(Editor’s Corner is where Eric talks about overlooked gems, film history, or whatever else he wants to talk about because he’s the boss and no one can stop him.)
It didn’t take long for eager young filmmakers to imitate the success of Halloween (1978) by producing cheap, bloody slasher movies of their own, and it took even less time for the market to become completely saturated with them. They began to trickle into theaters in 1979 (notably When a Stranger Calls: “Have you checked the children?”), followed by a flood in 1980: Friday the 13th, Prom Night, New Year’s Evil, Silent Scream, Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Answer the Phone!, He Knows You’re Alone, Maniac, Blood Beach, maybe a few others, give or take, depending on your definition of “slasher.”
The next year is when the genre’s godfather (Halloween) and bastard uncle (Friday the 13th) delivered the first of their many sequels, but it’s also when the market became glutted. Just look at the slasher lineup for 1981:
My Bloody Valentine (Feb. 11)
The Funhouse (March 13)
Eyes of a Stranger (March 27)
Bloody Birthday (April 28)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (April 30)
The Burning (May 8)
Graduation Day (May 8)
The Fan (May 15)
Happy Birthday to Me (May 15)
Final Exam (June 5)
Hell Night (Aug. 7)
Student Bodies (Aug. 7, a spoof)
Deadly Blessing (Aug. 14)
Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone! (Sept. 4)
Night School (Sept. 11)
The Prowler (Oct. 9)
Nightmare (Oct. 23)
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (Oct. 24, a CBS TV movie)
Halloween II (Oct. 30)
Just Before Dawn (Nov. 27)
(Note that the trend was prevalent enough to inspire a TV movie and a spoof. There was another timely spoof, too: MAD Magazine’s Arbor Day, which you can see reprinted here. )
It makes sense that many of these revolve around school, since they were aimed at young people and school is terrifying. Two college-set slashers, Final Exam and Night School, are airing this weekend on Turner Classic Movies, giving us an excuse to look at how they fit into the big picture.
Final Exam, released just as school was letting out for the summer, is in many ways the quintessential slasher movie. It ends with the virginal “final girl,” the musical score directly rips off Halloween‘s famous theme (in 7/4 time instead of 5/4), and the dialogue from the opening scene — where a young couple are making out in a car and the girl hears something and the guy says “Relax, baby, it’s nothing” and then they are both murdered — could be the template from which all such scenes are created:
SHE: Shh. What was that? I heard something.
HE: It was me breathing in your ear.
SHE: No, really, I heard something.
HE: So what, it’s the ducks. Sometimes they like to come up and terrorize the people parking.
SHE: (giggling) You’re obnoxious. There’s not another girl on earth who would put up with your garbage.
HE: Give me another kiss.
(They resume making out)
SHE: Did you feel that? The car moved! Someone’s out there.
HE: Yeah, yeah, it’s probably some of the guys on the team. Just jealous of their quarterback. Always some wise guy around here. Just ignore them. Let them find their own girl. (more noise outside) All right cut it out! Leave us alone!
SHE: Can’t we go someplace else, please?
HE: No, I’m not going to be scared off by a bunch of frustrated jocks! I’ll tell you what I will do, I’ll get out and beat some manners into them!
SHE: No, no, don’t do that. It won’t solve anything. Take me someplace else and I’ll make it up to you. I’ll make you glad you did.
(They are murdered)
1) There isn’t another killing for another 50 minutes. (There is, however, an initially horrifying mass shooting on campus that turns out to be a harmless fraternity prank.) Making us wait so long for more gore is unusual; amusingly, writer-director Jimmie Huston tries to make up for it with scenes where ominous music plays while someone does something ordinary like take out the trash, just to remind us that at SOME point, something spooky is going to happen. In the meantime, it’s an aimless, dimwitted college drama with a cast of archetype characters (jock, virgin, preppy, nerd who’s obsessed with true-life crime, etc.) all acting at the level of an ’80s sitcom.
2) The killer is nobody special. We never learn his name, his motive, or anything about him. He’s just a guy who goes around killing college students. (What, you need a reason?) This is the perfect distillation of the slasher philosophy, which holds that it doesn’t matter who the killer is as long as his victims are killed systematically and bloodily, starting with the horniest. It borders on being grimly insightful about the chaotic randomness of slasher films, but I think it was probably just the result of a poorly written screenplay.
If Final Exam is the generic version of a slasher film, Night School (released in early September, just as school was starting) at least tries a few variations. For one thing, it starts out like an episode of a detective show, with a cop named Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) investigating a series of decapitations of female students by a black-clad person in a motorcycle helmet. He interviews professors and classmates, new and potentially conflicting information trickling in the way it does in the first half of a Law & Order. There’s even an obvious red-herring suspect, a janitor who moonlights as a peeping Tom. So it’s still generic, I guess, only it’s generic like a TV procedural, not like a slasher flick.
There is one genuine effort to subvert expectations, and it results in a scene that’s actually somewhat funny (on purpose). Having established that the killer cuts women’s heads off and leaves them (the heads) to be found later, the movie presents the owner of a diner arriving at work one morning after we know his waitress has been murdered. We don’t know where the killer put the head, though, so the whole point of the scene is to tease us about where it’s going to turn up. The camera lingers ominously on a huge pot of stew, and our man is given a reason to empty it … slowly … gradually … only to reveal it contained nothing but stew. Then he opens the refrigerator and is startled by something round and heavy falling to the floor: a melon. And so forth. More slasher movies should play a game of “Where’s the Head?”
Night School was the last film by Ken Hughes, best known as the director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a movie that, if we’re being honest, has more truly frightening moments than Night School does. This and Final Exam each grossed about $1.2 million (something like $3.7 million at 2019 ticket prices) on budgets even smaller than that, so they weren’t bombs, but neither were they franchise-starters like some of their gory brethren were starting to become. They used the same formula to do different things but ended up indistinguishable drops in the same vast, bloody ocean.
How to watch: TCM is showing both films on July 26. Both are on DVD/Blu-ray and the usual VOD services. Final Exam is also currently streaming on Amazon Prime.