For our podcast episode about this very movie, please click here.
Director: Bill Froehlich
Cast: Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, Alex Rocco
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Well, it’s that time of year again. The sun is beating down, the kids are pulling themselves up by the backpack straps and heading back to school, and... I’m not one of them. That’s right, I’m just another college grad, facing the endless void of the unlimited future. Like so many film majors before me, I’m clinging desperately to my wall of DVDs, hoping they won’t fling me off into eternal limbo. But unlike those chuckleheads, I have supremely bad taste and I’ve chosen to commemorate Back to School week with the 1987 meta slasher classic Return to Horror High. Contrary to popular belief, this film is not a sequel to anything. It might not even technically qualify as a film, but hear me out here.
Return to Horror High is a very special brand of late 80’s slash-‘em-up. It was so far into the rapidly deflating slasher boom that hardly any of the films actually took themselves seriously anymore. 1987 was the year of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the film which saw Freddy’s full metamorphosis into quipping carnival huckster, and many contemporaneous flicks like Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, Slumber Party Massacre II, and Cheerleader Camp followed suit with goofy, Hannah-Barbera antics. Horror high is silly enough to be lumped into that category, and yet it transcends it with some legitimately intriguing satire.
It’s still a shallow microbudget exploitation scudbucket, but it has a flash of intelligence that lodges it firmly between the superficial parody of a Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th and the insightful skewering of Scream. Unlike any of its peers, it actually has something to unpack. Even if most of that is Styrofoam fluff, it’s a remarkable achievement.
I’ll elaborate, but I should probably explain the plot before this review turns into a Tolstoy novel.
Return to Horror High tells the story of Crippen High School, a campus that was rocked with a series of murders in 1982. When a film crew descends upon the now-abandoned campus to shoot a movie based on those very killings, they soon realize that whoever perpetrated them might never have left as they begin to disappear one by one. This story is told though evidence collected after the fact from the only survivor - the screenwriter Arthur Lyman (Richard Brestoff) – by the stoic Chief Dreyner (Pepper Martin of The Outing) and the sexily irreverent Officer Tyler (an exultant Maureen McCormick, finally free from the shackles of Marcia Brady) on the front lawn, which is strewn with dismembered bodies.
The cast and crew include Callie Cassidy (Lori Lethin of Bloody Birthday and The Prey) the effervescent leading ldy; Harry (actual notable Alex Rocco of The Godfather), the sleazebag producer with a bimbo in one hand and a sandwich in the same hand; Steven Blake (Brendan Hughes), a corn-fed and studly local cop who winds up with a role opposite Callie, who just might be interested in loving him; and Oliver (underrated character actor George Clooney), the leading man who gets whisked away on a cushy pilot gig and becomes the killer’s first victim.
There’s nothing better than watching Oscar-winning actors kick the bucket in movies that cost less than their most recent grocery run.
The truly flabbergasting thing about Horror High is that it’s actually consistently, intentionally funny. Its sense of humor might be too daffy for the more highbrow epicures among us, but if that describes you, how did you even find my blog in the first place? Crew members pile out of a bathroom stall like a clown car, the director and the FX guy get into a fight over a set of exploding breast implants, and the janitor mops up the blood after every kill. It’s like an Abbott and Costello routine gone haywire, mixed up with the already ever-present 80’s camp that looms throughout the film like the truly outrageous amount of smoke in its hallways (from the looks of things, their smoke machine budget probably outstripped their payroll budget, which would explain why Clooney is only in one scene).
Because of its ludicrous tone, Horror High allows itself a stroke of genius that many of its slasher brethren are denied: it turns its low budget into an asset rather than a liability. First on the chopping block are the kills, which have to share about a thimble of blood between them like it’s Christmas morning in a Dickensian orphanage. The film converts a great deal of these into sight gags, using match cuts to imply a bigger impact through a silly juxtaposition or using a silhouetted and/or offscreen kill as a punchline to another scene. SPOILERS [An attempt to explain it all away by having every death be a hoax goes totally awry in a nonsensical, almost psychedelic closing sequence, but I admire the screenwriters’ chutzpah in attempting to push the film so far over the top that the top is just a distant, happy memory.]
