April Fool’s Day (1986) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 12

by Jovial Jay

Get ready to party, until you drop!

April Fool’s Day is a fun, yet not too scary horror film that still entertains. As the second film in the theme week of holiday horror films, it plays the scares for laughs and the laughs for scares, while altering the standard formula for slasher films.

Before Viewing

The trailer for April Fool’s Day appears to showcase a gathering of college students at a lake house for an April Fool’s party. Footage skips between characters laughing at the pranks and shouting “April fool’s,” and screaming because a killer is on the loose. But can you really trust anything that purports to be related to April Fool’s Day? Watch out for the fake dog poo and don’t fall for the old banana in the tailpipe trick as we roll into April.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

April Fool's Day

April Fool’s Day title card.

After Viewing

On a ferry dock in coastal Bar Harbor, Maine, eight acquaintances of Muffy St. John’s (Deborah Foreman) arrive for a spring break getaway to Muffy’s private island at a giant mansion she will soon inherit. Among the group is Muffy’s cousin Skip (Griffin O’Neal), who is always playing around with his switchblade knife, Arch (Thomas F. Wilson), a former flame of Muffy’s who is a real practical joker, and Nan (Leah King Pinsent), who is reserved and quiet. They are joined by Harvey (Jay Baker), whose southern drawl sets him apart from the others, Nikki (Deborah Goodrich), an attractive co-ed that makes all the boys drool, and Chaz (Clayton Rohner) who is videotaping the antics of the others. Finally Kit and Rob (Amy Steel & Ken Olandt) arrive, the only actual couple in the group.

Skip and Arch are goofing around on the deck of the old ferry with Skip’s knife, until Arch has had enough of Skip. Arch flings the knife at him, impaling him in the gut. Skip goes overboard and Rob and deckhand Buck (Mike Nomad) jump in the water to help him, but Skip pops back up with a curt “April Fool’s,” pulling the fake knife out of his shirt. Buck decides to wait and help the ferry dock from in the water, but is crushed by the vessel. He is quickly put in the police constable’s boat and rushed back to the mainland by the ferry captain (Lloyd Berry). The kids, in shock, meet up with Buffy, and have a dinner party to kick off the weekend–complete with dribble glasses and collapsing chairs. April Fool’s!

The harmless pranks seem to take a darker turn when several people notice more personal things in their rooms. Nan finds an audiotape of a crying baby. Nikki finds BDSM restraints. Harvey–who prefers “Hal”– finds newspaper articles about a serious car accident. And Arch finds heroin supplies in his medicine cabinet. Skip wanders off looking for some marijuana and is grabbed by someone in the boat house. He is found floating, dead, under the boat house the next morning by Kit and Rob.

April Fool's Day

Nikki, Muffy, Hal, Arch, Skip, Chaz, and Kit gather for the “holiday” weekend on the private island.

Nan accuses Muffy as inviting her as a joke, clearly upset by the audiotape (it’s revealed she had an abortion). No one can find Skip’s body so Arch goes looking in the woods, and is caught in a rope trap and attacked by a snake. Muffy, who is acting weird this morning, tries to make tea, but the water main is out, so Hal and Nikki go to fetch water from the well. Nikki accidentally falls in and discovers the floating heads of Skip and Arch, plus Nan’s body. The remaining kids all think that Buck has returned from the mainland to get back at them for the accident, but when Kit answers the phone, it’s the constable calling. He claims to have been with Buck all night and still at the hospital.

The remaining friends begin arguing amongst themselves, clearly not trusting various others for reasons. Muffy states that she’s going off to her room, and the others aren’t crazy about that either. Nikki and Chaz hook up and start fooling around, but when Nikki steps out for a minute and comes back Chaz is dead, a bloody mess on the crotch of his pants! Someone jumps out of the closet for her. Meanwhile, Kit and Rob investigate in the attic and find dolls representing all the friends dressed in the manner of the death. They soon find Hal, dead; hog tied and hanging from the ceiling of his room. Finding a note from a psychiatric doctor, they realize that Muffy has a twin sister named Buffy who has escaped from a mental institution and is dangerous. No duh!

They are soon confronted by Buffy with a large knife. She nudges Rob into a pantry, locking the door and goes after Kit. Buffy chases the final girl into the parlor where all the other guests are casually sitting around drinking, reading or playing cards. Kit does a double-take and Muffy (pretending to have been an evil twin) reveals the trick knife. Muffy explains that she needed to prove to her father that she could be responsible with her inheritance. She plans to open a country inn that has a murder mystery theme. She apologizes and the group has a raucous party to the strains of Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come.” Later Muffy retires to her room and discovers a present. It’s a jack-in-the-box she was seen with earlier. As she waits for it to pop, Nan jumps out of the shadows and slits her neck with a knife! Muffy screams, while Nan laughs. It’s just a fake knife. April Fool’s!!

Arch is sweet, but “collar up,” “collar down” are his only expressions.” – Muffy

April Fool's Day

Nan raises a toast to new friends.

April Fool’s Day sets itself up to be like so many other slasher films of the decade, but decides to subvert the genre by playing a massive prank on audiences. By the time this film came along in late March, 1986, there had already been five Friday the 13th films, two Nightmare on Elm Street films, and dozens of other “killer in the woods” film, like Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, and Happy Birthday to Me. To say that the market had been glutted would be an understatement and each new film was looking for some new angle to grab the audience.

It follows several formulaic events to convince the audience that they should know what to expect. As with My Bloody Valentine, the events occur over a holiday weekend, in this case April 1st–the pranking holiday. There’s the remote island, remote house, woods, evil twin, and many other tropes that horror aficionados had seen over and again. And if the film was really taken at face value and had committed the crimes that are shown–without the twist in Act Three–the film would probably not be anything worth talking about today. But that twist, to make the events of the film an elaborate hoax, creates a fun and not-too-scary prank on the audiences. You can’t even be mad at them, since they go for the jugular (literally) one last time as Muffy appears to have been killed by a vengeful Nan.

In the six years since Friday the 13th, slasher films had started to use more humor to punctuate and relieve audiences after killings. In the case of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, humor (however dark and twisted) defined the villain and his evil quips became a hallmark of that franchise. April Fool’s Day sets up a group of prank happy college students (at least in Arch, Chaz, and Skip) that appear to be pushing the envelope of good natured pranks until someone gets hurt. It appears to set this up as a morality lesson that one will reap what they sow by pretending to get killed. But these moments are all just even more elaborate pranks by the creators of the film. Even going into this film knowing the ending, still manages to make the film fun and enjoyable.

April Fool's Day

Chaz, Muffy, Kit and Nikki learn that Buck has been in the hospital the entire time and could not have committed the murders.

By 2020 standards, April Fool’s Day would probably be a PG-13 horror film like Happy Death Day or Drag Me To Hell. But even those films have scenes that are probably more chilling than events in April Fool’s Day. The killings here seem muted and tame by comparison to previous and recent films. As discussed in yesterday’s look at My Bloody Valentine, the early 80s was having a crackdown on ultra-violent films (both in horror and action genres). But that rationale actually plays into the conceit of the film. The co-ed’s were not actually being killed here, so exorbitant and excessive murder scenes would have been unwarranted. As it stands, there are some questionable moments that the film glosses over in hindsight. But that’s part of the charm of the film. It moves quickly enough that the audiences, like the characters, are wrapped up in the events and not paying too close attention to small inconsistencies.

Probably the best aspect that allows rewatchability on April Fool’s Day is the cast. It becomes apparent that the goofiness and joking atmosphere of the characters is not just an act. They are genuinely having a great time on this film. The first act of the film, aside from the “accident” at the dock, is all about the characters getting to know one another and having a good time together. There are several fourth wall breaks as Arch (mainly) talks to the audience, in which he is really talking to Chaz’s video camera. He imitates a speech by another character or goofs around with the girls making him a likeable character. Nikki, Kit and Muffy bond over a cosmo quiz about “first times” and share a lot of laughs about the answers they come up with. It’s like watching a real getaway weekend with a bunch of privileged kids on a private island.

I still categorize April Fool’s Day as a horror film, rather than a mystery primarily due to the conceit of the film. It takes itself seriously as a slasher film from its marketing, to its execution. But in reality in more closely resembles an Agatha Christie murder mystery, which it even name checks in Act One when Nan enters the dining room. Christie’s “And Then There Were None” made into a film as Ten Little Indians (which has been made over and over again in various guises) follows a similar plotline of characters disappearing and being killed. This just happens to be Nine College Students! The film was remade in 2008, following a similar plot line but instead of the happy go-lucky ending, it institutes the original ending, which involves Skip (who is revealed to be a brother rather than cousin) killing Muffy to take the inheritance for his own. Thanks for joining me for this April treat. Please come back tomorrow as we take in a festival for May Day.

April Fool's Day

Rob and Kit investigate the basement, unsure of what they’ll find.

Assorted Musings

  • The cast of the film is almost instantly familiar to children of the 80s. Amy Steel was a final female in Friday the 13th Part II. Ken Olandt had a memorable part in Summer School as well as Leprechaun. Thomas F Wilson is best known as Biff from the Back to the Future films. And Deborah Foreman got her big break in Valley Girl, but also appeared in Real Genius and the genre film Waxwork.
  • Arch has one of the poignant lines in the film, which reminds everyone of the very real fears posed in the 80s “How can anyone be serious about anything, when some moron can nuke us all?”
  • The Cosmopolitan quiz scene was written in after Deborah Goodrich brought a real Cosmo magazine to the set to share with the cast, and director Fred Walton liked the camaraderie he saw, and wrote it into the film.

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