On the weekend leading up to April Fools’ Day, a group of college friends, consisting of Harvey, Nikki, Rob, Skip, Nan, Chaz, Kit and Arch, gather to celebrate spring break by spending the weekend at the island mansion of Skip’s cousin, Vassar student Muffy St. John. As Muffy prepares details around the house, she finds an old jack-in-the-box and recalls receiving the toy at a childhood birthday party. Her friends, meanwhile, joke around on the pier while awaiting the ferry. En route to the island, as their antics become more boisterous, local deckhand Buck is seriously injured in a gruesome accident. Once on the island, it turns out that Muffy has set up a variety of pranks throughout the mansion, ranging from simple gags such as a whoopee cushion and dribble glasses and exploding cigars to more complex and disturbing pranks, such as an audiotape of a baby crying in someone’s room and heroin paraphernalia in a guest’s wardrobe. In spite of this, the group try to relax, until Skip goes missing, and Kit catches a glimpse of what looks like his dead body. Soon, Arch and Nan also go missing. During a search for the pair, Nikki falls into the island’s well, where she finds the severed heads of Skip and Arch, along with the dead body of Nan. The remaining group members then discover that the phone lines are dead and there is no way to get off the island until Monday.
One after another, members of the group either vanish or get killed before their bodies are found. After putting some clues together, Kit and Rob realize that everyone’s earlier assumption is wrong; the kinsman of the deckhand injured when they arrived is a red herring. It also turns out that Muffy has a violently insane twin sister named Buffy, who has escaped. In fact, the “Muffy” they have been around since the first night was Buffy, pretending to be Muffy. They discover Muffy’s severed head in the basement. Buffy chases them with a curved butcher’s knife, and the couple gets separated. Kit flees from Buffy by escaping into the living room where she finds everyone else there, alive and calmly waiting for her. It was all a joke, or more accurately, a dress rehearsal. It is revealed to the audience that the whole film was never a slasher film from the start, but rather pretending to be one. Muffy hopes to turn the mansion into a resort offering a weekend of staged horror. She even had a friend who does special effects and make-up in Hollywood help. Each “victim” agreed to take part as things were explained to them.
Everyone has a huge laugh and they break out lots of bottles of champagne. Later that night, a half-drunk Muffy goes to her room and finds a wrapped present on her bed. She unwraps it, and the present is the jack-in-the-box. Savoring the surprise, she turns the handle slowly and when “Jack” finally pops out, Nan, who knew Muffy from acting class, emerges from behind her and slits her throat with a razor. Muffy screams, but then realizes she is not really bleeding and that Nan used a trick razor and stage blood. The film ends with the jack-in-the-box winking at the audience.
Creating a slasher movie in 1986 wasn’t a monumental feat, as the horror genre had seen its fair share of cinematic killers over the years, but it was a culmination of many elements that made April Fool’s Day one of the best of its era.
Walton and company filmed April Fool’s Day on Canada’s Vancouver Island between August and September ’85. He originally signed onto the $5 million project after a constructive meeting with producer Frank Mancuso. “I got good feelings from meeting Frank,” he recalls. “I’ve met other producers who I wouldn’t even want to lunch with. He was better working with than I could ever have hoped for. For some reason, I never expected him to hire me. I’m not the typical director he uses.
Mancuso first interviewed Walton during Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) production and his interest stemmed from the success of When a Stranger Calls, which Walton shot on a $1 million budget and which grossed $11 million in rentals, Walton and writer Steve Feke adapted the suspense thriller from Walton’s own short subject, The Sitter.
Written by Danilo Bach and directed by Fred Walton, April Fool’s Day brought together a talented crew of young actors, including Deborah Foreman, Amy Steel, Tom Wilson, Deborah Goodrich, Ken Olandt, Clayton Rohner, Leah Pinsent, Jay Baker, and Griffin O’Neal, who all gathered on Victoria Island in British Columbia to create a mystery-fueled horror comedy that’s hugely underrated.
April Fool’s Day impressed me by the manner in which the film was shot, capturing both the warmth of the interiors (immersing us in Muffy’s beautiful home) and the natural daylight that featured prominently throughout the outdoor scenes and gave those moments a spring-like vibrancy. While Walton may not have initially realized the true artistic impact of cinematographer Charles Minksy during production, he was grateful for the opportunity to work with such a skilled lensman.
