A Fool’s Guide to April Fool’s Day

Exactly twenty-five April 1sts have passed since the release of Fred Walton’s classic “fun” slasher, April Fool’s Day, and the chances of a 25th Anniversary Special Edition DVD are looking increasingly slim. In lieu of a commentary track, then, here’s a time-coded trivia guide to one of the quirkiest horror movies of the 80s… Major spoilers ahead!

00:00 – The Paramount studio logo is one we’ve come to associate with many classic slashers, particularly the Friday the 13th series, several of which were produced by this movie’s producer, Frank Mancuso Jr. Seeking a new direction for the waning genre, it was Mancuso who came up with the basic concept of April Fool’s Day and guided it to its eventual release on 27 March 1986.

00:19 – Dig that British Columbia backdrop. While many 80s slashers were shot in Canada (see Dave Stewart’s terrific article for an overview) April Fool’s Day was the only one, to my knowledge, to be filmed in BC – other than Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, in which Jason actually took Vancouver. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, however!)

02:24 – In a nice spot of foreshadowing, Muffy promises the party will be “bloody unforgettable” whilst carrying around a dismembered mannequin.

03:12 – In swoops the movie title. Over in France, viewers would have seen the words Weekend of Terror (in French, of course), while Germans found themselves invited to The Horror Party.

03:24 – A quirk of alphabetical cast-listing gives Jay Baker top-billing. The ambitious Harvey Edison Jr. marks Baker’s only horror role but it perhaps left its mark, as the actor now owns his own lakeside home.

04:44 – Screenwriting credit goes to Danilo Bach, who also came up with the story for Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and helped put Mimi Rogers in peril in Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987).

04:55 – And you thought the kiddie-prank in Prom Night was bad! Check out the scare-in-a-box nightmare that Muffy’s parents put her through just to give their friends a giggle (the mini-monster even roars!). No wonder she has no qualms about some of her own crueller tricks found in the guests’ bedrooms later on.

05:02 – Here’s the director’s credit. Fred Walton’s only previous film (other than a segment for the 80s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) was the influential 1979 proto-slasher When a Stranger Calls, which he both wrote and directed. Taking into account that movie, its bizarre but utterly effective sequel When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) and April Fool’s Day, I’d say Walton deserves to be called the slasher genre’s quirkiest auteur.

05:16 – The cool kid with the awesome tape recorder is Chaz, played by Clayton Rohner, who went on to star in an even more offbeat slasher movie in 1989. I, Madman cast him as the police officer boyfriend of a woman who’s being stalked by a villainous character from the book she’s reading.

05:34 – Heeeeere’s Nan! She’s played by native Canadian Leah Pinsent, the daughter of veteran Canadian actors Gordon Pinsent (who had a brush with horror in Blacula) and Charmion King.

05:48 – Notice that Kit (Friday the 13th Part 2‘s Amy Steel) is marked out with a few “masculine” qualities right off the bat here, by wearing a scruffy shirt and trousers, offering a handshake, and dragging Nan’s suitcase for her. This is a fairly common Final Girl trope, from the mechanically-minded Marti of Hell Night, to the increasingly tough Chris of Friday the 13th Part III, and Sidney of Scream. Is it any wonder that they all have boys’ names?

06:16 – According to Nan, Muffy was “wonderful” in the drama society’s production of Ghosts. This Ibsen play from 1881, as well as having a spooky title, concerns the secrets of a failed marriage coming back to haunt a family.

06:47 – OOPS! As Chaz mocks the deckhand, Nan has a little stumble in the background.

10:05 – Another possibly portentous literary reference courtesy of Nan: now she’s reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic 17th-century poem about Satan, Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man.

12:02 – Skip’s falling into the water here is what causes Buck to leap after him and end up in the water before his own “accident”. Coincidentally, actor Griffin O’Neal (son of Ryan) caused a real-life boating fatality in 1987, when the speedboat he was in charge of struck a towline between two other boats, killing Francis Ford Coppola’s son, Giancarlo. Griffin O’Neal has not acted since 1992.

13:23 – This stunt, in which Buck disappears under the boat, was so dangerous that an actual stuntman, Mike Nomad, was cast in the role. Nomad also appeared in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, in the role of Thornton, and worked as stunt coordinator for that film.

15:45 – Oddly enough, this is the only full exterior shot of the front of the mansion in the film.

15:59 – Muffy points out that she will become the owner of the house soon “if all goes well”!

16:49 – Entering the dining room, Nikki remarks “This is like an Agatha Christie”… which it is, of course. Specifically, April Fool’s Day harks back to the grand dame of crime fiction’s And Then There Were None (1939), which features characters dying one-by-one at a remote island mansion. It’s also one of the bestselling novels of all time, and certainly the bestselling mystery.

