By 1986, the slasher film was by all accounts sputtering to an end after several years of dominating the horror genre. While the major franchises, like Friday the 13th and Halloween, would continue pushing out more sequels and the occasional independent slasher film would sneak into theatres, the peak of the glory years had past. April Fool’s Day (1986) was one of the last slasher films released by a major studio. It was a minor success at the time, but its reputation has grown in the years since its original release. Today, over 30 years later, April Fool’s Day is looked on as a fairly clever entry into the slasher subgenre, perhaps anticipating the more post-modern humour of later horror films.
College student Muffy St. John invites several school friends to her rich family’s island home for an April Fool’s Day weekend of drinking and reminiscing. Fun and pranks seemingly take a nightmarish turn when one of her guests, Kit, thinks she sees a dead body. Initially dismissed as a prank, guests continue to disappear and Muffy’s behaviour becomes increasingly strange. With phone lines cut and the ferry not due to return for a few more days, Kit and boyfriend, Derek, must struggle to survive against an unseen killer.
A Familiar Narrative … With a Twist?
Released by Paramount Studios, the same studio behind Friday the 13th, and directed by Fred Walton, the filmmaker responsible for When a Stranger Calls, April Fool’s Day adheres closely to the slasher formula. First, the film borrows the slasher tradition of adopting another calendar holiday. Red herrings abound throughout the film. Is the killer the ferry employee gruesomely injured early in the film as a result of a prank gone awry? Could the killer be the strange Muffy herself? Guests disappear one after the other, clearly referencing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Lastly, the film’s final third is a cat-and-mouse game complete with not a just a ‘Final Girl’, but one of the best slasher Final Girl’s – Amy Steel from Friday the 13th Part II. [SPOILERS FOLLOW]
April Fool’s Day may seem derivative but it was arguably ahead of its time. Specifically, it’s the film’s conclusion that sets it apart from other 1980s slasher films. At its conclusion, Kit (and the audience) learn that the killings are all a part of an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke – everything from the pier accident onward was orchestrated by Muffy as the ultimate prank with each ‘victim’ learning of and joining the hoax. It was a bit of self-aware humour that Wes Craven would take a stab at years later with A New Nightmare before perfecting it with Scream. Watching April Fool’s Day today with fresh eyes makes its first two-third seem more cleverly orchestrated than feeling like a cheap rip-off. The film’s conclusion elevates April Fool’s Day from many of its peers.
Looking for Gore, This April Fool’s Day Joke is On You
One of the most surprising distinguishing characteristics of April Fool’s Day is its lack of gore. Following the box office success of Friday the 13th, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) took swathing cuts at many of the slasher films that were released in the ensuing years. Almost as much film was left on the cutting room floor as body parts for much of the early and mid-1980s. There wouldn’t have been much for censors to cut in April Fool’s Day. Aside from quick flashes of some bodily injuries, the death scenes largely occur off-screen. Most of the focus in Walton’s film is on suspense, which is consistent with his previous slasher effort, When a Stranger Calls. However, diehard slasher fans may ultimately be disappointed with April Fool’s Day.
The Class of 1986 Excels
It’s lack of gore and more traditional jump scares throughout much of its runtime keep April Fool’s Day from hitting the same heights as other slasher films. Nonetheless, the film has a fun, light tone for its first half that is capably delivered by a better-than-average cast. While there are no ‘stars’ in the film, 80s film fans will recognize several familiar faces including Deborah Foreman (Valley Girl, Real Genius), Thomas “Biff Tannen” Wilson (Back to the Future), and Deborah Goodrich (Just One of the Guys). The last third of the film, with its more traditional horror beats, is carried by Amy Steel. In her return to the slasher genre, Steel again demonstrates to horror fans why she is one of the all-time best ‘Final Girls’
A Cut Above Most of the Rest
April Fool’s Day and its lack of gore and inventive kills may understandably deter many slasher fans. However, it’s methodical pace, above-average acting for the subgenre, and clever twist make it one of the better entries into the slasher pantheon. Over thirty years after its release it’s much easier to appreciate the film’s clever conclusion particularly when you consider the films it preceded. It’s never easy breaking new ground but here’s much to like about April Fool’s Day.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B