Saturday, October 13, 2012

April Fool's Day Movie Review

SPOILERS: I used to catch this on TV when I was young and I always kind of liked it. It scared me well enough, even after learning the ending which reveals there was never really anything to be scared of.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

It’s a nice little surprise to discover that a horror film I’d always assumed was really bad turns out to be far less bad than it has any right to be. I used to watch the slasher film April Fool’s Day when I caught it on cable. It was never the most popular within the genre. Having been released amid a sea of similar films, it just never had the chance to catch on as strongly. It didn’t have the built in franchise of killers like Jason, Freddy, and Michael, who were already deep into sequels and strong cult followings by 1986.

April Fool’s Day was written by Danilo Bach, who wrote the story for Beverly Hills Cop a few years earlier. This is one horror film that is notable for featuring characters who, even if they don’t necessarily have much interesting to say, are real characters. They are more than the stock types who typically populate the genre. The premise is that a group of college friends are spending a Spring Break weekend at the palatial home of their friend Muffy (Deborah Foreman). The house is located on an island presumably off the New England coast, although the landscape and weather have a distinct Pacific Northwest quality (Surprise! That’s where it was filmed).

It’s fairly easy to identify the characters as individuals and we get a strong sense that the majority of them are friends. It’s too common in horror films that the characters blend into one another. They each have the same voice in their dialogue because they exist only as fodder for whatever killer the writer has devised. But in April Fool’s Day we never even see the killer, with the exception of a couple of shots of his feet. The focus is on the characters, whose wit and guile will, in some ways, decide their fate. The cast is also comprised of, if not exactly stars, recognizable actors from films like Valley Girl (Foreman), Summer School (Ken Olandt), Just One of the Guys (Clayton Rohner and Deborah Goodrich) and Back to the Future (Thomas F. Wilson). The more I watch these old horror films, the more I realize, in most cases, what a dead end they seem to have been for the acting (ahem) talent on screen. Occasionally you see a face repeat in another horror film, but there the resume ends. Okay, Amy Steel appears in this film as well as Friday the 13th Part II.

When the friends start disappearing one at a time, you can’t help but think of Agatha Christie. In fact, someone even remarks that the whole set up with a finely set table is reminiscent of one of her stories. Little do they know that a murder mystery is about to begin in earnest. But the gore is kept to a bare minimum. That is to say, we don’t see any of it. No one is ever killed on screen. The only blood to be seen is in the occasional severed head that turns up and on the face of a ferryman who is the victim of an unfortunate accident early in the film. Could the murders be his revenge? Fred Walton, who also directed the taut thriller When a Stranger Calls maintains the suspense level the old fashioned way: with the subtle building of tension augmented by a musical score by Charles Bernstein, who also composed the music for A Nightmare on Elm Street. And when one character seems to undergo a personality transformation from one scene to the next, it’s obvious enough for us to pick up on it, but Bach’s reasonably intelligent screenplay doesn’t feel the need to bash us over the head with it. The other characters probably notice something odd, but don’t provide expository commentary on it.

Make of the ending what you will, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, the most important part of a scary movie is the experience of watching and the journey through the story. Even knowing what was coming, I still felt anticipation as characters wandered off on their own. April Fool’s Day deserves a little more recognition in the canon. It’s leaps and bounds above the sequels to those other popular series that were being made at the time.

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