18:14 – Nikki reads out a magazine sex quiz, apparently glossing over a reference to S&M, which is perhaps interesting considering her “secret” (see the prank contents of her drawer at 28:52!).

24:25 – Muffy’s speech runs thusly: “We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over”. It’s a quote from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) by James Boswell, the Edinburgh-born author and lifelong friend of Johnson.

27:40 – The newspaper clippings in Hal’s room read “6 Die In Fog”, “Teenagers Killed In Fiery Three-Car Canyon Accident” and “Woman Lives In Crash”, leaving us to wonder exactly what past incident Muffy is referring to… Shades of I Know What You Did Last Summer, perhaps? (Remember, Lois Duncan’s novel was written in 1973.)

29:26 – Probably the harshest prank of the movie finds Nan, who’s had an abortion, confronted by the sounds of a crying baby emanating from a tape player in her wardrobe. This gives her plenty of motive for her own vicious trick, played on Muffy at the end of the film.

33:35 – Actors Clayton Rohner and Deborah Goodrich must’ve felt pretty comfortable with each other to pull off this rather intimate moment… It probably helped that their characters dated in the previous year’s comedy, Just One of the Guys.

35:46 – FALSE SCARE! A cat jumps out at Skip as he prowls around the boathouse, recalling a similarly jokey jolt at the expense of Alice in Friday the 13th Part 2.

35:59 – Skip getting grabbed marks the first of the movie’s notorious “bloodless kills”. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was conscious that the MPAA were still being hyper-cautious when it came to bloodletting and found a neat way around the problem here. The same year’s Friday the 13th Part VI wasn’t so lucky, however, as Mancuso requested the removal of much of the gore before it even reached the ratings board.

40:37 – OOPS! Rob’s wet hair dries in the time it takes to stand up and run out of the boathouse.

42:14 – As Muffy washes up in the sink, we get a nice long look at a retro bottle of household cleaner, Spic and Span. Although it’s been around since its invention by two Michigan housewives in 1933, the brand is no longer advertised on TV due to nervousness that its name might be mistaken for a derogatory term for people of Latino descent.

44:11 – The way Arch is strung up in the rope trap recalls Scott’s similar fate in Friday the 13th Part 2. Why all these references to the second Friday? Well, it was arguably Amy Steel’s finest hour, after all.

44:30 – OOPS! Do woodland glades usually have floorboards? This one, seen as the killer’s foot kicks the snake away, certainly seems to.

45:13 – Remember we noted the “masculinisation” of Kit? Now she’s actually wearing a tie.

47:58 – I’d rate this sequence, in which Nikki and Hal make some unpleasant discoveries at the bottom of a well, as the scariest scene in the film. Unlike the other suspense scenes, most of which are fairly brief or comically over-the-top, this one’s drawn-out quite sadistically and played for squeamish shudders. More scary business involving wells can be found in Hausu/House (1977), The Changeling (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Ringu/Ring (1998), The Ring (2002) and Dead Birds (2004).

54:11 – Muffy has… a twin sister?! The presence of twins – evil or otherwise – is another common slasher trope, also found in Sisters (1973), The Shining (1980), Just Before Dawn (1981), Madhouse (1981), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), The Initiation (1984) and Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), among others. As well as providing a freaky plot twist where necessary, the notion of twins perhaps allows us to confront themes of split personalities, as well as our own repressed “dark sides”.

55:05 – Knowing with hindsight that the events of the whole weekend are part of an elaborate hoax, it’s a little alarming to look back and realise that Muffy (or anyone) could have been killed for real if Hal had actually fired this gun…

59:26 – And the Oscar goes to… Clayton Rohmer’s hands! Chaz runs through a stellar set of gestures as he argues with Nikki in this scene.

1:07:48 – I love this shot of the steps leading back up to the house. It’s one of the few foreboding and classically horror movie-like shots in the film. Elsewhere, director Fred Walton steadfastly refuses to give us any haunted-house exteriors or bolts of lightning, instead preferring to set a quirky, almost comic tone with shots of a glowing cat clock and an eyeless portrait that nevertheless prove inexplicably eerie.

1:09:08 – Muffy’s plans for a killer showdown come close to being scuppered at several points. For instance, what if Kit had – quite reasonably – decided to stay in the boat here while Rob went back for the keys?

1:09:55 – Here’s a little mystery for you: Some viewers claim that, at this point, as Kit and Rob break into the basement, you can hear the sound of some machinery starting up outside, causing Kit to ask, “What’s that?” Apparently, this noise was to have been picked up in the original extended ending, in which Skip attempts to kill Muffy. It sounds more like creaking floorboards to me (perhaps someone’s walking past that snake again) but I’ll let you make up your own mind.

