April Fool's Day (1986)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: March 24th, 2020
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When Frank Mancuso Jr. ditched Friday the 13th after executive producing A New Beginning, he didnít stray too far from Crystal Lake for his next project. With seemingly every other notable date on the calendar painted blood red, he naturally charted a course for April 1st, a date full of pranks and revelry that would make a natural sandbox for slasher mayhem. He made an even more inspired choice by tapping Fred Walton to helm April Foolís Day, one of the eraís most playful and unusual efforts. A conventional slasher history narrative points to the spoofs (Class Reunion, Pandemonium, Student Bodies, Unmasked Part 25) that began needling the slasher genre before Scream turned it inside-out, and I would argue that April Foolís Day belongs somewhere in this conversation.
While it might not explicitly spoof or satirize the genre in any obvious way, April Foolís Day certainly preys upon genre expectations in an effort to eventually upend them. In doing so, Walton and screenwriter Danilo Bach look to the genreís roots, crafting something thatís straight out of Agatha Christie, something of the characters points out as a group of college friends gathers in a secluded lakeside mansion for an April Fool's weekend party. Heiress Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) hosts the proceedings, which include the typical merrymaking and some light-hearted pranks involving gag chairs, gimmicked cups, and ďbrokenĒ door knobs. The harmless fun soon grows deadly, however, when it becomes clear that someone is prowling the grounds, picking off the partyers one by one.
Itís textbook slasher stuff, at least in theory. Between Mancusoís presence and Charles Bernsteinís knock-off Harry Manfrendini score, itís tempting to dismiss it as yet another derivative splatter movie. Walton and Bach realize it with an unusual elegance, though. The latterís script is especially patient, delivering a pair of opening gore gags on the ferry ride over before settling in and hanging out with an endearing set of characters. Much like the bunch in My Bloody Valentine, this feels like a genuinely tight-knit group of friends. Sure, some of them are cut from the cloth of familiar slasher stereotypes, but theyíre not just obnoxious, disposable caricatures.
Where most slasher movies might make viewers antsy by dedicating so much time to the characters, April Foolís Day is a delight to watch before the mayhem unfolds thanks to fun performances from the likes of Foreman, F. Thomas Wilson, Griffin OíNeal, Jay Baker, and Ken Olandt. It features slasher royalty Amy Steel effectively anchoring the cast with another turn as a sweet, resourceful final girl, leaving you wishing she had become a bigger star (or at least a recurring presence in the Friday the 13th series). Between the various scenes where characters joke about a Cosmo sex quiz, brood over parental acceptance, and agonize over their future plans, April Foolís Day feels like it could just be one of the eraís teen comedies, which is one of several tricks it plays on audiences expecting conventional slasher fare. Thereís something just altogether good-natured and natural about this cast, and I would absolutely watch the alternate reality version of this movie that is just about a group of college friends throwing one last party before graduation scatters them to the four winds.
Even when it does dovetail into the nasty business of offing this very nice cast, it does so with an unusual amount of restraint. Walton emphasizes the desolate lakeside atmosphere, filling the anamorphic frame with shots of the eerie surroundings and highlighting the cavernous manor. It should come as no surprise that he harnesses the same approach that defined the opening sequence of When A Stranger Calls, one thatís more concerned with patiently building suspense in lieu of reveling in on-screen violence. April Foolís Day is one of the more strikingly directed mainstream 80s slashers in this respect because DP Charles Minsky envisions it less as a rugged splatter show and more as a refined whodunnit of sorts.
Itís not without itís gory outbursts, of course, but Walton mostly treats viewers to the bloody aftermath and its assortment of dangling eyeballs, severed heads, and grotesque corpses. Even if it largely resists succumbing to the gore-soaked tide that rushed through theaters, April Foolís Day still recognizes the audienceís bloodlust and delivers a gruesome menagerie of great effects work thatís pivotal for various reasons. Obviously, itís what you assume is the filmís grisly calling card as a slasher movie; more than that, though, itís the lynchpin hiding its true motive to fake-out the audience. (Spoiler from 1986 incoming). The lack of on-screen carnage turns out to be a functional approach with the climactic reveal that nobody has actually died: the entirety of the film has been a gag to trick both the ďsurvivorsĒ and the audience itself, whoís seen their bloodlust laid bare.
