Filmmaker Danishka Esterhazy Talks SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE Ahead Of Australian Premiere
Ahead of this week’s Australian Premiere of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE at Monster Fest 2021, Monster’s Jarret Gahan caught up with director Danishka Esterhazy (THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE) to discuss her clever and bloodthirsty reimagining of Amy Holden Jones’ 1982 slasher classic.
You’re not only the director on SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, you’re also an Executive Producer on it. How early on did you become involved with the production?
Oh, quite early. It was 2019. I was in Los Angeles for some meetings and I met up with Josh Van Houdt, who was the executive at SYFY at the time for movies. And I’d recently worked with him on a film called THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE and I’d also shot some of this series for him called VAGRANT QUEEN. So he knew that I liked horror and he knew that I liked female-driven stories. And he’d been thinking about remaking SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE for a while and bringing on a fresh team. Of course, the original franchise is all women writers and directors, and he wanted to put together a female writer and director for a new version.
And he had been thinking of people to attach to the project. He already found Suzanne Keilly, who’s a wonderful screenwriter. She had done two movies for him, KILLER HIGH and LEPRECHAUN RETURNS, and I really loved her writing on those two films. So I think I had told him previously that I’d really like to work with Suzanne and if you ever have a project where you can put me together with Suzanne, I think that’d be super fun. And so I bumped into him just as he was kind of putting this package together to go to Shout Factory, to, to pitch the remake to them. They own all the intellectual rights for the Roger Corman films. And he said, oh, Danishka, I’ve got a project that might be a great fit for you. And he said, what do you think of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE? And I said, well, wow, everybody knows SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, it’s iconic. The only 80 slasher series created by women. I’m like, oh, it’s like super cool. And he said, how would you like to make remake? I think I jumped all over him at that point. It was like, absolutely, I absolutely wanted to do it.
You know, we really just had a vision for it taking the original movie and honoring the things we loved about it, but, but turning it upside down and taking feminism a little farther, updating it. So I got together with Suzanne and we brainstormed a kind of pitch for us as a team. And then Josh, Suzanne and I went to Shout Factory and we tried to razzle dazzle them, you know, please let us remake SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE. Here’s how we want to do it. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to be feisty and it’s, it’s going to be, you know, really political, but also really entertaining. They loved the idea and they signed on. So then Suzanne started writing the script and Josh & I were really involved in helping her shape the characters and also the approach to the script. We were all ready to go pretty quickly, except then the pandemic kicked in, and really slowed the pace.
Understandably. With your take on SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE, it subverts many of the tropes of the original, with the key being making the protagonists antagonists. Can you take us through a little about switching up the source material?
I had heard so much about SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE prior to seeing it. And I think I had really big expectations cause I was like, oh wow, in the eighties, there weren’t a lot of women directors, it was so hard for women to get into filmmaking and if you got hired, you know, the obstacles were huge and here’s a franchise where all the writers and directors were women. I remember thinking it’s going to be incredible. It’s going to be so different. It’s going to just blow me away. And I watched it and while it delivered fresh and multi-dimensional characters. And Amy Holden Jones is a great director. There’s these beautiful horror sequences with amazing pacing and cutting. She came from an editing background and you can really tell, there’s some really great classic slasher elements in those movies, but then, you know, there’s the endless exploitation of naked young women. Which came with the territory at the time. And I also read and watched a lot of interviews with Amy Holden Jones to try and understand like, you know, how that all came together.
And, you know, she’s very honest and pragmatic about her experience. She was fighting to get her first director job as a feature director moving from editing and she couldn’t get hired. And this job came along but with it came a price tag and the price tag was you have to deliver a certain amount of female nudity. That’s the kind of movie it is. That’s how we’re marketing it. And she said, fine. You know, she understood that was how she was going to break-in. And she did it. And she knows, she jokes that she did it in a really straightforward way. Camera pans up, you want boobs, here they are. And so it’s actually kind of funny the way she delivered it, you know, there’s no subtlety and there was no soft lighting. It’s not like, centralising the seed. It’s just there.