But the cleverest integration of its low budget mojo is also the film’s postmodern heart and soul. Utilizing its nature as a film within a film, Return to Horror High goes hog wild, unabashedly exposing its own lighting setups, revealing the edges of its sets, and generally reveling in its own artifice. And why not? The plot takes place on a film set, so nothing is off limits. The scenes being shot are based on a true story, so they also serve as flashbacks, and any flaws in the scenes shot in “reality” can be explained away by the superficialities of life on a film set [as well as the fact that the story being told by Lyman may well be entirely fabricated]. Everything coils back in on itself like a bedazzled M. C. Escher piece and it’s mildly brilliant.
A slasher with any sort of brain in its head is like that horse that can do math. You wouldn’t notice in in a film of any other genre – rather, you’d expect it - but it’s something truly surprising and remarkable to behold under the circumstance. I just want to pet it and feed it a salt lick.
While Return to Horror High does have several layers to it (first and foremost a genuinely decent camp comedy horror flick, second a meta take on exploitation filmmaking), no matter how deep you strip mine, there’s not a shred of horror tension to be found in the entire thing (especially once you realize that not a single death is actually onscreen). That’s certainly not damning, especially considering how much of it undeniably works, but it definitely feels like there’s a final piece missing from the puzzle. Perhaps if the film’s denouement made more sense, or in fact any slight glimmer of sense at all, it would be rid of the somewhat bereaved quality it leaves the audience behind with, but as it stands it opens stronger than it closes. Kind of like when my mom packs my suitcase for me on a trip.
However, griping about Return to Horror High can be dangerous, because the film is a Rock Slide Zone of 80’s cheese. The noise of even a mild complaint instantly becomes buried beneath a teetering tower of relentlessly abysmal fashions, topsy turvy performances, and dazzlingly surreal scenes that defy the imagination. I’m hesitant to spoil the masses of riches that this film has to offer, so I’ll describe only one that you – dear reader – may test the water: Officer Tyler, drenched in blood, describes the carnage she just witnessed while fondling her own boob.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia…
Return to Horror High certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s one of the best bad movies of the late slasher cycle and it comes highly recommended from yours truly. It’s wacky, wet, and wild. You won’t experience anything even remotely similar to the classic slashers we know and love, but sometimes it’s nice to have a break and stare in incredulity at a screen for 90 minutes as something inutterably, ineffably, indelibly remarkable unfolds. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to see George Clooney get ruthlessly murdered by a psycho in yellow dishwashing gloves, you’ll never have a better opportunity.
Killer: Principal Kastleman (Andy Romano) [But who actually dies?]
Final Girl: Callie Cassidy (Lori Lethin)
Best Kill: it’s not gory, or even particularly specific (Oliver is slammed against a door and blood pools – we don’t even glimpse a murder weapon) but seeing Clooney in a classically generic slasher sequence is a sight to behold.
Sign of the Times: Callie Cassidy investigates murders in a chic periwinkle jumpsuit.
Scariest Moment: In the film within the film, a Quasimodo-masked killer dissects a biology teacher.
Weirdest Moment: Steven tears the mask off an African-American janitor’s face to reveal the white principal and angrily shouts, “Kastleman, you honky!”
Champion Dialogue: “Would you care to walk around in the scene with your schlong hanging out? Only in your case, darling, it would be a schlort.”
Body Count: 10
- Oliver is killed offscreen.
- Actor is decapitated with an axe.
- Grip is dragged into a sandbox.
- Robbie is slashed with a fan.
- Mr. Burnbaum is dissected in the film.
- Blake’s neck is snapped in a dream.
- Callie Cassidy is decapitated in a dream.
- Freddy is killed offscreen.
- Harry is decapitated.
- Josh is decapitated.
TL;DR: Return to Horror High is a genuinely funny, if underfunded slasher satire.
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