Thursday, January 1, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Die Laughing

Year: 1981
Director: Michael Ritchie (credited as Mickey Rose)
Cast: Kristen Riter, Matt Goldsby, Jerry Belson
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The assertion on the poster of the lackluster 1981 slasher Student Bodies that it is "the world's first comedy horror movie" is patently untrue. Films have combined the two genres with varying degrees of success since very near the inception of cinema itself with films like 1925's Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (my, how the more things change, the more they stay the same) or The Old Dark House from 1932. 

However, this being Hollywood in the 1980s and all, we should naturally take any declaration with a grain of cocaine. Student Bodies does appear to be the first feature film to parody the nascent slasher genre. The film was released almost presciently in the biggest year of the slasher Golden Age, just 16 months after Friday the 13th changed the game. The next film to parody the subgenre (National Lampoon's Class Reunion) wouldn't come out until almost a full year later, proving that for all its lack of vitality, Student Bodies was remarkably ahead of its time.

Those looking for an explanation should search no further than the 1981 Writers' Strike, which led to the hasty assemblage of the film from a variety of out-of-work crew members, many of whom would opt to use pseudonyms. In fact, this film was so hastily assembled that producer/director Michael Ritchie misspelled famous Hollywood nom de plume "Alan Smithee"as "Allen" in the opening titles. When you can't even spell your own fake name, the idea that you can create an entire feature film from scratch becomes a little suspect. So the fact that Student Bodies has as much to like as it does really says something, but a whole movie can't operate solely on pity. Ergo, we review.

But do we have to?

Student Bodies opens exactly the way it has to, with a scene that earned the film tens (maybe even dozens) of die-hard fans by being a near pitch-perfect parody of the "babysitter in peril" genre. The screen fades in and out on a shot of a house as the subtitle changes from "Halloween" to "Friday the 13th" to "Jamie Lee Curtis' Birthday," then we watch as a girl chats on the phone about how "I have a feeling this is the last time I'll ever baby-sit," gets a series of heavy breathing phone calls, is half-strangled by her boyfriend as a prank, goes upstairs with him to bone and then gets murdered with the unlikeliest weapon possible: the killer passes up a rope, an axe, and poison in favor of a box of paper clips.

It's again oddly prescient in terms of the fact that slashers in 1981 weren't quite so desperate for ideas that they resorted to crazy gimmicky killings until a year or so down the line. But other than that, it's a more or less perfect bawdy take on the trials and tropes of the genre from Halloween all the way on down to When A Stranger Calls.

However, the film's sense of humor is more or less killed off along with its opening couple. There are a couple decent gags down the line, but few of them relate in any way to the horror subgenre being lampooned and even fewer elicit anything more than a wan chuckle. But more on that later. For the time being, we are stuck with Toby (Kristen Riter) - a Final Girl so pure and virginal that she has a big button reading "NO" pinned to her blouse (one of the few gags that has any juice past the ten minute mark).

If they sold these at conventions, I would own a dozen of 'em.

Toby watches as various pairs of her friends sneak away from the day's events to form the beast with two backs and are subsequently killed off. Her constant helicoptering around the doomed couples leads several local authorities to believe that she is the murderer, so she sets off on a quest to discover the true culprit and clear her name, dragging her boyfriend Hardy (Matt Goldsby) along for the ride.

As time goes by - and the one scene that makes up the second and most of the third act is repeated endlessly - the somewhat decent gags begin to putrefy and decay into a dull, nonsensical roar. Student Bodies might be aiming to be an Airplane! for the slasher crowd, but with sophomoric, non-genre related gags (the killer disguises his voice through the ass of a rubber chicken; the mentally challenged Janitor pees blood; a blind black kid named Charles Ray makes friends with a kid in a wheelchair and they both proceed to catcall women like a horny, juvenile Greek chorus) it barely even surpasses Not Another Teen Movie. At the very least, there's no joke involving a waterfall of fecal matter, so we're still in safer territory than the parodic dreck of the 2000's, thank goodness.

Many of the gags are of a piece underwritten and over-explained, favoring loudness over comedy. But the lack of quality humor just means that it's one more drop in the bucket of dreary 80's horror, all of which were made for cheap thrills, not a true love of the genre. There's not even any bared bosoms or extravagant gore to mock the more tawdry ambitions of its target films.

In fact, the kills are perhaps the most disappointing element of the bunch. When describing the ludicrous murder weapons to a slasher fan ("Paper clips! Trash bags! An eggplant!"), they're sure to become suitably aroused (the brain part, not the pants part), but each and every kill is edited in a tumultuous flurry, rendering optical cognition impracticable. 

Think of each kill as the back half of that sentence. They start off strong (ie. the killer grabs an eggplant and marches toward an unwary victim), but become so obscured by flashy trickery that they might as well not have even happened at all. Generally a pair of characters will be killed so swiftly and efficiently, their bodies will be instantaneously teleported to the nearest crowd to save people the trouble of discovering them. This makes no sense within or without the film, but between you and me I'd rather go without the film.

This review is already funnier than the movie.

The one shining beacon in the film is the odd, akimbo janitor Malvert, played by a mysterious, double-jointed comedian known only as The Stick. His dialogue is truly dreadful, but his pendulous arm-swinging is captivating, providing a shot of the truly strange into a most mediocre affair. His arms have more star quality than the rest of the cast combined (many of whom never appeared in another film), but they're not enough to entirely spruce up a film that has the audacity to end with an "it was all a dream" moment but forget to include any jokes at the expense of that cliché.

But a dim 80's comedy is better than a dire 2010's Adam Sandler comedy, I suppose. The least I can say is that when you're watching Student Bodies, the time passes quickly enough. But the endlessly dull repetition wears woefully thin. There are some decent jokes at the expense of slasher tropes and The Stick is a sight to behold, but other than that there's no gore, no nudity, and not enough laughs to recommend the film to the average viewer. Two boobs down.

Killer: Principal Peters (Joe Talarowski) & Miss Mumsley (Mimi Weddell) - In Real Life: Hardy (Matt Goldsby)
Final Girl: Toby (Kristen Riter)
Best Kill: The woodshop teacher convinces the killer to stop pursuing him with a buzz saw, instructing him to turn it off and put it back in the case, but - having presumably saved himself - is then killed by being smacked with the case.
Sign of the Times: The Real Life version of Scott is encumbered with a truly unfortunate red neckerchief.
Scariest Moment: Toby runs down a hallway pursued by the teachers in odd costumes, then the reanimated corpses of her friends.
Weirdest Moment: The woodshop teacher has a fetish-like predilection for horse head bookends, and his room is filled to the brim with them.
Champion Dialogue: "Please, don't be so formal. Call me daddy."
Body Count: 15 1/2 - the poster is a big fat liar.
  1. Julie is stabbed to death with paper clips.
  2. Charlie is smothered with a trash bag.
  3. Bertha is violated with a horse head bookend.
  4. Joe is smothered with a trash bag.
  5. Dagmar is killed with an eggplant somehow. 
  6. Ralph is smothered with a trash bag.
  7. Mawamba is smothered with a trash bag.
  8. Joan is choked with a chalkboard eraser.
  9. Al is smothered with a trash bag.
  10. Patty is stabbed in the head with the prom queen crown. 
  11. Scott is smothered with a trash bag.
  12. Mr. Dumpkin is bonked on the head with a buzz saw case.
  13. Principal Peters is stabbed with a trophy.
  14. Hardy chokes on a glove.
  15. Toby is strangled by Hardy in real life.
   15 1/2. Toby squashes a fly. 
TL;DR: Student Bodies is a loud, sophomoric comedy, but at least it has several gags that will get the goat of any slasher fan.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1551

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