Forsaken Film Reviews: April Fool’s Day (1986)

April Fool’s Day will always have a place in my heart.  So for this April 1st, I’d like to take another look at this amazing and potentially forsaken film.

AprilFool
April Fool’s Day (1986) – Photo source: IMDB

This entire review CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.  If you prefer something without them, please listen to the spoiler-free podcast of the review found at The Forsaken Films Review Podcast.

I love this film because it was my first film with a twist ending, at least as far back as I can remember.  More importantly, it was the film which made me look at movies differently.  Since then, I was always looking for the deeper meaning behind what was shown on the screen.

Unfortunately, much of the film’s uniqueness and charm is contained within the parts we normally avoid talking about in standard movie reviews.  Honestly, I felt I was cheating myself and the audience for having to say, “Trust me, it’s cool.  I just can’t tell you why.”

So here’s that why.  Again, you have been warned.  Spoilers ahead.

Story (2/5) and Characters (4/5) – April Fools’ Day is a holiday to celebrate pranks, gags, and hoaxes.  It’s about sharing in the joy of fooling someone and of being fooled by someone.  The film April Fool’s Day is named rather aptly, considering it takes place a few days prior to April 1st, and it contains numerous pranks and gags throughout.

On a deeper level, the title represents more than just something taking place around that day.  It represents the very essence of the holiday as the lead character reveals to her friends that she has pranked them all so well.

Even more extraordinary though, is that fact that the film is itself one big April Fools’ prank.  It’s really a witty whodunit, pretending to be slasher film.  Through misdirection and playing on our preconceptions, a story which appears to be a simple killer film becomes a cleverly constructed look at social engineering instead.  So the ultimate prank that the title hints at isn’t the one which Muffy St. John plays on her friends, but the one that the filmmakers pull on the viewers.

Deborah Foreman plays both the characters of Muffy St. John, as well as Buffy.  On her 21st birthday (next month), Muffy is to inherit her family’s island home (as part of her mother’s will), but only if she can make the estate self-sustainable.  Otherwise, her father plans to sell it instead.

Foreman does a wonderful job with the role as Muffy, and more so with the role of her twin Buffy (the insane sister who becomes the “slasher” of this film).  I especially loved the facial expressions and the stares Foreman uses for Buffy throughout the film.

This story focuses primarily on a group of college friends invited to a private island by their mutual friend Muffy.  That said, a fair chunk of the beginning of the film follows Muffy.  While her friends are waiting for the ferry, we see Muffy in a basement setting up for the weekend’s activities.

She finds an old jack-in-the-box, which starts us in a flashback of a birthday party.  This flashback, complete with eerie background music, sets up the audience for the slasher experience as we see that the jack-in-the-box was really a cruel practical joke played on the birthday girl.  Could this have been the event that twisted the mind of our would-be slasher Buffy?  At this point in the film, we don’t even know there is a second girl.

On the way to the island, Skip and Arch (played by Griffin O’Neal and Thomas F. Wilson respectively) pull a little prank of their own on the other friends.  They make it look like Skip had been stuck with a knife.  Some of the guys jump into the water to rescue Skip, only to find out a few minutes later that it was all a deception.

Unfortunately, this leaves dock assistant Buck (Mike Nomad) in the water as the ferry approaches the pier.  He has a horrible accident as the ferry smashes into him, leaving him scarred across the face.  The accident forces him and the ferryman (Lloyd Beery) to leave quickly in the constable’s boat with Buck screaming, “They did it!”.  Meanwhile, Constable Potter (Tom Heaton) stays behind briefly to ask questions about what had happened.  He then leaves in Muffy’s boat to check on the ferryman and Buck.

In true slasher film style, members of the group start to eventually disappear one after the other.  At first, they group suspects it is revenge for what happened to Buck.  But after a call with the constable, they are warned to watch Muffy closely.  Putting some additional clues together, Kit and Rob (played by Amy Steel and Ken Olandt) discover that Muffy isn’t really Muffy.  She is an insane sister named Buffy, who according a clue they found, escaped the local mental hospital earlier.  To further solidify their discovery, they find Muffy’s severed head in the basement.

A crazed and knife wielding Buffy finds Kit and Rob and chases the couple around the house.  Separated from Rob, Kit soon learns that everything is just an elaborate hoax.  Muffy is indeed Muffy.  There is no Buffy.  Skip, in fact, is her twin brother and not her cousin.  And the man playing the constable is really their Uncle Frank.  Additionally, Buck is really a special effects and make-up guy from Hollywood.

