In the early 1980s, the subgenre of slashers went through a boom period. Piggybacking off John Carpenter’s masterpiece HALLOWEEN, Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH set the box office on fire, and “inspired” a whole slew of slashers. Every Tom, Dick and Jason out to make a quick buck found it was easy to throw some blood on a screen and book a film into theatres. Suddenly, the market was glutted with slashers, that as a whole varied wildly in terms of quality, the majority of which were well south of the Quality Equator. The most popular location for these was the wilderness; clearly ripping off the Cunningham template, these films took place out in the woods, many times in campgrounds, isolated from the outside world, where teens could fall easy prey. But early in the cycle, another location became prominent for slashers: schools. Suddenly, no college campus or high school was safe from the knife wielding psychos of the celluloid world. The lesson: earning good grades wouldn’t save you from the grave.
Admittedly, I had never seen most of these school slashers. Which is odd, considering I’m a huge horror fan and a former high school English teacher. But then, I’ve never been big on slashers. I find that horror geeks usually fall into two categories: supernatural fans, and non-supernatural. Those who love slashers generally aren’t into demonic possessions, werewolves and the like. Those like me prefer Damien to Michael Myers, Brundlefly to Leatherface. So maybe that’s a big part of it. My age also likely factors in: I turned 8 in 1980, and so I was way too young when the slasher boom hit for those films to register. In fact, until recently, I’d never even heard of GRADUATION DAY or SPLATTER UNIVERSITY. But any teacher worth his salt is always looking to expand his knowledge, so once I discovered this whole class of slashers, I became a student of them.
I should probably backtrack here. The reason I discovered them in the first place was all those other horror sites covering SORORITY ROW. I’d read so much about it for a half year that it was a foregone conclusion I would see it opening night (believe me, nobody else did). Netflix helped me prep for it. First, I rented its source, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, and then a whole slew of others. At the time, I was still writing for Icons of Fright. I generally chose films to review at random, without any underlying master plan. The school slashers gave me a chance for a theme: ten reviews that would allow me to compare how these films compared and contrasted with each other. I like writing to themes—a trend I’ve carried over here at Death Ensemble –because they create a system of order. Here was a perfect opportunity to test out how writing a number of linked reviews would go.
My interest for the school slashers developed naturally. I spent a decade teaching in a few different high schools. I knew what real schools were like. I’d been to college, and had a great time. I still teach online, though it’s not nearly the same experience. But even though I’m not in a brick-and-mortar classroom anymore, 10 years of doing something I love have never left me. Given my other love of horror, it was a natural draw.
So I dug in. I watched. I watched again. I watched some more. I wrote. And I had one Hell of a good time.
Selection was easy. I started off with a bunch of flicks from the heyday, 1980-83, the obvious place to start. But I looked at a few entries from the 90s as well, and even into the new millennium. As I brushed off the older Icons material, I wrote two new pieces on sequels. Most of the Icons reviews, I revised. A few, I found almost perfect without changing so much as a period. The thing about putting together this series for DE was that it got me to watch all these movies all over again. Each one endeared itself to me, the awful ones more than the good. That surprised me, but SPLATTER UNIVERSITY and SLAUGHTER HIGH have a nutzoid energy, a verve that makes them enjoyable, even if they’re incoherently pieced together and horribly acted.
And boy, were there difference in quality. FINAL EXAM looks as if it were shot for a few bucks by amateurs. SPLATTER UNIVERSITY is so poorly cast, I half think the director must have been playing it for a laugh. But PROM NIGHT had some bucks behind it, enough to bring in hot hand in horror Jamie Lee Curtis and character actor Leslie Nielsen, and provide some real production value. Flash forward to URBAN LEGEND and CRY WOLF, and you’ll find studio films that are much more competently made, but not nearly as fun. Compare and contrast HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW and the remake, and it’s like watching totally unrelated flicks that you know in the back of your mind belong in the same conversation.
It’s also a trip to see some well established actors, who came to prominence either before or since their school time. Aside from Nielsen and Curtis, you’ll find Michael Ironside in typical Ironside evil fashion; Brad Dourif as a gas station man via Billy Bibbitt; Christopher George as a disgraced track coach; Daphne Zuniga before Princess Vespa; Alicia Witt from a variety of TV shows; and Caroline Munro as the world’s oldest high school coed, among others. They’re all dedicated to these films, no matter how low the quality or the budget.
The wild variations in box office even astound me. Many of these flicks came and went unnoticed, yet GRADUATION DAY made $23 million one summer after the first FRIDAY. Trying to ride the remake craze to big dollar signs, SORORITY ROW didn’t even make its budget back. A decade earlier, H20 came out to rave reviews and big ticket numbers (but that’s more likely because it was a part of the HALLOWEEN franchise and brought back Curtis). PROM NIGHT made roughly 10 times its original $1.6 million Canadian budget in the U.S. alone. Hopping on an established trend guaranteed neither success nor failure, despite the fact it was the motive for the very existence of most of these flicks.
And on the subject of PROM NIGHT, you’ll note I didn’t review the 2008 remake, a PG-13 film that made a ton of cash. That’s because it’s a pathetic excuse for a horror movie that no one over the age of 13 would enjoy. It’s cynical filmmaking that’s so far removed from the original, and the rest of these school slashers, that it doesn’t belong in the conversation. So there’s my review.
What I’ve been trying to figure out is, why schools? My buddy Brando suggested that slashers had to take advantage of every locale eventually, and schools fit the bill. Mike Cucinotta offered that there were a bunch of school renovations in the early 1980s and schools were closed, making them readily available. He also mentioned they provide great production value, and can be cheap to rent. If I look beyond that to the artistic end—which, let’s face it, these films may not deserve—it bears out that people tend to go to movies where they can associate with the characters and situations. The target audience here were high school and college couples, out for a date and a gory good time. So on that note, it makes perfect sense that slashers began to invade the schools.
Whatever the reason, school slasher came by the dozens, in quick succession. They flooded the market, and if teens weren’t getting killed in camp, they were in their classrooms. The slasher boom died quickly, mainly as a result of oversaturation and poor product. The movement lost its momentum, because let’s face it, there wasn’t much depth to it to begin with. Killing off nubile teens as they head to the prom or graduation or math club becomes repetitive and tedious after a while, and the blood’s only going to flow so far before it becomes a case of same old, same old. The lack of creativity must have hurt, as there’s only so much you can do with a crazed dude and a knife in any locale. It’s the problem I’ve always had with slashers. The end of things for school slashers was a self-fulfilling prophecy, even if filmmakers have tried to resurrect it over the 30 years since it all began.
As September rolls out, perhaps it’s best to leave the school slashers in that boom period, where they belong. Look back on them and enjoy a period where crazy experimentation and insane glee met in homeroom, and made their way through the public school system by way of a knife wielder. 30 years out they have a certain charm, and in a quaint sort of way, I dig them all. Which is probably the exact opposite of what the filmmakers had intended, but I can live with that. If SORORITY ROW proved anything, bringing a bitchy mentality with snarky characters and a millennial attitude makes for little fun and offers very little to say. So I can only hope that the IMDB is joking when it says there’s a 2012 release date for a SLAUGHTER HIGH remake. Because I guarantee it will totally miss the target by omitting all those things that made the first wave of school slashers such a trip in the first place.