Return to Horror High (1987)
"School spirit has never been this dead"
In 1982, a mysterious serial killer caused panic at Crippen High School but was never caught. Five years later, a movie company decides to make a feature film about these events - on location at the now-abandoned school. But when members of the cast and crew start to disappear without a trace, it seems as if history is repeating itself.
1987 and the slasher boom has already come and gone. Any ounce of originality, and let’s face it there was hardly any to begin with, had been bled dry. Audiences had been subjected to the same formula over and over, with lessening results. Unless you were one of the big hitting franchises like Friday the 13th, no one was flocking to the cinema to see your second-rate slasher and the best you could hope for was some prolonged shelf-life in a video store. There is this weird era between the ‘golden age’ and the post-modern 90s horror that is just a void of any truly remarkable slashers. With subtle hints that this would be something of an early precursor to the meta-horror of Scream, Return to Horror High looked to do something a little different and go for the film-within-a-film route, trying to subvert the genre with varying success. There had been other attempts earlier in the decade, with Student Bodies being one that springs to mind, but nothing had really worked.
Sadly, any real pretence this had to become something satirical and witty quickly evaporates once you realise Return To Horror High is literally a one-trick pony, where you’re not sure what you see on-screen is part of the film or part of the film-within-a-film. Far too often, there’s an elaborate kill scene filled with gore but then it is revealed to just be part of the film getting made and that the character isn’t actually dead. This works for the first instance, but then it grows tiresome as you realise the writers don’t have anything else up their sleeves. One scene is hilariously interrupted by the sleazy producer who pops into frame complaining that the camera should be focused on her breasts as that’s what the fans want to see, prompting the actress to go on a bit of a feminist rant at him. As well as the film-within-a-film structure, the whole narrative is framed around the sole survivor recounting the story to the police and also linking it back to the original murders, making the story even more confusing with a series of flashbacks to two different times and then back-to-presents. The combination of the two gives Return To Horror High a haphazard flow, pulling you out from a particular time to go backwards and forwards, or whether it’s real or not. It’s confusing to say the least.
Return to Horror High is messy though and not afraid to spill the red stuff. Given that this was made in 1987, the slasher film was living up the stereotypes that the producer in the film wanted – tits and blood – as there was nothing else left for it to do to shock audiences. Whether the gore is ‘real’ or part of the film-within-a-film concept, it’s effective enough and looks to have a sizeable budget. The best sequence involving someone tied upside down with a giant fan propeller moving towards him is like something out of a Saw film, albeit without the seriousness. There is a stronger emphasis on the humour over the horror throughout, so the goofy nature of the film can become a little overbearing with the amount of slapstick and one-liners. This contradicts with the horror elements as the slashing side of things can get quite serious. The two are weird bedfellows here, neither fitting well with the other.
With the story all over the place, the actors try their best but it’s a tough ask. George Clooney makes his screen debut here but blink and you’ll miss him as he’s quickly ‘written’ out of the film. Lor Lethin plays three different roles in the film, rather confusing given that the only noticeable difference between her characters is the wigs she wears, making it difficult to know just which character she is playing in a certain scene. Highlight of the film is by far and away Alex Rocco, who famously played Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene in The Godfather, who is an absolute riot as the sleazy producer who just wants to see more tits and blood on the screen. He is almost like the inner voice of many of the target demographic. The problem the characters have is that there are so many of them and it isn’t until the halfway point before you realise just who the main characters are meant to be. By this point, you won’t really care less about them, and the rest of the story, as a result. The twist ending is ludicrous (you’ll never spot it a mile away though!) and another kick below the belt after you’ve tried to stick with the story for so long.
The dual storytelling approach of Return To Horror High creates a disjointed narrative, difficult to follow and leaving the audience spending most of their time figuring out just what the hell is going on. It’s a shame as there is some decent material here but despite the script thinking it was smart in trying to constantly fool the audience, it just trips them up one time too many.
Return to Horror High
Director(s): Bill Froehlich
Writer(s): Bill Froehlich, Mark Lisson, Dana Escalante, Greg H. Sims
Actor(s): Vince Edwards, Brendan Hughes, Scott Jacoby, Lori Lethin, Philip McKeon, Alex Rocco
Duration: 95 mins