Hidden Gems: April Fool’s Day (1986)

On October 27th, 1978, a low-budget slasher film hit movie theatres and became an overnight success, sending cultural shock waves that forever changed the landscape of the genre. No, the movie I’m referring to is not April Fool’s Day, but rather John Carpenter’s beloved horror classic: Halloween; a film whose massive success inspired a wave of holiday-themed slashers, all trying to cash in on the latest trend. This fad gave birth to such films as: Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Leprechaun, Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me, Bloody New Year, Graduation Day, Home Sweet Home and, most notably, the Friday the 13th films. Near the tail end of this craze, a film called April Fool’s Day was released into theatres and, even though it sold generally well at the box office, horror fans initially regarded its subversion of the slasher formula and lack of overt gore as too far a departure for the genre.

Here are just some of the many Halloween-inspired holiday slashers that came to pass…

This dismissal by fans definitely impacted the movie’s reputation, causing it to age into relative obscurity. Whenever the film was discussed, it was most often as another footnote from the era of Halloween knock offs. While there is no doubt that April Fool’s Day was sold to audiences as another feature of this ilk, the film itself uses the familiar formula of these movies as a Trojan Horse, sneaking in a far more clever and unique experience than was expected from the standard slasher fare of the times.

On the surface, April Fool’s Day sounds like your run-of-the-mill horror movie. During the spring break weekend that leads up to April Fool’s Day, a group of rowdy, oversexed, college kids gather at an island mansion owned by their old friend, Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman). Once on the island, it turns out that Muffy has set up a variety of April Fool’s Day pranks throughout the mansion. What begins with simple gags like whoopee cushions and dribble glasses, quickly escalates to more disturbingly dark pranks. The gang tries to stay in the spirit of the holiday and laugh everything off but this becomes hard to do once members of their party start turning up dead.

Pictured from left to right: (Amy Steel as Kit, Tom Wilson as Arch, Leah Pinsett as Nan, Clayton Rohner as Chaz)

While, this synopsis is accurate to the series of events that befall the characters in the movie, it is only a singular part of a larger story; one which I dare not spoil to any readers who have not yet seen the film. Suffice it to say, April Fool’s Day does something so original with its premise, so radical for the genre of story its telling, that it has not appeared in a slasher film before or since. However, even without its twists and turns, April Fool’s Day would still be a movie well deserving of considerable reappraisal. Upon watching the film, I instantly noticed that, while the familiar character archetypes were all well on display, a lot of them are given more depth and feel a bit more naturalistic as people than you come to expect from the genre. This is especially of note considering that it was released in 1986.

In a clever directorial choice from film maker Fred Walton, a handheld camera is introduced early on as a possession of one of the college kids. Through this premise, the movie gets permission to directly introduce us to each of the characters, as it establishes that it is for the purpose of a home movie. While this is an efficient way to squeeze in exposition at the beginning of the film, the movie also uses it for moments of extremely naturalistic acting that audiences wouldn’t become accustomed to until well into the 1990s with films such as The Blair Witch Project. Watching everyone in these early moments, performatively acting up for their friend’s home movie feels so genuinely real and unscripted that it immediately adds an extra layer to all of the characters. This narrative device pops up intermittently throughout the film, adding a level of truly unexpected authenticity that makes the characters feel more well-rounded and a bit savvier, at moments showing early shades of Wes Craven’s teenagers from Scream. In particular, Thomas F. Wilson, whom audiences will know as the mean spirited Biff from Back to the Future, steals the show as the jovial, prankster Arch. It is really fun getting to see him play a fun-loving, good-natured character after identifying him so much with Biff. In addition to Wilson, Deborah Foreman who plays the dual roles of Muffy St. John and her mysterious and haunted twin sister Buffy, shows great range and pulls off both characters effortlessly.

Deborah Foreman as Muffy (left) and Buffy (right)

Much like Muffy and her twin sister Buffy, who often feel like two halves of a whole, April Fool’s Day is actually two films in one. One of these films is a straight-forward holiday horror slasher, delivering audiences exactly what they came for, while the other is almost a satire of those kinds of films. I say “almost” because the film in no way operates as satire, at least not overtly so. What is perhaps a better description is that, while April Fool’s Day exists as one of those formulaic slasher films of its time, it always feels highly aware of itself and when it gives in to those expected conventions, it does so in pursuit of an ultimate end-goal. To speak to this “end-goal” any more, would be to give away the secret behind the mystery killer of the film. Suffice it to say, the reveal of the killer was such a radical choice that it was ultimately one which led to audiences initial rejection of the film.

By the time April Fool’s Day hit theatres in 1986, almost a full decade after the original Halloween, the market was over saturated with teen slashers (both holiday themed and non-holiday themed alike). Even though it did relatively well at the box office, April Fool’s Day never received any of the critical acclaim or lasting memory that many of its peers did. Then again, when your peers of the decade are such horror titans as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and The Evil Dead, it can be pretty easy to get lost in the shuffle. With time and distance, however, it was the film’s ambition and unwillingness to follow the formula of its predecessors that gave this film something truly unique and has helped it build a cult fan base that still grows to this day (something which cannot be said for Silent Night, Deadly Night). If you consider yourself a fan of slasher films or “whodunnit” murder mysteries, you owe it to yourself to check out April Fool’s Day, because I can almost guarantee, you’ve never seen one which ends like this!

By Eric

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