Then she said it really was unfair because after she made that movie, she was really criticized for it. And people were like “oh, you’re a woman director you’re supposed to do better than that. How dare you, you know, exploit young actresses”. And she’s like, all the other directors who were working at the time, all the men made similar films to break in, no one criticizes them. They just hired again and again, promoted even, to make more and more films. And no one ever holds their early films against them, but she had faced a lot of backlash and criticism for choosing to make that film. And, uh, you know, so I thought about that a lot. I said, well, this is going to be a really interesting remake because, you know, she’s made that movie in the early eighties. She doesn’t have a lot of creative freedom. She doesn’t have the final cut, you know, she, she really just has to deliver what the studio wants and, you know, but now it’s, you know, the 2020s and I have a lot more creative freedom than she had when she started out. So I can make the film I want. And Suzanne and I can make, you know, a really kind of feminist-kick film, and really mock all the tropes and the rules that, that, you know, Amy Holden Jones and, and the women who made the original series had to deal with, because, I mean, you can get really mad about those tropes, or you can just laugh at them. I mean, I think both are effective and, you know, we have the freedom to not, you know, be a hedged in by them anymore. So I took a lot of the stuff that was really iconic from the original film scene at the shower scene. The original film is something people talk about a lot is that long zoom down shot. And I was like, okay, I’m going to do that shot, but I’m just going to do it with his dude.
We’ll see what people think. I think it’s going to be really funny. I think it’s going to be a really interesting way for people to rethink that original movie with a different point of view. I think it’s, not too preachy. I’m not like on a soapbox saying like, how dare you exploit your women in the 1982 movie? But it was like still, I get a chance to remember like the kind of the rules of horror from that period and how exclusionary, I think they were two female fans who, who wanted to be part of the work community and who never, you didn’t really see themselves on screen except as, you know, naked damsels in distress. So our characters are the opposite of that and hopefully people find that fun and hopefully it contributes to our understanding of for history.
Suzanne and your take is very clever and very funny, it doesn’t feel exploitative at all, just tongue-in-cheek with a fresh perspective. The pillow fight sequence for instance is hilarious. I think that’s something that you did really well with the film, there’s this perfect blend of humour within it. Was it difficult to strike that balance between humour with the horror in the film?
It is, it’s a really tricky balance, there’s kind of this narrow zone where works a Goldilocks zone reefs. You’ve still got real scares, but you’ve got a lot of laughs and people can switch back and forth between those two feelings then and go for a fun kind of roller coaster ride. I tend to end up in that zone quite a lot because THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE had a similar tone. I did a series last year called SURREALESTATE, which also may have those kinds of shifts. I’m working on a new series now called ASTRID & LILLY SAVE THE WORLD, which also has that kind of shift between those zones. So it’s a place that I really liked to play because I like to scare the audience. I like to be scared at a film. Though I also really love that relief, the comic relief between the scares, I think it makes horror movies more interesting adventures in terms of story, to be able to, to go in and out of the scares rather than just to stay in dread for a full two hours.
Definitely. I love that aspect, it gives you an opportunity to catch your breathe while giving you a false sense of security to set you up for the next scare.
It’s definitely that kind of movie, which is why I’m so glad it’s playing at Monster Fest. It’s the kind of movie that’s great to watch with an audience and when the movie premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, I flew down for it. I was shooting this TV series in Newfoundland Canada, which is in the middle of nowhere. I had to like take three planes in 24 hours to get down to Texas for the premiere and it was totally intense but it was my first time watching it with an audience on the big screen. I was so nervous cause I thought, oh, this is the test. Like now I really know if people are laughing at the right spots. If, if the scares are getting them, you know, if the, if the kills are, are interesting, you know, horror fans can be tough.
You know, you want to deliver kill sequences that they haven’t seen a million times before and you want to contribute to the history of horror kills. So I went down to Texas to watch it and the lights went down and it was great. The audience responded so passionately, they laughed a lot. They screamed, there was some, you know, spontaneous applause and a couple of the kill sequences, which was so gratifying. It was super gratifying. And I thought this is the most fun film to see with a live audience.
That’s excellent. We have a similar audience to Fantastic Fest, folks who are as analytical as they are enthusiastic and I think they’re really going to appreciate this film, they’re in for a lot of fun. I believe the Fantastic Fest audience were treated to the uncut version of the film, the very same one we’ll be screening at Monster Fest. What was trimmed for its SYFY broadcast in the US?
Yeah, we had a prime time screening on SYFY, so they trimmed some nudity and language, with blurring and alternate dubbing. They didn’t take out any of the violence surprisingly. It is what it is, you know, we knew going in but we did want a primetime broadcast. We wanted the film to reach as many people as possible. So I was prepared for that, but I am glad people are seeing it in Australia, in its uncut form.
In my opinion your SLUMBER PARTY MASSSACRE feels less like a remake or reimagining, it actually feels like it plays into the legacy of the original trilogy and can comfortably sit among the franchise. While offering fresh perspective, it doesn’t attempt to retcon the entire universe the previous filmmakers created. There’s plenty of subtle references and callbacks to the franchise throughout, be it through the cinematography, iconic kills and even props. Was that something you did to appease fans or was it something you (& Suzanne) personally wanted to include?
