Saturday 1 April 2017

Slaughter High (1986)

Directors: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten
Writers: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten
Stars: Caroline Munro and Simon Scuddamore

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

April Fools’ Day has been associated with pranks since The Canterbury Tales in 1392, so it’s another thing we can blame on Geoffrey Chaucer, if not the Romans, who had a festival called Hilaria about a week later. Of course, there’s an April Fool’s Day horror movie, released in 1986 and well worth watching, but I felt that it was a little too obvious for my Horror Movie Calendar project. Instead, I chose another April Fool’s Day that was released in 1986 but was renamed to Slaughter High to avoid confusion (or a lawsuit from the lawyers of Paramount, a studio with deep pockets). To highlight the magnificent power of irony, this version was clearly shot first, given that its lead actor, Simon Scuddamore, committed suicide in November 1984, right after the film wrapped. It’s very possible that the April Fool’s Day everybody knows wasn’t even started until after that date. Further irony lies in these two slasher movies, a thoroughly American genre, were shot in Canada and the UK respectively. Then again, it did all begin in Italy with A Bay of Blood...

This isn’t a particularly notable slasher, but then the genre isn’t known for its notable films; it’s known for its memorable maniacs and its imaginative deaths. Slaughter High is perhaps the dumbest classic slasher I’ve ever seen, but it has a memorable maniac and it has a few highly imaginative deaths, so it’s built up a minor cult following over the decades. I could even see the film growing in esteem after repeated viewings because, while it aims to be a slasher, it’s perhaps unintentionally also an early and solid example of the urban legend horror movie. It gets at least 100% better if we decide to imagine that this isn’t a real movie with a story we’re intended to believe and decide instead that it’s a YouTube video about an urban legend that makes no sense but people are talking about anyway. After all, in this modern world of alternative facts and perception equalling truth, what’s to say that isn’t what it is. If we believe it, then it’s true, right? What if we want to believe it, because it would be better that way? Does that work?

Initially, it isn’t as stupid as it is outrageous, because the particular prank that kicks it off is really brutal. We’re at Doddsville High, founded in 1857 and looking rather cool from the outside. I’d buy that building for a dollar! We arrive in time for a chemistry nerd called Marty Rantzen to have the time of his life, or at least so he thinks. After all, Carol Manning is holding his hand and dragging him to the girls’ locker room to make his day. Given that Carol Manning is played by a 35 year old Caroline Munro, a Bond girl who looks utterly stunning, we can perhaps understand why he can’t believe his luck. Of course, it’s all an April Fools joke and when he springs buck naked from the shower, it’s to discover an entire film crew of students shooting him on video, hosing him down with a fire extinguisher and prodding him with a javelin. By the time the janitor sends in the coach, they’ve electrocuted Marty on the towel rack, dunked him head first into the toilet and flushed it. It’s hardly his day but, trust me, it’s about to get a lot worse.

The coach puts everyone, except Marty, of course, into detention in the gym, but he has very little control. Two of the number go to Marty before detention to ‘apologise’ by giving him some extra-special dope to smoke. Why Marty would trust these numbwits, I have no idea, but he does and that means that he has to run out of the chem lab mid-experiment to puke his guts up. He returns to his bubbling beakers after team captain Skippy Pollack has sabotaged them, having temporarily escaped detention to make the already horrendous situation even worse. Next thing we know, the lab catches fire and a very large bottle inappropriately stored on a rickety shelf above Marty’s head topples into the inferno and splashes nitric acid all over his face. They all run to watch poor Marty stuck in a burning lab, horribly disfigured and fighting for his life. They watch in horror, but not in guilt. If it wasn’t 1986, I swear they’d be taking selfies against the burning background. What a bunch of prizes they are!
So, you can see the ‘outrageous’; here’s the ‘stupid’. It’s a rare actor here who’s under thirty and not one of this cast is believably in high school. If they retook their senior year half a dozen times, I still wouldn’t buy into these actors in these roles. So, when we leap forward an undetermined amount of years (I think someone mentions five late on) and none of them look like they’ve aged a day, the credibility of the picture is on shaky ground before it even gets moving. And it continues to stretch our belief throughout, like it was made by Willy Wonka and it says ‘unbreakable’ on the tin. All these miscreants find their way back to Doddsville High to enjoy their class reunion, but cutey Carol is the only one who actually dresses up for the occasion. Then again, they fail to notice a great deal: like they’re the only ones there, the school is now derelict and, of all things, the sun goes down. How many people wait outside an empty building drinking beer for a class reunion that is clearly not going to happen? Well, these ten, that’s who.

