Film Reviews

April Fool’s Day – Fred Walton’s Proto-Scream

This article spoils the ending of April Fool’s Day. You’ve been warned.

Shudder just added the first eight Friday the 13th movies, but I’ve already written about them ad nauseam. There is, however, a spiritual cousin to the Friday the 13th franchise, a less remembered slasher made by some of the same people responsible for Jason’s bloody adventures. The only problem: this particular slasher isn’t a slasher at all.

Hold on. A slasher that’s not really a slasher? How is that even possible?

The people of 1986 wondered the same thing, and they didn’t much like the answer. That’s why Frank Mancuso, Jr.’s April Fool’s Day – a slasher that is secretly a genre parody – turned into a box office misfire, largely punished for a misleading advertising campaign.

Should audiences really have been fooled, though? It’s called April Fool’s Day! With a title like that, centuries of experience surely suggested some kind of trick was in order. To illustrate that point – and also to prove to myself that my history degree isn’t completely useless – let’s hop into the Wayback Machine and journey to the exact moment humanity decided April 1st was the ideal home for any and all pranks.


Party like it’s 1582

For centuries, French people used the spring equinox to mark the beginning of the new year, but starting in 1582 the country abandoned that practice in favor of the Gregorian system of recognizing January 1 as the start of the new year. King Henry III couldn’t exactly push out a mass text-alert about that change, not that his people would have been able to read such a thing considering the country’s low literacy rates at the time. So – surprise, surprise – not everyone got the message to stop treating the last week of March into April 1 as a time of celebration. Those that did get the message, though, had little sympathy for their less informed neighbors.

“Look at those idiots partying like its 1583 already! Those April fools! Let’s play pranks on them. Also, since we are French, we must now for some reason say ‘croissant’, which is weird since that hasn’t even been invented yet,” I imagine it going, followed no doubt by haughty, cartoonish French laughter.

And that, kids, is how we got April Fools’ Day.

Probably.

Maybe.

Kinda.

Look, historians don’t actually know for sure. It’s possible April Fools’ Day goes even further back, possibly to ancient Rome, just as it’s possible that the French calendar theory is a bunch of bunk. Either way, April Fools’ Day has been with us for a long time, evolving from 18th century British pranksters pinning false tails on unsuspecting people to a 1957 BBC news broadcast fooling the world with a story about Swiss farmers growing spaghetti on trees.

(Sidebar: How great would a spaghetti tree be right now for our COVID-19-inspired victory gardens?)

A slasher that gives away its ending in the title

So, in 1986 when Paramount released a horror movie called April Fool’s Day from the director (Fred Walton) responsible for When a Stranger Calls and the producer (Frank Mancuso, Jr.) behind the Friday the 13th franchise the public should have known to expect something different. Centuries of historical experience should have signaled that this movie called April Fool’s Day just might be up to something. It’s right there in the title!

Holiday horror extravaganza

Yes, but by 1986 just about every holiday imaginable had been exploited by a run of cheap horror movies. Thanks to Hollywood’s post-Halloween craze, the better half of the 80s saw bloodbaths ensue on Christmas (To All a Goodnight, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, Bloodbeat), New Years (Terror Train, New Year’s Evil), Valentines Day (My Bloody Valentine, Hospital Massacre), Thanksgiving (Home Sweet Home), Easter (Critters 2: The Main Course), and – of course – Halloween (Trick or Treats, The Midnight Hour). Alsorans include Mother’s Day, Prom Night, and Graduation Day. How Arbor Day went unexploited, I’ll never understand.

That put Walton in the tough position of promoting April Fool’s Day as a different kind of slasher while also acknowledging that its title would suggest otherwise. In a pre-release interview published in Cineafantastique, Walton joked that maybe Hollywood’s holiday spirit had gone too far. “Next thing you know somebody will make a movie about Groundhog Day with a rabid groundhog.”

It’s mildly stunning Walton’s offhand joke about a creature feature Groundhog Day movie wasn’t picked up and turned into reality by a studio like Troma.

We were this close to that groundhog attacking Bill Murray.

Walking the fine line

Walton did his best to promote his movie without alienating horror audiences, scaring away the horror-adjacent, or giving away the big twist, specifically that – spoiler – none of the deaths in the film are real and it’s all an April Fools’ Day prank/dry run for a planned murder mystery weekend. “You can call April Fool’s Day an Agatha Christie whodunnit type suspense film,” he told Fangoria. “Sure, this film has a lot of elements found in the slasher genre, but it also has a lot more going for it, including humor and character development,” was his defensive statement in Cineafantastique.

