Women have been a part of the horror genre for decades… and not just in front of the camera. From pioneering producer Debra Hill to exploitation filmmakers like Stephanie Rothman, Roberta Findlay, and Doris Wishman, women take the reins in quite a few horror films. But when it comes to franchises, there remains only one where every entry is both written and directed by women: The Slumber Party Massacre trilogy. (Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street trilogy has male co-writers.)
As the first film in the series celebrates its 40th anniversary, its a great time to revisit the franchise’s origins. Upon reflection, its clear that the original three films were ahead of their time. They all subvert and reframe several sexual tropes and concepts in this male-dominated genre.
Editor’s Note: This article’s analysis explores sexual content, trauma, violence, and other topics that could be triggering for some readers. Please consider this before scrolling further.
The Slumber Party Massacre‘s Origins and Exploration of Sexuality
Directed by Amy Holden Jones, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre was originally written as a parody of the slasher genre by feminist author Rita Mae Brown. (Brown’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle is landmark in lesbian fiction.) Working under Roger Corman, Jones previously edited films by directors Joe Dante and Martin Scorsese, including Hollywood Boulevard and American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. Desperate to direct a feature, Jones and her husband, cinematographer Michael Chapman, shot the first three scenes of The Slumber Party Massacre at their own house. The endeavor was at their own expense and impressive enough to make Corman finance the film.
Brown received full credit for the script; however, Jones did a “page one” re-write, adding most of the humor and specifics of the kills. But the film’s infamous subtext of “a virgin’s fear of sex” was all in Brown’s script. A closer read of the film, whether intended Jones or not, boasts sprinkles of lesbian subtext. There are several queer-coded characters like a phone repairperson and a butch landlady.
This subtext doesn’t cross over into the two sequels; however, subsequent installments continue a unique exploration of sexuality. If the first film is about penetrative sex as a form of violence, then the second film is about both lingering trauma and the confusing rush of fear and desire that comes with sexual coming-of-age. And, the third film explores male sexual trauma as it expresses itself in gendered violence.
Voyeurism, Symbolism, and Feminine Strength in the Slumber Party Massacre Franchise
All three Slumber Party Massacre films follow a similar basic plot. A group of girls hold a sleepover. They dance and talk about sex and romance. Eventually, some boys come over for hanky panky. And finally the Driller Killer appears, unleashing chaos on the group. Interestingly, although there is always a requisite pajama-clad dance scene, the camera itself never leers on the girls. Instead, there is always a group of boys—and sometimes weird older male neighbors—voyeuristically peeking on the girls from outside a window. This self-awareness forces the audience to feel the intrusion of their privacy acutely.
The films allow the girls to have scenes of true intimacy and fun, which is in stark contrast of Corman’s edict that his films include nudity. According to writer/director Jones, “Roger [Corman] was always more interested in nudity than sex scenes.” Therefore, Jones could still meet his nudity stipulation without it being in the context of sex or violence, as we see in many horror movies. In the first film, the camera pans through the locker room as the girls take a shower. The shot lingers on one girl’s backside for a prolonged period. You can almost feel how uncomfortable the filmmakers were in shooting this scene. Danishka Esterhazy parodies this scene in Slumber Party Massacre (2021), her reimagining of the first film. However, her camera’s gaze is on a young man taking a soapy shower.
The most obvious metaphor throughout the series is the weapon of choice of the Driller Killer himself. The oversized power drill he menaces the girls with is a clear phallic symbol. But, because he also menaces boys, it could be read as commentary on how misogynistic violence hurts all genders. Sisters Valerie (Robin Stille) and Courtney (Jennifer Meyers) ultimately incapacitate him by slicing his drill in half. This is a powerful symbol of feminine strength that gives these protagonists a powerful victory.
Slumber Party Massacre II: Repressed Sexuality, Fever Dreams, and Fear
Courtney’s (now played by Crystal Bernard) lingering trauma gets further exploration in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987). In the audio commentary for Shout Factory’s excellent release of the trilogy, its writer-director Deborah Brock confirms the Freudian aspects of the franchise. She says, “Basically her sexuality is very repressed and when she gets exposed to sexuality it brings up bad violent things for her. It’s kind of a Freudian film.”
Inspired by her love of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a freedom to do whatever she wanted with the title (as long as she included the requisite nudity), Brock’s film abandons the straight slasher formula. Instead, it is a pyschosexual rock n’ roll fever dream. Reincarnated as a rockabilly demon, the Driller Killer (Atanas Ilitch) stalks Courtney’s dreams before manifesting in the flesh to terrorize her and her bandmates on a weekend getaway.
Exploring the twin flames of fear and desire, Slumber Party Massacre II offers a unique twist on the idea of a dream man, bringing to life female fantasies that all too easily turn into nightmares. For example, the film begins with Courtney dreaming of her crush Matt (Patrick Lowe) playing football, shirtless. The smile across her sleeping face turns into a grimace as grisly images of death fill her subconscious. For Courtney, sex and violence will always intertwine.
In the same audio commentary, Brock discusses the unique way she chose to film the actor, recalling “We shot [Matt] intentionally in these strange close ups because the idea is to give you this feeling that maybe he’s not the nice guy he seems to be at the beginning …at one point we thought about having the same actor play Matt and play the Driller Killer and this would be this psychological thing that they’re two sides of the same guy.”
Slumber Party Massacre III: Trauma Manifesting Into Violence
Written by Catherine Cyran and directed by Sally Mattison, Slumber Party Massacre III (1990) further explores how sexual trauma can manifest through violence. The Driller Killer is given the grim backstory of sexual assault by a male family member as the reason behind his violence towards women.
In the film’s opening sequence a new set of teens play beach volleyball. The girls lustfully watch shirtless boys flex muscles and peacock as they plan their slumber party. Their guard is raised when a strange guy clad in all black sits on the beach, watching them. When Juliette (Lulu Wilson) notices their former classmate—a bleach blond literally named Ken (Brittain Frye)—also watching them, she doesn’t hesitate to invite him to their party.
As the film progresses, they discover that Ken’s the true killer. This also uncovers the intentions of the opening scene. Ken is a friend and part of their social circle. But he’s also dealt with a secretly abusive uncle who was a decorated policeman. He is far more dangerous than the beach weirdo, showing that anyone can be an abuser—or abused—regardless of their outward appearance.
Thematically the third film attempts to be rich as its predecessors; however, its plotting is far more muddled and it lacks the visual panache of the first two films. In a 2001 interview, director Sally Mattison shared that Corman had hired women for all three films because, “he thought that a female director would have more insight into teenage girl slumber parties than a male director would.” In the same interview she shared that horror was not her bag, which could explain the more by-the-numbers mechanics of this final entry.
Despite ending on a bit of a whimper, the original Slumber Party Massacre trilogy remains a unique entry to the slasher genre during its heyday. It truly thrived thanks to Roger Corman’s laissez-faire style leadership. That these three films exist at all shows the merits of women having creative freedom. This is especially true considering how they found a way to subvert the genre while also adhering to its more lurid expectations. And, the way the franchise’s themes still resonate forty years later without an all-women creator-led franchise rival makes the Slumber Party Massacre‘s creative achievements all the more radical.