The actors are mostly forgettable, there mostly as a challenge to us to figure out which ones are under thirty, and the names don’t get thrown around well enough for us to associate most of them. Beyond Skip being the leader of the pack and Carol the bait, we really have to cross-reference who dies in which way with the name associated with that death on Wikipedia; that works fine now but it wasn’t so easy in movie theatres in 1986. Well, Stella’s easy to identify because she’s the bubbly blonde, while Frank and Joe are only distinguishable because the former drives a pickup truck and the latter shows up on a motorbike. Once they’re inside, we lose track again. Oh, and yes, they do find a way inside. Eventually. By breaking in. These morons still think there’s a class reunion waiting for them inside. What’s perhaps most ridiculous is that there is, complete with a banner and beer and a reasonably capable spread. And they tuck in as if no flags have just gone up at all. Suddenly, every cabin in the woods movie seems utterly realistic.
So far, the biggest problem the movie has is that Biff from Back to the Future isn’t here to rap on everyone’s head, shouting ‘McFly!’ and the next biggest problem is Everything Else. Fortunately we’re about to start on the imaginative death scenes, prompted by an astute comment by Skip when they all suddenly remember Marty Rantzen: ‘We turned him from a nice little guy,’ he recalls, ‘into a crazed lunatic.’ Now, that line is delivered and received with so much gravitas that I was honestly surprised that it wasn’t backed by a laugh track. Someone really should overdub this movie with wah wah wah noises, because it could make it blisteringly funny in all the wrong ways. Anyway, Marty, I mean, the killer (like there is ever the slightest doubt that the killer is someone other than the dude that they humiliated, burned and disfigured for a prank five years earlier) starts in on 500his revenge. First up is Digby, who shouldn’t have been on the list as he’s just the janitor. He’s lifted up by the strength of the insane and impaled on a coat hook.

But then we get Ted. Ted Harrison goes out in fantastic fashion! He picks up a PBR and shotguns it, a term I had to look up because, being English, I’m blissfully unaware of fratboy rituals that I haven’t seen in movies. It means that he punctures the can close to its base, then puts his mouth to the hole, pulls the tab and chugs it down in a flash. Ted is apparently very good at shotgunning, but is sadly unaware that the killer had replaced the beer with some sort of acid that doesn’t destroy beer cans but makes quick work of his stomach. His nether regions promptly turn inside out and he collapses dead on the floor. We’re almost at the halfway mark and we’re one down, nine to go! Finally, Slaughter High has potential to be something other than stupid. In fact, it finally dawns on our myriad morons that maybe something’s up and they should run away really fast. Sadly for them, Marty has the brain that none of them have so he’s locked all the doors and electrocuted all the windows. I cheered hard for Marty. Go, villain, go!
Half of me doesn’t want to talk about the death scenes here because they comprise most of the good things about this movie, but I find that I have to submit to the other half which wants to rave about them. We know, of course, that there are rules that you must follow if you want to survive a horror movie and clearly Stella hasn’t read them. She’s with Joe nowadays but she decides to make out with Frank instead, while her man is off somewhere trying to save their lives. They find a room, strip down and get their freak on. Just as Stella’s about to reach an electrifying climax, she grasps the metal frame of the bed and, well, let’s just suggest that her orgasm was a little more electrifying than she expected. Unbeknownst to her, Joe wouldn’t have minded her infidelity on grounds of being dead at the time. While he’s underneath a tractor, repairing it for an escape attempt, the killer hands him a wrench, then switches the vehicle on and drops it on him. Too slow, Joe! What a bloody mess he becomes.

