April 13, 2021

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April Fool’s Day Is a Delightfully Subversive Slasher for Any Occasion

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Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

By 1986, the year April Fool’s Day was released, the slasher genre was suffering from box-office fatigue. Pioneering franchise Friday the 13th was already on its sixth entry, and nearly every holiday had already been snatched up as a backdrop for a slight variation on the same kill-crazy rampage.

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But there was still room left for some creativity—and April Fool’s Day, which is on its surface a very cookie-cutter slasher flick—seized the opportunity to structure its entire plot around the holiday’s reputation for pranks, jokes, and generally fucking around with people who are a bit more gullible than they want to admit. The audience is definitely on that list of people who get fucked with, but it’s mostly the characters who get put through the wringer, as they start to suspect their island getaway isn’t going to be the fun, debauched retreat they’d anticipated.

Directed by Fred Walton (whose directorial debut was proto-slasher When a Stranger Calls), written by Danilo Bach (who went on to get an Oscar nomination for Beverly Hills Cop), and produced by slasher titan Frank Mancuso Jr. (Friday the 13th), April Fool’s Day has an unusually robust cast: Amy Steel, the final girl from Friday the 13th Part 2, plays Kit, a similarly level-headed heroine here, while Deborah Foreman (Valley Girl) plays Muffy, the rich bitch who’s about to inherit the isolated lodge where all her preppy friends have gathered for one last fling before college graduation. Elsewhere, you’ll spot Thomas F. Wilson, aka Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future movies, and Remote Control’s Deborah Goodrich, among others.

That end-of-college, fear-of-adulthood ennui hangs heavy over the group, who don’t get a ton of characterization as individuals but are goofy and likable enough (be warned, though, there are some very stale, very ‘80s gay jokes). If you pay attention to the actions and overlapping chatter in act one, you’ll pick up on some pretty obvious clues that set up what’s to come: Muffy futzes around her ramshackle mansion, carefully propping open a basement window; another friend comments on how great Muffy was in the acting class they shared. Later, someone spots the dinner table with lookalike dolls laid at each place setting, and remarks, “It’s just like an Agatha Christie!”

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Deborah Foreman as Muffy.
Screenshot: Paramount Pictures

But the fun goes sideways right away when a stupid gag involving a fake knife sends a local deckhand into the water—and he’s soon crushed up against the island’s dock, surfacing with a hideous facial wound and screams of “They did it!” as he’s rushed away in a police boat. It’s a horrible, classic-slasher moment, but nobody dwells too long on any guilty feelings—until the atmosphere at Muffy’s house begins to shift from party time (whoopee cushions, trick drinking glasses, exploding cigars, etc.) to eerie uncertainty, and the guests begin to discover disturbing items scattered around the house—newspaper clippings highlighting fatal car accidents, a recording of a baby crying—seemingly targeting their own insecurities and secrets.

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From there, April Fool’s Day shifts into conventional slasher mode, as one by one the characters are picked off by an unseen assailant, only to have their bodies discovered in various states of slice-and-dice a few scenes later. The movie makes good use of its rural country house setting—is there a creepy old well? Of course there is—and leans heavily into the notion that the group is trapped with no escape route from what’s sure starting to look like a crazed killer on the loose. Even if you quickly figure out what’s really driving the movie’s horror plot (and let’s face it…you will), it takes Kit and her boyfriend Rob (Summer School’s Ken Olandt) the nearly entire time to figure out they’re not in danger of anything…except looking like fools in front of all their friends. April Fools, to be precise.

While it’s rarely scary and extremely light on gore, and its “gotcha!” reveal is hardly a surprise, April Fool’s Day still has plenty of entertainment value—mostly because it’s just so knowing about the genre it’s both indulging in and poking fun at. The movie was remade in 2008—the prime era for classic slasher remakes—with an updated plot that kept the twist but lacked the retro charm that makes the original such a perennial favorite.

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Plus, it’s hard to beat Foreman’s performance in a dual role that’s not really a dual role—or Steel, who brings an integrity to her rather one-dimensional character that makes rooting for Kit easy, even while you’re screaming at her to figure out what’s really going on. The last scene, in which a character looks directly at the camera to acknowledge anyone in the audience who’s also been duped, is an excellent final touch.

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