More recently, now that April Fool’s Day has passed its 30-year anniversary, Walton has been a little more forthcoming, telling DailyDead in 2016: “April Fool’s Day was conceived as a parody of the genre from the very beginning. Hence, April Fool’s Day instead of some other holiday. I only tried to make what I thought would be a scary movie; it just didn’t happen to involve any gore or any onscreen violence.”

A proto-Scream?

It’s not, however, a parody in the same way that Saturday the 14th and Scary Movie are parodies. There’s no Creature from the Black Lagoon in a bathtub or cum volcano scene in this movie. Instead, April Fool’s Day is more like a half-step to Scream: it recognizes all of the tropes and ultimately upends them but never actively comments on what it’s doing in a meta “it’s just like the movies” Kevin Williamson kind of way. James Roday – who co-wrote, directed, and starred in the Psych slasher homage episode (“Tuesday the 17th”) that basically remakes April Fool’s Dayonce argued, “April Fool’s Day is a true gem. There would be no Scream series without it.”

“This isn’t Friday the 13th – it’s April Fool’s Day!”

I don’t know if that’s actually true, but you can at least consider April Fool’s Day a proto-Scream. Like that Wes Craven classic, April Fool’s Day finds its path to parody is to mostly play the horror straight. So, the script from Danilo Bach – then a very recent Oscar nominee for his story contributions to the first Beverly Hills Cop – certainly reads like a slasher. Over spring break, eight college seniors – among them Griffin O’Neal (The Escape Artist) and Tom Wilson (Back to the Future) – descend upon a desolate Maine island to visit their friend Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman) at her family mansion. Before too long, they start dropping like flies, with one ingenious kill sequence after another hung together by a “guess which one is the killer” throughline.

Though tamer than its contemporaries, April Fool’s Day certainly looks and feels like a slasher. That’s probably because Mancuso Jr. – who used April Fool’s Day as the launch project for his new production company – carried over a couple of Friday the 13th veterans to the crew, including FX wiz Martin Becker (Alien, Friday the 13th: Part 3) and editor Bruce Green (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning). Amy Steel, meanwhile, capably plays the film’s presumptive final girl just as she had done half a decade earlier in Friday the 13th: Part 2.

For those who longed to see Ginny return in the Friday the 13th series, there’s always April Fool’s Day.

From When a Stranger Calls to this

The director, Fred Walton, had been in the game just as long as any of them. A year after John Carpenter and Debra Hill introduced Michael Myers to the world, Walton’s When a Stranger Calls similarly saw fit to let an escaped mental patient loose on a poor babysitter. “Halloween just finished a week before we started shooting. Our movie came out a year later because they rushed Halloween through post-production,” Walton told Fangoria about how his debut feature ended up so close to Carpenter’s horror classic. “When we came out, horror was in. If anything, though, Halloween helped us.”

A half-decade of bad meetings, one unreleased labor of love (Hadley’s Rebellion), and plenty of failed projects, however, left Walton dirt poor and desperate for work. April Fool’s Day came to him as an opportunity to work again and do something a little different. Although he owed his career to horror, he didn’t much care for gore and hadn’t seen most of the slashers of the 80s. His inspiration was to go even further back.

So, although released in 1986, Walton’s April Fool’s Day plays like a throwback to the slasher’s relatively blood-less beginnings, a grave disappointment to gorehounds of the era but a fortuitous decision in the long run. Thanks to its lack of on-screen violence, April Fool’s Day turned into a popular late-night cable pick for decades, helping propel it into cult fame.

Let’s talk about the box cover

That’s not where I first encountered the film, though. Like many of my generation, my relationship with horror movies began – and oftentimes ended – in the aisles of the local video store. When I could, I would break away from my mom just long enough to gaze at the scary VHS covers for movies I wasn’t allowed to watch yet. I was particularly drawn to the April Fool’s Day cover, wanting to know if the girl in the foreground was going to stab her guests with that knife behind her back, poison them with spiked champagne or both and why on Earth her ponytail appeared to turn into a noose:

As intriguing as I found that cover to be, it was decades before I saw the actual film, largely because April Fool’s Day seemed to take on a rather poisonous reputation in the horror community. It was up there with Halloween III and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning as a slasher to avoid. Halloween III at least tried something new, a completely new story unrelated to Michael Myers. A New Beginning and April Fool’s Day each committed a far more cardinal sin: playing a surprise trick on the audience, pulling the rug out from under them at the very end in a way that suggests nothing they just watched really mattered.

