April Fool’s Day

Confinement adds a bit of an intrigue to a slasher, whether it’s the high gate in Hell Night or the dreamscape of A Nightmare on Elm Street. April Fool’s Day smartly employs an island to get more mileage out of its Ten Little Indians conceit.

[Check out our accompanying April Fool’s Day podcast]

A group of college seniors gathers at a dock for a spring break getaway. And compared with other films of this ilk, these folks are positively restrained when it comes to all the good vices. Instead, they talk about their futures (this was back when college students had a future. Today, the average student loan borrower has US $37,172 in student loan debt, 20k higher than a decade and a half ago). Unsolicited advice: pick a trade and stick to it.

They mug for the camcorder and banter about utility curves and Paradise Lost (to the extent that that’s even possible) before sailing over the island, accessible only by ferry and complete with its own sprawling mansion (the family home of Kennedy-esque WASP elite Muffy St. John, the host of the shindig).

As the group settles down to supper, they experience a slew of April Fool’s-related pranking that includes falling doorknobs and spray faucets.

When one goes missing, the joking ceases. And they have to contact cops on the mainland, post haste.

Fred Walton directs (he who gave us the sporadically fun if overly procedural, When a Stranger Calls) and he’s in full command of his craft here, as there are some legitimate little scares. But the real star is writer Danilo Bach (Beverly Hills Cop) who gives April Fool’s Day whip-smart dialogue, almost too good than it deserves (an outlier for the slasher boom, that’s for sure, which was sputtering to its end around the late 80s)

Like Sleepaway Camp, this one will be mostly remembered for its top-notch denouement, a dynamite pretzel-worthy twist.

***1/2 (out of 5)

Unhinged

Radio dispatch exposition is a classic hoary film staple, second only to the spinning newspaper headline for shoving a plot forward.

In Unhinged, three college girls’ raunchy joke road trip banter is interrupted. Turns out, an escaped lunatic is on the loose. Back to “traffic and weather together on the 1s,” Led Zeppelin deep cuts and Morning Zoo blather.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, what was once balmy weather turns into a Gothic downpour, and slick precipitation pushes their little sedan into a ditch, accompanied by a burping synth score.

When they wake up, they’re being tended to by a battleaxe matriarch, her spinster Virginia Woolf tight-hair bun daughter, and their creepy manservant.

They’re forced to convalesce, and unfortunately their new sprawling mansion accommodations do not include a phone.

Later that evening, in a Lovecraftian gale-force, all the girls are treated to a dinner hosted by the matriarch, a proper finishing school Barbara Bush-styled ball-buster.

What do you get when you cross Mrs. Doubtfire with a former First Lady of the United States? This evil matriarch

So far so good, and the girls (Nancy, Gloria and Terry) make arrangements to notify the proper authorities in the morning and to get their car fixed. 

As she’s preparing to turn for the evening Terry finds a tooth under her bed, and more ominously, hears grunts and heavy breathing from nearby.

It’s the leering psycho-sexual elements that put Unhinged (1982) on the infamous Video Nasties list, although the rest of the film isn’t nearly that explicit.

Made for next to nothing (and a regional horror from the Pacific Northwest), Unhinged is an odd duck indeed. There are a few sleepy-eyed performances and more padding than an NFL locker room, but more importantly…there’s also gobs of atmosphere, a fun plot, a terrific soundtrack and a whiz-bang denouement.

Who knew?

***1/2 (out of 5)

[Check out our Really Awful Movies Podcast discussion of Unhinged!]