Whether or not it was on anyoneís mind at the time, itís a cleveróand perhaps unwittingómetafictional twist that calls attention to the inherent artifice of filmmaking, and slasher movies in particular. We watch these movies for the same reason we ride rickety dark rides at carnivals or indulge freak shows: because we want to see something scary or abnormal and we want it to be harmless. Slasher movies might be purest expression of our contradictory desires to be repulsed and entertained, and the big reveal in April Foolís Day shrewdly confronts it. Yes, itís one giant fake-out, but doesnít every slasher movie rely on effects wizardry and trickery to deliver those conflicting thrills? Sure, itís fine to dismiss this effort as a lark, but itís not at all a stretch to consider April Foolís Day as crafty counterprogramming for its era. By 1986, the slasher genre had been run through the ringer and effectively bled dry: what better way to respond to that than with an effort that turns the premise of the genre on its head and has audiences confront the reason theyíre watching it in the first place. The jokeís on themóbut isnít it always?
April Foolís Day is the latest long-awaited title that Scream Factory has excavated from the Paramount vault. Despite its popularity among genre fans, itís never been upgraded to Blu-ray until now, and Scream has done a typically stellar job with the presentation. Nothing indicates that this is a new transfer, but, as Iíve noted before, even those early Paramount transfers hold up quite well, so the film looks quite nice regardless.
The supplements provide a decent array of interviews, including two-parter with Walton, who discusses his journey as a filmmaker that led him to eventually directing April Foolís Day. The format helps Scream to fill in the gaps, as it were, since it gives Walton the opportunity to discuss When A Stranger Calls, creating a sort of unofficial companion piece to the material on Screamís Blu-ray release for its sequel. While it was something of a mercenary project for him (he readily admits he took the gig for money), he speaks fondly of April Foolís Day. He discusses the process of casting and filming the movie in Vancouver, which proved to be quite a popular location for the cast and crew.
Deborah Goodrich Royce and Clayton Rohner appear for separate interviews, providing some overlapping anecdotes about the cast and location after giving a brief overview of their lives before April Foolís Day. Both paint a rosy picture of the production, with both noting how much fun it was to hang out on this awesome island while filming a movie. It turns out the camaraderie that radiates on-screen was genuine: everyone was quite pleasant to work with, especially Walton, who is routinely described as a super nice guy by the participants in these interviews. One of the more notable bits from Royce involves her brief involvement with a possible sequels a pair of writers tried to hatch in the 90s, which was news to me.
Composer Charles Bernsteinís interview is quite lengthy, as it discusses his various contributions to notable projects, like White Lightning and Gator. Of course, no interview with him would be complete without mentioning his collaborations with Wes Craven, so thereís an entire segment dedicated to Elm Street and Deadly Friend. He also thoroughly explains what was on his mind when he composed the bizarre end credits song for April Foolís Day, which doubles as the menu music on the Blu-ray.
Finally, DP Charles Minsky recounts his career and contributions to April Foolís Day in a 17-minute interview. He notes that his job was made easy thanks to Waltonís preparedness, so the most interesting stuff here are his recollections of his earlier days with a ragtag crew performing dangerous stunts just to get a nice shot. All told, itís a solidóif not kind of incompleteóretrospective, just because there are so many notable names missing. While itís disappointing not to see the likes of Steele, Wilson, Foreman, and others, thatís life when it comes to producing this sort of thing and working with everyoneís willingness and schedules.
Besides, itís much more impressive than the bare bones DVD, which didnít even feature so much as a trailer. Scream includes on here, plus some TV spots and reversible artwork if you donít care for the cool, newly commissioned cover. It only took nearly two decades, but one of the finest 80s slashers finally has a respectable release that should please fans, and thatís no joke.
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