That’s a great question. You know, as a fan myself, I wanted to honour the original filmmakers and applaud the iconic elements from the original films. What I love about doing a remake though I guess it’s my first remake really, where THE BANANA SPLITS MOVIE, was not really a remake, but taking a known property and re-imagining it. But with this, I was like, okay, remake, you know what, we’re more a sequel or whatever you want to call it. I wanted to really embrace the world of the original series and I wanted to have lots of easter eggs throughout that the fans that would feel satisfying. I know the film was really well and I know a lot of other people do.
And, and there’s nothing I think more satisfying when you see a director share that shared vocabulary with you, whether it’s the costumes or the Goose lamb or the guitar, or, you know, I, I did some shot for shot remake moments. So in a couple of sequences with the framing or the pacing is, it’s an absolute tribute to Amy Holden Jones. I loved the way she composed people in the frame. She does a really great job of that and I wanted to call back to that a little bit and celebrate it. I don’t think people need to know the series to enjoy this film, but I think people who are fans, there’s a whole other layer of conversation happening and hopefully that’s really fun for them.
Absolutely. Did you encourage your cast to watch any of the original films or did you make them go in blind, with just the script and your direction to guide them?
Well, I gave them all the original films I gave them a lot of like critical essays about the original films. I gave them clips of famous pillow fights and shower scenes from a period, just to have them really understand what I was playing with because I’m a really big believer in empowering your actors and giving them all the information and seeing them as a creative partner in the process. I really wanted them to understand what I was trying to do so that nobody felt surprised or confused and that they could be in on the joke and have some fun. So they came really well-prepared, they had all like done a ton of research and were really excited about the idea of turning the story on its head and they had a lot of fun. It genuinely felt like a group effort, you know, making this film together with the actors. And even though it was a tough shoot, you know, we shot in only 18 days. Which was tight with all the prosthetics and practical effects. It was challenge in and you know, it was all night shoots too. And we were all out in this lake house, out in the middle of the forest.
Whereabouts was it shot, was it Canada?
It was shot in Stellenbosch, which is the wine region outside of Cape Town.
Wow, South Africa. That’s incredible. I would never have picked that.
I’m glad that it’s a surprise. My cast was 100% South African too. All local actors.
My mind is blown. Great performances but also convincing American accents.
Yeah, none of their natural accents either. It’s hard enough to be an actor, but then being an actor when you’re not speaking in your normal voice.
Well they did an incredible job. Not only character wise but in their physical performances. There are several sequences where Russ Thorn gets pretty darn close with that drill. Given your remarkably tight shooting schedule and the fact that everything looks to be practical, how did you go about choreographing these scenes?
We tried to all really practical and really gritty. You know, the original movies are pretty low budget and we were pretty low budget. I really wanted them to kind of sense of stripped down slasher. It shouldn’t feel too glossy or too Hollywood. It should really fit into that same world. It’s a low budget horror. I had an amazing stunt coordinator, Anna Lee from Cape town and she is wonderful at fight choreography and stunt doubling. We had great rehearsals and she put together a lot of those fantastic fight sequences. Then my props department of the course worked incredibly hard to provide all those weapons. The drill was particularly challenging because we actually did multiple versions of the drill. We needed a dummy drill that doesn’t work, that you can do things like drop in the water or throw on the ground.
Then we needed several practical drills, so we can drill through doors, but then others that had foam heads. So if it’s near an actor, there’s no danger. Then there were much more rigid ones for running through the woods. And then we had to have a safety element built into the drill, so if it started to drill into anything, it would shut down. So you wouldn’t accidentally end up injuring someone like if you dropped it on your leg or anything. It was all quite complex, the props department worked super hard to make all the weapons and to build all the elements we needed. You know, we, we tried to stay practical as much as possible, like when the drill hits the guitar, that’s a practical spark. So while time consuming, I think it plays beautifully on-screen.
Absolutely, and those practical elements will still look amazing in the years to come. Do you think if there were to be another SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE film, you would come back to work on it, even if only in a producer capacity?
I’d love to do, I’d love to be involved, but I’d also love to see another woman get a chance to do another film in this franchise. I love the idea of a string of women filmmakers coming together to bring their own vision and their own stories. I know Suzanne, our screenwriter would love to do another one and she’d actually love to do a musical of it too. When we realized within the broadcast route, we’re saying, you know, you could, you could redo too. You could do it as a full musical. And she was like, I am in, she would do that immediately. If anybody wants to do it, she’s game.
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE has its Australian Premiere this Friday 3rd of December at Monster Fest 2021 at Cinema Nova and limited tickets remain.