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Slaughter High

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
George Dugdale
Mark Ezra
Peter Litten
Caroline Munro
Simon Scuddamore
Carmine Iannaconne
Donna Yeager
Gary Martin
Bottom Line: 
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Although supremely awkward, cheesy, and  unerringly silly from start to finish, “Slaughter High” is the low budget, third-tier, broad comedy ‘80s slasher that became a fan favourite more because of its ghastly bad taste and inherent daftness than in spite of such dubious qualities. The film is the cheap, bandwagon-jumping product of the shameless exploitation team that previously came up with tosh like “Pieces” and “Don’t Open ‘Till Christmas” in the early eighties, namely Dick Randall (who even gets a cameo in the film as a sleazy exploitation producer) and Stephen Minasian.  It’s an American High School teen slasher in the classic ‘80s mould, but entirely shot on the cheap on location in England, by a grand total of three directors – George Dugdale (husband of star Caroline Munro), writer and editor Mark Ezra, and former special effects man Peter Litten: all of them British.  The cast of unknowns (give or take the odd “Emmerdale” cast member) is similarly a mishmash of American exchange students from a nearby London drama school and British twenty-something actors attempting to pass themselves off as American adolescents with variable transatlantic accents. To add authenticity to the trad concept behind Mark Ezra’s ungainly screenplay, Harry Manfredini provides a score that ambles its way from hackneyed power rock to an overt pastiche of the composer’s own instantly recognisable ‘ki-ki-ki’ motif from “Friday the 13th -- replacing the echoing consonants of the original with the tinkle of bells on the masked antagonist’s jester uniform!

The film adheres fairly rigidly to the string of glib platitudes and clichés that define nearly all of the mid-eighties teen slashers, following a plot that’s essentially the umpteenth rehash of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” in which an unlikable collection of dumb teenagers are lured to an isolated spot (in this case their old, now-dilapidated High School) where they are summarily dispatched, one-by-one, here by a former student from their schooldays whose now seeking revenge for a decade-old April Fool’s Day prank gone wrong that left him hideously facially scarred and murderously insane. Coming across like a super-attenuated version of “Saved by the Bell”, only with exploding guts and naked women periodically expiring gorily in dingy acid baths (which would’ve made a good episode, now let’s face it!) the film’s procession of absurdities is at least set in its proper context early on -- for once we’ve been forced to accept that the then thirty-five-year-old Caroline Munro is playing a seventeen-year-old American High School student, almost anything else this slapdash slasher-lite chooses to throw at us seems almost logical by comparison!

Such is the following that “Slaughter High” has gathered around it in the twenty-five or so odd years since its initial U.S. release (it was never brought out theatrically in the UK, and had to await the home video boom to find its audience there) that Simon Scuddamore, who plays the film’s nerdy, dishevelled Woody Allen/Jarvis Cocker lookalike, Marty Rantzen, has become something of a cult star in the meantime, despite this being his only film. He committed suicide soon after its completion. His is the broadest but most compelling of the movie’s collection of over-the-top comedy performances: a shambling, stuttering, bespectacled science geek who thinks he’s about to have hot shower sex with co-student, Carol – played by the luscious top-lining actress Caroline Munro (appearing here as a favour to her then-boyfriend, later husband, director George Dugdale) -- but is in fact being tricked into stripping naked in the shower cubicle so as he can be made the victim of a particularly cruel piece of Public School-style bullying (Ezra’s own upbringing revealing itself in the screenplay, here), organised by arch practical joker Skip (Carmine Iannaconne) and his jeering friends ,who are recording the whole thing for posterity on camera. Not content with this humiliation, the gang give the hapless virgin an exploding marihuana joint that soon after leads to Marty having a terrible accident in the science lab thanks to a perilously balanced jar of nitric acid that’s been placed on a wobbly high shelf and an equally poorly placed Bunsen burner! Horribly mutilated in the resulting explosion, poor Marty is confined to an institution, disfigured for life and ‘unfit for human company’. We later learn from Skip, who seems to know all about it, that, ‘his mind just went berserk,’ after the skin grafts failed to take. ‘He flipped out completely!’

The main body of the film sees the original ten-strong gang of former pranksters recalled to Doddsville County High for a tenth anniversary school reunion party, which, strangely, is being held on April Fool’s Day – also the anniversary of Marty’s fateful accident. Still looking exactly the same despite the ten years that are meant to have elapsed since then, this unlikable and unimpeachably thick parade of thinly written nonentities decide to stick around, despite the fact that the place is going to rack and ruin and clearly hasn’t been inhabited for years - and even though, clearly, no reunion was ever really arranged there by any of them. What follows is the usual string of set piece murders utilising all the appurtenances which were originally present during Marty’s ritual humiliation, such as a jester’s mask (which the killer now wears throughout) and the javelin one of the group used to poke at his gentiles, which now becomes a phallic weapon.

