CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy


Night School (aka Terror Eyes) Ken Hughes 1981

The Proof is in the Porridge

Some horror films are too smart for their own good. Disguised as slasher flicks, these "thrillers" or "suspense" films lure us in with the promise of scares, skin, and vulgarity, but then turn the tables on us and deliver a boring, pulseless sequence of events that usually involves an over-the-hill television star being followed by a man who wears sunglasses indoors and has unruly facial hair.

On the other hand, some horror films are too stupid to enjoy. Sure, they may have a few nice fright scenes and boast an impressive body count, but in the end it's impossible to get pulled in and really entertained because the filmmakers were obviously either too coked up to concentrate on such things as story and logic or were secretly a group of chimpanzees in track suits posing as filmmakers.

But then, like Goldilocks once famously said, there are those that are "just right", and these are the films that have made us the weirdos that we are today. We'll sit through countless hours of type A and type B shlock horror movies in the vain hopes that we're going to come across a real doozie that will both satisfy us intellectually and scare the living shit out of us every now and then. And such a film is Night School.

The basic setup is this: the colossally un-handsome and preposterously named Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) is out to catch a killer, whom he believes to be the colossally un-handsome and preposterously named Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder). How these men landed roles in a motion picture of any sort is the real mystery here: Mann's got the posture of a rickshaw driver and Snyder looks like every puffy once-attractive college professor I ever had. Which is fitting, seeing as how here he plays -- you guessed it -- a college prof, whose lovely students are unfortunatly being beheaded at a rapid rate. The ladies attend an all-girls school run by the lecherously lesbianic Helene Griffin (Annette Miller), but are still constantly referred to as "co-eds" (is it just me, or don't you have to have both male AND female students to have co-eds? Somebody correct me here...). Although all the girls seem to be balling Mr. Millett (in a grand sweep of improbable ugly male fantasy), Alpha Ho Rachel Ward holds sway over all, serving as both his Teaching Assistant and his pincushion. Fittingly, Ms. Ward's hair is constantly in a state of disarray, giving her that coveted "just banged in an alley" look that was apparently all the rage.

So what's the big deal? Why is this slasher any different from the rest? Well, for one, the killer is quite distinct and the "mask" a bit disturbing: the slasher wears a slick black motorcycle helmet and full fitted riding leathers, giving a futuristic, glossy gleam that you don't generally find on killers, who are usually more apt to put on their best potato-sack-and-flannel combo than something that looks like it drove out of Knight Rider. Second, the murders themselves, though not particularly graphic, are quite brutal -- the killer slashes the victims a few times with a huge, angled machete before dispatching them, and you really get the sense that the victims are being toyed with and punished rather than just rubbed out. One particular scene in a public shower is quite effective, as the killer repeatedly whacks a girl in a white robe with the blade, causing her to leave a huge red smear across the otherwise colorless room. Likewise the first murder, which happens in a children's playground (and cleverly suggests that there may be some "history" to the killings, the first of many red herrings) and involves an overacting day-player (perhaps being punished for nodding repeatedly at a child's pinwheel) being spun at neck-breaking speeds on a merry-go-round, and then beheaded (if only the rest of the extras were treated with as stern a hand: this movie easily has the worst extras I've ever seen, or at least noticed -- the filmmakers must have posted a casting call at the Martha's Vineyard community theatre to find these gems).

After a fairly routine series of brutal murders, buddy-cop character development, and girls-school intrigue, the film suddenly takes a turn for the surreal in the introduction of a new element: humor. In a scene that Clouzot would have been proud of, we watch a couple of blue-collar diner-goers eat what could very well be waitress-head stew, based on what we've seen. The director draws the suspense out wonderfully, and thankfully has the tact to resolve the gag in a -- ahem, tasteful -- manner. Things chug along to a natural but not entirely obvious conclusion, and we get to see something we very rarely get to see in these films: actual character development. I won't give away what happens, but after the killer is revealed another character behaves in a very strange way, suggesting hidden emotions and adding a great psychological layer onto a simple whodunit slasher. Rachel Ward gets to flip her tousled hair, the predatory lesbian gets to feel up one of her students, and we get to go home entertained.

Now, a warning ("NOW a warning?!"): this film is not without its flaws. There are some horribly misguided choices (bad wigs, wretched -- if not nonexistent -- gore effects, the aforementioned Charlies Angels-like hair flipping), to be sure. But for some reason -- and this mystery is what my greater quest is really all about, if you really care to know -- the film holds together beyond all the minutia, and since the filmmakers have earned our trust by delivering us well-crafted scenes and story, we're happy to forgive these little indiscretions. People have coined many terms over the years to try to describe this ("director's vision", "auteur theory", whatever), but I don't think anyone's really put their finger on it yet: why do some films simply hold together better and assure the audience that their expectations and time are not being fucked with? Maybe we'll never know. But until then, I'll take machete-wielding motorcrossers and ancient beheading rituals in a heartbeat!

Rating (out of 5):