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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Hell High Douglas Grossman 1989

A Teen Slasher That Is Neither Teen Nor Slasher. Discuss.

A strange entry into the teen horror genre, Hell High sells itself as a slasher but is in actuality a rape-revenge saga that takes place on the set of Dawson's Creek. Yes, that's creepy. It's interesting that the film has been receiving notice (and a recent extras-filled DVD release propped up by Joe Bob Briggs) due to its "convention-breaking" style and story, when in reality it's not breaking the rules of the teen slasher genre because, well, it isn't a teen slasher. This is like heralding that Master and Commander boldly defies the conventions of the Urban Gangsta genre, or that Looking for Mr. Goodbar stands head-and-shoulders above "other" romantic comedies for its refusal to fall into the standard template by brutally slaughtering its lead female. It's really kind of insane, when you think about it - a film is misclassified from the start as a result of a cleverly-designed but horribly misrepresentative ad campaign, and then heralded for being an example of a film that flies in the face of a genre it was never actually a part of in the first place. One gets the feeling that the same public relations team that magically transformed Jessica Simpson from an utter retard into a Chicken of the Sea spokesmodel are behind all this…

Having said that, Hell High is not a particularly bad movie, if you don't mind rape-revenge flicks. I myself am not a fan, having been horribly scarred as a youngster in Iowa when I was forced to watch a grainy VHS copy of Last House on the Left at a Little League barbecue (apparently The Bad News Bears was unavailable?). You might actually notice that this particular subgenre (a shadow-dwelling, tranchcoat-wearing member of the horror family, in my book) is notably under-represented on this site. The reason? I don't hate women. There ya go. (Also, there are admittedly very few R-R movies with any queer significance, save for some occasional gay-baiting).

Fortunately, in Hell High, things don't escalate to the point of actual rape, but the threat is certainly present and things get dangerously close. The basic setup is this: a frigid biology teacher (Ms. Storm, played by Maureen Moony) is tormented by a group of outcasts (not, presumably, simply because they are all ten years too old to be in high school), who accidentally set off a repressed memory of an accidental murder she committed as a little girl (although far more shocking than the flashback murder that opens the film is the hideous pink party dress that the little killer is wearing). As the naughty teens continually torment her, I Spit on Your Grave-style, she becomes continually more delusional until she finally attempts suicide by jumping out the window, regains her consciousness (but not her sanity), and swiftly kills them one by one. Only one teen, the stupidly-named but otherwise not too awful Jon Jon (the serviceable Christopher Cousins), is lucky enough to escape alive, although the forced coda that closes the film suggests that he has been forever scarred by the events, his screams echoing through the school's empty hallways (which isn't nearly as profound as it could have been, considering that the film takes place mostly outside of the school and we haven't actually seen the hallways full at any point - only with a smattering of ill-behaved extras).

The curious thing about rape-revenge flicks is that, in the end, everyone loses - which is why I find them horribly depressing. Unlike the sparkly, doe-eyed slasher genre, where our plucky familiar (the ubiquitous Final Girl) gets to vanquish the evildoer (be it a Killer Queer, Ugly White Man, or what-have-you), in rape-revengers the Final Girl is the evildoer, but only because she's been, well, evildone already by someone else. These films are more about the psychology of individual violent acts and how they perpetuate a cycle by passing on rage to the victim, not about a more general collective conquest of innocence over corruption (which is more of a sociological topic). While rape-revengers are therefore generally more about individuals (which would lead to better character development, one would hope), than slashers are (whose morality-play structure is more prone to "stock" characters due to its emphasis on the "group"), one can at least hope for better acting and deeper characterization. It's interesting that a good number of these R-R's come out of New York, rather than California - as New York has long been considered an "acting" town while LA is a "movie" town, it's not surprising that the more character-driven horror pieces tend to feature ugly brunette actors who actually have to act, while the El Lay movies are all blonde hair, tits, and screaming. But of course I generalize.

The teens themselves (teens in name only, of course) are also rather interesting here, because they are fairly difficult to figure out. Just when you think they're just whiny, "misunderstood" youths trying to get attention, they turn around and do something genuinely evil. Even the "good kid", Jon Jon, takes out a few motorcyclists with a Mustang for no apparent reason and leaves the riders confused and injured. I'm sure it's a plot point, but it really just comes off as meanness. In another scene, Queenie (who is sadly a girl) moves to save a catatonic Ms. Storm from being raped by Dickens (the head nasty, played with Kevin Bacon-cum-Richard Belzer aplomb by Christopher Stryker), only to then molest her herself while he watches (also granting us bean-counters a near-lesbian scene). These erratic behaviors are actually refreshing because they keep you guessing as to who the good ones really are, as opposed to most slashers, which choose clear sides pretty early-on (a complete innocent also takes the fall for the whole thing, in a rather depressing twist).

In all, not really bad - good for a rape-revenge due to its apparently sincere treatment of character (particularly an emotionally-scarred woman) and thankful lack of actual rape, but not as fun as your usual slasher, even considering the bloody mayhem at the end. By putting the Final Girl and the killer in the same person, Hell High manages to turn in an interesting character piece that sadly falls short on scares.

Rating (out of 5):