One of the most sexualized subgenres of horror, the slasher film lives in a voyeuristic place where the male gaze is king, and women are but tidy little morsels to be hacked up and consumed. It started with films like Peeping Tom (1960), whose name itself is a dead giveaway to the appetites and predilections we’d come to know and love. John Carpenter and Debra Hill swear they never intended to portray sex as a punishable offense in Halloween, but the imagery was nevertheless embedded in the cultural zeitgeist forever. From then on, the slasher would always be associated with a kind of heteronormative, puritanical reckoning from the male gaze, leaving nothing in its wake but blood, guts, and a final girl.
That is until Slumber Party Massacre II offered something … different.
Instead of heterosexual predatory voyeurism, writer-director Deborah Brock uses the female protagonist as a host, and her latent, even repressed, bisexuality as a catalyst for carnage. Where most slashers focus on voyeurism from outside the core group – a threatening male figure who lurks in dark corners and slowly invades the teen’s safe spaces – SPM II placed the killer within the psyche of its heroine, Courtney Bates (Crystal Bernard), one of the survivors of the first film. We met her as a pre-teen leafing through Playgirl magazine – an issue with the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stalone, on the cover. Now, she’s a teenager suffering PTSD and having night terrors Freud would have a field day with.
But sexual trauma or repression isn’t something new to the slasher. In fact, it’s deeply embedded in the formula. Michael Myers killed his sister as a child after she had a quick trist with her boyfriend when she was supposed to be babysitting. Billy Chapman watched his mom’s rape and both parents’ murder by a man dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas eve in Silent Night, Deadly Night. Harry Stadling caught “Santa” (read: his dad) going down on mommy one Christmas eve, and regressed into a childlike state of obsession with the holiday to cope, eventually snapping and going on a killing spree. Jason Voorhees arguably overtly punishes people for having sex because that’s how he died, albeit influenced by his mother’s grief and rage. Then there’s Ghostface; Billy Loomis was exacting revenge for the trauma of his dad’s affair with Sidney Prescott’s mom; Mrs. Loomis AKA Debbie Salt was seeking revenge for Sidney killing Billy as a result of the trauma of her mother’s affair with his father; Roman Bridger resented his and Sidney’s mom for rejecting him as an infant born out of rape and her subsequent affairs; and while Jill Roberts wanted fame, Charlie Walker was sexually frustrated enough to just go full psycho on everyone, especially the girls who never noticed him.
But where the slashers we’re more familiar with lived in a place where sexual expression is a punishable offense, and the offending parties become collateral damage, the first Slumber Party Massacre gave us a new way of looking at things.
Written by the controversial feminist icon Rita Mae Brown and directed by Amy Holden Jones, the film shifted the power from an iconic male threat a la Michael or Jason to the teenage girls often presumed to be punished for their sexual appetites. Originally written as a parody mocking exploitation films and satirically scrutinizing tropes of masculinity, it offered a new approach to slashers, even if the subgenre itself remained largely the same going forward. The killer’s identity is no longer a focal point, refraining from glorifying the killing spree and effectively making the victims far more sympathetic. The traditionally phallic and penatrative weapon – a giant chef’s knife, an axe, a deer’s antlers, an arm, or literally anything else you can shove into or through a torso – was taken to new heights, leaning on its satirical commentary of hetero performativity in slasher flicks, by giving the killer an enormous power drill as a murder weapon. As far as phallic imagery goes, this nearly takes the cake.
And then, in 1987, Brock rewrote the Driller Killer with a new weapon in the form of an elaborate cherry red guitar power drill and, most importantly, a new origin.
While SPM II is connected to the previous film, it can still stand alone as its own unique entry into the slasher cannon. Rather than an escaped mental patient, a deranged, sexually repressed man, or a vessel for pure evil, Driller Killer (Atanas Ilitch) manifests in the mind of our protagonist, specifically when she’s … excited.
While she’s dreaming about her crush, Matt (Patrick Lowe), she get flashbacks to her trauma, visions of her tortured sister in an asylum, and a thrusting drill-bit. In her dreams, she hides under her bed from a man wearing studded leather cowboy boots. This is Driller Killer, pacing in her mind and waiting for his moment.
The next time she dreams, her girlfriends make an appearance, young women confident in their sexuality. She dreams about her sister, isolated in an asylum, pleading “don’t go all the way.” The shots are voyeuristic in a way that’s reminiscent of Myers peering in through a window.
Now here’s where SPM II really sets itself apart from other slashers – the main voyeuristic POV we get throughout the film is from Courtney herself. Where in other slashers like Peeping Tom or Black Christmas we saw through the eyes of the killer, now it looks like we’re seeing from our heroine’s POV. What seem like strange framing choices – shooting specific characters dead-on as opposed to cheating the camera to the side – suggest something that we may not have considered; the killer is actually a psychological projection of Courtney’s repressed bisexuality that she’s been hiding from her family and her friends.
Coming out, whether to your family, friends, or even yourself, is a difficult and sometimes painful process. For some it’s liberating, and happens without incident. For others it can be terrifying, and even scarring. In many cases, we hide our sexuality in order to protect ourselves, whether from scrutiny and ridicule or outright abuse. Everything that Courtney’s going through suggests she’s hiding something from herself because she’s afraid of what it might change, and Brock leaves us little breadcrumbs throughout the film to suggest this isn’t your parent’s slasher.
From Courtney’s voyeuristic POV to not-so-subtle hints – she literally sings “I just love going through the motions” from First Born’s “Tokyo Convertible” – the entire film is about her hiding in plain sight.
The more she dreams about her friends and Matt simultaneously, the more she has flashbacks to her trauma, seemingly conflating the two. Once they get to Sheila’s dad’s condo, they break out the hooch, blast the music and start dancing. It’s not long before Sheila pops a bottle of champagne spraying everyone as they start to peel off their clothes. The requisite pillow fight ensues. The entire time, two guys they’d invited are locked out of the house, banging on the door to be let in. The only POV we get is from inside the room, Courtney and potentially the other girls watching each other as they dance.
Gradually, she starts to hallucinate; her bath is overflowing with burbling blood instead of water; Sally complains of a looming zit and needing more Oxy-10, when suddenly her face swells to three times its normal size and a giant pustule bursts open, squirting all over Courtney. They all think she’s losing her mind, and maybe she is a bit – it takes a lot of energy to hide from yourself.
Eventually, she and Matt are about to have sex when her visions of Driller Killer manifest into reality, and he drills straight through Matt’s chest. There’s no hiding anymore. That gender duality she’s been trying to keep under wraps is now running loose and killing all of her friends, penetrating everyone she’s been lusting after.
What could have been just another slasher, something that toyed with the tropes enough to do something a little different, inadvertently became an ode to self-repressed sexuality that this writer certainly connected with.
In the end, Courtney wakes from what she thinks was just a bad dream. Matt’s beside her in bed, and she rolls over to kiss him awake. Smoke starts to billow as she pulls away, realizing she’s kissing the Driller Killer. He holds her close, almost tenderly, saying “I love you” as she starts to scream. The camera pulls back. She’s in an asylum just like her sister was, and the drill breaks through the floor.
Slumber Party Massacre II flips the slasher trope on its head by making the killer a manifestation of repressed sexual desire. It puts the internalized anguish of hiding from yourself at the forefront, making the villain intangible and far more dangerous than a man with a knife. Ultimately, you can try to run and hide, but you can’t escape yourself.
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