The Horrors of Music Television in Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the initial slasher genre boom of the 70s & 80s is that it’s oddly just as prudish as the “road to ruin” exploitation pictures of the 1950s. In the 50s pictures, teens who dared to experiment with sex & drugs, especially girls, would swiftly be met with a violently tragic end as punishment. This formula allowed audiences to both indulge in the sexy, transgressive behavior of rebellious teens and wag a morally righteous finger in their direction once they get their inevitable comeuppance. Although packed with far more nudity & bloodshed, the slasher genre was generally just as condemning of teenage rebellion as the “road to ruin” pictures before it. Its teen characters were chopped down by humanoid monsters like Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees instead of dying at the hands of syphilis or car crashes, but slashers were just as obsessed with punishing wayward youngsters for straying into the temptations of marijuana & premarital sex. The original entry in the Roger Corman-produced Slumber Party Massacre slasher series both participated in and satirized this time honored tradition. Written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown, 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre is a straightforward slasher film that still punishes teens for their hedonistic behavior, but delivers its kills by way of an oversized, phallic drill that points to the absurd gender politics of its genre. What’s much more interesting than that subtle subversion in the mechanism of punishment, however, is the way its sequel, 1987’s Slumber Party Massacre II, updated the source of its teenage moral transgressions to something more blatantly modern.

Marijuana & premarital sex had been triggering teen deaths in exploitation pictures dating all the way back to the 1950s, long before slashers added machetes & kitchen knives to the recipe. Slumber Party Massacre II modernized the formula by introducing an entirely new source of teenage transgression, one highly specific to the 1980s: music television. In the five years between the first two Slumber Party Massacre releases, MTV had proven to be a kind of cultural behemoth instead of a flash-in-the-pan novelty. Suddenly, the already sinful business of rock n’ roll had a direct line to youngsters’ television sets, where it could tempt them into darkness with all of the sex, drugs, and partying their little eyes could take in. MTV had come to visually represent the teen rebelliousness that ruined so many fictional lives in exploitation cinema past and the Corman-funded, Deborah Brock-directed team behind Slumber Party Massacre II were smart to adapt that visual language to the slasher genre format. It’s still a film where teen girls are murdered for straying from their parents’ protection to experiment with sex & alcohol. The difference is that the mechanism used to punish them is not a scary man in a mask wielding a comically oversized kitchen utensil. Instead, the victims in Slumber Party Massacre II are hunted by a personified representation of MTV culture. In its own absurdist way, the film literalizes parents’ fears about rock n’ roll invading their homes to destroy their children’s lives. Better yet, it does so with a cartoonish slapstick energy usually reserved for a Looney Tunes short that keeps the mood consistently light instead of browbeating the audience for indulging in its sex & fantasy violence.

The youngest survivor of the titular slaying in the first Slumber Party Massacre, Courtney, is now high school age, living alone with an overly stressed mother who shares her anxieties over her traumatic past. Instead of spending her birthday weekend visiting her sister (who also survived the massacre) in the hospital, Courtney convinces her mother to allow her to go on an unsupervised road trip with her small group of close friends. All four girls in this crew are members of a jangly, Go-Gos reminiscent garage band and plan to spend the weekend away practicing new songs. They, of course, also plan to drink excessively & sleep with hot boys. In the days leading up to this getaway, Courtney has recurring nightmares featuring a demon in a leather jacket, billed simply as The Driller Killer, who warns her not to have sex on the trip or else. Of course, being a teenager, Courtney inevitably ignores this warning and deliberately sheds her virginity with her biggest crush. The exact second Courtney has sex for the first time, the transgression gives birth to the rock n’ roll demon, who escapes from her nightmares and hunts down every one of her friends & bandmates with a giant, guitar-shaped drill. The physical manifestation of MTV culture, The Driller Killer is dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, except with a vampire collar on his biker jacket. Before drilling each teen dead with his unignorably phallic guitar, he suggestively delivers rock n’ roll one-liners like “I can’t get no satisfaction,” & “C’mon baby, light my fire.” He also had a rock n’ roller’s sense of open-ended sexuality, applying his drill to victims of all genders instead of reserving it just for the girls, like in the first film. The only way this sex demon could’ve been more MTV is if his name was Downtown Julie Brown.

