Sunday, October 2, 2011

October 2nd: Slaughter High (1986)

It's April Fools Day at Doddsville County High School and school nerd Marty Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore) is heading to the ladies room to have sex with school hottie Carol Manning (Caroline Munro). Just as it looks like Marty has scored big time, he finds that Carol has set him up for a prank at the hands of Skip "Joker" Pollack (Carmine Iannaconne) and fellow students Stella (Donna Yeager), Joe (Gary Martin), Frank (Billy Hartman), Ted Harrison (Michael Saffran), Carl Putney (John Segal), Nancy (Kelly Baker), Susan (Sally Cross), and Shirley (Josephine Scandi).
Caught by Coach (Marc Smith), Carol, Skip and the others are forced to do push-ups in gym class as punishment. Blaming Marty, Skip sets up another prank in the science lab while Marty's performing experiments. Intended as just another joke, the prank goes awry and the lab explodes, leaving Marty horribly burned and disfigured. Ten years later, the pranksters reunite at the high school for a school reunion, only to find the school shut down and a room full of food, beer and their school lockers, as well as Marty's locker, with his yearbook inside.
Carol, now a working actress, harbors guilt over Marty's accident, manifesting itself in nightmares. Skip claims to have heard that Marty has had reconstructive surgery and is supposedly doing well for himself, while the rest of the pranksters have more or less forgotten about Marty. As the night wears on, the pranksters start getting picked off in gruesome fashion, leading Carol and Skip to realize that Marty has come back to get revenge.
Easily one of the most prolific sub-genres of horror, if not the most, is the slasher film. In theory, if you have a big guy in a mask and a group of teenagers (or more likely, young adults in their mid-to-late '20s) willing to get naked and have fake blood and prop weapons used on them, you have yourself a movie. Following the massive success of John Carpenter's Halloween, the slasher genre exploded in the 1980s, resulting in dozens and dozens of slashers; House on Sorority Row, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, The Stepfather, Madman, Sledgehammer, New Year's Evil, Friday The 13th, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, Mother's Day, Graduation Day, The Initiation, Child's Play, Maniac, Silent Scream, Dressed To Kill, Prom Night, Terror Train, Final Exam, Stage Fright, He Knows You're Alone, Fatal Games, and To All A Good Night, for example.
Despite having the basic requirements, what many of these films failed to realize was that Halloween had so much more going for it than its killer and victims. Carpenter's direction, his and Debra Hill's inventive script, the colorful cast, Dean Cundey's fantastic lighting and that creepy score are what makes Halloween the great film it is. While a handful of these films were effective in their own right, most of them were nothing more than cheap imitators, notably lacking the scares and high quality of filmmaking present in Carpenter's film.

In the pantheon of the slasher genre, Slaughter High is decidedly on the lower end of the spectrum. It's not outright awful; it just feels uninspired and cliched. It should be pointed out that the film came out in 1986. By this time, the slasher film was losing favor with the public. Friday The 13th was waning in popularity with A New Beginning and Jason Lives, the Halloween series had been dormant for several years and Leatherface's return to the big screen, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, was largely ignored by the bloodthirsty fans.
By this point, it was clear that men in masks weren't enough and the genre tried to evolve. Films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer brought stronger dramatic elements and deeper characters to the genre, while films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser introduced overt supernatural elements. Another trend that appeared was the inclusion of comedy. Feeling that they could no longer scare jaded horror fans, horror filmmakers, inspired by the success of Dan O'Bannon's horror-comedy masterpiece The Return of The Living Dead, imbued their films with comedy; the Nightmare on Elm Street and Sleepaway Camp films were notably comedic, as well as original films, such as The Slumber Party Massacre and April Fools Day.
Slaughter High is clearly following the same formula, trying to be funny and scary at the same time. Unlike April Fools Day, a film strikingly familiar and released the same year, Slaughter High has no real good jokes; even the "scares" aren't laughable. Just pathetic. The storyline itself is interesting enough. While the revenge conceit had been used previously in many other films, the alteration of making the killer a put-upon nerd is a welcome change. Unfortunately, Simon Scuddamore's performance is so scattershot that it's hard to know whether we should feel sorry for him or join in with Skip and pull a prank on him. Our inability as an audience to sympathize with Marty not only neuters his transformation into a killer, it also makes it hard to want his tormentors to suffer.
In fact, the only character in the film that even stands out is the character intended to be the most despicable, Skip Pollack. Carmine Iannaconne isn't exactly a talented thespian (not to mention he looks a lot like Griffin Dunne), but he brings energy and a presence to the screen that no one else does. The rest of the cast is perfectly adequate in that they say the lines and do the actions, but they fail to engender any real hatred or sympathy. As John Carpenter proved in 1978, tension in a slasher film comes from being scared for the victims and Slaughter High fails miserably in making us care for the victims.
Worst of all is the requisite final girl, Carol Manning. While not every final girl has to be the virginal Laurie Strode, it's vital that the audience grows to like this character and want her to take on the killer one-on-one in the climax. But Carol is every bit as responsible for Marty's accident as Skip and, while the filmmakers want us to believe that she is guilt-ridden, she never shows any real remorse and leaves it to secondary character Susan to call her out as deserving of death at Marty's mangled hands.
It doesn't help that the role has been horribly miscast. Caroline Munro is a stunningly gorgeous woman but, with all due respect, I refuse to accept her as a "virginal" heroine. Having got her start as a model, Caroline is best suited to roles where her body acts for her, such as The Spy Who Loved Me and Dracula A.D. 1972, although her role in William Lustig's Maniac showed some acting ability. As Carol Manning, she fails to connect with the audience and get them on her side. To make matters worse, Munro, 36 years old at the time, is clearly too old to play a teenage girl and she never once shows her best assets, leaving it to the less well-endowed Josephine Scandi.
For most slasher fans, the true appeal is getting to watch people massacred in creative ways for 90 minutes. From that point of view, Slaughter High has some impressive moments. One victim's guts burst out of their stomach and looks surprisingly realistic. Another victim is disintegrated in acid, leaving nothing but bones and, in the best kill of the film, a victim is trapped under a mower and, while holding the mower up, Marty slasher their arm repeatedly until they can't take it. None of these moments are particularly iconic but they're effective enough, and mostly convincing enough, to deserve some praise.
That being said, death scenes can never be good enough to cover the flaws of a story and oh man is this script weak sauce. The fact that three different writers contributed to this script explains a lot of the inconsistency in the script. The writers can't seem to decide whether to go all-out satire and make the victims as hateful as possible or to actually treat the subject matter seriously; it never feels like it's blending the horror and comedy elements together at all. The characters make the typical stupid horror victim decisions, including ignoring obvious danger and staying when they should be running, while Marty's presence is poorly handled. What happened to him after the accident? How did he organize all of this by himself? To cap it all off, the film delivers a twist ending that starts off making no sense and ends with a lame setup for a sequel that was mercifully never made.
I give Slaughter High a failing grade of 2 out of 5 Stars. In comparison to films like Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 and the Sleepaway Camp sequels, Slaughter High doesn't qualify as one of the worst slashers of the '80s. It falls in the same category as films like The Burning and The House on Sorority Row; it's a mediocre film that, despite a few clever novelties, is poorly made and fails to leave any real impression. If you want a revenge-themed slasher, watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. If you want a humorous slasher, watch April Fools Day. If you want a slasher with a high school setting, watch Prom Night. Don't bother with Slaughter High. Class Dismissed.

Next Up: October 3rd: Psycho (1998)

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