“Even though technically Chuck’s responsibility was only the cinematography, he was a behind-the-scenes collaborator on all aspects of the production. He understood what we were trying to get. He got the big picture, as it were, and his input was always valuable. The actors loved and trusted him because he cared as much about their performances as I did, and he did whatever he could to facilitate their work.”
“For example, the party scene that the characters had once Muffy’s plan was carried out and revealed to them; I can’t recall if it was Chuck’s idea or mine to shoot the scene handheld, to really wade into the middle of the action. With the champagne (or Ginger Ale) flowing (spraying) all over the place, plastic tarps were laid down to cover the floor and much of the furniture, but there was no way to protect the camera.”
“Over the objections of his first assistant, whose primary responsibility—after making sure everything was in focus—was maintaining the equipment, Chuck went ahead with it and he may also have done some operating in that scene. If the cameras got wet, became unusable and had to be sent back to Panavision, then that’s what would be done, but we were going to shoot the scene the right way.”
Walton wanted a character bitten repeatedly by a snake in the same film frame a movie first, he says. Usually, plexiglass separates actor and serpent, or the snake wrangler wires the creature’s mouth shut, poisonous or not. Walton’s snake wrangler refused to participate in the ‘not life threatening scene.”
“The snake guy tried to convince me to use a rainbow boa, but they wouldn’t strike at a mouse,” laughs Walton. “Finally, everyone agreed to let this aggressive, non-venomous viper do its job. It took three hours! I lost any fear of snakes after that. And, nobody got bitten except the snake wrangle.”
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
Looking back at the horror comedy, Fred Walton discussed how his involvement in April Fool’s Day came about, saying, “I no longer remember if Frank [Mancuso, Jr., the producer] approached my agent with an interest in having me direct the project, or if my agent called him to suggest me as a candidate for the job. Many years had gone by since the release of [When a] Stranger [Calls], and the only other thing I had directed—which I had also partially financed—had barely seen the light of day. I was pretty broke. No, I was very broke. But I had just written and directed a segment for a TV movie in which old episodes from Alfred Hitchcock Presents were remade. It had gotten good ratings and good reviews, so that somewhat brought me back to people’s attention.”
“I still desperately needed money and my agent sent over the script for April Fool’s Day. It didn’t exactly leap off the page for me, but I saw the opportunity to do something with some comedy, so I took a meeting with Frank. It was hardly a lovefest, but there wasn’t anyone else around that he was crazy about, there was a script development person in his office who pushed for me, and I was an easy sell to the studio [Paramount]. I struck them as weird, and the feeling was certainly mutual.”
“I have to admit I’ve always been terrible at meetings,” added Walton. “Terrible. Couldn’t sell myself to save my life. I just don’t have that gene. But I did get the job for April Fool’s Day based on my slender body of work, and Frank and I collaborated well together. By the time the movie was completely finished, we had grown to genuinely respect, trust, and like each other.”
As Walton mentioned, April Fool’s Day was backed by Frank Mancuso Jr., who had also produced Friday the 13th Part II, III, The Final Chapter, and A New Beginning up to that point. Walton discussed how most of the script’s ingenuity was already there once he came on board and how both he and Mancuso Jr. were hoping April Fool’s Day would become a turning point in their respective careers.
“Frank was tired of making sequels to Friday the 13th, with which he had been successful and made a lot of money,” Walton explained. “But he wanted to broaden his profile as a producer, as did I as a director. So a lot of time was spent in pre-production meetings with Marty Becker, the very talented special effects coordinator, not trying to figure out how to make the picture scary, but coming up with ways to make it funny. Dribble glasses and whoopee cushions can only take you so far. I did some work on the script, directly and indirectly, but the characters and everything was all Don Bach and the actors, too.”
“April Fool’s Day was conceived as a parody of the genre from the very beginning,” said Walton. “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. I have always believed that the anticipation of violence, the threat of violence, is usually much more frightening than the act of violence itself. You can rarely beat the audience’s imagination.”
“It is very tough avoiding what has been done before,” Walton observes. “Sometimes, when you are confronted with a situation like that, you either decide to go with the cliché or do it better than it has ever been done before. I certainly never considered myself a fan of the genre, even before When a Stranger Calls, so during April Fool’s Day. I might come up with an idea on how to do something, something seemingly wonderful and original, and people would tell me it was done in some film I hadn’t seen.”