1:11:30 – Muffy’s “head” lands in Kit’s hands. No doubt it’d be a little churlish to point out that it should be fairly obvious to Kit at this point that the bouncing bonce is actually a prop… after all, the poor girl’s probably scared out of her wits by now.

1:13:28 – The big reveal: NO ONE’S DEAD! April Fool’s Day isn’t the only slasher to pull a climactic stunt like this, although it was perhaps the first. At least two previous Old Dark House murder mysteries concerned killings that turned out to be hoaxes. Since April Fool’s Day, the conceit has become a bit of a genre cliché, especially in recent years, when others used it… not to mention the actual remake.

1:14:46 – OOPS! Buck stuck the latex wound to the side of Rob’s face but, as he runs to the lounge, it’s almost covering his right eye. This wasn’t actor Ken Olandt’s only movie with a gag gore scene – see also the hilariously gruesome prank played by a class of students in 1987’s Summer School.

1:14:53 – Nan doesn’t seem as amused by Rob’s genuine terror as the rest of the gang. Perhaps this also contributes to her final prank on Muffy.

1:18:01 – Muffy regrets that some of her genuinely mean pranks were “taken a bit too seriously”… That’s big of her!

1:18:15 – OOPS! “I’m never going to forget this weekend as long as I live!” enthuses Muffy – without opening her mouth.

1:18:42 – Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” kicks in on the soundtrack. The Randy Newman song, penned in 1966, describes a wild party not unlike the onscreen shenanigans (while Rob and Kit probably wish they’d never come themselves).

1:19:22 – More apparent disdain from Nan, despite being one of the earliest guests to be drawn into the joke.

1:19:45 – Good direction from Fred Walton here, as the shadow cast by a noose falls exactly around Muffy’s neck. The poster and video cover of April Fool’s Day also famously feature a noose motif – in that case, formed by the plait of a girl’s hair.

1:19:52 – Gee, you’d think that, considering this is supposed to be Muffy’s old bedroom, it’d have a bit more personality… It’s almost like they filmed this scene as an afterthought. (CLUE: They did! Paramount’s execs wanted the movie to go out with one final prank, so this epilogue was filmed a few months down the line, which also explains the changes in Muffy and Nan’s hairstyles.) In any case, it doesn’t seem to be quite the same bedroom that Kit goes into at 1:06:23 looking for Muffy, as the furniture and window are in different locations.

1:20:28 – We’ll have to assume that Muffy told Nan the significance of that childhood jack-in-the-box gift. Otherwise, how else would she know about it?

1:21:21 – OOPS! Muffy grasps the champagne bottle around the middle but is holding it by the neck when she raises it to her lips.

1:22:53 – Do Nan and Muffy accidentally bang their heads together here, or is it just me?

1:22:54 – Nan breaks the fourth wall with a direct look to camera that makes us complicit in her trick. This and the subsequent wink from the clown in the jack-in-a-box provide some of the most postmodern touches to appear in a slasher movie before the irony-laced Scream era.

1:23:03 – April Fool’s Day’s closing ditty, “Too Bad You’re Crazy”, surely rates alongside “The Ballad of Harry Warden” and “He’s Back! (The Man Behind the Mask)” as one of the best cheesy/good slasher tie-in tracks of the 80′s. Vocalist Jerry Whitman makes a rare onscreen appearance (as a singer) in the 1992 black comedy Death Becomes Her.

Well, that’s it! If you still haven’t had enough of April Fool’s Day, have a listen to The Hysteria Continues’ excellent podcast on the subject. It’s certainly 90 minutes better spent than watching the abysmal 2008 remake…

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4 Responses to “ A Fool’s Guide to April Fool’s Day ”

  1. I have a special place in my heart for April Fool’s Day, and this was a great piece. Love the Time-line format. Excellent job, Ross!

  2. I agree with Meep, this was pretty incredible. I’m sure it takes awhile to put these together, but I hope Ross can do one a day at some point! :)

  3. I agree w/ the above comments, both on the timeline and on the movie. This movie is a blast to watch. I love seeing it w/ someone who hasn’t seen it before. Has that happened to anyone else?

    I ache for more info on this movie, in a certain region of my body. Obviously any coverage of the missing bits will be great. But in general, over the whole production of it, I don’t feel any books, interviews, online content, etc. have covered enough. I feel like there is much more to hear aboot it.

    Why are our best slashers outsourced to the dreaded Canadians? Booooooo!

  4. This is a film I’ve grown into. When I first saw it, I was so annoyed I had a hissy fit and refused to eat my greens. Now it annoys me that I didn’t see its greatness at the time.
    The remake is one of the worst.

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