April Fool’s Day (1986)

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Director: Fred Walton
Writer: Danilo Bach
Cast: Jay Baker, Deborah Foreman, Deborah Goodrich, Mike Nomad, Ken Olandt, Griffin O’Neal, Leah Pinsent, Clayton Rohner, Amy Steel, and Thomas F. Wilson


© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

After an unnecessary sequence wherein four of our heroes goof around in front of a camera, no doubt to pad the runtime, April Fool’s Day starts proper with Muffy (Deborah Foreman) winding up a jack-in-the-box, that beloved toy designed to scare the crap out of your toddler. Mesmerised, the college student remembers how much fun she had as a little girl both eager and frightened to see what might pop out. This captures director Fred Walton and screenwriter Danilo Bach’s vision of the scary movie: a playful ride that exploits anticipation, not violence.

I’ve rarely seen a slasher with such good spirits. Even among horror fans, the subgenre gets a bad rep, what with its loaded sexual dynamics and recycled plots: teens gather in a secluded area; teens fornicate; teens are gutted one at a time except for the heroine, who survives not by her wit but by keeping her legs closed. To make matters worse, the films have become increasingly mean and cynical, playing their gory kill sequences for laughs or, worse, titillation.

April Fool’s Day, on the other hand, respects death and consequence in its own clever way, though, at first glance, the plot doesn’t stray far from the formula. Eight rich kids spend the weekend at their friend’s summer estate, where, one by one, they start to vanish. Bodies are found, and the survivors suspect a ferry worker (Mike Nomad) who was injured because of one of their pranks. Then again, their host Muffy doesn’t seem herself of late, and she’s got a twin sister, Buffy (love those names), who spent time in a psychiatric ward. What about Nan (Leah Pinsent), the fragile introvert who holds secrets of her own?

Every character is given enough back-story to make a viable suspect, from Hal (Jay Baker), the preppy southerner with an inferiority complex, to Nikki (Deborah Goodrich), the saucy minx with a taste for danger, to Rob (Ken Olandt), who feels his life is crumbling because he flubbed a med school interview. Okay, so most come across like rejects from a murder mystery dinner, but the actors find charm and nuance in their unassuming lines, and we’re encouraged to root for the whole gang, never the killer.

In fact, I’d love to hang out with Muffy’s friends. They spend their first evening at the mansion pulling elaborate pranks on each other, but they remain good-natured about it and know when a joke’s gone too far. Skip (Griffin O’Neal), for example, shows intense remorse for what happened to the ferryman. Also consider how quickly our heroes band together when the first victim goes missing. These are not your usual cannon fodder characters with little to offer but snark and boobies.

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

© Copyright Paramount Pictures

Devoid of nudity, voyeur shots, and extended gross-out moments, April Fool’s Day abandons the slasher’s exploitation roots in favour of a more playful approach, using its titular event as a narrative device instead of a mere backdrop like in Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980). Because the victims always disappear a couple of scenes before their bodies turn up, we’re never sure at first which are really dead and which are playing a practical joke. This forces the filmmakers to keep the violence off screen so as not to tip their hand. It’s a neat twist, and I found myself eagerly waiting for confirmation even at the final kill.

Despite all the red herrings, I imagine a number of viewers will have solved the central mystery before the end. Truth be told, I’m not convinced it all hangs together as neatly as Walton would have us believe, but the way he stages the resolution proves tremendous fun, summarising the culprit’s motivation with a single wide shot and placing the emphasis on the remaining heroes’ reaction. As with Muffy’s childhood toy, the pleasure lies in the jolt. Who cares how you fit a clown puppet into a cube?

Ten years before Scream (1996) revolutionised the slasher by deconstructing it, April Fool’s Day was already exposing its mechanics, distilling the oft maligned subgenre to its bare essentials. As it turns out, scary movies of the kind aren’t about gruesome monsters, serrated blades, and bloody messes. They speak of the innocent thrill one gets from just spinning the lever. Of course, it’s no fun if Jack doesn’t pop out of the box eventually.

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