“Certain roles were harder to cast than others, but if one of us wasn’t completely sold on an actor, we just kept looking,” explained Walton. “I did not have final say, but Frank, being a smart producer, did not exercise his right to final say on his behalf, either. You learn to compromise, to work together and fortunately, the studio didn’t get involved in any of this. But we had no out-and-out disagreements about anyone, Frank and I.”
“The only part cast without my approval was that of Harvey ‘Hal’ Edison, Jr. We had been unable to fill that role by the time I absolutely had to go up to British Columbia, so Frank stayed in Los Angeles for a few more days and found Jay Baker. Jay flies up without having even met the director and, I think, a couple of days after the rest of the cast had already arrived and started bonding. You can imagine the anxiety he was feeling, but it all worked out.”
“Another interesting note: we met Deborah Foreman early on, without reading her. We liked her and respected her enormously for her work in Valley Girl, but just didn’t feel she was right for the role of Muffy/Buffy. Offers were made to a couple of different actresses who turned us down for whatever reason. Finally, Deborah’s manager said, ‘Just let her come in and read for it. She really wants this.’ So she came in again and blew us away. She had really worked on the character and showed us a side of herself as an actress we didn’t know existed, and possibly she didn’t either,” Walton added. Amy Steele was cast in the role of Kit at the suggestion of producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., after Steele had appeared in Mancuso’s Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Something else Walton attributed to the great cast performances was the fact that everyone was able to really bond while spending time together exclusively on Vancouver Island while shooting April Fool’s Day for several months. “Ultimately, it was in the larger ensemble scenes that the silliness and the light-hearted spirit of the story would come through. The actors understood this as well, and they worked together, playing off each other beautifully. We were on location in British Columbia, so they were staying in the same motel, hanging out together, developing a rapport with each other while at the same time honing their characters.”
“Anyway, we came back after lunch, and the kids really brought it. We shot a reverse master and coverage on everyone else. It was like the difference between night and day and we all left the location happy that evening. A special nod needs to be given to our editor Bruce Green. It’s very difficult to shoot a scene with nine leads, but it also requires a lot of skill to put it together in the cutting room and capture the spirit of what was really going on.”
Walton discussed how another scene featuring the ladies of April Fool’s Day chatting over a magazine quiz came about rather organically during some downtime on set.
“One afternoon, the actresses were sitting around in the living room while lighting was going on, and Deborah Goodrich started reading to the others a questionnaire from an issue of Cosmopolitan she had with her—typical Goodrich. They all started chiming in with their answers, talking about the questions, all that good stuff.”
“A few days later we’re shooting the scene in the kitchen where they’re preparing dinner and I gave Goodrich a magazine [as a prop] and a slightly different set of questions to read to the group. We started shooting, and the actresses got the questions, but had to improvise their answers and the interplay that ensued. I really encouraged improv throughout the film,” Walton added.
According to Deborah Foreman, “When you’re very passionate about your art, you have a way of rolling with your creativity. But when you add your creativity in with other people who are also extremely passionate and also have a vision, you have to be willing to compromise and learn from them. I found this out right away when I came on the set. At the time, when I wore sweaters, I would wear them a little bit bigger and they would cover my hips. So I came on set and my sweater was loose and Fred came over to me and he started pushing it up to my waist, trying to make it stay. When he realized it wasn’t going to stay, he said, “Go back to wardrobe and get the other one and don’t stretch it out.” I didn’t say anything, I just went back to wardrobe, got the sweater on, and we shot the scene. I realized at that moment that Fred was going to be very specific, and I hadn’t worked with a director that specific before.”
“The challenge of playing two characters was extremely exciting to me,” discussed Foreman. “The first time I went in to read, though, I was dressed in 1940s garb because I had just come from another audition, a baseball movie, and I didn’t have time to change. I felt like I still looked fine. Fred met me and his response after I left was that I looked like his grandmother in a photograph he had in his home. So that definitely wasn’t the way they wanted to go, but my gut was telling me that this was something I really, really wanted to do.”
