Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Slaughter High (1986)

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Today's the Day You're Gonna Pay...

The mid-80s were seemingly the pique for what I like to refer to as the “1st generation” of the slasher movie trend. It’s debatable where the trend started, but it is evident that it took root in “creeping killer” flicks like Psycho (1960), the mystery novels of Agatha Christie (the originator of the “final girl” plot device!), the savagery of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the gleefully lurid, often surreal contents of the Italian giallo genre favorites like Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). All of these pop culture elements, combined with the wide-open market for exploitation indies during the late 70s into the early 80s, would culminate in the holy slasher trifecta of Black Christmas (1974), Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1979/80), three films which inarguably would be the benchmark by which almost all other slasher films (sans 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) would be judged, imitated, homage-i-sized, and generally associated with. One theme in particular that would be ran through at least half of these film’s ringers would be that of the revenge story, the ultimate of which would be the revenge motivation motif, whereupon the killer’s actions are motivated by some sort of personal vendetta for vengeance. Mrs. Pamela Voorhees did it. Freddy Krueger did it. Crospy did it (The Burning, anyone?). In 1986, Marty Rantzen continued the tradition.

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Marty Majored in Cutting Classmates!

Rantzen is the nerd-that-turns in Slaughter High, a film which I’d like to think is Great Britain’s greatest answer to the template laid down by Mrs. Vorhees in ’79, kind of comparable to the international dichotomy between The Ramones and The Sex Pistols—the former was inherently better than the latter, but wasn’t the anarchic, unpredictable sloppiness half the fun? Such is the wonders of Slaughter High.

The film’s essential premise: It’s April Fools Day in a 1980s “Any-High-School, USA” that more properly resembles as a boardinghouse in the UK countryside. Marty Rantzen, played by Simon Scuddamore, is the quintessential, stereotypical nerd. Acting with the socially-retarded aplomb of his character type, he is lurid into a vicious prank by uber-popular queen bee Carol Manning (Caroline Munroe) and her degenerate cast of 2-D popular kid cronies, in particular the handsome, masterminding joker Skip( Adrian Brody lookalike Carmine Iannaccone), slutty Stella (Donna Yeager), stud-ly fixit man Joe (Gary Martin), the amiable Frank (Ted Harrison), and a host of other wonderfully thin, generic characters, all played by actors who appear to be in the their mid-30s that add to the body count. Anyway, Carol convinces ol’ Marty she needs a little bit of sexual healing and cajoles him into the lady’s lavatory, where she gets him to strip naked inside a shower stall, whereupon the evil gang of popular kids, led by Skip, descends upon him with a video camera, Jester mask, and bad intentions. Sexual humiliation ensues, Marty is given a swirly amid the nude festivities (a weird reverse on the usual gratuities that populate this kind of film), but the party is broken up by the asshole-ish P.E. Coach, who busts the pranksters with physical detention after school, which all but two parties are present at.

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However, it seems Skip and Joe (I think it’s him anyway… all these assholes are pretty much the same), not content to merely sexually humiliate Marty, brazenly leave punctuality for the birds and instead give Marty a joint of marijuana as a peace offering. Or is it? Marty accepts, of course, leading to his smoking of the joint while performing a science experiment after school. Lighting the joint on a bunson burner, Marty’s chance to let his freak flag fly is cut short when he begins to dry heave. It’s a poison joint! While he’s in the bathroom vomiting, Skip decides he’s still not content with his work, rigging Marty’s lab experiment to explode in his nerd-ass face, because, as Skip puts it in the novelized tie-in of the movie I wrote back in 1986 under pseudonym, “Sexual humiliation and poison are for pussies.” So, essentially, Marty comes back, the work literally explodes in his face, and while attempting to put the fire out, somehow manages to let a gigantic jar of acid sitting on top a nearby shelf planted strategically in the middle of the room falls on his face, melting his stupid nerd features as the poor bastard bursts into flames at the same time. The popular kids stumble onto the scene horrified (or maybe hungry, it’s hard to tell) with their handywork. Marty survives, of course, but when on troll-looking wench attempts to console him as he’s being wheeled out in a stretcher, Marty lashes out to strangle her! He fails, being horribly burned and all, but the thought was their and that’s what counts. Also, it un-subtly foreshadows the real meat and potatoes of this film’s premise: Marty’s revenge.

