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11 September, 2010

High School Horrors

If Horror Films of the 1970’s and ‘80’s were a reliable indicator, then it was a miracle that anyone survived the experience of attending High School.  There were Slashers roaming the hallways, mad killers in math class, even the senior prom might be interrupted by a pissed-off chick with telekinetic powers.  Forget ‘peer pressure’ and SAT scores—you just hoped you’d live to see Graduation Day.  And even that wasn’t a guarantee you’d survive to pick up that diploma.

One of the conventions of the archetypal Slasher film of the 1980’s was that the pool of victims was primarily young, good-looking teens—late high school or college age, old enough to be sexually active but certainly not adults.  Within that pool there would be the stereotypical victims:  The ‘jock’, the bitchy, stuck-up ‘pretty girl’, the ‘outcast’, the ‘good guy’, the sweet, innocent, ‘girl next door’—who, because she didn’t have sex, was often the lone survivor—and other, just as easily recognizable, characters that populated the corridors and classrooms of these fictional institutions.  Most of these were faceless rabble—body count fodder for the Slasher du Jour.

From the beginning of the Slasher craze, the late teen demographic has been targeted, not only on-screen but also at the box-office.  The teen-age male has historically been the greatest fan of Slasher movies, and they adapted early on to give the typical fan of the genre what they wanted to see.  That meant, to paraphrase the great Joe Bob Briggs, “more Boobs and more Blood.”

The earliest Slasher Films, Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), were somewhat restrained in terms of blood and gore, particularly in comparison to the films that followed them.  Both films started out with excellent stories, strong directors with clear visions of what they wished to put on-screen, and talented casts able to execute the directors’ wishes.  They were able to build a natural suspense into their movies without relying on an overabundance of cheap scares and easy shocks.

In 1980, however, Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH would prove to be the game-changer in the Slasher genre.  Eschewing the reserved, restrained approach (and perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of the weaker script and cast with which he had to work), Cunningham, with the able assistance of make-up effects artist Tom Savini, set out to raise the bar in terms of bloodshed.  Instead of working to build real fear and suspense, they built a body count, with gallons of fake blood used as the mortar.  The fact that this approach worked, to the tune of $39 Million in domestic release, was not lost upon competing studios.

Seemingly overnight, the Slasher Film became the dominant form of Horror.  Before the end of 1981, no fewer than two dozen Slasher Films were released, several focusing their attention on the education system.  The first, and most notable, of these was PROM NIGHT, directed by Paul Lynch and released the same year as FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Starring the first Scream Queen of the Slasher era, Jamie Lee Curtis, along with Leslie Nielsen and Michael Tough, PROM NIGHT was filmed in Canada and released by Avco Embassy on 18 July 1980, on 1,200 screens nationwide.  On a budget of $1.6 million (CDN), this tale of high school revenge for a sibling’s death grossed nearly $15 million in the US, a very respectable number.  It also spawned three sequels, and was remade (poorly) by Nelson McCormick in 2008.

Far better in terms of quality, though not as widely popular, was THE PROWLER, released in 1981.  Directed by Joseph Zito, and featuring make-up special effects by Tom Savini, this was a tale of a mad Slasher carving his way through a small college’s student body, dressed in army fatigues, gas mask, and helmet.  The film starred Farley Granger as Sheriff George Fraser, a man with a secret in his past, along with Vicky Dawson and Christopher Goutman as Pam and Mark, two young lovers who are stalked by the killer.  THE PROWLER was released in November of 1981, with little fanfare or notice.  Though Savini has stated that it contains some of his best effects work, it remains something of a ‘lost’ classic of the Slasher genre in comparison to it’s more famous brethren.

Another early ‘80’s entry in the crowded Slasher Film arena was Herb Freed’s GRADUATION DAY, released on 1 May 1981.  The story begins with the sudden death of a young female track star during a meet, and the return of her sister, a US Navy officer, to their small town, just as its preparing for the High School graduation.  Starring Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, and Michael Pataki, the genre’s conventions are already in place less than a year after FRIDAY THE 13TH defined them.  The unseen, unknown killer; the large body count; the inventive, if impractical, death scenes; the “Sex equals Death” motif—all are present here.  Once the formula for Slasher Film success had been discovered, it was copied—slavishly.