“So then I got the script and I kept asking my agent where they were at with casting and had they hired somebody yet for the role of Muffy? Thankfully, they hadn’t yet and my agent got me in the door again. This time, I went in and auditioned wearing preppy clothes, the sweater around the neck and everything. I went in and auditioned that second time, and before I had even gotten home, they had called and offered the part to me. I just knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by, so I went for it because I really felt like I wanted to do it and I was so glad it all worked out.”
“So, before every single scene I would go to him and I would say, ‘Do you want me to hold the candle this way or this way, do you want me to hold the basket this way?’ And I would give him two or three options. It would just be props, or something to do with my wardrobe, but whatever it was, I wanted him to tell me what to do. Did I really need that? No, because I’m very confident as an artist. But Fred was extremely specific and I respected his vision, so before every single scene I went up to him and asked him about stuff, or I would tell him I was going to do something so he wouldn’t get shocked.”
“That was huge for me as an actress because I hadn’t really experienced that before,” Foreman continued. “At the wrap party, I was upstairs sitting by myself by the fireplace and Fred sat next to me, and we sat there together the whole night just shooting the shit. That was the moment when I realized as an artist that it pays to have compromise. You’re not selling yourself out, you’re being inclusive and it’s a beautiful thing when it comes to the collaboration of creative minds. I’ve been able to use that in all jobs I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot since acting. Fred taught me a lot.”
Wilson, who had recently wrapped up on Back to the Future, saw April Fool’s Day as his opportunity to continue working with some of the finest minds in Hollywood. He also had to make a decision between April Fool’s Day and another project that couldn’t have been further away from the horror comedy. “I auditioned once for it, which was right at the time I had just finished Back to the Future. And what’s funny is that, now that I’m remembering everything, I also had a meeting with David Lynch around this time, and he wanted me to be in Blue Velvet. It was for no money whatsoever and April Fool’s Day was for decent money. I was getting married at the time and I had no money, and I didn’t make any real money on Back to the Future, so I chose April Fool’s Day. Not that it was a bad decision; I liked Fred Walton a lot, and Frank Mancuso Jr., the producer. But yeah, now that I think of it, I ended up doing April Fool’s Day instead of Blue Velvet, which is kind of a trip when you think about it.”
Wilson also got a bit more than he bargained for when it came time to shoot the scene when his character, Arch, gets trapped upside down and a nearby snake strikes at his dangling body. “So here’s the thing: I show up for the scene thinking there’s going to be a stunt person and that everything is going to be highly controlled. And when I get there, they tell me, ‘Here’s our plan. The scene is you’re hanging upside down and a snake comes out and is trying to bite you. The way we thought we’d do it is to hang you upside down from this tree and have a snake actually try and come bite you.’ That was it—they were going to leave me in the hands of the snake wrangler who assured me about the whole scenario by saying, ‘Well, he probably won’t bite you. He’ll be angry and everything, but you just wave your arms and he’ll bite at you, and then you can dodge him.’ So, of course, I immediately asked what Plan B entailed.”
“They get the stuntman and he does the sweep where he’s hanging upside down from the tree and he does the whole thing of waving his arms as the snake is trying to bite him. Then the stuntman comes down and they string me upside down and put a pane of glass between me and the snake, and that’s how we got that shot to work.”
“The best part about all of this is that the snake wrangler at one point has the snake in a burlap sack and is trying to convince me that the snake is tame. And as he’s saying the snake is tame, he’s opening the burlap sack, and the snake literally comes out and bites him right in the hand and is not letting go of his hand just as he’s saying, ‘Here, let me show you.’ So that was all the convincing I needed that I wasn’t going to be doing anything with that snake.”
“Fred struck me as a relaxed and intelligent person,” Wilson continued, “which is what a director should be, because a lot of stuff is going to happen on the set. There will be a lot of unforeseen challenges, so the person should be calm and intelligent enough to figure out ways to get this movie made. After a couple of days, you really sense the level of confidence that a director has in their own ability, and whether that confidence is borne out of their work, and pretty soon everyone could see that Fred knew precisely what he was doing. He had a great approach to filming this movie, so then you just put yourself into his hands and listened to what he had to say and did your best. I enjoyed working with Fred very much.”
“It meant a lot to my career, making April Fool’s Day,” said Wilson. “It was a very positive, professional experience and I got to meet and work with really terrific people.