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So we get to the main plot, where all of the bullying popular kids receive mysterious invitations to their high school reunion ten years down the line. Of course, they all look and dress exactly the same but they are all in very different places in their lives. Queen Bitch Carol is now a B-movie actress with delusions of grandeur. Skip drives a shitty car. Joe is a mechanic and married to the girl that looks like a troll and has sex with anything that moves (I think its Stella, but again, they’re all unbelievably thin characters). I can only imagine what everyone else is doing with their lives… probably the same thing my shitty classmates are. Anyway, they all show up to their alma mater, only to find its completely abandoned and in completely un-occupiable conditions. After some bickering over whether or not they should stay or go that seems to last so long as to elapse day-into-night, the group decides to head inside. This, of course, is where they fall victim to the machinations of a mysterious killer wearing the same creepy Jester mask and school jacket as before (ok, its Marty). Total and utter filmmaking insanity ensues.

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So that’s basic premise, which is at least partially culled from the 1978 film Class Reunion Massacre, although Slaughter High is much more fun than that pseudo-arthouse student film dreck. For that matter, the film was originally titled April Fool’s Day, which is a much more fitting title that couldn’t be used due to the fact Paramount Pictures snagged it legally for their own prank-themed Fred Walton film (which I also highly recommend and am saving for another blog). Despite any comparisons to these or other slasher films from around the time, Slaughter High is set apart from the pack as an individual piece of bizarre filmmaking, for better or worse.

We’ll take my car… It starts every time…

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I discovered Slaughter High while on a video-watching spree with my better half, who, for the sake of anonymity, we’ll just call “Jayme.” It is a common fact that “Jayme” is utterly obsessed with skeletons. While frequenting a Mom-and-Pop video establishment, we discovered the classic 5-for-5-for-5 ploy( 5 vhs for 5 nights for 5 dollars). Thus, a renting spree ensued, with a playlist consisting of more than a few horror movies featuring skeletons on the cover of the video boxes. Among others, we rented the seminal Betsy Russell slasher Cheerleader Camp and Slaughter High. While “Jayme” was disappointed neither of the films came through on the skeleton-front (especially the former), I was considerably surprised to discover that the latter film came through on the general wacky incompetence front. The point is, I’m not sure I would’ve ever watched this film without “Jayme” and her love of skeletons. So she can only blame herself for this blog coming into fruition. Hopefully she won’t leave me for it… but some risks you just have to take.

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As mentioned, the film is a British production masquerading as an American slasher. In a similarity to Italian “giallo” films, a surreal linguistic quirk presents itself with a half-American, half-British cast that is constantly switching back and forth between Brit and faux-Yank accents as the film progresses. For that matter, the entire piece is almost exclusively set in the High School, and apparently the British are convinced that it is common for Yankee high schools to not only be strange, poorly lit castle-like fortresses out in the middle of nowhere, but also have bathtubs in the girl’s locker room, electrified fences, and enormous, oak-wood gyms that appear to be ripped from the dawn of Physical Education during JFK’s presidency. It doesn’t help matters much that none of the cast members are playing within their age range. The film’s star, Caroline Munroe, was 36 years old when the film was made, twice that of the character she portrays in the film. All these elements are implemented straight-faced and combine to help create a surreal ambience that pervades the film’s distinct tone and atmosphere. Finally, there must be some mention of Harry Manfredini’s self-plagiarizing score, which steals cues from the Friday the 13th series liberally, but also includes an amazingly cheesy, somewhat unsettling metal theme that is simply amazing. Phillip Glass, eat your heart out.

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According to imdb, the entire film was spearheaded by three guys: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, and Peter “Mackenzie” Litten, each of whom wore the writer/director/producer hats. The former two would later collaborate together on Living Doll, a film I now want to see desperately, and then languish largely in obscurity and minor cult status. After watching the movie once it is easy to see the prescence of three different directors which contribute to the film’s patchwork style. There is no cohesiveness from scene to scene whatsoever. For example, after watching one of the best friends die, part of the group flees to find their way out of the school, while two others decide to go off and sex-things-up casually. The generic-looking characters become easily confused, causing the viewer to ask, “Didn’t I just watch that guy die,” with the distinctive possibility that, yeah, you just did. But there the character is! I assume these three guys collaborated for the sake of finishing the film on a tight schedule, and, again, contribute to the film’s narrative weirdness.