Not all of Slumber Party Massacre‘s MTV horrors rest on The Driller Killer’s leather clad shoulders. Besides its two music video tangents highlighting Courtney’s garage band, the film generally adapts music video language to its visual style. Drastic comic book angles, fog machines, and intensely colored lights shape a lot of the aesthetic of its nightmare sequences & third act slayings. The film’s sets, which include empty condo developments & construction sites, also recall early MTV-rotated rock videos that were cheaply, rapidly produced to feed the young channel’s bottomless need for content. The teen girls in the film are highly aware of this then-modern medium too. Minor scream queen Heidi Kozak, who plays the band’s drummer, exclaims in a pivotal scene, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything, because my song is going to be a hit,” and, more directly, “MTV, here we come!” This declaration is promptly followed by the girls stripping down to their underwear (or less) and erupting into a dance party/pillow fight that could easily pass for a mid-80s hair metal video if it weren’t for all the nudity. The sequence is often viewed from the television’s POV, as if the music emanating from it was directly influencing their drunken behavior, enticing them to commit sins that will immediately get them killed. The broadcasted film soundtrack they’re dancing to is also none other than the Corman-produced classic Rock n’ Roll High School, which had its own significant impact on music video culture before MTV ever existed.

Slumber Party Massacre II can sometimes be a nihilistically violent exploitation piece in the way that all slashers are, but mostly it just mirrors the light-headed inanity of pop music as a medium. Song lyrics like, “I wanna be your Tokyo convertible,” and scenes like the dance party/pillow fight keep the tone goofy & charmingly absurd. Even the film’s rock n’ roll demon, although a murderous creep, never feels like the kind of nightmarish threat that usually terrorizes wayward teens in this genre. The film not only modernizes the slasher formula by shaking off its 1950s cobwebs and updating its teen transgressions with a borrowed MTV flavor; it also makes its violent downfall seem just as fun & enticing as the sins that trigger it. Given the choice to either live a chaste life or die by the hands of MTV, it’s likely a lot of mid-80s teens would’ve eagerly chosen death, which feels like a different sentiment entirely from the third act downfalls of the “road to ruin” era of exploitation cinema. It’s funny that it had to return to the demonized image of a 1950s rock n’ roller to free itself from that era’s moralist trappings.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Steel (1987)

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three star

It’s tempting to think of 1995’s Jade as the bargain bin version of William Friedkin’s masterfully sleazy 80s cop thriller To Live and Die in L.A., but maybe the director wasn’t at all imitating past success with that admittedly dire misfire. By the time Friedkin made Jade, the 80s sleaze market he helped shape with his Wang Chung-scored cop thriller masterpiece had formed into its own solid genre, ranging wildly in both content & quality. The Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, delivered by the one-time director Dorothy Ann Puzo, is just as sleazy & cheaply made as Jade and could easily be accused of the same claims of To Live and Die in L.A. counterfeiting (heh, heh), but because it doesn’t feature a filmmaker retreading old ground it gets by as a straightforward genre entry. Cold Steel is undeniably of its time in every possibly way. Its clash of 80s pop ballad cheese with extreme stomach-churning violence is only unremarkable because there was so much other tacky, tonally incongruous violence being produced at the time of its release. Considered in isolation and divorced from its peers & influences, Cold Steel is a fairly entertaining picture (which is more than can be said in Jade’s defense, unfortunately).

Released the same year as Lethal Weapon, Cold Steel attempts to navigate the same balance of light humor and intense violence as that much more enduring work, but can’t manage to match the intelligence of Shane Black’s game-changing screenplay. In this scenario, our down on his luck, perpetually drunk cop mixes pills & booze to show his gritty side, but bangs an automated coffee machine with commands like, “C’mon! Squirt!” only to receive a coffee facial to show that he’s also, in effect, a lighthearted clown. This sloppy cut-up finds himself entangled in a never-ending loop of revenge when a vicious gang (including Adam Ant as a smooth-talking goon) murders his father on Christmas Day for a perceived past wrong. The leader of the gang responsible, known only as the Iceman, is a hard drug-shooting creep with a mechanical voice box that allows him to speak through the wound in his throat. It’s at first unclear if this thieving, murderous crew has any clear motive in their violent robberies or if they’re just generic gangster baddies, but as our boozed-out hero chases them down through a series of explosion-heavy car chases, industrial setting confrontations, and heartless double crossings, a much clearer picture starts to unfold. Somewhere in all this chaos he finds the time to woo a young Sharon Stone through the erotic exoticism of eating sushi and that’s how sleazy 80s cop movies are made.

Cold Steel and Jade are both derivative and narratively unambitious in their post-To Live and Die in L.A. genre sleaze, but Cold Steel is entertaining enough to prove that wasn’t Jade’s only problem. Some of its entertainment is pure novelty, especially in its casting of Adam Ant, Sharon Stone, and (in a brief scene) minor scream queen Heidi Kozak. What really struck me, though, was how shocking the film’s violence felt despite the familiarity of its generic narrative. Stuntmen on fire, vicious stabs to the neck, grotesquely detailed drug abuse (another nod to Friedkin?), and overeager sexual leering all give the film a slimy sheen of 80s sleaze that never quite reach the heights of films like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cruising, but are still affecting in their own right. I’ll even admit that a few of Cold Steel’s stray stabs at humor got a laugh out of me. I guffawed especially hard when the hero cop responds to the warning, “He’ll kill you both!” with a casual, “Yeah, I’m planning on not letting that happen.” Movies like Jade prove that following genre convention and searching for easy thrills doesn’t automatically equal entertainment value success, but Cold Steel somehow survives by playing by the rules and getting dirty in the details. It won’t blow your mind, but you could do much worse if this is the type of action picture you’re looking for and you’ve already seen To Live and Die in L.A. one too many times.

