Review: April Fool’s Day (1986)

April Fool’s Day

Directed by Fred Walton
Starring Deborah Foreman, Deborah Goodrich, Amy Steel, Thomas F. Wilson

The slasher genre is an anomaly in film. Between the years of 1978 and 1982, dozens and dozens of formulaic teenage slash-em-ups found success at the box office, regardless of star power, budget, or original storytelling. And then, almost as if it were waking from a dream, the genre turned on itself, discovering delight in satirizing its inherent sexism and excessive violence. In November 1982, Slumber Party Massacre challenged audiences by presenting the formula through a feminist lens. Although it failed to make an effective statement on the role of misogyny in popular slasher films, it marked the end of the genre’s popularity. The only successful attempt to reinvigorate the slasher was Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, and even that film subverts expectations with its refusal to phallicize its hero, Nancy.

Today, the genre lives on through self-aware spoofs. Cabin in the Woods is a multilayered commentary on the relationship between a slasher film and its audience. You’re Next satirizes the concept of the Final Girl while still indulging itself in gleeful, gory violence. Nary a slasher film is released that retains a straight face, working within the genre’s trappings without winking at the audience. This cleverness can be linked back to Wes Craven’s Scream – a smug, silly attempt at satire that wants to have its cake and eat it, too: Its conceit is too obvious to be clever and the film itself is too self-aware to be scary. Nevertheless, it remains the most popular satirical slasher film, even though April Fool’s Day beat it to the punch by more than a decade.

April Fool’s Day is, all at once, a subtle deconstruction of the slasher genre, a celebration of the illusion of film, and an elaborate prank that lives up to its title. While Craven’s Scream took endless broad, wink-wink swipes at the genre, director Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) and writer Danilo Bach (Beverly Hills Cop) use genre conventions to mischievously set up their audience before pulling the rug out from under them in the final minutes, an act that both begs examination of the genre’s questionable allure and asks the viewer to gauge his or her own reaction to the reveal.

One might be able to guess at the film’s twist simply by reading its title, but for those of you who haven’t seen the film and haven’t an inkling of what the twist may be, the following paragraphs will be full of SPOILERS. But knowing the twist beforehand doesn’t rob the film of its effectiveness.

April Fool’s Day, in its first 70 minutes, is one of the most beautifully photographed, patient and well-rounded entries in the slasher canon. Each performer is more than adequate, and the characters they bring to life are interesting, nuanced, and immediately memorable, from Thomas F. Wilson’s sex-obsessed but insightful Arch to Leah Pinsent’s emotionally damaged and pent-up Nan. Unlike the endless sound and fury of the Friday the 13th films, April Fool’s Day has room to breathe, allowing silence to seep in between the scares and suspense. And although subversion of the slasher genre is first and foremost on its mind, it allows its college-aged characters to openly discuss the unpredictability of life after education. Arch illustrates it simply: “How can someone be serious about anything when some moron can steal a bomb or push a button and nuke us all ’till our shadows glow?” The future weighs heavily over the characters’ heads, giving gravitas to each of their individual situations. Walt is a former farmboy turned enterprising businessman looking to use the wealthy Nikki as a ladder on his way to the top. Rob is a potential medical student having trouble curbing his goofball tendencies, alienating Kit, his girlfriend, by expressing doubt about his future financial situation. These aren’t the slasher movie character archetypes later spoofed in Cabin in the Woods – these are actual, honest-to-goodness characters, with their own motivations and beliefs.

Between these moments of honest character development, the filmmakers find time to make reference to as many tropes and clichés as they can, even going as far as casting Amy Steel, the tomboyish Final Girl from Friday the 13th Part II, as the tomboyish Final Girl of this particular story. Her character is masculinized to a ridiculous degree, ranging from her name (“Kit”) to the fact that she’s almost never seen wearing women’s clothing, instead opting for loose-fitting rolled-up jeans and button-up shirts (and even sporting a tie in the climax). Kit and Rob’s assumed gender roles are almost completely switched, with Kit providing endless comfort to a much more emotional Rob and initiating sex in a forward and direct manner. She laughs at jokes while he shakes his head and she faces danger while he is more often left helpless. By setting Kit up as the very obvious Final Girl (see my review of Sorority House Massacre II for more on gender in slasher movies) and then revealing that the murders had all been staged, April Fool’s Day viciously cuts into both the slasher genre itself and the critics of said genre. The men in the film are all sex-obsessed, the girls are each fond of cooking and gossip, and Kit is the ultimate tomboy-turned-Final Girl. April Fool’s Day is completely aware of the stereotypes it explores; it’s always one step ahead of those ready to rip it apart for lazy sexism and formulaic character archetypes.

Near the end of the film, after the murders have been revealed to be gags pulled by a mischievous party host, the characters celebrate the mind-bending terror they experienced by throwing a party, during which one of the characters uses a prop severed head to mime oral sex – an act that perfectly illustrates the slasher movie fan’s almost fetishistic obsession with violence. Earlier in the film, sex between Rob and Kit is interrupted by the appearance of one of their friends’ dead bodies. Meanwhile, two other characters are “gifted” with leather masks and chains by their host. The film blends sex with violence pointedly and repeatedly until finally uniting the two in the close, reminding its viewers that they’re sitting in the theatre because they were promised, as Sleepaway Camp III‘s Riff so eloquently described, “tits and blood.” Perhaps as a secondary prank, the film never allows itself to wallow in sex or violence, as clothing is never removed and deaths are never shown on-screen.

Today, April Fool’s Day has been forgotten by critics and most fans of the genre. The former often fail to see the incredible amount of subtext hiding underneath its stereotype-ridden surface and the latter are disappointed in its seemingly cop-out ending, instead desiring real blood and guts. It’s a hard film to love, due to its almost mean-spirited trickery, but an easy one to enjoy, thanks to its surfeit of three-dimensional characters, its admirable production values, and its easy wit and insight. Scream thought it was clever; April Fool’s Day actually is.

Links:

Amazon Instant – April Fool’s Day
YouTube – April Fool’s Day TV Spot
YouTube – Complete Movie

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