Saturday, August 3, 2013

Night School (1981): Off With Her Head!


"Night School" is one of the more notorious junk slashers that came out in the wake of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th". 1981 was a banner year for slashers, and "Night School" was one of the lesser-known features that landed in the local drive-ins and then quickly vanished. I'd always heard about this one's reputation as being dull and obvious, so imagine my surprise when I finally gave it a whirl and realized, to quote Nomi Malone in "Showgirls"--it doesn't suck.
"I can't gossip with you now, I've got to have a harrowing talk with my agent."
Rachel Ward makes a bizarre screen debut as a student at a college where murders have been taking place, the exclusively female victims found decapitated, their heads immersed in water at each crime scene. The killer, clad entirely in black leather and wearing a black helmet with a tinted face shield, seems to be singling out girls who were all both students and bed partners of a male professor named Vincent Millett. His live-in lover happens to be none other than Ward, who is pregnant with his child and haunted by rumors of his infidelity. So who on Earth would want to behead all these chicks he's bangin?

Uh yeah...it's really that easy to figure out. The leather-clad killer is Rachel Ward. The fact that the woman-killing mad slasher in this film turns out to be another woman makes "Night School" seem like it's coming from a different place than other slashers--critics were always writing about how slashers reflected a misogynistic attitude and a general hatred toward women, but here is a woman acting out against women. It's like the people who made this movie were trying to be all clever about it and surprise everyone. This is one of the biggest problems "Night School" has going for it, since it seems like they really did want you to be shocked at the moment when the killer's helmet comes off and all of Rachel Ward's hair spills out onto her shoulders, but honestly--to have not figured it out on your own would have meant you were fast-forwarding through everything except the murders.

So the surprise factor doesn't work, but that actually turns out to be a bullshit reason to hate on "Night School", which shares a lot of sleazy atmosphere with genre classic "Maniac". The murder sequences are all fairly harrowing--women are isolated and viciously slashed by the killer's wicked looking knife, which looks like it could easily decapitate anybody. But "Night School" parts ways with "Maniac" entirely with it's conspicuous lack of flamboyant murders, which in 1981 was absolutely essential. There was no Tom Savini at the disposal of these filmmakers, and it seems like they weren't even going to try. The kills are occasionally brutal and one is extremely bloody, but the death blows mostly happen offscreen--another big clue to why "Night School" never got a sequel.

 The funny thing is, even though it's not as good as "Halloween" or even "Friday the 13th", "Night School" was a much more solid effort than its poor box office led me to believe. It seems to be aware of its own cliches, but it doesn't exactly cross the line into parody, either. One sequence shows Ward being stalked by a shadowy figure along a deserted street, and even though it feels exactly like the red herring it is, the photography is very showy and effective, it reminded me a lot of Bava. Other sequences are extremely visual as well, such as one that features a large zoo aquarium full of exotic sea life, and an unforgettable moment where a character drains a sink to reveal a decapitated head in the water.

I also noticed a few similarities to Argento's "Tenebre", including the film's most graphic murder, in which the victim's blood splashes copiously onto the white walls of a shower room. Another link to "Tenebrae" is a plot element that involves a predatory lesbian administrator who seduces one of the girls that Ward's lover has dallied with and rejected. An awkward sex scene starts to unfold and is then interrupted when the killer shows up and murders them both. The surprising thing is, "Night School" did it first--it came out a full year before "Tenebrae". Alfred Sole ("Alice Sweet Alice") was approached to direct, but he turned it down and the job went to Ken Hughes, whose career pinnacle was "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang". "Night School" is his last film credited as director. While the movie is missing a satisfying cohesiveness, there are elements that stick with me, not the least of which is a scene where Ward and her lover take a shower together and he smears a strange dark red substance all over her body, visually marking her as the killer even before the actual onscreen revelation occurs. The soundtrack is worth mentioning too, which juxtaposes spooky piano suspense motifs with weird squelchy synthesizer rants that go on and on during the murder sequences. Even though "Night School" is comparatively bloodless, there's something not quite right about it. I wouldn't turn my back on "Night School" if I were you, not for a second.
Hello? Is Mario Bava home?

The killer goes straight for the script's logic switch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the only good part is the lesbian scenes.