Learning & Labor: A Back-To-School Slasher Retrospective

Joey Shapiro on 2018-09-12

School’s back, baby! What better way to commemorate the occasion than with some sleazy B-grade horror movies? These school-set slashers aren’t all cinematic masterpieces, but they are without a doubt a lot of goofy, bloody fun.

Pieces (1982) I consider Pieces to be both a prototypical slasher and the most batshit crazy example of the genre. It hits all the narrative and stylistic beats we expect from the genre — a masked killer, grisly death scenes, tons of red herrings — but executes it in bizarre, outrageous fashion that, had the tone been slightly different, could function just as well as a parody of the genre.

At the start of the film, we’re introduced to an unnamed boy who, after being scolded by his mom for working on a pornographic jigsaw puzzle, responds in a completely reasonable, level-headed way: he absolutely goes to town murdering her with an axe. Forty years later, the boy is now an unspecified adult back on his murderous bullshit on a college campus, this time killing co-eds and using their body parts as puzzle pieces to form a Frankenstein-esque recreation of his mother. Make sense so far? Cool.

The best part about the human jigsaw puzzle gimmick is that he selects his victims by their strongest body parts, meaning that he kills a swimmer for her legs, a tennis player for her arms, and, naturally, a girl reading a book for her head. If that sounds pretty ridiculous, it gets wilder. Director Juan Piquer Simon, apparently aiming for more realism in the death scenes despite the clear overarching insanity of the premise, refused to use fake blood or fake gore, instead drenching actresses in genuine animal guts and cutting into pig carcasses in close-ups during certain death scenes. Likewise, every weapon in the movie is real — when the killer lunges at a woman with a chainsaw and she pees herself, the actress is really peeing her pants because there is a realchainsaw inches from her face.

I realize this makes the whole thing sound like some gritty, horrific, Hostel-esque splatter movie, but let me personally reassure you that couldn’t be further from the truth. The final product is more in line with something John Waters might have made if he had a taste for horror and no self-awareness, an all-out onslaught of camp and incoherence that’s more likely to induce laughs than shudders. The acting is amateurish even for a slasher, and it’s unclear whether some of the actors are dubbed or if they genuinely just speak like that. Lines like, “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time” are delivered with a whole lot of emotion and even more incompetence. In spite of all this, it transcends simple so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking by occasionally being genuinely suspenseful and consistently being wildly entertaining. The whole movie’s appeal can be summed up in a single scene in which, with absolutely zero context, a Bruce Lee impersonator charges onscreen and attacks one of the protagonists for no other reason than that the producer was making a martial arts movie and wanted to give his lead actor another role. Like I said, batshit crazy.

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) This is the Super Babies: Baby Geniuses 2 of the horror world, in that the title is an absolute trainwreck that needs to be decoded and rearranged. The movie is a sequel to the post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle in name only, and thank god for that because the original Prom Night is as uninspired and boring as slashers get. While that movie ripped off Halloween and called it a day, this one takes it a step further and rips off no less than four movies: Carrie, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and, oddly enough, Peggy Sue Got Married. Derivative it may be, but the end result is nothing if not imaginative as the movie leaps from wacky special effects set piece to wacky special effects set piece.

So, you ask yourself/me/your laptop, who is Mary Lou and why am I greeting her? Turns out Mary Lou is a rebel girl in 1957 who sins her way through high school all the way to senior prom. At prom her boyfriend catches her making out with another boy and, in a less than clearheaded act of payback, he decides to toss a stink bomb in her general direction as she’s crowned prom queen. This being a slasher, a genre ripe with pranks-gone-wrong, the prank goes wrong and her dress goes up in flames, burning her to death and humiliating her in front of the entire senior class.

Flash-forward thirty years and saintly high school senior Vicki Carpenter is getting ready for the 1987 senior prom at the same high school. A good Christian girl whose religiously zealous mother refuses to buy her a prom dress (cough, Carrie, cough), Vicki finds a chest containing Mary Lou’s old prom outfit and in opening it unleashes the dead prom queen’s wayward, no-respect-for-authority spirit. Havoc is unleashed as everyone who comes into contact with the prom dress gets killed off in surreal, nightmarish ways until, finally, Vicki herself gets possessed by Mary Lou, giving the phantom rebel without a cause a revenge-fuelled second chance at senior prom — a Prom Night 2, so to speak.