Mystifyingly, the first to get it is the entirely blameless school janitor, who now moonlights as a caretaker. Despite being the only sympathetic character in the film, the masked jester killer gives him a ghoulishly nasty send-off, impaling him through the neck on a coat hanger and then nailing his hands to the wall using a hammer!  The ex-students then proceed to behave just as stupidly as everyone always does in slasher movies while spouting Ezra’s shoddy dialogue as they stumble through the dark, each to their much-deserved doom. Marty’s knowledge of chemistry is put to good use when he lays on a buffet for his former tormentors which includes a nasty chemical brew in a diet coke can that makes the victim’s stomach distend, exploding his guts and showering the room in pink and grey intestines. Despite it now becoming all too apparent to everyone that they are at the mercy of the lunatic murderer they once so happily poked fun at in a former life, everyone continues to behave like complete idiots: one of the females takes a bath to rid herself of the taint of her friend’s innards, which have just been splattered unceremoniously all over her face; she obligingly stays put when flesh-corrosive acid starts pouring out of the taps, until the obligatory gratuitous naked torso shots end with her being stripped right down to the red-raw bones of her skeleton in amusingly crude stop-motion animated instalments.  

The best of the murder scenes are actually well done and surprisingly nasty: a muscle-bound jock gets shredded by the rotary blades on a tractor he’s for some odd reason trying to repair in the midst of the carnage; a horny couple who sneak off while their friends are dying all around them to have adulterous sex, get electrocuted to a blackened crisp on a hot-wired bedstead; and the intensely annoying Skip gets hanged with a noose that’s been fashioned from the climbing ropes from the school gym, somehow survives but then gets accidently hacked in the face with an axe by a fleeing Caroline Munro! The climax involves Munro, complete with big hair and a spotlessly white ‘80s Hot Gossip-style fashion ensemble, appearing in a nicely done chase through the school that makes extensive and effective use of steady-cam, racing through the Marylebone Grammar School corridors that double for the interior of the middle-American High, and ending back in the shower cubicle where Marty’s original humiliation occurred. The three directors’ work seems to mesh well enough in that it’s all a fairly pedestrian get-the-job-done-without-too-many-screw-ups brand of average, but Ezra’s screenplay shows clear signs of the Brian De Palma obsession he admits to in the commentary track, since it employs twice the tactic seen at the end of “Carrie” of ending a scene with a sudden shock and then beginning the next with the previous sequence turning out to have been a dream. He does this once near the start of the film and again at the end, which effectively makes the whole film a dream within a dream, and thus supplies at least some sort of justification for just about all its apparent faults: from the many imponderable moments of head-scratching illogicality to the clumsy dialogue and the broad comic book performances – ‘it was all meant to be a dream, guv’ is the catch-all excuse! It doesn’t quite wash because Ezra admits in the commentary that the extra ‘waking up from a dream’ scene tacked on at the end was added later during the re-shoots, because the original ending was felt to be too weak.

The fandom that has attached itself to this film over the years will be gratified to hear that Arrow Films have pretty much supplied us with the deluxe model when it comes to “Slaughter High” DVD presentations. But those with no particular allegiance to its cheesy mixture of forced laughs and over-the-top tag-team kills will still find this release of much interest, especially if they have any curiosity (and who doesn’t?) regarding the varied career of actress Caroline Munro. The extras thus sensibly divide their attentions between examining every aspect of the film’s production and providing an in-depth career retrospective of this most sweet-natured of scream queens, covering her films for Hammer, her varied euro horror genre career, her involvement in several cult Joe Spinell films, and just about everything else she’s done, including of course her stint as a Bond girl.

The film, which has been beautifully re-mastered for this release knocking spots of the previous U.S. disc, apparently – is first introduced by Mark Ezra, who also takes part in a 10 minute interview featurette (“Jester of Jolts”) shot by High Rise Productions. Here, Ezra gives a detailed account of the rushed production history of the film, which was written and cast in just three weeks. The April Fool’s Day theme  --  which is a very common one in the world of Slasherdom -- was only used  purely because producer Dick Randall wanted a holiday cash-in in the “Halloween” mould. Originally the film was even to have been called “April Fool’s Day” but after Paramount announced their own slasher cash-in with that same title, it emerged that the “Slaughter High” producers had sold them the right to use it for a large amount of money, which then necessitated the name change. Ezra also ran into problems with regard to the whole April Fool’s Day theme because of cultural differences between Britain and the U.S. In the UK, April Fool’s Day pranks traditionally stop being played at midday. The plot of “Slaughter High” in some respects hinges on this convention, but it apparently doesn’t hold in the U.S., where this aspect of the film’s plot tends to leave audiences completely baffled. This has since become just one more element that the film’s admirers tend to find endearing.

