Eight years after Fred Walton directed one of the most significant horror films of the 70s (the Carol Kane urban legend masterpiece When A Stranger Calls), he cast his eye on the latest horror craze: Slasher Films. By 1986, the subgenre that dominated horror for the better part of a decade was creatively and financially on its last gasps. The big three franchises – Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween – were all long in the tooth, posting reduced grosses at the box office, and the glut of impersonators had died off. As slasher fans know, it would take a savvy script and decade of distance to revive slasher films with Scream in 1996.
Walton’s 1986 contribution to slasher history didn’t exactly blow the lid off of the box office or wow critics either, but in the annals of horror history, April Fool’s Day deserves its due. It is truly one of the smartest, savviest slasher films because it embodies the essential conventions of the subgenre, while simultaneously critiquing and subverting them. On its 32nd anniversary of release, let’s celebrate this forgotten gem.
Spoilers for a 32 year old movie to follow…
On the surface, the plot of April Fool’s Day is fairly pedestrian and by the books. The weekend of April Fools, a group of college friends are invited by Muffy St. Cloud (Deborah Foreman) – their rich, eccentric, ridiculously-named school friend – to stay at her palatial island home. What starts out as a party weekend, replete with silly jokes set up by Muffy, quickly dovetails into a series of horrifying murders as the island is infiltrated by an unknown assailant who brutally murders the students one-by-one.
In the end, the killer is revealed to be Muffy’s identical twin sister, Buffy <snicker> who has gone crazy and hacked up everyone save milquetoast couple Kit (Amy Steel) and Rob (Ken Olandt). With the killer twin hot on their heels, they burst into the mansion’s dining room and discover…all of their friends, alive and well. No one has died!
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The whole set-up is actually an immersive murder mystery enterprise that Muffy is test-driving on her friends (without their consent, which p.s. is not ok). The reveal is merely the latest in a series of elaborate pranks that have been scattered throughout the film. No one was harmed; they were simply recruited to play corpses after their “murders” in order to advance the game’s narrative.
While this fake-out premise may not sound particularly innovative, consider that this is 1986 – a full eleven years before David Fincher pulled the same shenanigans on Michael Douglas in The Game (1997) and a full 31 years before last year’s festival winner Ruin Me employed nearly the same narrative premise for its weekend slasher “escape room” game.
Box Office and Ancillaries
Despite (or perhaps because of) the film’s cleverness, it never quite took off. April Fool’s Day has a meager 33% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though its reviews range from middling to positive. Many critics praise the film’s restraint around violence and gore, but overlook the film’s clever deconstruction of slasher tropes.
April Fool’s Day opened to $3.3 million but eventually pulled in nearly $13 million on a $5 million budget. The final gross is in line with other 1986 horror films like Critters ($13 million) and Psycho 3 ($14 million), but well behind Poltergeist 2‘s $40 million and even Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives‘s $20 million.
April Fool’s Day was originally released for the home market on both videocassette and laserdisc (those were the days). It has also had three separate DVD releases: solo in 2002, once as a triple feature with Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift in 2007 and finally as a double-feature with My Bloody Valentine in 2008. Disappointingly none of these releases include any special features, not even an audio commentary from Fred Walton or writer Danilo Bach, who wrote the screenplay for Beverly Hills Cop. Considering how much the market for 80s reissues have grown courtesy of companies such as Scream Factory, it’s disappointing that someone hasn’t snapped up the rights to do a proper release, loaded with prank-filled extras.
Oh: the 2008 redo starring a crop of young Hollywood actors and made-for-Lifetime effects? Best skip it. It bears almost no resemblance to the original outside of the name.
While the twist ending is obviously the main reason to seek out April Fool’s Day, it would be a crime to overlook the other amazing contributions that the film has made to popular culture:
- A cast of actors who are actually age appropriate for their characters
- Virtually no gore. This is a very suggestive film with little to no actual violence or viscera
- Some seriously teased/blow-dried/feathered/freeze-dried dos
- Incomparable late 80s preppy weekend-wear fashion like that fake-suspenders polo shirt
Unlike Student Bodies or Scary Movie, both of which mock slasher conventions without actually employing them, April Fool’s Day is simultaneously a horror film and a send-up of all of the ridiculous tropes that comprise them. The overlap between the final chase and the moment when Kit and Rob see their friends lounging around drinking is a genuine confluence of traditional, revisionist and parodic approaches to slasher films. There’s a reason why the end is the film’s most memorable and enduring component.