It’s not hard to dissect that plot summary and pinpoint every single aspect ripped off from a different, more famous movie. There’s a lot of fun to be made in the bizarre mash-up here though: it’s got the prom-from-hell of Carrie, the demonic possession of The Exorcist, the surreal, effects-heavy death scenes of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the cheese of just about every low-budget ’80s slasher. The sheer unoriginality of it all ends up being its greatest virtue in that the countless reference points blur together into something that feels, oddly enough, unique, at least for this sort of movie.

The movie wouldn’t be much more than a weird shoulderpad-filled curiosity though if it weren’t for the positively bonkers practical special effects at play here. They aren’t quite on par with the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, but they come dangerously close. One highlight features Vicki seeing the letters on a classroom chalkboard rearrange to spell out “Help Me” backwards, as if somebody is trapped inside the board. She walks up to it, only for the chalkboard to morph into a black whirlpool as arms reach out from it à la Repulsion, dragging her in. Elsewhere, lockers collapse and crush a girl, mirrors liquefy, a rocking chair horse turns predatory, and, my personal favorite, a very dated computer dramatically electrocutes a high school boy and melts his face off.

It’s all as over-the-top as humanly possible and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The movie is a blast, and one that has absolutely no right to be as good as it is. It’s an obscure sequel to a thoroughly mediocre movie that, somehow, is monumentally better than the original. Skip the boring Jamie Lee Curtis original and go straight to this slab of undiscovered horror gold.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) God awful title aside (is it pronounced H-twenty? H-two-oh? What does this movie have to do with water?), Halloween H20 is a major return to form for what is the least consistent major slasher franchise out there. Aside from the first, second, and — depending on who you ask — the third movie, the Halloween franchise is real bad. Even its defenders can admit that none of the sequels ever quite recaptured the magic of the first movie, the model slasher to which every subsequent film in the genre aspired.

It isn’t quite as good as the original movie — how could it be? — but god knows H20 comes closer than any other Halloween movie before or after it. Part of this can be chalked up to Jamie Lee Curtis’ return as Laurie Strode and the retroactive dismissal of all the events in Halloweens 4–6 as non-canonical — a creative decision that should come as a huge relief to anyone who has sat through those movies. More than anything else though, it just feels more like aHalloween movie than the previous sequels, recapturing the tension and atmosphere of the first two films and slashing the groan-worthy supernatural mythos that the later sequels introduced.

Taking place, fittingly, two decades after the events of the original movie and Halloween 2, Laurie Strode has relocated to California under the name Keri Tate and is now the headmistress of an elite private school with a teenage son in tow. Unfortunately, her pesky/psychotic brother Michael has tracked her down and followed her all the way to California, and he begins wreaking havoc on the students and faculty of the school in his search for Laurie.

In a fun and thrilling twist, the cast is filled with familiar faces before they were famous: Michelle Williams! Joseph Gordon-Levitt! Josh Hartnett! Even LL Cool JJ is thrown in there for good measure. It’s a veritable who’s-who of celebrities being killed off in quick succession, but the movie is above all just a joy to watch because it’s the rare slasher that, like the original film, puts more weight on genuine suspense-building than on cheap gory thrills — although, with that said, it is far from bloodless and that well-earned suspense does lead to some well-earned murder scenes.

After three or four increasingly disappointing sequels, it would have been a relief just to have a Halloween movie that didn’t suck. It’s all the more wonderful then that H20 is a return to form that, truly and wholeheartedly, rules in its own right. Fingers crossed the upcoming reboot later this year can match it.

The Prowler (1981) Take a run-of-the-mill slasher plot about a psycho jilted lover returning to exact vengeance on a small college town and attach horror royalty like Dawn of the Dead alumnus Tom Savini and you’ve got yourself slasher gold, baby! This one is directed by Joseph Zito, the man behind the best Friday the 13th movie (the fourth one, duh), and while the plot and killer-with-big-mask-and-bigger-weapon gimmick were executed with a little more success in legendary slasher My Bloody Valentine released six months prior, The Prowler stands alone as something special thanks to its uniquely gnarly special effects.

The kills — the focal point of any good slasher — are in the single-digits, but you wouldn’t know it; every death scene leaves a pretty big impression thanks to Savini’s gruesome effects. There are bayonets going through throats, pitchforks skewering lovers together (very Friday the 13th: Part II), and, my personal favorite, a head blowing up in slow-motion. The camera always lingers on the gore shots for a long time — justifiably so given the attention to detail in these deaths — so make no mistake that this is one of the bloodier slashers out there. In a cute twist though, the killer leaves a rose on the body of all his victims because he’s a hopeless romantic; it’s a lot like The Bachelor in that way!