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My initial response when watching it was kind of bored and mocking it until being totally blindsided when some guy’s stomach explodes. Then it plunged into utter illogical, disconnected, sublimely funny creepiness. The ending of the film even suggests that the bizarre, wholly uneven narrative may be entirely intentional, which, if so, makes these three guys some of the most innovative and amazing directors since Melies. However, I doubt this is the case and chalk the feature up to either sheer coincidence or luck. Nonetheless, the style works in the bargain-bin-Lynch sense and begs for the movie to be screened sometime around 3 am, an act that could only make the movie more cohesive. And cohesiveness, like sexual humiliation, acid burns, poison joints and strangulation, is for wimps, right?

What, did ya think I was Jason!?!

Finally, to the main reasons why anyone watches these damn things: the killer and the death scenes. As Marty Rantzen, Simon Suddamore makes for a menacing nerd-turned-villain. The guy barely has any actual screentime at all in comparison to the cavalcade of drama school limeys that make up his cannon fodder. For that matter, Marty differs from his slasher superiors in that he is characterized as a pathetic tool whose finally pushed over the edge. He’s the ultimate killer nerd, in my opinion, whose own vengeful pranks are gleefully macabre: intestinal beer explosions, acid baths, electric sex (literally), motor engine torso mutilations, and student sewage drowning. Really, the death sequences in this film are uniformly strong and deserve to be viewed in their uncut version. There is absolutely no mercy to any of his actions, and while the caricature characters completely deserve what’s coming to them, it is really hard to root for the sinister space cadet dressed in the scary jester’s mask. Basically, he’s every (reformed?) bully’s worst nightmare, a perfect representation of every dork, nerd, poindexter, or freak you ever picked on, and a reminder that not all high school outcasts, as one character puts it, goes on to work at IBM.

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Sadly, Simon Scuddamore would take his own life shortly after the making of Slaughter High, O.D.ing on drugs after the film’s wrap. There aren’t that many details available on the actor or his death, though it has been speculated as to whether or not his suicide is linkable to the film’s quality or content. If nothing else, I think Simon left behind a certain obscure legacy in Slaughter High, a brave performance that completely sells the film and, for the most part, is the reason I write this now. His jester-disguised mug is now plastered across t-shirts available on horror websites around the world and represents a minor icon within the hardcore slasher’s oureve, even garnering a character being named after him in the upcoming film Camp Blood the Musical. RIP, Mr. Scuddamore, your work lives on in the tattered, dusty VHS tapes that clutter horror fans collection and hearts worldwide.

Take a trip through the halls of horror!

Currently, Slaughter High is completely unavailable on DVD outside of the bootleg market, which are all ripped from VHS transfers. I paid a little over ten bucks for my copy on Ebay, which was then the cheapest available. My copy is an uncut Vestron video, the variant featuring a black background. To you slasher completists, I will say that if you’re going to pick the film up you should probably avoid the red background, which is the rated version, more than likely akin to the 32-seconds shorn BBC-cut. Unless you find it for cheap, go black background only, you’ll only regret it later.

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As far as any future official DVD release of the film, I’d like to think its inevitable, but, at this stage in the game, probably incredibly unlikely. The film is available on Youtube in chunks, and you can probably also seed and download it illegally without the threat of lawsuit hanging over your head. It’s also available to freely watch in its whole on Fearnet. Honestly, the film is so incredibly obscure outside the realm of hardcore horror fans, I think it would probably just be wisest for the fans to pick the film up on video and back it up on DVD-R for a precautionary measure. It’s a small but endearing footnote in slasher movie history. The film is a seemingly shitty, wholly bizarre, and undeniably distinct body-count film that rises above its deficiencies, flaws, and overall lack of originality with some amazingly inventive setpieces, surreal atmosphere, odd casting, and interesting villain. Slaughter High didn’t set the world on fire when released, but has garnered a reasonable cult following over the years and deserves to have a little more light shed on it as the years pass. To anyone who hasn’t seen it… check it out. To those who have, celebrate it. It’s a unique and beautiful slasher snowflake whose flaws are indeed its greatest virtues.

Ike O. ( praying for a special edition DVD)

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