-Brandon Ledet

Heidi Kozak: Undersung Scream Queen

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There’s a lot to be shocked about in February’s Movie of the Month, Brian Yuzna’s satirical class politics body horror Society, but long before the incestuous, gore-soaked surrealism of the film’s climactic shunting began I found one of my biggest shocks in a very minor casting choice. The protagonist’s Valley Girl brat girlfriend was a very much unexpected face, the same actress who played the drummer in one of my favorite discoveries last year: Slumber Party Massacre II. Heidi Kozak has a tidy little career as a television actor to her name, most notable from her arc on the long-defunct drama series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Her feature film career, however, is much more limited. After a single scene debut as a street tough in the Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, Kozak enjoyed a brief run as an undersung scream queen in three 80s horror classics: Slumber Party Massacre II, Friday the 13th Part VII – The New Blood, and, of course, Society. Her respective roles as Sally, Sandra, and Shauna in these films were never big enough to snag top bill or make her anything close to a household name, but Kozak did find a way to leave a huge impression on horror schlock as an art form in just a few years’ time.

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Sally

I ran through the entirety of the Slumber Party Massacre trilogy twice last year, not because each entry in the series blew my mind, but because the second film in particular was a life changer. Slumber Party Massacre II is an MTV-inspired fever dream of slain teenagers & nightmarish hallucinations that completely reinterpreted its straightforward slasher predecessor as a kind of surreal live action cartoon. All four girls in the film’s central garage rock band (a surprisingly decent The Go-Go’s knockoff) who embark on the titular doomed slumber party road trip are exciting to watch as performers. Courtney’s got the Final Girl timidity, Amy’s got the Best Friend sincerity, Sheila’s got the Rock Star sex appeal: each are entertaining in their own right. Still, I’d argue that Heidi Kozak’s performance as the band’s drummer, Sally, is a definitive show stealer. She not only features prominently in the movie’s most stomach-churning practical effects showcase (just one of her two onscreen deaths in the film), but she also brings a distinct Valley Girl cheese to the character that would make the actor so easily recognizable in her later horror works.

We don’t know much about Sally as a character except that she’s boy-crazy and she’s a drummer. The drumming part is something Kozak sells hilariously unconvincingly, endlessly miming the same repetitive motions with her drumsticks while the soundtrack does its best to make her seem competent. She does sell the character’s boy-crazy delirium quite well, though, chiming in as often as she can with announcements like, “I met this outrageous guy! He was such a babe,” and “I know what Courtney’s getting for her birthday . . . a boyfriend!” Sally seems to be her social group’s air headed cut-up, prone to shouting half-formed thoughts like, “Someday we’re going to be in movies and rock videos and everything,” and “Do anything you want to! Good times!” It’s easily the most dialogue Kozak is afforded in any of her works as a minor scream queen and she makes Sally out to be such a fun, bubbly character that every moment she’s onscreen is a gift. This is especially true of the first of her two onscreen deaths in the film, when Courtney hallucinates that a pimple Sally’s been worried about all weekend grows to encompass the entirety of her face and explodes all over the bathroom. It’s hideous, highly effective gore work and a much more memorable moment than when she’s later impaled by the killer’s phallic guitar drill. Poor Sally.

Most Killer Outfit: In the pillow fight scene, Sally sports a yellow crop top with Daisy Duke cutoffs and an asymmetrical ponytail. It’s the perfect outfit for any summertime sleepover, but it’s especially sporty for when you might need to flee from a demonic sex monster and his giant, guitar-shaped drill.

Sandra

A year after her scream queen debut in Slumber Party Massacre II, Kozak hit it big time (as far as mainstream horror franchises go). Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood practically lifted the Sally character wholesale from her previous film, only leaving behind her beloved drum kit. I can’t say that I especially enjoy this late-in-the-game franchise entry, but I do appreciate that it occupies the sillier end of Jason Voorhees lore that makes movies like Jason X and Jason Takes Manhattan, some of my favorites of the series. In this loosely sketched out version of Crystal Lake mythology, Jason’s dead body is reanimated & freed from its watery grave when a troubled young teen accidentally exercises her Carrie-like telepathic abilities in his general vicinity. Unfortunately, the film finds a way to make this ludicrous premise punishingly dull, despite some promising ideas about Jason functioning as a supernatural curse. There’s only two worthwhile aspects to The New Blood once the plot gets stuck in its by the books slasher rut: an inventive kill in which Jason smashes a girl zipped up in a sleeping bag against a tree (a kill later satirized to even greater effect in Jason X) and the casting of Heidi Kozak as inevitable victim Sandra.