In 1984, Wes Craven, the director who had risen to prominence with films such as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, decided to reinvent the Slasher Film.  Craven avoided the silent, stalking killer that typified the movie Slasher.  His creation was instead a wisecracking spectre, the ghost of a pedophilic child-killer haunting the dreams of the children of those who killed him.  That killer’s name was Freddy Krueger, and the movie was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Boasting an excellent script (by Craven), superb photography, and Craven’s usually strong direction, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET became the template for a new direction in Horror over the next decade.  Less a Slasher than a supernatural demon, Krueger, played to perfection by Robert Englund, was the prototype of a new class of screen monster.  Englund was backed up by strong performances from a cast composed of veterans and newcomers, people such as John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Heather Langenkamp, and Johnny Depp, in his first screen role.

The influence of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET continued to be felt on the genre for the remainder of the decade.  Similarly-themed creatures, hellspawns, and demons, from THE LEPRECHAUN, to THE WISHMASTER’s Djinn, to Pinhead, the leader of HELLRAISER’s Cenobites, began to push the traditional Slasher Film aside.  While they retained many elements of the Slasher Films, their victim pools typically skewed older than those for the Slashers.  As the Slasher Film waned in popularity (though never disappearing completely) through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, High Schools and Colleges became somewhat safer, though not totally safe, from the predations of masked killers and silent stalkers.

By 1996, the Slasher Film genre was ripe for reinvention, and once again it was Wes Craven, working with a script from Kevin Williamson, who called class back into session, with the hip, witty, self-aware Slasher hit SCREAM.

Starring Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, and Matthew Lillard, SCREAM stood the conventional Slasher genre on it’s head, poking fun at the form while still managing to be a very effective Horror Film.  Released on 20 December 1996, it got off to a slow start, earning just $6.4 million of its $15 million budget in that first week.  By the end of it’s third week in release, however, it was approaching $40 million in Box-Office receipts, and, much as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had done twelve years previously, had redefined the Horror Film.  Almost overnight fans were witness to what I refer to as the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” School of Horror Films, movies which introduced a new paradigm to the Slasher Film.  Gone were the old stereotypes of the Slasher Film victims; now new models were introduced.  The average Slasher Film victim was no longer anyone most of us would have been familiar with when we were horny, stumbling, mumbling, pimply-faced youths surviving the daily pain-in-the-ass that was secondary education.  They were uniformly good-looking, uniformly wealthy, uniformly cool—and uniformly boring.

The few characters that existed outside the paradigm, be it due to lack of money, lack of looks, or lack of cool, were there to serve one of two purposes.  One, they were there to provide early fodder for the killer, and would quickly find themselves chopped, hacked, sliced, and/or diced into body count stew.

The second purpose such characters served was to provide a few red herrings as to the identity of the killer, who in the new paradigm wasn’t some escaped lunatic or mutant son of an insane camp counselor.  The killer in this new model Slasher Film came from within.  This new paradigm soon dominated the Horror genre, with SCREAM giving birth to two (soon to be three) sequels, along with numerous take-offs, such as URBAN LEGEND, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and the most original of these, FINAL DESTINATION.

However, lest one believe that the only danger to be found in the hallowed halls of academia were hook-handed Slashers and machete-wielding maniacs, in 1998 director Robert Rodriguez took us on a field trip back into the 1950’s, the heyday of the Alien Invasion movies such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS, with THE FACULTY.

Starring Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, Josh Hartnett, and Clea DuVall, this story of a High School where the faculty has been taken over by alien invaders was scripted by the same Kevin Williamson who had previously written SCREAM for Wes Craven.  While it did moderately well at the Box-Office, it failed to become the genre-changer that SCREAM had been two years before.

Another High School Horror Film failed at the Box-Office, but became a cult hit in video release.  2001’s GINGER SNAPS, a Canadian Werewolf movie directed by John Fawcett, and written by Karen Walton and Fawcett, saw only limited theatrical release in the US, though it did well in its native Canada.  It was also well-received by critics, and soon developed a solid fan following.  It stars Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabella as Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald, teen-age sisters struggling with feelings of depression and alienation while growing up in the small town of Bailey Downs.  The girls are obsessed with death, to the point of photographing themselves in staged ‘death scenes’ for a class project.  One night they encounter the “beast of Bailey Downs,” a creature the townspeople believe is responsible for a rash of mutilated dogs that have been found in recent days.  Ginger is bitten by the beast, and soon it becomes obvious to her sister that puberty isn’t the only change Ginger’s undergoing.

Though the genre had been trending away from the High School Horrors for several years, the recent spate of reinventions of many of the 1980’s Slasher Films has reinvigorated it to some degree.  HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, even PROM NIGHT have been remade lately, with varying degrees of success.  The audience for the Slasher Film hasn’t changed, demographically speaking, to any significant degree since the 1970’s, and in truth, neither have the long line of on-screen victims.  Both keep going strong, and that, I’m happy to say, shows no sign of changing.

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