The alternate ending

There was a version of April Fool’s Day that would have maybe been marginally more satisfying to audiences of the time. In the original ending, both scripted and filmed, after everyone learns Muffy used them as guinea pigs for her planned murder mystery weekend they don’t just laugh it off and head off on their merry way. No, they plot their revenge, sneaking back into her house where they stage an elaborate prank that ends with her cousin taking a fake knife to her throat.

“The whole thing took about 20 additional minutes of screentime, so when the Paramount execs saw the director’s cut, they decided to drop the third act,” Walton told DailyDead. “It’s not that they didn’t like it so much as they felt the party scene hit such a high note that it was the natural place to end the picture.”

The film’s final jump scare – pushed in reshoots by Mancuso after Paramount forced them to cut their original third act – involves Muffy and a jack-in-the-box and ends with a gag, her would-be killer looking directly into the camera and laughing about her fake knife.

To the bitter end, April Fool’s Day commits to its “all in good fun” ethos. Like a Doctor Who episode in which no one does, April Fool’s Day is the rarest of the rare – a slasher with a 0 body count. It’s admirable, if somewhat frustrating.

A modern viewing

When viewed today, April Fool’s Day’s “it’s all a gag” trick ending has itself passed into cliche, the type of thing that would now happen halfway through a movie or TV episode before the plot thickens and people start dropping for real. (The little-seen 2008 direct-to-video remake took that to heart.) That’s just the nature of our ever-evolving cinema IQ and the need for storytellers to find new ways to surprise. Heck, April Fool’s Day’s basic trick has gone mainstream now, repurposed to far, far more sinister effect in something like David Fincher’s The Game.

But when looked at as a historical curio, the end result of what happened when a Friday the 13th producer decided to take the piss out of the genre he felt shackled to, April Fool’s Day stands out as an underseen gem, deserving of its cult classic status. The gotcha ending is really only so frustrating because the film that comes before it is so good, populated with likable characters you hate to see go and driving toward a presumed standoff between final girl and killer. You feel cheated when you don’t get it, but like most April Fools’ Day pranks you probably should have seen it coming.

As a final postscript

It’s not exactly like the audiences of 1986 didn’t have another option for April Fools’ Day horror. Months after Fred Walton and Frank Mancuso’s movie had come and gone, Vestron Pictures released Slaughter High, a slasher about a group of high school bullies who get their comeuppance at a 10-year reunion. Back in the day, they used April Fools’ Day as an excuse to play a prank on poor Marty Rantzen, but it went way too far, ending with him partially disfigured. Now he’s tricked them into returning to the scene of the crime so that he might kill them off one by one, covering his face with a jester mask.

Shot in various parts of the UK in 1984, want to guess what the original title was? That’s right, April Fool’s Day. Paramount beat them to the punch and Vestron switched the title to Slaughter High, but for those annoyed with Fred Walton’s gotcha ending Slaughter High stands as a capable substitute. No spoilers, but someone gets their face torn off and, no, it’s not a prank.

So, basically, you’ve got options, is what I’m saying. April Fool’s Day is a pretty good one, ultimately harmless 80s fluff.

4 comments

  1. I watched this film years after it came out. I did not know about the twist but me and my mates all got the joke and laughed. I don’t see the problem. It is still a good horror and nice to see Biff Tannen doing something different to his back to the future persona. I think there was a sequel too but not sure how you top the original.

  2. Proto-Scream: you nailed it. Walton is very underated. When a Stranger Calls, The Rosary Murders, his cable movie Dead Air. All great stuff.

    1. Re: Walton. I’m particularly partial to When a Stranger Calls Back Again. The Shock Waves podcast crew talked it up last year. I’d never heard of it before, but Walton directed it for Showtime in ’93 with Carol Kane returning. The opening sequence involving a new babysitter being tormented on the phone is Walton’s masterclass in tension. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that, but the overall experience is in that “more people should talk about how good this sequel is” territory. The Rosary Murders and Dead Air, however, I must admit I’ve never seen. I mostly knew Walton through his first short, When a Stranger Calls, its sequel, and April Fool’s Day. I should track those other ones down.

      1. Dead Air, while it may be predictable, and not a “theatrical level film,” it’s an old fashion noir throwback and works fine on cable, as it was intended. Calls Back is a good sequel, better than most sequels, but not quite up to the original, as you said. It’s been a while since The Rosary Murders. I did see that in the theatres (and once on TV) and was very satisfied with it. Donald Sutherland just about makes anything “work” on screen.

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