The events of this weekend were just a dress rehearsal for something Muffy hopes will help her keep her future house.  Drawing on her background in stage acting, she decided to turn it into a special bed and breakfast resort catered toward people who want a horror/mystery weekend.  This weekend with her friends was Muffy’s attempt to test out her scenario and the clues she had created.

Unlike guests of a horror weekend, her friends had no idea what was happening though.  Her own brother didn’t even have the complete picture of what was going on.  As a result, some things didn’t go exactly as planned for Muffy.  In the end though, everything worked out for her.

Events needing to take place in a certain way, however, to keep Muffy’s deception intact throughout the prank.  Let’s look at the order of the deaths for example.  It not only had to follow the typical pattern of a slasher film, but they had a logic ahead it as well.  The first person to be taken out (though not killed) had to be Buck.

The slasher story that Muffy had created needs him (or possibly the ferryman) to be the whom everyone thinks is the slasher.  But this slasher is Muffy’s red herring.  Buck’s accident gives the guests (and us as movie viewers) a plausible reason to why a group of people would be attacked in the first place.  But after the revenge element is resolved, Muffy needs a different excuse for her guest to be attacked (since not everyone would be responsible for Buck’s accident).  This is when the constable tells them look at Muffy instead.  At which point, the slasher is an insane homicidal person and all bets are off.

As part of the prank though, Muffy needs Buck out of the way so he’s free to set up all the other effect gags in her prank (like Skip floating under the boathouse, the bodies in the well, and Chaz’ demise).  As part of the prank, his accident gives a reason for not having the constable and the ferryman on the island and reachable.  This removes avenues of escape and assistance for her guests and gives them a sense of uneasiness.  The incident also lets Muffy drop in the clue about the spare boat keys being in the house, which will come into play later in the prank.

Obviously, “Cousin” Skip is the logical first victim of our red herring slasher in both the slasher narrative and the prank one.  He is one of two people reportedly responsible for Buck’s accident.  His disappearance (along with Arch’s) squarely points our guests in the direction of Buck or the ferryman.

As part of the prank though, Muffy needs him to go next, because he knows partially what’s going on.  He knows that Muffy is playing some kind of prank on her friends, of which he was part of.  She couldn’t chance him revealing that either.

He didn’t know that Buck’s accident was part of her plan.  Skip is genuinely remorseful about what happened to Buck, and thought it was something he screwed up.  Hence his comment about nothing every going wrong for Muffy on the drive up the mansion.  It is also why he eventually tries to drink away his guilt that night.  Muffy had to let him off the hook quickly, before he seriously hurt himself.

Arch Cummings is the next to go.  He is involved with Buck’s accident, so his disappearance continues to sell Muffy’s slasher narrative.  Everyone is still pointed at Buck or the ferryman.  For Muffy’s prank though, he is just a convenient starting point for eliminating the guests.

Nan Youngblood (Leah Pinsent) is sadly the next to go.  I love her character a lot. She’s the character that hints to us what is actually going on.  Firstly, she tells us about Muffy’s background in theater (even telling us that Muffy is an amazing actress).  And later, during the tour of the dining room, she hints that things are like an Agatha Christie story. She basically reveals to us then the true nature of the film, being a whodunit like Christie novel and not some slasher film.

From a slasher story perspective, the story shifts focus away from the red herring Buck at this point.  The two responsible for Buck’s accident are now gone, so Muffy unveils her misdirect to her guests via Constable Potter’s call.  It can’t be Buck or the ferryman because there are still on the mainland with the constable.

Muffy then sets herself up as as our true killer.  But who of the remaining guest should be next to go?  Nan becomes the best choice.  She is one of the first to notice Muffy acting differently.  She also has an argument with her as well.  In slasher films, she becomes the next likely target.

If we look at it from Muffy’s prank though, Nan confronting Muffy about the tape of the crying baby forces Muffy’s in a rather unforeseen way.  She had placed the tape there as a random clue to lead her friends to the discovery of Buffy.  She didn’t known about Nan’s past (where she had a hinted at abortion).  So rather than have Nan go through any additional stress and pain, Muffy makes Nan the next victim to pull her out quickly, in much the same way as she needed to pull Skip out before he hurt himself.

