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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

April Fool's Day  (1986)
3 Stars
Directed by Fred Walton.
Cast: Deborah Foreman, Amy Steel, Ken Olandt, Deborah Goodrich, Jay Baker, Clayton Rohner, Leah King Pinsent, Thomas F. Wilson, Griffin O'Neal, Tom Heaton, Lloyd Berry, Mike Nomad, Pat Barlow.
1986 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, sexual content and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

Have a nice party.

Muffy St. John:
Nice? It's gonna be better than nice. It's gonna be bloody unforgettable.

Mischievously turning the conventions of the slasher film on their head a full decade before "Scream" did it, "April Fool's Day" is a smartly written, too often overlooked slice of postmodern fun. When it was released in 1986, the stalk-and-slash genre was nearing the end of its popularity within the era. Since the film was produced by Frank Mancuso Jr. and distributed by Paramount Pictures (both responsible for the "Friday the 13th" franchise), audiences naturally expected more of the same. What they got, instead, skewered the very rules they anticipated would be strictly followed, and the picture ended up being a box-office disappointment because of it. Watching "April Fool's Day" twenty-two years later, it reveals itself to clearly be ahead of its time in much the same way that 1994's brazenly imaginative, unsuspectingly groundbreaking "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" was.

The opening titles sequence is a memorable one. As Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) is cleaning up the basement of her father's island estate in preparation for a weekend get-together with her college friends, she stumbles upon a jack-in-the-box from her childhood. As the credits roll, the film flashes back to the birthday when she received the toy, and to a dirty prank her parents pulled on her that could very well have shaped who she has become as an adult. The weekend begins roughly when Buck (Mike Nomad) is involved in a ferry accident and must be rushed back to the mainland, but soon things have settled back down as frivolity and some harmless April Fool's Day pranks take over.

The fun gradually dissipates when Muffy seemingly changes overnight (her cheerful personality and stylish clothing are traded in for sheer morbidity and a schoolmarm get-up), and her friends—first Muffy's cousin Skip (Griffin O'Neal) and then the outspoken Arch (Thomas F. Wilson)—mysteriously start disappearing. By the time girl-next-door Kit (Amy Steel) spots a dead body floating under the docks and charming vixen Nikki (Deborah Goodrich) falls into a well populated by waterlogged corpses, it is safe to say that the games are over and a killer is among them.

Taking inspiration from the setup of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None," "April Fool's Day" places nine characters in an isolated setting and then follows them as the group quickly dwindles. Whereas the "Friday the 13th" films have always been about lining up paper-thin, albeit usually attractive, teens and then knocking them off by a masked killer, the people onscreen here are given a bit more time to develop and grow, helped in no small part by snappy dialogue from Danilo Bach's auspicious screenplay. A sequence in which Skip confides in Nan about feeling like the black sheep of the St. John family is quietly effective, and another between Muffy, Kit and Nikki as they take a magazine sex quiz is funny and naturalistic through the behavior of the characters.

The viewer does not necessarily learn a great deal about everyone's background, but there is enough touched upon for them to become likable individuals. It helps, too, that they are not high schoolers, but upscale college students nearing graduation who, when asked by Arch what they plan to do with the rest of their lives, admit to having no idea what their futures hold. Furthermore, a scene in which the quiet, intellectual Nan (Leah King Pinsent) discovers the sound of a baby crying in her bedroom via a tape recorder at first seems to just be another silly April Fool's joke, but garners further weight when it is revealed that she recently has had an abortion.

Lest it seem like "April Fool's Day" is but a talky, introspective bore, the film does a solid job of intermixing the character work with a well-paced horror plot that grows creepier and more involving once the ensemble has been whittled down to only a few. The climax, wherein Kit and boyfriend Rob (Ken Olandt) piece together the dark secrets from Muffy's past as they sense an immediate danger lurking around them, generates slick suspense, several indelible images (murdered baby dolls and eyes behind a painting spring to mind), and a whopper of a twist ending that lifts the picture above and beyond the typical, standard-issue slasher fare. It should be said that this surprise conclusion tends to leave some viewers feeling cheated, a claim that doesn't hold water since it is so very original and, save for maybe one or two minor story contrivances, completely logical.

Performances are above-average for what, in essence, is a modestly-budgeted horror flick. The actresses, however, largely have more to work with than their male counterparts. Deborah Foreman (a temporary starlet of the 1980s whose biggest claim to fame was 1983's "Valley Girl") is a quirky delight as Muffy St. John, warm at the onset before transforming into someone you wouldn't want to be alone with. Amy Steel (known best for her lead role in 1981's "Friday the 13th Part 2") is an earthy beauty with real presence as protagonist Kit. And Deborah Goodrich (another actress who slipped into obscurity once the big, bad '90s rolled around) is a ball of energy and sass as Nikki, a character treated with more respect and layers than the one-note sex kitten she could have turned into.

Directed by Fred Walton (1979's "When a Stranger Calls") and with an unconventionally eerie music score by Charles Bernstein (himself the composer of 1984's "A Nightmare on Elm Street"), "April Fool's Day" regrettably slipped through the cracks when it came to theaters, but has since found a deserved cult following in the years since. A loose 2008 remake of the same name went straight-to-DVD, its only worth being that it proved how superior the original was, and still is. "April Fool's Day" isn't completely reinventive, but it deserves its share of accolades for taking a sharp U-turn away from the same old thing and into fresh territory that hadn't been mined nearly as often in horror films of this ilk. Even today, it holds up as a spooky, flirty entertainment, doing justice to the folly and mirth of its namesake holiday.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman