Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Back To Back To Skull - Day 2

Welcome back to the second day of our second weeklong celebration of films that encourage people to really rethink their undergraduate ambitions! Our subject for today's lesson is another oddity from 1981- a buried slasher that deserves to be unearthed.

Year: 1981
Director: Ken Hughes
Cast: Leonard Mann, Rachel Ward, Drew Snyder
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

1981 is commonly known as the best year for the slasher genre, but it's also the era when the sub-subgenre of the college slasher bloomed in full force. Up until then, the slasher film was still on shaky legs, vacillating between dreary Psycho rip-offs and an inexplicable plethora of films set on holidays. In retrospect, the college setting with its near-nightly parties and wealth of healthy young co-eds was the perfect fodder for the structure of the format, but slasher filmmakers were playing it by ear, and 1981 was when they struck gold.

Already from 1981 we've covered the interesting but uninspired sorority slasher Hell Night, the dull but shockingly tense and gory The Prowler, and the generic but visually kinetic Final Exam. But even among such well-known and prestigious peers (well, comparatively), today's topic - Night School - is a standout that deserves far more recognition than it has ever received. 

And not just because of the pristine scenery.

Night School regales us with the tale of Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann, who also played Laura's psychiatrist in Silent Night, Deadly Night III) as he investigates a series of vicious decapitations around Boston, perpetrated by a mysterious killer in a motorcycle helmet. He traces one of the victims back to Wendall College, a women's-only night school where a lecherous anthropology professor named Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder) is rumored to be fooling around with several of his students, to the consternation of his live-in girlfriend/research assistant Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward of The Final Terror and - a personal favorite of mine, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid), who really should know better at this point, considering how their relationship started.

When more of Millett's sexiest students start losing their heads (and not in the usual "finals are next week" sort of way), Judd and his partner Taj (Joseph R. Sicari) buckle down on the search for this mysterious headhunter. The killer's MO invokes a primitive ritual by submerging the heads in water, so could Millet be the culprit? Or is it Gary (Bill McCann), the creepy Peeping Tom busboy who followed Eleanor home the other night? Or is it someone else entirely? My money's on the butler. 

It's a rare example of a mystery slasher that actually works, with each suspect given clear potential culpability and kept in the game until just about the very last second of the reveal.

Maybe it's HER- oh wait, probably not.

Night School really is an odd little duckling. While there is absolutely a precedent for slashers based around police procedural, they usually don't have the feel of the classics of the genre. However, Night School is still firmly ensconced in that arena with its masked killer, sexual exploitation, and bevy of lithe female corpses - making itself an almost perfect hybrid of the two storytelling structures. 

Like many cop slashers, it's decidedly un-gory. Despite nearly every death in the film being a decapitation, they occur offscreen and there aren't many big grisly payoffs when the heads are discovered (although they are nearly always found in amusing places - personal favorites include a toilet - à la House on Sorority Row - and a turtle tank at the aquarium). But the film combines the best of both genres to become a fun, extremely well put-together piece of work despite the lack of grue.

Like many of the best slashers, Night School lives and dies as its characters do - in a well-etched location. Shot and set in Boston, the movie expertly captures the geography of its little brick-and-lamplight neighborhood on the water's edge. It could be a damn postcard if it weren't for all the beheadings. Much like the terrific My Bloody Valentine, the town's atmosphere seeps through every frame, providing a convivial, lived-in location for a set of characters that are equally engaging and fleshed out.

You see, there is no Meat in this film. Because of the dearth of heavy gore effects, Night School elects to maintain its focus on character rather than rent flesh and geysers of blood (what a notion!). Even minor characters like Judd's partner, or Gus the line cook, or the one-scene-only Mrs. Austin are given names, character traits, inner life, and moderately talented performers for taste. All this creates a thoroughly realistic background environment for the mystery that heightens the tension.

As well as all the madcap shower hijinks.

No two ways about it, Night School is more than a cheesy decapitation slasher. It's a fairly decent film qua films, with production quality higher than "I just dug all the change out of this vending machine, let's make a movie." The camera moves, engages with, and comments on the action. The production design is sumptuously detailed, especially in regards to Millett's well-appointed house full of anthropological artifacts. And the editing seeks to draw connections in the viewers mind, rather than just try to hide the boom mikes in every other shot. One notable scene involves juxtaposing the killer's appearance with a shark swimming in a tank, which is literally one of the oldest tricks in the book (a similar cut opens Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times from 1936), but shows that the film seeks to be so much more than its tatty precursors.