“I knew immediately that I wanted to do this film,” expressed Rohner, who played the camera-toting jokester Chaz. “This wasn’t a horror movie where all the kids show up and then one by one they drop dead. There was some kind of relationship established between all the people and that made you care about them. We had a very interesting group of people for our cast. I’ve worked with a lot of different people and I have to say that there is something very bright about that group in particular. We all fit together well, but had our own personalities and that’s reflected in the final product. We were lucky to have this cast and we were very lucky to have a director like Fred, who let us improvise. Not many directors encourage that.”“We were immediately a pack,” reflected Rohner. “We had an amazing time on and off the set. It was a bunch of kids who got to go to a faraway land and be together and we were fortunate that we all got paid well and treated well, too. Because it was produced by Frank Mancuso Jr., it felt like we were always on some adventure because there was always something going on, even while we were filming.”
“When we weren’t working, we would all hang out; one time we rented a boat and took a cruise around the island together, which was a lot of fun. While we were there, I bought a 1955 DeSoto and Griffin bought an old Packard and we all drove back to Los Angeles together as a caravan. But we were always up to something, and one thing I just want to mention about Griffin is that as much discord that he brought, he brought equally as much fun and excitement. He was very entertaining and he entertained all of us in one way or another.”
“When you’re working with Fred, you’re working with a renowned talent,” agreed Olandt, who played straight-laced Rob. “He did When a Stranger Calls, which is an all-time classic piece of filmmaking. This is a guy who directed some beautiful actor pieces that are strong stories. He was the artist, and he was setting the canvas for us to become the colors on top. Taking direction from Fred was easy; you completely trusted him just from talking with him once. He utilized the best in all of us to establish the most resonance we could with our characters.”
When Olandt auditioned for April Fool’s Day, it was part of his plan to transition from the world of television into film, and he was immediately pleased that the movie would be shooting in territory familiar to him.
“Prior to this, I had joined the cast of Riptide as a second season addition to be the youth draw for the show,” Olandt explained. “I was on for one season and it wasn’t really working out for me. Stephen Cannell, bless his heart, said to me, ‘You should be doing feature films,’ so I took his advice on that. When that happened, April Fool’s Day came along. It was really fun for me because I grew up in Vancouver, Canada and this was shooting right on the island of Victoria. So it was particularly exciting to be going back home and shooting this feature on location, as up until that point, I had only really ever done one other project on location.”
“The way I always approached Nikki was that she was a very smart girl. She was trying to keep up with the boys in a boys’ world with humor and wit and competitiveness. She was an edgy girl and a witty girl and she used that. She wasn’t someone you would call promiscuous, as she really was only having a relationship with her boyfriend, plus the sex scene was just supposed to be silly.”
The one scene that seemed like it should have been harder than it actually was for Goodrich was when her character, Nikki, descends into a well to retrieve some water, only to discover a floating body and a head. “More than anything, it was more gross than it was scary. That came toward the end of the shooting schedule and it was shot in a large warehouse setting. The well was sliced in half, so I was climbing down the rungs and we were in a big pool of water, but honest to God, it was so dirty. The crew was in the water with me, and the entire time they were smoking, so there were cigarette butts in the water. I loved shooting something like that, but it was so gross. I ended up with a killer ear infection because of that shoot.”
“April Fool’s Day came in at the new beginning for the genre, which came about because films like A Nightmare on Elm Street were changing the genre,” Steel explained. “There seemed to be a new playing field in horror where it was more about young people in real situations, revenge situations, and April Fool’s Day was very much a part of that movement. I still think April Fool’s Day is criminally overlooked. Director Fred Walton lent a lot of intelligence to the story, and I think it still holds up after all these years.”
THE MISSING THIRD ACT
“Don Bach wrote a third act which had always been in the script, and we shot it up there on the island,” explained Walton. “The kids take the ferry back to the mainland the next day (after the party scene), while Muffy remains behind to clean up the house. On the ferry, the kids decide to return immediately and pull an elaborate prank on Muffy to get back at her, to scare her as badly as she had scared them, which they do and it’s all in good fun, of course.”
“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. 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. Frank convinced them, however, that audiences would want some kind of comeuppance for Muffy, so we put together that final scene with Muffy and Nan and the jack-in-the-box, and we shot it in L.A., months after we had left British Columbia, along with the bonfire sequence at the very end.”
Frank Mancuso, Jr.
Leah King Pinsent
Thomas F. Wilson