By 1986, the ‘golden age’ of the slasher movie was coming to a close. Sure the major franchises, like Friday the 13th and Halloween, kept pushing out more sequels. An the occasional independent slasher film would sneak into theatres. But the peak of the glory years had past. April Fool’s Day was one of the last slasher films released by a major studio in the 1980’s. Though it was just a minor success at the time, its reputation has grown over the years. Today, over 30 years later, critics and fans alike consider April Fool’s Day to be a fairly clever entry to the subgenre. It’s a standout that anticipated the post-modern humour of later horror films.
College student Muffy St. John invites several school friends to her rich family’s island home. She promises an April Fool’s day weekend of drinking and reminiscing. But harmless fun and pranks seemingly take a nightmarish turn when one guest, Kit, thinks she sees a dead body. Initially dismissed as a prank, guests continue to disappear. Meanwhile, Muffy’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. With phone lines cut and the ferry not due to return for days, Kit and boyfriend, Derek, find themselves in a fight against an unseen killer.
April Fool’s Day Pranks A Familiar Narrative
Director Fred Walton had some experience before sitting behind the camera for this late slasher. Previously, Walton helmed ‘Babysitter-in-peril’ flick, When a Stranger Calls. Not surprisingly then, 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 movie. Is the killer the ferry employee gruesomely injured by a prank gone awry? Or is the killer be the strange Muffy? Guests disappear one after the other, clearly referencing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. And the final act is a cat-and-mouse game complete with the best Final Girl in slasher movie history – Amy Steel from Friday the 13th Part II. [SPOILERS FOLLOW]
April Fool’s Day may seem derivative on the surface, but it was ahead of its time. Specifically, it’s the movie’s twist that sets it apart from other 80’s slashers. At its conclusion, Kit discovers that the killings are just an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke. Hostess Muffy orchestrated everything from the pier accident onward as the ultimate prank. As each guest became a ‘victim’, they joined the hoax. Walton took an early stab at the same self-aware humour that Wes Craven would later attempt with A New Nightmare. Watching April Fool’s Day today with fresh eyes makes its first two-third seem more cleverly orchestrated than just a cheap rip-off.
Looking for Gore, The Joke’s On You
Perhaps April Fool’s Day’s most suprising twist, however, is its lack of gore. Following the box office success of Friday the 13th, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slashed away at the slasher movies released in the ensuing years. Nearly as much film was left on the cutting room floor as body parts for much of the early and mid-1980s. But 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. In fact, Walton keeps most of the focus 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
Its lack of gore and more traditional jump scares keep this movie from hitting the same heights as other slasher films. Nonetheless, Walton crafts a fun, light thriller with a better-than-average cast that capably delivers the goods. While there are no ‘stars’ in the movie, 80’s 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). As the movie’s ‘Final Girl’, Amy Steel carries the more traditional horror beats of the movie’s last third. In her return to the slasher genre, Steel again demonstrates 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, its methodical pace, above-average acting, and clever twist make it one of the better slasher entries from the 1980’s. 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 there’s much to like about April Fool’s Day.