The cherry on top is that Night School knows its audience. It's aware that people who are coming to see a slasher film (gasp) want to see a slasher film and (double gasp) have presumably seen quite a few of them already. Using this to its advantage, the film toys with the audience's knowledge of similar films to playfully subvert expectations.


The most quintessential of these playful scenes follows the death of the diner waitress Carol (Karen MacDonald), who is decapitated in the alley after pulling a pot of water out of the freezer. By now the audience has come to expect the head to be submerged, so when Gus (Nicholas Cairis) arrives the next morning and serves two construction workers stew from the same pot, the tension is delicious. The scene progresses step-by-step as a sufficiently well-versed horror fan would expect, slowly creeping toward the inevitable reveal as Gus pours out the stew and.... it never comes. When no head tumbles from the pot, audience imaginations are encouraged to run wild as a series of similar, suggestive moments occurs before the final, fateful revelation.

It's one of my favorite body reveal scenes of all time, impishly using the audience's knowledge against them to create a sense of unease. Another similar scene involves Eleanor taking a shower immediately after being followed home by a creepy busboy. Obviously, any shower scene in a horror film can't escape the gargantuan shadow of Psycho, which Night School is duly aware of. So when it  later cuts to swirls of red running down the drain, alarm bells blare in your brain until it is revealed that something entirely different (and perhaps even less appealing) from murder is occurring. Sorry for the awkward wording there, I'm trying not to completely ruin these scenes, just commend them for their sheer cleverness.

Something I never thought I'd say about the Motorcycle Killer movie.

All said, Night School is far more elegant than your typical slasher. It's still exploitative of course (there's plenty of bra shots and a wonderfully sleazy lesbian headmistress), but much more stately and involved with engaging interpersonal affairs. There is a body count, certainly, but it doesn't exist solely to sate bloodthirsty teen boys, rather to ramp up the tension and urgency of the central mystery.

On top of all that, if one wishes to take a Carol J. Clover-type perspective when analyzing the film, they won't be disappointed. 

[SPOILERS (YAY!) AND ANALYSIS (BOO!) The film's constant suggestion that mankind has just barely stepped out of the savage, primal jungle is evidenced in this film's womenfolk, who take traditionally male roles. The killer turns out to be Eleanor, who is pregnant with Millett's child and dutifully murdering anybody he has an affair with. In this way, as evidenced through dialogue, she is taking on the "masculine" role of defending her family, adopting a phallic knife to enact this role with murderous intent. ("It's this culture that's uncivilized. Where a woman can't defend herself.") And Helene Griffin (Annette Miller), the predatory headmistress who seduces a student, likewise takes on a domineering "male" role. 

Not only do these women perform the roles of men, they do it much better than the unfortunately penis-laden ever could, resulting in death, destruction, and general mayhem. By embracing the violence and lust of the male role, the women destroy everything in their path, both indicting the inherent savagery of the human race and the debilitating gender roles imposed by modern society on both men and women, encouraging the primitive aspects of one while repressing the innate natures of the other.]

I really adored Night School. Do I wish it were more licentious with its killings? Absolutely. Do I wish that the victims fought back against their assailant instead of leaning against walls and screaming? By all means. But the blank-faced killer cuts an impressive figure, the characters are engaging, and the filmmaking is exuberant and lively. Especially in the slasher genre, it doesn't get much better than this.

Killer: [Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward)]
Final Girl: There isn't one! Gender politics! Unless you count Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann), which I don't.
Best Kill: Anne Baron is decapitated while the killer spins her on a playground's mini merry-go-round.
Sign of the Times: Judd performs a stakeout in a bulky knit sweater.
Scariest Moment: Eleanor is followed home by a creepy busboy.
Weirdest Moment: Eleanor and Vincent have weird anthropology sex in the shower, where he smears her with primitive body paint as they make out.

Champion Dialogue: "I suddenly find myself up to my neck in heads."
Body Count: 6
  1. Anne Baron is decapitated on a merry-go-round.
  2. Kim is decapitated.
  3. Carol is decapitated.
  4. Helene Griffin is decapitated. 
  5. Kathy is decapitated.
  6. Vincent Millett breaks his neck in a motorcycle crash.
TL;DR: Night School is nearly gore-free but makes up for it with well-etched characters and locations, and an engaging and playful storyline that knows how to toy with its audience.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1780

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