[Slay The Date] This Joke Will Kill You
Slay The Date is a bi-monthly column bringing you something different, compelling, and fun with each edition. Justin Lockwood shares with us his favorite horror films for every season.
When the horror genre plays April Fool’s Day pranks, no one is safe—including the viewer.
In the wake of Halloween (1978), any and all available holidays were capitalized on by exploitation slasher producers: Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Mother’s Day. David J. Skal observes in his terrific book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, “It might even be argued that the actual holiday depicted in many of these films is, in fact, Halloween in everything but name, involving as they do the ritual harvesting of human beings, the frequent display of masks, and the recurrent theme of the return of the dead.” April Fool’s Day (1986), however, epitomizes its namesake holiday better than any of these films. Spoilers ahead for this flick, so beware!
April Fool’s Day, directed by Fred Walton, who also directed When a Stranger Calls (1979), is filled with people pulling pranks on each other and ultimately, playing the biggest joke of all on the audience. This ersatz spoof of slashers has proven controversial over the years since it ultimately isn’t a slasher at all. The whole thing is a big prank plotted by Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman), who wants to turn her family’s island mansion into a murder mystery getaway and invites her friends to test it out.
It’s easy to see why this twist didn’t go over well. The movie was marketed as a slasher, a genre with well established tropes by this point. The excellent poster has the characters gathered around a dinner table facing Muffy, who conceals a knife behind her back and a ponytail styled into a noose. “Guess who’s going to be the life of the party?” asks the tagline. When the movie ends, viewers realize they’ve actually been watching a comedy with mystery elements. April Fool’s Day is often compared to the Agatha Christie classic Ten Little Indians, with its island locale and whodunnit plotline, it has more in common with the book and its screen adaptations than it does with Friday the 13th (1980). Taken on its own terms, though, April Fool’s Day is a charming, hugely enjoyable film with a smart screenplay and a strong cast, as well as an excellent, appropriately spooky score by A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) composer Charles Bernstein.
April Fool’s Day does have a few things in common with the Friday the 13th series, notably producer Frank Mancuso Jr., who made his career overseeing that franchise, and star Amy Steel, who memorably faced down Jason as Ginny in Friday the 13th, Part II (1981). The Friday the 13th series proved a mixed blessing for Mancuso. Though hugely successful, it was never well regarded critically. The film's distributor Paramount seemed to look down on the films, despite the gobs of money they continued to make. “I formed my first production company, Hometown Films, around the end of 1985,” Mancuso states in Peter M. Bracke’s Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. “I thought it was important to start separating myself from the Friday movies because it would have been too easy to get boxed in and never really do other things.”
With April Fool’s Day, Mancuso aimed to make something different, a polished comedic film that lovingly poked fun at the genre he’d help launch. The title was obviously in the tradition of Friday the 13th, a ripoff of Halloween (1978), which was all too fitting. The screenplay for April Fool’s Day, written by Beverly Hills Cop trilogy screenwriter Danilo Bach, utilized all the conventions of the slasher genre and subverted them a full decade prior to Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven with Scream (1996).
April Fool’s Day benefits tremendously from an appealing cast. As Kit becomes increasingly convinced something sinister is going on after spotting a “dead” body, Steel is likable and resilient in the mode of the archetypal final girl. Foreman is great in her “dual” role as Muffy and her heretofore unknown, psychotic “twin sister” Buffy. There is also great production value from the island and the mansion.
Moreover, the April Fool’s Day component of the film manifests through scores of fun and imaginative pranks which start off playful, but become more and more “dangerous” until the big reveal. It requires considerable suspension of belief to buy that Muffy would be able to pull this whole thing off without anyone blowing the surprise or, worse yet, gravely injuring themselves or someone else. However, that’s a small quibble for such an enjoyable and original movie. Interestingly, there was originally a violent twist on this ending wherein Muffy was actually killed in retaliation for her prank, but Paramount reportedly nixed it. Personally, I’m grateful this remains a light comedic twist on the genre. Every once in a while executive meddling actually benefits a film!
Amusingly enough, 1986 marked the release of another April Fool’s themed horror flick, Slaughter High, directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Mackenzie Litten. (It was going to be called April Fool’s Day until Paramount acquired the rights first.) Fun in a trashy way, the flick is every bit the typical slasher that April Fool’s Day only pretends to be, with a vengeful killer in a jester outfit killing off a gallery of loathsome victims as revenge for the archetypal prank gone wrong. The opening prank lasts at least twenty minutes too long, although there is some surprising full frontal male nudity.
Slaughter High has its own connection to Friday the 13th, with its score and obnoxiously catchy theme song by series composer Harry Manfredini. Also, it amusingly casts Caroline Munro who starred in Maniac (1980) as a high schooler despite her being thirty-five years old at the time of filming. It is a so-bad-it’s-good diversion, with a vibrant performance by Simon Scuddamore as the murderous nerd Marty and some fun kills like death by an electrified bed, but it doesn’t hold a candle to April Fool’s Day.
A truly original take on the holiday arrived in the last decade with Fool’s Day (2013), an excellent short film directed and co-written by Cody Blue Snider, son of Twisted Sister frontman, and Strangeland (1998) writer Dee Snider. The premise focuses on a fourth grade class that pranks their teacher by pouring everything imaginable into her coffee pot which accidentally blows her head off—the special effects are top notch. Terrified of going to jail, they scramble to cover up the deed before their DARE Officer O’Donnell—a pitch perfect Mitchell Jarvis shows up. The young cast is uniformly excellent and believably portrays the panic and disgust actual grade school kids would probably experience in this extreme situation. The twenty minute film is dripping with jet black comedy. Apparently owing to Snider’s familial music connections, it’s also soundtracked with vintage R&B hits by the likes of Shirley Ellis and The Temptations. Snider is reportedly working on a feature length version starring Margot Robbie.
April Fool’s Day has provided a durable setting for horror, from the lowbrow fun of Slaughter High to the gruesome wit of Fool’s Day. Yet, for its great production value, clever screenplay, and appealing cast, April Fool’s Day still remains the gold standard, and that’s no joke.
Justin Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based film writer, and contributor for Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Scream Magazine and many more in addition to being a lover of campy, “Psychotronic” B movies. He's a lifelong horror fan and recurring guest on the Slay Away horror podcast.