Guess who’s going to be the life of the party?
With the first day of April being the yearly celebration of japes, pranks and general foolhardiness, it’s fitting that we begin our journey of retrospectives on the horror films of yesteryear right here.
When the film came out in 1986, it was advertised with a trailer that seemed to appear on all the Paramount VHS releases at the time. You couldn’t watch a 1986 Paramount presentation without seeing it—in fact, we even found it (apologies for the poor quality).
The trailer is short, snappy and sells the film exactly how it should be sold, as a fun 80s horror romp. There’s also this extended version:
After thirty years, we think it’s fair to say that spoilers are fair game here—so consider yourselves warned! Spoilers ahead!..
The plotline goes like this: It’s Spring Break and Muffy St. John (80s horror favourite, Deborah Foreman) invites nine of her friends to a party at her family house by the lake which she is due to inherit when she turns 21. The weekend of pranks and rumpy-pumpy starts off innocently enough, with whoopee cushions, dribble glasses and collapsible chairs with trick legs setting the tone, but it all descends into a bloodbath as the guests start to be picked off one by one in gleefully original ways.
The film starts with what is now a worn and tired cliché (although it was a lot fresher back then)—the home video introduction of some of the characters who will later be sliced and diced—before we switch to Muffy preparing the house and sending away the hired help for the weekend. She has a flashback to a birthday party from when she was younger, playing with a musical box, turning the key until the lid pops open and out comes, not a princess or cute animal, but a horrifying monster.
The friends all meet up at the ferry crossing and bond on the ride over. The first prank, involving a fake knife is set up nicely, followed by what appears to be a horrific accident when one of the party is seemingly crushed by the ferry. The local constable Potter is on hand to lend the ferry captain his speedboat to take the injured individual back to shore, meaning the constable then has to borrow Muffy’s boat, which leaves everyone stranded on the island for the weekend.
So they all drive up to the lavish mansion and the festivities begin. Only they’re not alone.
A dinner party sets the tone nicely, with the party gags flowing before the nastiness begins, with characters being reminded of past discrepancies and dirty little secrets with press cuttings, drug paraphernalia and sexual hints. Perhaps the harshest one of all is the recording of a crying baby in the closet of someone who had an abortion. The first death happens overnight in the boatshed as Skip goes off for a sneaky joint and the following morning, Muffy is not herself, her hair is messed up and she is particularly jumpy.
Rob and Kit then decide to make the most of some privacy in the boathouse, until Skip’s body literally goes floating by. Arch is next to go, caught in a critter trap and hung from a tree by his ankle as a venomous snake closes in before a pair of feet shuffle into frame and kick the snake away, although we can tell by Arch’s face that this mystery person does not appear to be there to help him down.
The group can’t get through to the mainland on the phone and, all the while, Muffy is looking mousier and more confused by the moment. Hal and Nikki then walk to the well to try and get some water as the mains seem to have stopped working, only to find the decapitated heads of Skip and Arch and the body of Nan. The group now start to think that it’s someone taking revenge for the ferry accident, at least until they manage to speak to the constable who tells them that he’s been with the Ferryman all day. Kit then finds an old picture of twins in Muffy’s father’s study.
Chas and Nikki are then offed in their room while Rob and Kit explore the attic and Rob explains to Kit that the constable told him to make sure that no one is left alone with Muffy until he gets there. The couple start to piece together what’s going on until a flare goes up outside, which is meant to signal the return of the constable. Rob goes to find Hal and Kit tries to find anyone else. Then they find Chas and Nikki and the hanging corpse of Hal before they run out of the mansion and down to the dock to find Muffy’s boat, but no Constable. On the boat they find a letter that states that Muffy is unstable and needs to be returned to an institution.
As there’s no key in the boat, they return to the house to find the spare key, but the house has been closed up and is in pitch darkness. In the cellar, they find a height chart for Muffy, and her twin sister, Buffy (not that one). Muffy’s dead body then pops up and they realise that they’re being stalked through the house by the psychotic Buffy. Rob gets locked in a pantry, forcing a final confrontation between Buffy and Kit that culminates in Kit rushing through the sliding doors of the dining room to find all her friends alive and well, including Constable Potter, who is actually Muffy’s Uncle Frank.
It has all been one huge April Fools Day prank in preparation for Muffy opening the mansion as a country inn, specialising in Whodunit weekend mysteries. It transpires that there is a twin, but it’s Skip, who had earlier advised he was a cousin of Muffy’s. Buck, who was the supposed victim of the boating accident, is actually a make-up artist and crafted all the props and fake injuries and we find that all of the friends were ignorant to the prank until their ‘deaths’. It appears that the nasty party favours may have been accidentally succinct. It all ends with a final appearance by another music box and a final scare as a sly nod to you, the viewer.
Sadly, there is a Director’s Cut that we’ve never seen where the friends all return to the island to try and scare Muffy as much as she has scared them, but as this added another twenty minutes to the runtime, Paramount decided to trim it and have it end at what does feel like the right time, rather than drag it out for a quick final acre. Interestingly too, the Swedish VHS release in 1987 had all the violent scenes cut out, which would have made the whole thing a confusing mess, what with characters subsequently just disappearing from the film after their death scene.
Writer Danilo Bach deserved to have a much bigger career, especially when you consider that he helped to write the Beverly Hills Cop series and the director, Fred Walton, also had a somewhat stunted career, having also helmed the original 1979 When a Stranger Calls and a segment in the pilot episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It comes as no surprise that the film was produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. who, by this time, was growing weary of producing endless sequels based at Camp Crystal Lake. Hell, it even has its own little, spooky Voorhees-esque theme.
In addition to Deborah Foreman, you should also instantly recognise Amy Steel as Ginny, the Final Girl, from Friday the 13th Part 2 and Thomas F. Wilson as Biff from the Back to the Future series and it’s this familiarity that helps the fact that, although the characters are all well-off, they are all extremely likeable. Walton has gone on record to say that he encouraged improvisation from his actors and actresses and that really does come across throughout the feature.
You can view this film as a different, youthful take on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, but it’s really just a neat twist on the slasher sub-genre that had grown so big since the late 70s / early 80s forbearers such as Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street. Because of the very fact that it didn’t need to rely on the awful it-was-all-a-dream do-over at the end, it was fresh and gave a new angle.
It has its flaws, of course—the biggest plot hole is that although the other boats were gone, the ferry was still there the whole time, why not try and use it to get off the island?—but is played with such a devilish wink and a smile, that you can forgive the shortcomings and enjoy a horror film for what it represents. Comedy horror is hardly ever done well; April Fool’s Day just manages to sneak through on its merits and ambition.