Final Girls and Talking Killers: Feminist Transgressions in ‘The Slumber Party Massacre’ (1982)

The slasher subgenre has faced criticism from the start of its existence, and at nearly every angle possible: too gory, too sexy, too anti-woman. The endings of these films typically patch up the sexist issues they have created by hastily allowing one sexless female protagonist a climactic chase scene before she single-handedly puts an end to the killer’s life. But what if this final girl was permitted an emotional dialogue with the unmasked madman? If they looked into each other’s eyes, human to human? What if the threat of murder symbolizes a shared anxiety over sexual assault between a group of friends? What if that threat is defeated by those same friends? Maybe it’s not up to a singular female protagonist with masculine traits, but a group of beer-drinking, pot-smoking, partially-clothed teen girls, who can only succeed with each other’s support. 

By analyzing the final sequence from The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), it can be discovered that this film is a surprisingly progressive and specifically feminist entry into the then-burgeoning slasher genre. The film’s climax reveals the power of female solidarity and its ability to emasculate the emotionally volatile men who are in direct opposition to it. The ingenuity of a maskless, verbal killer who is able to identify his emotions and react to pain is another detail that solidifies this film as one entirely unique and ahead of its time. The combination of an overtly feminist message teamed with the humanization of the monster are two elements that make this film so innovative within its subgenre. Culminating wholly and brutally, these components solidify the film’s progressivity in its climactic scene.

When Trish’s (Michelle Michaels) parents go away she invites some friends over for a slumber party, including the new girl at school and next-door neighbor Valerie (Robin Stille), who declines to babysit her little sister, Courtney (Jennifer Meyers). As the night goes on, the girls are picked off one-by-one by a drill-wielding, mass-murdering prison escapee, Russ Thorn (Michael Villela). In addition to the final sequence, there are several plot points that suggest the female characters’ superiority to the males. While five teenage girls do get killed in the film, the murders of the six male characters are far more brutal and graphic, ending in the likes of decapitation and eye-gouging. The latter is killed way before any slumber party attendees are. What’s more, they are all essentially useless, failing to fulfill their established goals or jobs. A nosey neighbor assigned with keeping tabs on the girls is the first killed, Diane’s sex pest boyfriend dies as he prepares to fool around in the car, and a pair of goofy guys are killed just as they begin to run for help. At least the delivery boy makes it to the door pizza in hand, before collapsing eyeless on the carpet.

A young man in a paper delivery hat lies next to a drill. He is unconscious and bloody.

Image courtesy of New World Pictures

At the beginning of this resolution, after all of Trish’s other friends are now dead, Russ stands up and into an empty frame, situated in a low-angle shot that insinuates his power over Trish, who cowers beneath him. In the next shot, his weapon of choice – a very phallic power drill – moves in the foreground of the shot, as she stares up at him in terror. In his first spoken words of the film, Russ tells Trish how pretty she and her friends are while his drill sways ominously, suggesting the sexual and violent power that he feels he has over her. In Russ’ sick mind, the girls’ appearance commodifies them, turning them into objects to be marveled at, making him feel entitled to their bodies. He cites the girls’ looks as motivation for his violent actions and truly believes this is the cause, rather than confronting his own mental sickness. In the next shot – a close-up of his face – Russ tells Trish that he loves her, and his maniacal expressions bend and contort to suggest his instability and volatile state. This is important in relation to the viewer’s pre-existing knowledge of early slasher films, because it offers the killer a sliver of humanity, allowing us to look directly into his face as he speaks. Not only is he unmasked and verbal, he also discloses complicated feelings of love and ownership. This marks a rare instance of a killer being given recognizably human traits on screen. He openly communicates his feelings, which was extremely rare if not unheard of, and certainly not to such a self-aware extent. As Russ speaks, close-up shots cut between himself and Trish, offering one of the final girls the opportunity to have a volleying dialogue with the killer. 

