Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 24: April Fool’s Day (1986).
(The following contains SPOILERS. You might not want to read beyond this point if you haven’t seen Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and April Fool’s Day.)
There are arguably three ’80s-era horror films that have stoked the ire of hordes of horror fans more than any others. In 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch incurred the wrath of film audiences everywhere for one simple reason: Michael Myers, the escaped lunatic/butcher knife enthusiast/worst nightmare of teen babysitters and hospital employees/rampage killer from the first two Halloween films, was nowhere to be seen. Then, released to cacophonous hisses and boos in 1985, came Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, which is often referred to as the worst F13 of them all, due primarily to the fact that iconic, goalie-masked slaughter-hound Jason Voorhees is ultimately revealed not to be the killer. Finally, in 1986, April Fool’s Day was summarily dismissed by countless horror buffs because the film lived up to its title and revealed, in its final moments, that all the blood and guts and murderous goings-on were an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the plucky, endlessly resourceful hostess of a get-together attended by an assortment college friends/acquaintances.
It’s fair to hypothesize that the lack of audience appreciation for the above-mentioned films speaks more to audiences’ growing appetite for blood and extreme violence in mainstream horror than it does to the actual quality of the filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of F13: ANB; it is clearly a money-grab, no more than a cheap excuse to keep a broken franchise limping along. But I have to admit that I have a soft spot for both Halloween III and April Fool’s Day. While neither film has earned the right to be considered an unquestioned classic, both films at least attempted to take mainstream horror in fresh new directions. Consider the idea at the core of Halloween III. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill intended to make an original Halloween-themed film each year, starting with Halloween III—a concept meant to infuse the franchise with new and innovative ideas and move it away from the well-worn hack-and-slash construct of the first two films. (Don’t interpret this as a criticism of the first two Halloween films. The second film is certainly superior to most slasher sequels and the original is an all-time classic.) It’s disappointing that HIII: SotW was so reviled by fans. Even if the film itself failed to meet expectations, the effort should have been applauded. After all, how many times do you need to see a voiceless man in a mask stalk and kill people? The producers of the Halloween films had already given fans two feature-length movies of stalk-and-slash action—that’s approximately three hours of knife-wielding and bloodletting! Really, how much is enough? Why would people be so averse to a little narrative innovation? The answer is simple and a little disheartening: the slasher films of the ’80s created a new breed of horror fan, one that preferred extreme violence and ghastly F/X over storytelling and atmosphere. These fans were (and are) actually disappointed if a horror film didn’t provide the same tired story in which stereotypical characters are presented as potential victims … and then eventually served up as actual victims. In this terribly contrived cinematic scenario the body count is the story, the potential for blood is the attraction, and fans of creative storytelling need not apply.
This new audience-shift toward gory over story is exactly why a film like April Fool’s Day remains so despised by so many people decades after its release. Unlike HIII: SotW, which tells the very un-slashery tale of an insidious megacorporation’s plot to use cursed Halloween masks to kill millions of people, April Fool’s Day makes the unforgivable mistake of actually setting up a traditional slasher narrative before unceremoniously yanking the rug out from under the feet of horror fans who just wanted to see a group of college friends get picked off one at a time in increasingly distasteful ways. But I would argue that any horror fan who dismisses AFD because the horrors presented by the film are in fact not “real” (by the way, we shouldn’t forget that all horror films are not “real”) is missing out on a surprisingly good movie that works as a dark comedy and as a hearty lampooning of suspense/slasher cinema. It takes guts to make a movie that pokes fun at slasher films and then markets that film directly at slasher fans. Remember, this movie was released in 1986, right in the crucible of slashermania, when thousands of movie screens were being stained by a fresh crop of decapitations, throat cuttings, and disembowelments virtually every weekend.
I don’t want to overplay my hand, so I’ll now reiterate that April Fool’s Day, while competent and ultimately entertaining, is by no means a classic. But that doesn’t mean that the movie is to be avoided. Quite the contrary: AFD boasts a cast of believable and even likable characters played by a cast of solid professional actors, all of whom deliver their dialogue so believably that much of the film feels improvised … and well improvised, at that. Improvised or not, the dialogue in AFD is much better and much smarter than expected. In fact, the whole movie is much better and much smarter than expected. But then again, maybe my expectations have been lowered by so many uninspired, imagination-challenged, intellectually insulting slasher films that, by comparison, even a decent film can seem kind of great.