1986, Starring Joanna Johnson, Elaine Wilkes, Sherry Willis-Burch, Martin Hewitt, Ralph Seymour and Paul Bartel as “Professor Zito”. Directed by William Fruet (Polar Entertainment Corporation) .
Guest review by Allan Mott
One of the more entertaining paradoxes of the horror genre are those films whose greatest charms are hidden in their subtext, where only pretentious asshole critics (such as myself) are apt to find them. To those horror fans whose interest in the genre begins and ends with what happens onscreen, these films are very often dismissed as “weird” or “stupid.” Now I would never be so arrogant as to accuse such viewers of lacking the necessary intelligence to understand the subversive charms of that which they dismiss, but if you, on the other hand, were to call them a bunch of drooling morons, I would only half-heartedly disagree (unless some were standing nearby and looked especially creepy and threatening, in which case I would defend them much more vigorously).
Most often these are films that aren’t content to play by the established rules. Not because the filmmakers don’t know what they are doing, but because they’re deliberately trying to do something different. Speaking as a horror fan who worships at the Altar of the Final Girl, I can appreciate why this might annoy some viewers, who look to genre as a form of ritual where tradition plays an inordinately important role. But in my case my reverence for form doesn’t stop me from appreciating efforts that intelligently twist and turn the playbook to their own devious ends.
As of today (10/21/11) Killer Party only has an IMDb rating of 3.4, meaning the majority of the people who have rated it on the site thought it sucked pretty damn hard. They’re wrong. It’s at least a 6. Maybe even a 6.5. (I’d actually rate it higher, but overselling it might put some of you off. Yes, I am something of a coward.)
You need only take a gander at the credits to see that Killer Party’s refusal to abide slasher movie convention isn’t an accident. The film was directed by CanCon Hall of Famer William Fruet, whose Funeral Home was a much more conventional slasher effort (and a much less entertaining movie as a result), and it was written by Barney Cohen, the craftsman who previously gave us everyone’s favourite Friday the 13th entry, The Final Chapter (well, everyone except me that is. I’m a Jason Lives fan. It’s another one you have to think about to really appreciate). Clearly these guys knew all of the rules before they started making Killer Party, they just thought it would be a lot more fun to break them.
Their irreverence begins with a hilariously bizarre opening sequence that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It begins in a funeral home (wait…funeral home…Funeral Home! Witness the gears of the pretentious asshole critical mind at work!), where four people and a priest are mourning in front of a closed casket. When the ceremony ends, they leave, but the dead woman’s daughter-in-law returns to privately curse her out. The casket then opens and the woman is dragged inside it as it lowered towards the crematorium.
This then cuts to a couple sitting in a drive-in movie theater watching the above happen on the screen in front of them. But before you can say, “He Knows You’re Alone totally did that first!” this turns out to be a music video for an actual 1980s rock band called White Sister (for real, I totally wiki-ed them), in which the girl in the car becomes surrounded by less-expensive-Thriller-esque zombies. We then cut to Phoebe (Elaine Wilkes), one of the film’s three female protagonists, watching the video on TV and it is only then that the film actually begins.
Starting your movie with a movie within a music video within a movie is a pretty ballsy thing to do if you think about it, but if you don’t think about it, it might just seem confusing and lame. Guess which side I’m on!
From there, the filmmakers establish the plot conventionally as possible in order to set up the tricks they’ll play later on. Phoebe, Vivia (Sherry Willis-Burch, whose only other credit is the 1981 slasher Final Exam, making hers one of the cooler two-film resumes to be found on the IMDb), and Jennifer (Joanna Johnson, who would go on to create the Kelly Ripa sitcom Hope and Faith based on her own experience starring on The Bold & The Beautiful) are friends and college students pledging one of the bitchier sororities.
Their hazing initiation is set to be taken in an old frat house that’s been abandoned for the past 20 years—ever since a pledge named Allan (or Alan or Allen or Alyn or Allyn or Ahlan or Ahlen, I’m quite familiar with all the ways the name can be spelled incorrectly) was decapitated by a guillotine in a hazing prank gone horribly wrong. Someone appears to be pissed off about this, since we see the sorority’s den mother bludgeoned to death with an oar when she visits the house.
During the hazing (one ritual involves the girls catching raw egg yolks in their mouths and spitting them into glasses, which I suspect will become a very popular scene on certain websites now that the movie is finally available on DVD) the clever and resourceful Vivia plays a prank on her torturers by convincing them the place is haunted. Rather than blackball her for her stunt, the sisters decide to replay the joke on the frat boys who filmed the panicked nakedness that ensued when they released a jar full of bees on the unsuspected girls whilst they were enjoying a soak in their hot tub.
Before this April Fool’s Day party happens, we see Professor Zito (the late, great Paul Bartel in a role clearly named after Joseph Zito, the director of The Final Chapter) electrocuted in the basement of the house, so it becomes once again clear that someone would prefer it to be left alone.
Unfortunately no one notices the missing Prof (he’s kind of a dick) or the den mother (she was just about to retire anyway) and the only person reluctant about attending the party is Jennifer, who gets the freaky heebie-jeebies from the place and is only pledging because her friends are.
The party is held, but the frat boys see the prank coming and one up it with one of their own. Jokes on them, though, when someone in an old-fashioned diving costume starts killing everyone off. Soon only the three girls are left, but before they can escape Vivia and Phoebe find out—and here’s where I go all Roger Ebert with the spoilers—that they aren’t in a slasher movie, they’re in a Spam in a Cabin movie! All at once the film ceases to be a campus killer flick and becomes The Evil Dead instead.
Y’see, Jennifer has become possessed by Allan’s angry spirit and is responsible for killing everyone at the party. Whether or not she was the one who killed the previous victims is never explained, but demon possession is a pretty big dramatic loophole that lets you get away with some gaping plot holes when you need it to. At this point the film becomes all about Johnson’s performance, which ranks as the best possessed maniac work I’ve ever seen (and, yes, I would say that right to my beloved Linda Blair’s face).
In a brief moment of clarity, Jennifer begs her friends to kill her when they have the chance, but it turns out Allan can’t be stopped this way and jumps right into Phoebe just after she stabs her friend in the heart. The film then ends darkly with a crippled Vivia begging not to be put in the same ambulance with her possessed friend.
Predating Jim Wynorski’s similar (in terms of plot, if not quality) Sorority House Massacre II by four years, Killer Party turns the slasher genre on its head by not only switching sub-genres at the end, but by taking on the Final Girl cliché (the one I personally believe redeems the horror genre of many of its negative aspects) by turning the character who in another movie would have ended up being the heroine into its villain. But unlike Wynorski, whose defiance of the convention gives his film a distastefully misogynistic overtone, Fruet and Cohen are able to avoid this and make it a fun twist instead. It helps that Cohen’s script is frequently very funny and includes classic dialogue such as the exchange between Vivia and her geeky boyfriend Martin (Just Before Dawn’s Ralph Seymour):
Martin: Vivia, you taste so sensuous!
Vivia: I gargle with musk.
Shot in Toronto and directed by the Alberta-born Fruet, Killer Party barely qualifies as true Canuxploitation. The majority of its cast members are American, including Martin Hewitt, who starred in the expensive Franco Zefferelli flop Endless Love (you’ve heard its theme song even if you haven’t heard of the movie). Because of this he gets top billing, despite his nothing role as the frat boy Jennifer almost sleeps with before she becomes possessed. The only Canadian performers I recognized were Howard Busgang, a comedian who I remembered from the late 1980s CBC game show Baloney, and Jason Warren, who you all know as Melvin Jerkovski and Marvin Eatmore from the two canonic Screwballs movies (I refuse to consider Screwball Hotel to be an official continuation of the series, no matter how much Rafal Zielinski might argue otherwise).
Still, Killer Party is far too enjoyable to hold its faux-Canuxploitationess against it. It isn’t a great movie and it doesn’t redefine the horror movie in imaginative new ways, but it does try to have fun in a genre that was going stale by 1986. By refusing to take itself seriously it may annoy hardcore fans of the same-old, same-old, but it also allows it to feel refreshingly unique to those of us willing to give it a chance.
Plus, you just gotta see Joanna Johnson freak out in this thing. The lady is insane!