A young woman lies on the ground with her hands up, recoiling from a power drill.

Image courtesy of New World Pictures

She asks him to go away. He says he knows she wants it. This is another exchange that strengthens the implied connections between murder, sexual assault, victim-blaming, and feelings of control, and yet another sentiment commonly held by perpetrators and defenders of sexual assault. In a long shot –  somewhat jarring after a series of disquieting personal ones – Valerie runs up the stairs wielding a machete as the musical score kicks in. Suddenly, the power balance between predator and prey is thrown off; it’s the killer who is fearful. His point of view is now assumed, as Valerie slashes wildly head-on into the frame. Now, Russ cowers from the weapon-like extension of her body, the machete, at the edge of a pool. Russ looks down at his feet, shuffling around the edge, his drill pointed haughtily in front of him and Valerie cuts it in half, effectively castrating him. The score comes to a screeching halt. With a plunk, we see the top half of his drill sink to the bottom of the pool. Two identical, intimate shots in quick succession establish a unique emotional connection between them. In this moment, they’re both petrified: Valerie of her own actions and strength, and Russ of his approaching defeat. Unlike the non-emotive killers that audiences were accustomed to, who usually only stumble back silently when stabbed, this monster viscerally reacts to pain, screaming and nearly pleading with the girl he intends to kill. It’s unusual and jarring to see the monster, the sole perpetrator of violence, beginning to break down.

A young woman looks frightened as she holds a long machete.

Image courtesy of New World Pictures

Valerie slashes Russ with the machete again, slicing open his stomach. Another extreme close-up of her eyes and mouth suggests the fear and disgust she feels at her actions and her capability to do great harm, solidifying her complicated feelings about her traumatizing actions. She is justified in defending herself, but such personal violence also feels unnatural, harmful, completely unfamiliar, and maybe even un-ladylike to her. Typically, female characters in slasher films defend themselves passively, running, hiding, or making a few quick jabs to buy time. Taking active and intense agency in her own self-defense, Valerie grapples with its necessity and the gruesome violence of it. Finally, Russ falls backward into the pool, bleeding into the water, seemingly defeated. He eventually re-emerges, and, after a skirmish, lands directly on top of Valerie’s machete, which she angles upwards on her stomach while on her back. The action is unmistakably penetrative, especially considering the blocking of the actors. Russ collapses on top of Valerie, who cringes and pushes him off, crying softly. The final few shots of the film are a series of medium close-ups of the three final girls crying individually, complimented with a dissolve transition in between, working effectively to visually fuse the girls’ emotional experiences with each other. The organ music is no longer suspenseful, but droning and sad, eventually giving way to the wailing of an ambulance. These final moments imply the gravity of the situation and the complicated bond that can emerge from enduring a traumatic experience together, a stark tonal difference from the rest of the movie. 

This final sequence solidifies The Slumber Party Massacre as a progressive, feminist film, totally flipping viewers’ expectations on their heads. It begins with a murderer flaunting his drill, smug with what he thinks is rightful ownership over the dead-or-alive, “pretty” bodies of teenage girls. But in the end, he literally goes down screaming, handless and bloody and near tears. Not one, but three final girls collaborate to murder a man who killed their friends. Trish, who gives Valerie time to grab her machete by tackling Russ, isn’t the sensible, intelligent, masculine type we typically see succeed in other slashers. She appears topless within the first two minutes of the film, drinks alcohol, and smokes marijuana, but she is not ultimately punished for her behavior or disposition – although getting chased by an escaped murderer with a power drill is punishment enough. Trish is one of three to successfully kill him in the end. Without her, or without Valerie or Courtney, Russ’ defeat would be impossible. The valiant group effort of these three girls against a man who symbolically represents the threat of sexual assault would have been extremely refreshing to view in its release year of 1982. It’s fun and surprising to see even 40 years later. Much like Valerie’s machete, The Slumber Party Massacre holds up.