Still, there’s more to it than blood and guts. The Prowler is a slasher classic because the bloodiness is complemented by pretty impressive horror filmmaking, with a whole lot of dreamy atmosphere and more high-budget polish than you would expect from a movie with a $1 million budget. It’s hardly original (few slashers are, to be fair) and the plot itself isn’t always compelling, but it has a foggy, surreal quality to it that makes the whole thing feel like a very, very gory fever dream. The ending certainly adds to this dreamy atmosphere — without giving anything away it’ll either feel like a spooky little cliffhanger or a tacked-on cheap scare, depending on the viewer, but god knows it leaves an impression.

Black Christmas (1974) Look at that release date! John Carpenter’s Halloween is almost always name-dropped as the original slasher, and to its credit it was the one that started the trend and inspired an onslaught of lesser imitators through the tail end of the 70’s and the crotch end of the ’80s. That being said, Black Christmas was released four whole years before Michael Myers stepped foot in Haddonfield and it’s just as brilliant and creepy as Carpenter’s film, a neglected horror classic that pioneered everything Halloween did years later.

A group of college students are living in their sorority house over winter break having the time of their soon-to-be-shortened lives when they receive the obscene phone call to end all obscene phone calls: a man moaning into the phone, then describing some very intimate and unwelcome sex acts, and then, finally before the call ends, muttering, “I’m going to kill you.” It’s not charming, and soon he makes good on that promise as the sisters in the house start (you guessed it) popping up dead.

It’s roughly based on the frequently adapted urban legend about a man calling a babysitter to ask if she’s checked on the baby recently — the same urban legend that partly inspired Halloween and fully inspired the minor horror classic When A Stranger Calls — and if you’re familiar with that story then you already know where this is leading. Knowing the basic story doesn’t diminish the sheer spook factor of this movie though, and even as it approaches its 44thanniversary it hasn’t lost an ounce of penetrating creepiness. It has a way of feeling like an old-fashioned, slow-burn ’70s horror movie while also gently nudging horror as a genre towards the more raunchy brew of sex and gore that would dominate the genre in the ‘80s.

It’s fortunate enough to more or less be the first of its kind in that it nimbly avoids the more eye-roll-inducing slasher tropes while practically inventing them. Unlike Halloween, this isn’t some freaky concerned-PTA-mom fantasy in which horny teens get killed from their promiscuity; nobody is safe from the psycho freak lurking behind those breathy phone calls, not even the virgins(!). Sure, the movie would probably be a lot more effective if it didn’t lead to a million cheesy copycat movies down the road, but ultimately it stands out as the rare defensible entry in this much-maligned genre. Slashers as a rule are bloody, not scary; this is the very, very terrifying exception.

The House on Sorority Row (1983) I know I said Pieces feels to me like a very prototypical slasher, but The House on Sorority Row is the real deal: this is a movie that employs every single slasher cliché in the books — Naked sorority girls! A bitter old woman who hates naked sorority girls! Red herrings! A prank gone wrong! — yet, miraculously, it still feels exciting and monumentally fun in spite of it all. It’s the platonic ideal of slasher movies, providing dumb fun and cheap thrills without losing that warm familiarity inherent to slashers.

A group of college girls are living it up in their sorority house prior to graduation, but their buzzkill house mother keeps interrupting their grad week festivities. So, naturally, they decide to prank her by throwing her cane into a pool and forcing her at gunpoint to dive in and grab it. What could go wrong? It turns out a lot can go wrong, and it most definitely does. They accidentally shoot her with the very real handgun they were using (believability is key to any good prank), and before they know it they’ve committed the single most heinous prank of all: first-degree murder.

It looks like someone knows about their crime, however, and soon bodies start piling up around the sorority house. Think Black Christmas meets I Know What You Did Last Summer and you’ve got the gist of the movie. It’s hardly original in the story department and it obviously wasn’t meant to be, but it pulls off every run-into-the-ground horror trope with Hitchcockian flair and more than enough dark humor to make something this derivative feel fresh.

God knows it’s as by-the-books as any other slasher out there, but by-the-books looks good on this movie and it doesn’t try to be anything more than a bloody, cheesy good time. You shouldn’t expect anything Oscar-worthy with a premise like this, but when judged on its own terms there’s no denying this is a bona fide slasher classic.