From the larger story narrative’s perspective, I think Nan is removed at this point so that our source for further “real clues” about the film would be removed as well.  At this point, we are primed to believe that the slasher is Muffy (who we eventually learn is Buffy).  The filmmakers needed us to see the story through the eyes of people trapped in the deception, and not someone that could unravel the mystery too early.  Otherwise, we would see their deception coming.

In my mind, the remaining deaths of Chaz Vyshinski (Clayton Rohner), Harvey Edison Jr (Jay Baker), and Nikki Brashares (Deborah Goodrich) were just convenience kills (both from a slasher and from a prank standpoint).  The end is ratcheting up by this time and the guests need to be eliminated.

And with her other friends recruited to help in the prank, Muffy and her crew are able to stage the remaining deaths a lot quicker.  You ever notice how in slasher films, the killer always seems to be in multiple places at once and do logistically incredible things?  Well this here’s something like that is possible.  The slasher is a group of people.

So why didn’t Muffy/Buffy eliminate Kit Graham or Rob Ferris (Amy Steel and Ken Olandt) with the others.  Well, let’s be honest, those two were actually playing Muffy’s game.  They were the ones truly falling for the deception.  They followed the clues around the fake story that Muffy had concocted.

Harvey has a clue early on, but pretty much hid it from the other, because of something in his own past.  Chaz seems too much of a clown to notice clues.  Nikki meanwhile has a chance at figuring it out, but she is with Chaz (a recent victim).  By slasher film logic, she had to become a victim because of that association.

In the bigger picture though, Kit and Rob represents us, the viewers.  As they fall deeper and deeper in the fake narrative, so do we.  As they are duped, so are we.  And as they learn the truth, so do we.

Without them being our proxy in the film,  without us believing that the couple are in a real slasher film, we are not fooled by the filmmakers’ prank on us.  So yes, they had to survive.  They needed to be there to set us up for the surprise.  Must of us enjoy surprises.  That’s why we avoid spoilers.

With everything revealed and exposed, the film’s final act shows us that all the friends alive, having a wonderful celebration party, and enjoying the amazing prank that was pulled on them all.  We end the film with a bookend moment, mirroring the jack-in-the-box birthday at beginning of the film.

Nan has secretly left a gift for Muffy in her room.  It turns out to be a jack-in-the-box.  Muffy plays it of course.  And just as the Jack pops up, so does Nan from behind.  She appears to cut Muffy throat open, but that too is just a prank.  We leave seeing the Jack winking to us playfully.

In the original planned ending, however, Skip was supposed to have come back to kill Muffy out of jealousy for getting the inheritance.  Skip has an earlier scene with Nan where he hints that he doesn’t have his father’s love.  This may explain why Muffy is getting the house from her mother’s inheritance despite being a twin.  But it also sets the seeds for an ending of revenge and murder–an unexpected twist after the first.

I didn’t like the twins angle though.  Being twins is the only real flaw I saw with the characters’ stories.  I would have much rather he just be her younger brother instead.  A step brother would have been even better, as that at least would have been a good reason why Skip was not getting the house and a good reason why the birthday flashback didn’t seem to include him.

In a film where all the pieces seemed to fit both lines of thinking (the slasher and the prank), it was the one time it didn’t feel like it.  The only thing I can come up with is that the flashback was from Muffy’s perspective and she would have only focused on her traumatic events of that day.

In that original ending though, Skip is killed (the only one to be killed in the film).  The studio wanted a more upbeat ending though, and forced the filmmakers to cut out the scene.  There was yet another alternate ending planned where Skip pretends to kill Muffy this time with all her friends being on the revenge prank.  Skip then goes on to help Muffy with the bed and breakfast to possibly tie up the broken family story element.

The ending with Nan and Muffy was filmed instead, several months after the film had wrapped.  I like this ending more personally, because it has my two favorite characters and it created that bookend moment that looped us back around the the start of the film.  And would could be more perfect that having that wink at the end to hint that everything was all in jest before going to that wonderful end credit song?

The characters overall have the feel of typical young adult stereotypes from countless slasher films, but they were still fun to watch.  The pranks they pulled and that were pulled on them made the more human and relatable though.  This character duality is a bit like the story’s duality.  I suppose I liked Nan and Muffy characters the most, because (of all the characters) they were less the archetype you expected.

I loved how Muffy could be Buffy.  I admire that she never broke character even then it must have been so hard for her.  I would have broken down several times to comfort my friends, seeing the hell I was putting them through.

