In April Fool’s Day, a bunch of college friends get together for weekend of upper-crust east-coast fun on a Massachusetts island compound that Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) is set to inherit. How upper crust and swank is it? On a clear day you can see the Kennedy compound. Of course they take the last ferry out on Friday, ensuring that they’ll be trapped throughout the weekend. And since this is ostensibly a slasher film, most of them are ostensibly killed throughout the weekend. But it’s actually one of the strangest mainstream slashers I’ve seen. Not that any one particular moment in the film is especially shocking or bold, but rather that the movie is so consistently left of center I wonder if something like it could even be made today.
Since today is March 31st, I figured it was as good a time as any to revisit Fred Walton’s somewhat iconic 1986 film. I hadn’t seen it in well over a decade (maybe two), so I was definitely primed to check it out again. Of course I remembered exactly how it ended, but I was curious to revisit the moments leading up to that with fresh eyes – and it’s amazing how all these years (and the horror films I’ve seen during them) have changed my perspective.
Beware – pretty much everything below the jump is a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s available to rent on iTunes (the link says $9.99, but if you actually go to iTunes it’s $3.99). You should check it out and get back with me.
I had seen April Fool’s Day on cable as a child, and I remember having quite a bit of fun with it. Also – perhaps due to my young age – I remember actually being relieved that the whole thing turned out to be a joke. But I wasn’t entirely sure if that was the reaction I would have today. Depending on my mood I thought it could go either way. I could either feel cheated that it wasn’t “legit”, or I could applaud Walton and screenwriter Danilo Bach for getting me with their very own April Fool’s joke.
And that’s exactly what April Fool’s Day is, an elaborate joke both on the part of Muffy St. John and the filmmakers themselves, which actually makes it kind of a ballsy movie. But is it a movie with watching? I’d say yes. Why? Because it’s just “off” enough that it feels refreshing.
The film starts off with our group of soon to be slaughtered (not really) young things on the dock preparing to visit Muffy’s island. Chazz (Clayton Rohner), the epitome of the oversexed, care-free 80’s archetype (he wouldn’t feel out of place in a Savage Steve Holland movie) is videotaping an intro for the weekend. Typical hijinks and character introductions ensue, but there’s something a little different going on.
Right off the bat – with a “I f*ck on the first date” – the film’s obsession with sex is kickstarted. Since this is supposed to be a slasher movie, it’s totally appropriate. But what’s interesting about the film’s take on immature sex is how mature it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, this film actually outdoes many of its brethren when it comes to juvenile d*ck jokes and the hunt for getting laid (especially when it comes to Arch, played by BTTF’s Biff, Thomas F. Wilson). But its take on the whole thing actually seems to be more self aware than most slashers – as if we’re watching some early meta seedling being born before anybody actually knew what “post-modern” meant. The film also introduces a reasonably humane female perspective on the topic when the girls are in the kitchen discussing their first time. It’s of course designed for titillation, but it also makes some kind of stab for authenticity as well.
That stab for authenticity carries over to the characters in general. While the film deals with enjoyably broad archetypes – such as the rich young republican who is only interested in money, sex, family legacy and cigars – it also allows those archetypes to carry some actual inner turmoil, which is rare in genre films from this period. Rob (Ken Olandt) is so bummed out by his recent medical school rejection it’s hard not to feel bad for him.
At first these grace notes make little sense, and if the film continued as a straight slasher they would make probably no sense at all. But another interesting thing about April Fool’s Day is that it essentially deals with many of the same themes David Fincher’s The Game tackled over a decade later. Sure, APF’s take on this stuff is radically underdeveloped in comparison, but it’s still there – even if the film itself is unaware of it. It’s suggested that these characters, having been placed in a situation (however simulated) where they are pretty much absolutely certain they will die, will ultimately emerge from their plight with a better sense of their priorities.
One area where the film could have run into trouble (or gets into trouble, depending on your point of view) is the early introduction of atypically severe April Fool’s gags. Within the first 10 minutes a character takes a fake switchblade to the stomach. The entire house is rigged to royally piss off the guests. Sinks that spray water everywhere, exploding cigars, used heroin kits, faulty champagne glasses, whoopee cushions, unstable chairs, the list goes on. In doing so the film can’t help but plant the nugget in your head that the whole thing might be fake.
But, when you think about it, the film almost doesn’t have a choice. In terms of keeping the April Fool’s theme a constant, it’s damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it simply ignored the conceit the ending would feel way more like a cheat than it already does. Instead, it grabs the gag by the balls and never lets go. It even starts with bizarre flashback in Muffy’s basement where she fondly recalls a horrific jack-in-the box that probably scarred her for life (and most certainly imbued her with a pathological need to f*ck with people).
The film balances out the obviousness of its inevitable conclusion with several nice red herrings including Nan (Leah Pinsent), the psychotically virginal drama major, and Lloyd Berry’s Ferryman. And there’s a cute subplot about Muffy’s alleged twin sister, Buffy, who may have just escaped from a mental institution. Still, we know where all of this is heading and I was surprised to find that I still liked the ending.
I understand how some people may feel cheated by the conclusion but, for me, the whole thing is rendered irrepressibly entertaining by the warped psychology behind it all. Sure, Kit (Amy Steel) is super pissed off when she walks into the drawing room to find all of her friends – most of whom she thought were dead – just chilling out. But her anger doesn’t last that long at all. The film totally ignores the fact that Muffy needs to be thrown in jail (just as The Game ignores any kind of reprimand for Sean Penn’s character) for subjecting her guests to psychological torture.
Instead, she gets to deliver a perfectly unreasonable speech about how she needs to be able to pay property taxes on the place and wants to open a resort there where patrons can escape to a weekend of murder and mystery. Of course, the patrons will be aware of what they’re getting into (she points this out), a courtesy she declined her current guests, which ultimately caused Biff to sh*t his pants. Literally (it’s okay, he can laugh about it now). She explains to her guests that she needed to keep them in the dark – but why? If she’s doing a practice run to test the efficacy of her business plan, then why diverge from her proposed model so radically? Why risk everyone’s life?!
Because Muffy St. John just likes f*cking with people. That’s why. In the end, she gets what she deserves.
Except that’s fake too. But still, if you guys haven’t seen this movie – go ahead. There are far worse ways to spend your April 1st.