Like so many other horror films, it has taken decades for The Slumber Party Massacre to get its due. When the movie first hit theaters in 1982, it was largely panned by critics and accused of misogyny despite its feminist bona fides: It was based on an original screenplay by Rubyfruit Jungle author Rita Mae Brown, directed by Amy Holden Jones, and depicted most of its male characters as either murderously deranged or ultimately ineffectual, while its female characters were smart, heroic, and capable.
The ensuing 40 years have been much kinder to the movie. Thanks to a devoted cult following and a gradual critical reevaluation, The Slumber Party Massacre is now recognized as a touchstone of feminist horror and a shrewd satire that skewered horror movie tropes 14 years before Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson did it with Scream. The Museum of Modern Art has lauded it as “genuinely scary and certainly underappreciated,” rightly calling it “a benchmark for women making horror their own.”
Here are a few things you should know about Jones’s groundbreaking horror-comedy.
1. The original script for The Slumber Party Massacre was written by feminist icon Rita Mae Brown.
Flush with cash from the surprise success of her debut novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, Brown moved to Los Angeles in 1973, where she connected with Frances Doel, a story editor for legendary producer Roger Corman. Doel, whom Brown has called “the Mother Teresa of fledgling screenwriters,” taught Brown the basics of screenwriting and convinced Corman to hire her (as long as she agreed to work for scale). Sometime around 1978, Brown wrote a script titled Don’t Open the Door, about an escaped murderer who stalks members of a girls’ basketball team during a slumber party. The script was a sendup of early slasher films, combining gory set pieces with liberal doses of humor and satire. It sat on the shelf at Corman’s New World Pictures for several years before an aspiring young filmmaker dusted it off and shot it—or the first eight pages, at least.
2. Amy Holden Jones backed out of editing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to direct The Slumber Party Massacre.
Jones was an editor and documentary filmmaker who had gotten her first taste of feature film production in 1975 when she worked as an assistant to Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver. When Corman contacted Scorsese to ask if he could recommend “a talented, inexpensive young film editor,” Scorsese urged him to hire Jones. After editing a couple of films for Corman, Jones impressed Steven Spielberg enough that he hired her to edit his upcoming sci-fi film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
But what Jones really wanted to do was direct, and she needed to prove to Corman that she was up to the task. Rummaging through Corman’s library of unproduced screenplays, Jones found a script called Don’t Open the Door. The first eight pages had all the elements she thought she needed for a strong test reel: dialogue, action, and suspense. She rounded up a tiny crew and a handful of drama students and shot the prologue over the course of a weekend. Corman liked what he saw and immediately hired Jones to make the entire film. She called Spielberg and told him about Corman’s offer, and Spielberg released her from her contract. Jones was replaced by Carol Littleton, whose work on E.T. earned her an Oscar nomination.
3. The Slumber Party Massacre started as a test reel shot by Oscar-nominated Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman.
The test reel Jones shot has long been lost, and that’s a shame—it was lensed by her husband, acclaimed cinematographer Michael Chapman. Chapman, who passed away in 2020, had been a camera operator on Jaws and The Godfather and director of photography on Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which earned him a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. He would go on to shoot more than 40 movies over the course of his career, including The Lost Boys, Scrooged, and The Fugitive (which scored him another Oscar nomination). Jones and Chapman shot the reel in a house they were renting in Venice, California, with Jones editing the footage on Howling director Joe Dante’s flatbed editor. Since the reel featured non-union actors, none of the footage could be used in the final film.
4. Jones agreed to direct the film before she had read the entire script.
When Corman saw Jones’s test reel and learned she had made it for about $1000, he immediately hired her to make the entire film. But Jones’s elation at landing her first feature directing gig was quickly tempered when she read the rest of the script, which she has described as “a complete mess.” The 27-year-old Jones was so intimidated by the prospect of getting the script into shape that she got drunk for the first time in her life, convinced that “disaster and public humiliation loomed.” She spent the next four weeks rewriting the script, though she has credited Brown with doing “the hard work,” including hammering out the film’s three-act structure and developing its central theme, which Jones calls “fear of getting laid for the first time.”
5. Both Brown and Jones think their individual version of the script is the funny one.
Humor is notoriously subjective, and Brown and Jones have each claimed that her version of the Slumber Party Massacre script is the one with the jokes. Brown has described the final product as “a straight slasher movie [with] no humor” and maintained that her original version was “pretty funny, on the page anyway.” Jones has the opposite take: “Someone had to restructure, add characters, [and] inject humor,” she wrote.
6. It was produced under a different title to help secure locations.
When it was time to assemble a cast and secure filming locations, Corman suggested that Jones slap “a classy title” on her film to avoid any stigma that might be attached to a slasher movie—so Don’t Open the Door became Sleepless Nights during production. Once it was finished, Corman changed the title once more, to The Slumber Party Massacre.
7. The actor who played murderer Russ Thorn wouldn’t interact with any of the film’s stars until he had “killed” them onscreen.
According to Jason Paul Collum’s documentary Sleepless Nights, actor Michael Villella, who played the film’s deranged, drill-toting killer, refused to speak to the actresses who played his victims until their death scenes had been filmed. To make sure the performers looked properly terrified onscreen, Villella spent much of the film’s 20-day shoot lurking in bushes, “stalking” his costars on set, and dramatically slathering his drill bit with Vaseline.
8. The director was disturbed by the test audience’s reactions.
Moviegoers got their first look at The Slumber Party Massacre during a test screening at what Jones has described as “the tackiest theater on Hollywood Boulevard.” The packed auditorium of “half-drunk teenagers and homeless people who walked in off the street” quickly warmed to the film and got rowdier as the bodies piled up onscreen. As the audience cheered the bloody kills and a man seated behind Jones made drill noises throughout the screening, Jones found herself wondering what she had done. It was only when she found Corman beaming in the lobby that she got her answer: Her film had delivered on the promises of its lurid title, and she’d given Corman his best test screening in recent memory.
9. The movie launched the first horror franchise written and directed entirely by women.
While there had certainly been horror movies directed by women before 1981, The Slumber Party Massacre is widely considered the first female-helmed slasher film. Though it wasn’t a huge box office success, Jones’s movie did very well in the home video market; in her words, “Roger [Corman] made a fortune with Slumber Party Massacre.”
Corman, who was already known for his willingness to hire women to produce, direct, and edit his films—a rarity in Hollywood at the time—stuck with his winning formula and hired female filmmakers to write and direct 1987’s delirious, must-see rockabilly follow-up Slumber Party Massacre II (directed by Deborah Brock) and 1990’s considerably darker Slumber Party Massacre III (directed by Sally Mattison), making the trilogy the first-ever horror franchise written and directed by women.