To be fair, there are other good things here, just not many of them. I actually started a list of the things that win in Slaughter High. Most obvious is stupidity, which is so engrained in the fabric of the film that it’s almost the lead character. The single most stupid thing I have ever seen in the history of the movies is Nancy’s suggestion that the revenge-crazed lunatic that has already mangled seven out of the ten pranksters on his personal hitlist will adhere to the rules of April Fools’ Day and stop at noon. Carol’s ass is the star of the last half an hour, because we watch it running away from the camera in high heels for most of it (at least I thought so). It’s worth a full ninety minutes, and unless there’s a truly stunning coincidence, one of the three writer/directors thought so too, given that he married her in 1990. That’s George Dugdale and he’s a lucky man indeed. Carol’s flouncy white outfit is a winner as well, because it has magic dirt-repelling capabilities. If only she had marketed it instead of going to a class reunion of death.
The score by Harry Manfredini, justly famed for his soundtrack for Friday the 13th, is a high point too. It’s an odd electronic affair, a surprising success for something that couldn’t ever be dated to any other decade than the eighties. The main theme is really eight notes that squelch, which shouldn’t ever work, but I’ve found myself humming them all day. You’ll notice here that I haven’t said anything about the acting in these paragraphs about the positives, but there is one aspect that I’ll call out. Skip Pollack is played by Carmine Iannaccone, in his screen debut, and young Carmine was never going to win an Oscar. However, I’m actually surprised at the brevity of his career because he has a dramatic flair that would have been perfect for straight to video genre flicks. He’s a real drama queen, shining in overdone moments where he poses like he’s delivering Shakespearean magic instead of just swearing at Marty to come out and show himself. I have no idea if this was deliberate but I loved it and it could have taken him a long way.

He’s far from the only actor here to fail to go a long way. Most of the cast made either nothing else or almost nothing. Gary Martin is a rare exception, as he’s built a substantial career out of his voice, starting in 1994 with The Neverending Story III. He’s a busy man, not something I’d have expected from his performance as Joe. Frank, his lust rival here, also went onto a substantial career, Billy Hartman racking up over five hundred episodes of Emmerdale Farm as Terry Woods. Of course, nobody listening to the American accents can really believe that these actors live in Los Angeles with stars next door. They’re mostly, if not entirely, Brits trying to sound like Americans because, hey, who would watch a British slasher? They slip up rather often, but it’s fair to say that they do a better job than most of the Americans who attempt to sound like Brits. Maybe producer Dick Randall submitted this to the major studios as an all American movie, waited for them to fall for it, then echoed the locker room pranksters by screaming, ‘April Fool!’
Perhaps film fans would have recognised it as England more from the architecture than the accents, because Doddsville High fails to ring true as American in the slightest. The outside is actually a small part of Holloway Sanatorium, a 'hospital for the insane of the middle class', built in Surrey in the Franco-Gothic style and financed by Thomas Holloway, whose fortune was ironically made by selling quack medicine, cure-alls that did nothing medically but were advertised with finesse. As Holloway was still operational in the mid-seventies, we never go inside. The interiors were shot within St. Marylebone Grammar School in Westminster, whose alumni include notables as varied as Jerome K. Jerome, Adam Ant and Len Deighton. That suggests that the level of education was high, so the writers of this picture couldn’t possibly have gone there as nobody educated could ever have conjured up the ending. It’s a twist in search of a point in a film in search of a reason and it makes less sense than anything previous. April Fool, indeed.


Rick29 said...

I saw this as a third feature at a drive-in many moons ago. The killer dressed as a jester is what I always remember about it. There's just something creepy about that.

AV said...

April Fools Day aka Slaughter High such a cheesy slasher classic.