Ezra is joined by J. A. Kerswell -- author of Teenage Wasteland and the brains behind Hysteria Lives -- one of the first (and best) websites devoted to slasher films and other horror movies -- for a very comprehensive commentary track which covers the shooting of the film in great detail. It turns out that Ezra thought he was being highly original with the April Fool’s Day scenario he concocted, and so he seems a bit nonplussed when Kerswell reels off a list of slasher movie precursors which all employ the same ideas! The writer and director is also not too enamoured of the cinematography, although it’s possible that the restoration process the film has undergone since the track was recorded has improved its appearance considerably, because it doesn’t look too bad most of the time, considering just how low the budget the film actually was. Ezra spends most of the commentary flinching at some of his awful dialogue and regretting the lack of time he had in which to complete the script, and he finds the comedy performances of the inexperienced cast a bit too broad. But given the rushed nature of the dialogue lines they were given, camping it up was probably the best approach they could’ve taken!

“Lamb to the Slaughter: The Scream Queen Career of Caroline Munro” is a 25 minute interview with the seemingly un-aging heroine of horror who reels of a fascinating string of anecdotes from across her incredible career in genre films. “The Spy Who Loved Me”, “Starcrash”, “Dracula AD 1972” and “Maniac” are all discussed, often in some detail. It’s a gem of an interview from an actress who clearly accepts every stage of her multifarious career -- whether she was appearing in a big budget Bond movie or a Jess Franco quickie like “Faceless” -- with equal enjoyment and respect for the varied approaches to the art of cinema she’s encountered across the years. Franco fans will be amused to hear her recollections of working with the eccentric Spanish maverick, finding him a charming, intelligent individual whose camera nevertheless had a habit of ‘wandering’ over intimate parts of one’s body if you weren’t being careful to keep a check on the old dog! 

The featurette may be good but, for me, the highlight of the entire disc (more so than even the film itself) is Munro’s wonderful commentary track, which is co-moderated by DVD World editor Alan Bryce and author and critic (and producer of the DVD featurettes) Calum Waddell. These two make a fantastic double act and will hopefully consider doing more tracks together in the future. This isn’t really even a standard commentary; the participants only occasionally reference directly what is going on on-screen or “Slaughter High” itself in any great depth (Mark Ezra’s commentary extensively covers that ground anyway). Instead, the trio indulge in what proves to be a fascinating trip down memory lane in which they discuss Munro’s career in full in a chatty, amused and amusing style. This really feels like listening in on a proper free-flowing conversation, with Waddell and Bryce conversing with each other as well as with their guest, who proves only too happy to talk about everything -- from her relationship on-set with Vincent Price during the making of “The Abominable Dr Phibes” to the fact that she was secretly pregnant while shooting Luigi Cozzi’s “The Black Cat”. There’s much fascinating talk about shooting “The Last Horror Film” at Cannes and Bryce is particularly keen to mention Munro’s brief appearance in the  “On the Buses” movie (much to Waddell’s chagrin!) and the quiz show 3-2-1! with Ted Rogers. Even Adam Ant’s video for Goody-Two-Shoes gets a mention. That’s how comprehensive this is!

“Slaughter High” perfectly sums up that moment during the eighties when the slasher movie bandwagon was about to crash in a jumbled mess of rubbery body parts and unlikely murder weapons. The glory days of the genre had long gone and all that was left were the bottom of the barrel cash-in dregs such as this. In their attempts to pass off some innocuous Surrey countryside and a Victorian hospital exterior as an all American high school, the filmmakers dress everyone in exaggerated versions of the kinds of fashions and hairstyles one would see all the time in American-made films in the mid-eighties, while accents seem to be all over the shop – including those of the American cast. It’s in no way a particularly good film, but this Arrow Films disc makes for an excellent package that captures the era perfectly, and Caroline Munro fans shouldn’t miss out. As well as all the goodies discussed, you get the usual Arrow presentation including reversible sleeve, a double-sided poster and a booklet that includes an essay by Troy Howarth, an interview with Harry Manfredini conducted by Calum Waddell and an interview with cast member Josephine Scandi by Justin Kerswell.

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