Monday, November 6, 2017

Retro Review: SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986)

(UK - 1986)

Written and directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Litten. Cast: Caroline Munro, Simon Scuddamore, Carmine Iannaccone, Donna Yaeger, Gary Martin, Billy Hartman, Michael Saffran, John Segal, Kelly Baker, Sally Cross, Josephine Scandi, Marc Smith, Jon Clark, Dick Randall. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Perhaps more than any other slasher movie of the '80s, SLAUGHTER HIGH's rabidly devoted cult following is rooted more in nostalgia for the era rather than any inherent greatness in the film. Because, frankly, SLAUGHTER HIGH is pretty terrible. It's able to get away with boasting "From the makers of FRIDAY THE 13TH" because co-producer Steve Minasian was one of the partners in Georgetown Productions, the company that helped finance the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, even though Minasian was never credited onscreen. Minasian ended up partnering with veteran schlockmeister Dick Randall on the Spanish-made 1983 chainsaw epic PIECES and the British-made 1984 killer Santa movie DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, both of which are more in line with Randall's lowbrow oeuvre (CHALLENGE OF THE TIGER, FOR YOUR HEIGHT ONLY) than any groundbreaking, trailblazing slasher horrors in Sean S. Cunningham's classic. Among the first theatrical releases of Vestron Video offshoot Vestron Pictures, a studio that would fold just a couple of years later with DIRTY DANCING being their only big hit, SLAUGHTER HIGH isn't nearly as much fun as either PIECES or DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS, but it's nevertheless beloved by fans. This could be due to its overt and at least partially intentional silliness (it takes place at a high school that looks nothing like a 1986 high school and is in the middle of nowhere) and mockability as a Bad Movie, but it does manage to pull off a few fairly decent and splattery--at least in the unrated version--kill scenes. But throughout, SLAUGHTER HIGH is played so broadly, with grating, "wacky" music cues and terrible performances that it's never really scary because by 1986, audiences had seen nearly a decade of these things post-HALLOWEEN and were savvy enough to know when all the jolts were coming. It's more likely that SLAUGHTER HIGH is cherished not for what it is, but for the period in which it was created.

35-year-old Caroline Munro as the
world's least-convincing high school student. 
Shot as APRIL FOOL'S DAY but retitled when the producers learned Paramount had their own APRIL FOOL'S DAY slasher film in production, SLAUGHTER HIGH was filmed in the UK with a mostly British cast sporting American accents that range from "kinda sorta OK" to "completely embarrassing" (Carmine Iannaccone as jokester Skip is actually American, while Scottish-born Billy Hartman, seen that same year as Connor MacLeod's cousin Dougal in the classic HIGHLANDER, has what might be the worst American accent in movie history as Frank). In a nearly 20-minute prologue, all the cool kids play a cruel April Fool's Day prank on Marty Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore), "the dork of Doddsville High," a dweeby science nerd who's led into the girls' locker room under the pretense of being seduced by beauty queen Carol (genre vet Caroline Munro, 35 years old at the time and playing a teenager). Of course, Marty is humiliated and later given a laced joint that he lights up in the chemistry lab, which eventually leads to a nitric acid spill that causes an explosion setting him ablaze. Ten years later, the group of students behind the prank--including Carol, who's now a cokehead movie star--are invited back to the now-closed Doddsville High for a reunion. It's all a set-up as they're offed one by one in a variety of inventive ways by Marty, his disfigured face obscured by a grinning jester's mask. That creepy jester's mask is one of the few effective horror elements of SLAUGHTER HIGH (the killer's mask in DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS was also unexpectedly unnerving). There's a few memorable kills--the acid bath, the exploding stomach, the dual electrocution in mid-coitus--and when composer Harry Manfredini drops the wonky synth cues and goes for that frenzied, screeching sound he brought to the suspense sequences in FRIDAY THE 13TH, the film occasionally manages to vaguely look like the American slashers that it's emulating, but in the end, it's a lesser entry in the '80s subgenre that's further diminished by a stupid twist ending that leaves the door opened for a sequel that never happened.

The creative team of George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter Litten are credited with writing and directing, though on the commentary track of Lionsgate's just-released Vestron Collector's Series Blu-ray, Dugdale and Litten explain that Dugdale did most of the directing, Ezra did most of the writing, and Litten did the special effects, with each frequently contributing in other areas. There's some intermittently interesting information in the commentary--such as the occasional Dick Randall anecdote; the exteriors of the high school being an abandoned asylum, and the interiors (usually the same slightly redressed hallway) being the shuttered St. Marylebone Grammar School, a building constructed in 1791 and closed in 1981; and that Randall offered Telly Savalas $25,000 for one day's work as the gym teacher in the prologue, with Savalas slamming the phone down on Ezra when Randall wouldn't meet his demand of $50,000 (the role went to American expat Marc Smith, a voice actor best known as the guy who dubbed Franco Nero in ENTER THE NINJA and Lou Ferrigno in HERCULES)--but otherwise, the two filmmakers blather on endlessly about mostly uninteresting stuff (like what the weather was like when they shot a particular exterior). They don't even mention Caroline Munro's name until an hour into the commentary, which is bizarre considering 1) she's a beloved cult movie icon, 2) she's the biggest name in the cast, 3) was Dugdale's girlfriend at the time of filming, and 4) has been his wife since 1990 (why didn't she come along?). Even more egregious is barely even mentioning Simon Scuddamore, whose name finally comes up near the end when one of the directors mentions the actor is only playing Marty at the beginning and the end, and isn't the guy walking around in the jester's mask in the rest of the movie.

Simon Scuddamore (1956-1984)
Ezra, the only one of the three filmmakers who's gone on to a somewhat successful career in the industry (he wrote some British TV shows and was a producer on the later arthouse hit WAKING NED DEVINE), isn't on the commentary but is instead interviewed separately in a featurette, and he goes into much greater detail about the production in 15 minutes than Dugdale and Litten do in 90. Ezra actually provides some information about the enigmatic Scuddamore, who won the role after an open audition, had no acting experience, and requested weekends off during the shoot so he could continue his volunteer job at a facility for special needs children. Just days after SLAUGHTER HIGH wrapped production in November 1984, Scuddamore committed suicide in what was believed to be an intentional drug overdose. Ezra doesn't go into specific details, but he mentions Scuddamore's unexpected death and that it was under unfortunate circumstances, which is more than Dugdale and Litten say. How does the death of the movie's star just after filming not be a key talking point on a commentary? The fact that Scuddamore died in 1984 and the movie remained unreleased for two years might also be a topic to discuss, but it never comes up (nor is there even a dedication to Scuddamore in the closing credits). Neither do other potentially interesting tidbits, like 23-year-old future acclaimed author of the Thursday Next mystery series Jasper Fforde being a member of the camera crew. Even a junk movie like this deserves a thorough and informed commentary for fans. On the plus side, the Blu-ray looks good, and it's nice to see this properly framed after Lionsgate's janky DVD release from several years ago put forth zero effort and just used the full-frame VHS transfer. I've seen SLAUGHTER HIGH four or five times in 30 years and I still don't really like it--or, perhaps more accurately, I don't see why fans love it as much as they do--but even I'm guilty of being suckered in by the nostalgia element, and now I own the Blu-ray. I get it. I miss the '80s, too. Will I watch this unremarkable and thoroughly mediocre movie again? Of course I will.

Toledo, OH on February 13, 1987

No comments:

Post a Comment