And Nan.  I love the emotional vulnerability she showed us.  But then we see a dark twisted side as well with the ending as well.  Now she probably borrowed the knife from special-effect man Buck, but imagine Nan had brought her own fake knife herself.  Had already planned to pull off a few pranks of her own before the weekend went completely crazy?  She was into costuming after all and worked in theater with Muffy, so it is possible.

Execution (3/5) – From an execution standpoint, Director Fred Walton makes some interesting choices in this film.  The fact that all of murder scenes took place off camera made me originally think it was some cheap way to save on special effects.  Or maybe it was an attempt to heighten the suspense by allowing our imaginations to fill in the blanks.  But after learning that no one actually dies, I understood that it was absolutely necessary that no one show their deaths onscreen.

I love the music score by Charles Bernstein.  The music adds to the suspense and dread and makes up for the lack of visual gore on the screen.

And I loved the pacing of the film as well.  From the beginning of the film to its reveal, the audience is moved along from scene to scene like the characters are.  The idea of being lead around the film is important, because the premise relies heavily on chance to make some scenes plausible.  If you consider that clever use of social engineering was used to manipulate the characters, and the audience, it makes the story honestly more believable than it should be.

Nuance (3/5) – The story if filled with examples of controlled events of social engineering which Muffy sets into motion, as well as uncontrolled events she would not have predicted.

Right away, Muffy controlled what information the guest could receive.  From phone calls to letters left for the guest to find, it was all part of Muffy’s plan.  Skip, for example, is basically there to make sure that Buck is in the water to have is accident.  This controlled event sets everyone at unease.  Not even Skip knew that Buck’s accident was fake.  Skip eventually goes missing, which leads everyone to think that the incident had to do with what happened to Buck.  It’s your typical slasher getting revenge on some young people who got him hurt story element.

Skip is ultimately found at the boat house by Kit and Rob.  Originally, I thought it was rather convenient they found him.  But a scene later shows them finding Skip’s bloody and broken knife by the boat house.  I think originally, the friends were supposed to notice that Skip was missing and go looking for him.  They would have found his knife and then looked in the boat house to find his dead body under the floor boards.  It just happened that they found these things in the reverse order.

As for finding bodies in the well, that too was something controlled by Muffy.  The water main is reportedly broken.  It is Muffy/Buffy who tells the others that there is a well and points them to it.  When Harve and Nikki reach the well, the bucket conveniently falls in.  My thought is that Muffy had intended them to shine a light down to see where the bucket fell and see bodies.  But Nikki had accidentally dropped the light down earlier.  So she goes down to get the bucket and light.  She falls in, because I don’t think the wrung was supposed to give way.

As mentioned earlier, Muffy had also set up random clues throughout her friends’ rooms in the hopes that they would piece together the existence of Buffy.  Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen events that occurred like Nan’s and Harvey’s reaction to the clues because of past personal experiences.

There is also the constable’s conveniently placed note from the mental hospital which was in the boat that people would be escaping to.  The boat didn’t have keys though, so they needed to go back into the house to get the spares that Muffy had mentioned earlier. But all the doors and windows are closed mysteriously (no doubt with the help over everyone that was already a victim).  So the only way into the house now is of course the only path that Muffy allowed them to enter.  She does this so that Kit and Rob find the final clue about Muffy and Buffy.

Kit and Rob managed to figure everything out by following the dots that Muffy left them.  From the picture in the office, to the medical document on the boat the constable left, to the height etchings on the basement wall.

And we all knew that a basement scene would be inevitable, because Muffy had opened the basement window earlier at the beginning of the movie.  And the reason for going back to the house was of course…to get the keys to the boat, which Muffy had mentioned earlier.

When you watch this film as a simply slasher film, you see these events are mere coincidence.  But when you look at it from the execution of a prank, you see all sorts of nuances and places where Muffy leads her friends along.  And like the characters of the story, we too are lead into thinking something is happening, only to find something else is occurring instead.

Entertainment (3/5) – So does this film have entertainment value?  To me, it was a clever film with a good balance of suspense, humor, and gore.  Some of the pranks were honestly funny, and the suspense was paced appropriately.  As a slasher film, there is really nothing too outstanding about this film.  It has some 80’s sensibilities with it horny sexual innuendos and scantily clad visuals, which adds a nostalgic value.  But there are no clever deaths, no truly gory scenes.

It’s only when you look at the film as something other than a slasher film that you know why this film is different and special.  And ultimately why it has a special place in my heart.

Overall, this film gets a composite score of 3.0 bow-ties.  I enjoyed watching this film many times and look forward to seeing it again.

3bows

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