Again, there isn’t much difference between Sandra & Sally in terms of character work, except that Sandra actually gets to act on her boy-crazy teen horniness while Sally only got to gush about it. In her introductory scene, Sandra is shown sunbathing and ogling a nearby hunk. In her second scene, she’s screwing a different boy, her boyfriend, in the back of a van, essentially marking herself as ineligible for Final Girl status, a surefire victim for Jason’s swinging machete. It’s in this romantic pairing that we get to see a different side of Kozak that wasn’t already covered in Slumber Party Massacre II. Because her wealthy boyfriend is hosting a teen party at his uncle’s Crystal Lake cabin, Sally winds up playing party mom during a large portion of the film’s first act. She’s still operating within her usual ditzy Valley Girl caricature, but now with a flustered sense of responsibility that has to negotiate between her oversensitive boytoy and some rowdy teens who just want to get drunk & screw. She makes no show of hiding why she’s with the wealthy dipshit either, answering his question, “When did you fall in love with me?” with a teasing, “The first time I saw the enormous size of your beautiful . . . wallet. The bulge in your pants was calling my name. Sandra, Sandra!” Unfortunately, Sandra’s life on this Earth is cut short when she gets the idea to go skinny dipping in Crystal Lake, one of Jason’s biggest pet peeves. She watches in horror as her boyfriend is decapitated on the shore and her naked body double is subsequently drowned. It’s a shame too, because she was one of the few compelling characters in a film that desperately needed more of them, yet she was one of the first to go.

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Most Killer Outfit: In accordance with her status as a more horned-up replica of Sally, Sandra sports a skimpier version of the yellow crop top & short jorts outfit from the previously mentioned pillow fight in her big skinny dipping scene. This time, however, it’s paired with a nude body double instead of an asymmetrical ponytail.

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Shauna

Society is easily the strangest film in Kozak’s trio of horror outliers, depite each work being uniquely goofy in their own unique ways. Kozak reprises her Valley Girl routine for one final go-round in Brian Yuzna’s cult classic body horror, but not as a participant in the gore-soaked “shunting” climax, neither as a victim nor as a wealthy mutant “sucking off” the life force of the lower class. Instead, Shauna is a total outsider to the entirety of the plot. She’s just as clueless as the film’s protagonist as to what supernatural evils lie under the surface of the film’s well-to-do Society, but instead of investigating the Truth, she spends the entire film trying to join the ranks of a ruling class that has no use for her. Her character traits aren’t much different than Sally’s or Sandra’s, but Shauna’s ditzy, boy-obsessed teen routine is put to a much stranger use, likely because Society itself is much less structurally formulaic than the two straightforward slashers she worked on previously.

Shauna has exactly one goal in Society: to earn an invitation to rich cad Ted Ferguson’s party. She does not succeed. The high school cheerleader schemer pretends to be so into and in love with the protagonist, Bill, but her interest in him seems to be a political move based on his football star social status and potential election as senior class president. When Bill finds himself entangled with a potential love interest that actually wants to have sex, Shauna is incensed not because she’s jealous of the affair, but because she wasted so much emotional work with Bill and never earned that Ted Ferguson invite she wanted so badly. Once their romance is fully dissolved, Shauna’s storyline is left by the wayside and she disappears before the climactic shunting, forever an outsider, never to be heard from again.

As an actor, Heidi Kozak similarly disappeared. Her work as a minor scream queen dissipated within three glorious, but short years and it’s doubtful she’d be remembered for any other popular media contributions, except maybe by the most dedicated Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman fans. I’d say she fully deserves to be remembered now, though. All three of her horror projects have proven to be such strange genre outliers with unexpected cult status longevity and she makes a striking presence in each instance. She’ll never enjoy the status of a Neve Campbell or a Jamie Lee Curtis, but she’ll always be a cherished scream queen to me.

Most Killer Outfit: In the scene when Shauna confronts Bill for his cheating ways, she shows up at his house in a skin tight denim dress, paired with a candy red sports car. She looks incredibly powerful in that getup and Bill was a fool to let her go in his pursuit of the truth about the shunt, especially since his eventual fate was entirely unavoidable.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the satirical class politics body horror Society, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its highly questionable DVD-mate Spontaneous Combustion (1990).

-Brandon Ledet