‘Leigh Howard and the Ghosts of Simmons-Pierce Manor’ – ‘Goosebumps’-Style Tale Headed to the Screen

By now, the outcome of 1986’s April Fool’s Day is well known: an heiress’ guests are misled to believe their party is being picked off by a killer among them. However, had the producers not requested a last-minute change, the film would have turned the tables on the elaborate prank’s orchestrator; she would have died for real. Fans had hoped to see footage from this shot-but-unused ending on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray. No such luck, unfortunately. And it was likely not for a lack of trying on the distributor’s part, either. Although the final cut of Fred Walton’s film features no actual deaths, Jeff Rovin’s novelization was based on an earlier draft of Danilo Bach’s script. Which means this now out-of-print adaptation used that sought-after “lost” ending.

Before taking a deadly turn, the novelization is not all that different from its cinematic counterpart: Muffy St. John (played by Deborah Foreman on screen) invites family, friends and classmates to her isolated house off the Maine coast. Their weekend getaway falls on April Fool’s, so there are plenty of pranks to witness. These jokes gradually go from harmless to dangerous. Of course, the most considerable and convoluted of these tricks is unbeknownst to everyone, apart from the mastermind and her silent accomplices.

A tremendous key to April Fool’s Day’s success is its cast. Fresh-faced, well defined and oddly charming, Muffy and her young peers are certainly not the deepest lot in horror history, but what they lack in development they make up for in personality and presence. It could be said, keeping that alternate ending intact runs the risk of removing viewers’ bonding time with the cast; watching them interact during the less life-threatening moments is both amusing and crucial to their likability. Like other novelization authors who explore and flesh out their characters, especially ones who have been streamlined for commercial filmmaking, Rovin exerted himself when translating April Fool’s Day to text. He enhanced the core aspects of their personalities, embellished their way of talking, and expanded on their varied backgrounds.

April Fool's Day

Pictured: The cast stares in disbelief after Buck is injured in April Fool’s Day.

The element of sex is played up far more in the novelization. In the film, everyone sticks to their designated S.O.; aspiring filmmaker/pornologist Chaz Vyshinski (Clayton Rohner) and horny elitist Nikki Brashares (Deborah Goodrich) need not look elsewhere for their carnal cravings, and Rob Ferris (Ken Olandt) and girlfriend Kit Graham (Amy Steel) cling to one another as terror starts to emerge. Rovin does take an opportunity to investigate throwaway details, such as Rob’s open fly. Or in this case, read into them. Rather than allowing the zipper joke to be just that, or maybe even a physical manifestation of Rob’s incompetence, the novelization drums up a backstory about Rob’s fear of commitment. There, his zipper was down because he had recently slept with another woman before reaching the ferry. Meanwhile, the social incest is italicized as Muffy and Nikki trade sexual war stories about their mutual friend-with-benefits and all-around “lousy lay” Arch Cummings (Thomas F. Wilson), and Nikki eventually trades Chaz for the film’s clever parody of young Reaganites, Harvey “Hal” Edison, Jr. (Jay Baker). The Bruce Springsteen fan is as interested in landing a job as he is a bed partner in the book.

Arguably worse than fooling everyone into thinking there was a killer on the prowl was Muffy planting those highly personalized “fake clues” in her guests’ rooms. The film has Muffy owning up to her lapse in judgment, especially regarding Nan Youngblood (Leah Pinsent). With the second twist-ending included in the novelization, though, the origins of those various items were not only more detailed — Nikki’s BDSM gear were like the ones her parents used, and Hal’s newspaper clippings pertain to a fatal car accident he covered up — their existence was owed elsewhere. As Nan confronts Muffy in the book, the host explains she left objects reminding everyone of back home. Copies of The Tennessee Gazette for Hal, steroids for Arch, a vibrator for Nikki, and a party tape for Nan were all replaced. Arch instead received “a stack of syringes and needles, a tightly coiled length of rubber tubing, razor blades” (plus a crack spoon in the film), and Nan was haunted by pre-recorded baby cries in reference to her secret abortion. Muffy pleaded her case, but the damage was done.

April Fool's Day

Pictured: An excerpt from a revised version of the April Fool’s Day script.

So, who switched all the items? Someone wanting the other characters to have motivation for committing a real murder, that’s who. After Muffy’s self-unmasking in the novelization, her guests all return to the mainland. En route, Skip, who was revealed to be Muffy’s brother rather than her cousin, not so subtly inspires everyone to go back and give his sister a taste of her own medicine. The participants (Kit, Nikki, Chaz and Rob) go forward with their slapdash tit-for-tat without realizing they are actually walking straight into Skip’s trap. Muffy’s brother wanted to be his father’s sole heir, and killing his sister would have ensured that. Then he could frame one of her friends who, some more than others, had incentive to kill Muffy. The scheme did not go as planned, though, and Skip died instead. In the depressing, Prom Night-esque conclusion, the shocked sister cradles her dead brother’s body, unable to process what just happened.

There was another proposed ending that mixed the above version with the one ultimately used in the film: Muffy believes Skip sliced her throat, only to then realize this was part of his and the others’ retributive prank. Later, Skip is shown helping his sister open her murder-mystery inn. Going with Skip as the killer would have given his actor, Griffin O’Neal, more screentime. Especially after Walton vouched for his casting. The as-is cut incidentally underutilized O’Neal, who dipped out of the story once Skip became the first victim of “Buffy St. John.”

Anyone who disliked the film’s rug-pull might prefer the novelization. Removing that original final act from the film, however, was for the best. Producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. wanted to get away from making another straightforward slasher, and Fred Walton, who did not consider himself a fan of horror, wanted to avoid doing the same-old. And by going against the grain, April Fool’s Day wound up being more memorable than many of its contemporaries. The film is an ingenious stab at satirical horror, made well before self-awareness was so widespread in the genre.

April Fool's Day

Pictured: The purple edition of Jeff Rovin’s April Fool’s Day novelization.

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