Today, the cult horror comedy April Fool’s Day celebrates its 30th anniversary. Written by Danilo Bach (Beverly Hills Cop) and directed by Fred Walton (1979’s When A Stranger Calls), the film follows a group of college students who spend spring break at their friend Muffy St. John’s family estate, unaware that the weekend will be filled with frights and unexpected surprises.
Released the same weekend as The Money Pit, April Fool’s Day became a modest success for Paramount Pictures, taking in $13 million during its three-week theatrical run and finding even more of an audience once it was released on VHS. Even though it has largely flown under the radar over the last 30 years, Walton’s slasher send-up with an Agatha Christie flair has remained a beloved cult film among genre fans and this writer in particular.
Looking back at the horror comedy, 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 quickly became one of my favorite movies growing up, a title I would often bring to slumber parties as a gateway into the horror genre for my friends who weren’t big horror fans. I always loved the fact that many go into it expecting a slasher movie and get something very different and wholly unique in comparison to where horror was at in 1986.
“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.”
The entire cast also made it easy for me to quickly fall in love with April Fool’s Day; their characters felt fully realized, each sharing an infectious chemistry with the others that made them all likeable, relatable, and important to the overall story. Unlike other slasher films, these were kids you wanted to see survive any impending bloodshed.
“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.
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.”
“Don Bach tried to write characters that were as individualized as possible, given the constraints of the genre, and the actors took it from there. Their esprit was infectious, spreading not only to the rest of the cast, but to the crew as well. Tom Heaton [Uncle Frank] took to referring to his character as ‘Uncle Anus,’ which made everyone laugh. It also helped that Tom Wilson [who played Arch] had a solid background doing stand-up. The others learned how to follow his lead and improvise together.”
“But, summer on Vancouver Island? What's not to like? I rented a house up there during production, brought my wife and my two small children, and this experience ultimately led to my leaving L.A. for Portland. And, as I said before, if we had been shooting in L.A. with the actors going back to their individual homes or apartments every night, there's no way they could have become that ensemble.”
One standout scene in April Fool’s Day has always been the dinner party sequence when Muffy, Nikki and Kit present the rest of their friends with a beans and frank-themed feast and they spend time chatting, making jokes, and discussing the terrifying unknown that awaits them once they graduate from college. Even though the scene is three decades old, it still rings true even today.
“Interesting thing about the dinner scene you mention,” discussed Walton. “When we started shooting that scene, there was no collective energy whatsoever. We got the master, then coverage on Tom and Leah Pinsent [who played Nan]; thank God Leah didn't have to be funny, and Tom always could be, but everything about the scene was just flat. I've never been more grateful for a meal break in my life. I told the actors before lunch that the scene was dying, that they needed to step it up, put some life into it. It came across as a scolding or a rant, even though I was calm—calm but emphatic.”
“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.
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 (Almost Famous) during production, he was grateful for the opportunity to work with such a skilled lensman.
Walton reflected on Minsky’s contributions to April Fool’s Day, saying, “There was a horror film festival in Chicago a couple of years ago that I attended. I watched a few minutes of the movie, after not having seen it since its release, and was struck with just how good Chuck's lighting was. It really elevated the quality of the film. He was the first cinematographer I'd worked with who had extensive experience on big studio pictures. I learned a lot from him. On subsequent projects, I would sometimes suggest lighting techniques I'd seen him use to other cameramen and I almost always had them thank me for making the suggestions.”
“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.”
A topic that has long fascinated me is the original ending for April Fool’s Day, as I could never find just what exactly had been cut out by Paramount during the editing process. Some theories describe a party scenario, while others mention a situation involving Muffy’s death, so I asked Walton to clear up the mystery of the missing scene once and for all.
“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.”
The ending utilized was the perfect way to cap off April Fool’s Day and is another reason why the horror comedy remains one of the best of its era; so few movies can maintain such a frenetically fun pace and end with an impactful, gut-punch moment. Bach’s script was truly ahead of its time and, beyond some of the clothing, nothing in April Fool’s Day feels dated. It's still a ridiculous amount of fun to watch, even if you know the twists and turns going in.
“Most people who make movies want the final product to be both timely and timeless,” said Walton. “I don't think there are any tricks or techniques or strategies to accomplish the latter (although a strong story and solid acting are a good place to start). Just make the best movie you can and hope that it holds up and always respect your audience. When April Fool’s Day came out, it died at the box office, so it's gratifying to know there are people out there like you who enjoy the movie and appreciate what went into it.”