screenplay that both adheres to the time-honored slasher formula while throwing in the obligatory tongue-in-cheek nods expected from the traditionally prank-laden holiday.

Released by Paramount on March 28th, 1986, in time for its titular holiday, April Fool’s Day borrows heavily from Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians with the story of nine yuppie Vassar college chums who make their way to the remote island home of fellow classmate Muffy St. John to celebrate both their senior year and their hostess’ holiday birthday. The set-up is classic Christie with each guest finding clues alluding to scandalous misdeeds from their past, and it isn’t long before paranoia takes hold, red herrings are afoot, and the bodies start to pile up. To give any more of the plot away would spoil it for those April Fool’s Day virgins out there, but suffice to say that the plot includes the requisite twists and surprises one would expect from a movie named after a lighthearted holiday that celebrates practical jokes.

Directed by Fred Walton (whose other notable genre credit is the 1979 classic When A Stranger Calls) and based on the screenplay by Danilo Bach, April Fool’s Day boasted an above average cast of genre vets that included Amy Steel (Friday the 13th, Part 2), Deborah Foreman (Waxwork), Ken Olandt (Leprechaun), Griffin O’Neal (The Wraith, Ghoulies III), and Clayton Rohner (Relic, and I, Madman). Steel, in particular, has the challenge of carrying a good portion of the film and does a credible job in her “final girl” role as Kit. Re-watching her terrific performance in April Fool’s Day makes one wonder why Steel wasn’t a bigger name in the industry and why she’s worked so little in genre films. Despite Steel’s prominence in the third act, the film begins as an ensemble piece and Bach’s script works well painting the characters with enough personality to distinguish them from one another. To their credit and that of the casting agents involved, the ensemble of actors skillfully avoids the cardboard cutout stereotypes of their predecessors and develops a believable on-screen camaraderie.

Viewed in a post-Scream context, April Fool’s Day was actually ahead of the self-referential slasher movement that followed it. Unfortunately, at the time it was considered a last-ditch effort to redeem the dying slasher period of the 80’s and many dismissed the film as producer Frank Mancusco, Jr’s last stab at cashing in on his waning Friday the 13th franchise. The film would go on to gross a respectable $13 million on its $5 million budget – by no means a bomb in the horror genre – and enjoy a successful video rental and cable TV run over the years. Released on DVD in 2002 in widescreen format with sadly no extras, April Fool’s Day is still ripe for deluxe reissue treatment..

Not unlike an Agatha Christie novel itself, rumors persist that April Fool’s Day has an entirely different third act gathering dust in some old film canisters buried somewhere on the Paramount lot. Exhibit A: the film novelization by Jeff Rovin boasts an entirely different ending that lends credence to the fact that the film’s producer’s tampered with the finished product in the eleventh hour before its release, reportedly re-thinking their decision to capitalize on the failing slasher genre and thus needing to downplay the original’s decidedly more horror-based ending. Exhibit B: several movie stills have surfaced in the years since the film’s theatrical bow that depict scenes not in the finished film that keep more with the novelization – one of these mysterious stills even cropped up on the back of the DVD release fueling speculation and all but confirming the existence of a lost cut for April Fool’s Day enthusiasts. Reading the alternate novel ending makes for an interesting and entertaining supplement to the April Fool’s Day experience – the kind folks over at the highly enjoyable
Retro Slashers website make it easy with an excerpt of the infamous alternate ending.

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