Revenge of the nerd:
Slaughter High (1986) was Britain’s answer to the influx of US-made slashers during the 1980s, but was it any good? Chris Andrews goes behind the mask…
While Freddy and Jason were busy tearing up screens stateside, the mid-80s were a relatively dry period for UK horror.
Pinhead aside – who was himself re-dressed and his co-stars overdubbed with American accents – home-grown flicks from the UK was a tired mix of quiet period dramas, depressing kitchen sink sob stories or gritty gangster thrillers. With the wit and charm of Hammer Productions now a thing of the past, UK horror audiences latched onto the new horror craze; the slasher film.
Considering during the late 1950s to early ’70s, England was comfortably holding its own against horror from across the pond, it’s strange to think the slasher didn’t have a bigger impact on English filmmakers. Barring Michael Armstrong’s 1969 Tigon film The Haunted House Of Horror, a semi-slasher about a group of teens picked off in a creaky old mansion, and 1978’s Killer’s Moon (Alan Birkinshaw), a delightfully unpleasant little number dealing with four escaped inmates terrorising the Lake District, it wasn’t until 1986 that the UK added arguably only its second real entry to the slasher hall of fame, following Don’t Open Till Christmas (Edmund Purdom, 1984) with Slaughter High.
Set… somewhere in the United States, the jocks and cheerleaders of Doodsville High pull a terrible prank on class dork Marty Rantzen, leaving his face scarred and his brain scrambled. Years later the students return to the now-abandoned school for their class reunion only to find themselves trapped inside. As they frantically try to escape, a maniac in a jester mask takes them out one-by-one. Has Marty returned to enact his revenge?
In a Carrie role-reversal opening, British horror icon Caroline Munro, who even by slasher movie standards might be the oldest and most glamorous teenager on-screen, leads poor Marty into the girl’s locker room promising him a time he’ll never forget. As he undresses in the shower, Carol’s (also her character name) snickering friends sneak in with a camera. Pulling the curtain back and yelling, ‘April fools,’ they decide to dunk the naked nerd’s head into a toilet bowl.
Continuing down the Carrie path, the coach breaks things up, even sending the bullies to the gym for some well-earned press-ups (clearly he and Miss Collins read the same teaching manual). Meanwhile, Marty doesn’t seem to have learned from his past mistakes and accepts a laced joint from one of the jocks before happily skipping off to finish his science project. Distracted by the joint, the experiment bubbles over and Marty eyesight is dispatched via a jar of (very clearly labelled) nitric acid to the face.
Oddly enough, the UK take on American high school life somehow makes Marty’s tormentors even more unlikeable. The mostly British cast doing mostly terrible accents really play up to the jock/cheerleader stereotype seen in a plethora of US teen movies from the era, though with a hint of the English upper-class public school. While slipping in as many Americanisms as possible, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and referencing the 7-11, the humour and tone are still distinctly British. If 2000AD had ever turned their hand to trying an EC-style Tales From The Crypt comic strip, it might have looked something like this.
As we move into the second act, our (not much older than they looked before) cast of tearaways return for their class reunion on, you guessed it, April Fools Day. Things go south quickly and they wind up trapped behind an electric fence inside the abandoned school. Eschewing the whodunnit element, a staple of slashers, it’s clear from the get-go Marty has masterminded the mayhem and his tormentors have walked right into his trap.
Searching for a way out, the bullies face a host of elaborate, violent pranks which almost play out like a horror movie checklist. For starters (with a barely concealed wink and nod) the characters seem quite keen on pointing out the fact we’re in a slasher movie. There’s a fake scare in a Friday 13th hockey mask, one girl walking through the dilapidated halls of the school announces, ‘It’s like Halloween,’ and upon discovering their old lockers with their names creepily scratched into them another gleefully states it reminds her of Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980).
If the cast had been brushing up on their horror movie trivia, the filmmakers had also done their homework. Complete with all the tropes you’d come to expect from any decent slasher – the killer’s silhouette appearing in the hallways, the maniac falling to the ground, apparently comatose, only to recover at the crucial moment, victims mistaking the killer for a friend, only for things to go horribly wrong – there’s also a few bonus nods thrown in for good measure too. After downing a poisoned beer, one victim raises his shirt to show his bulging gut, moments before it explodes à la Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). This brings us to the woman who inexplicably decides, in the midst of the carnage, to take a dip in the bath (amazingly, there’s still hot water running), but, of course, the bath is filled with acid.
Like any self-respecting horror film of the ’80s, just when you think the screaming has stopped, it has one more scare up its sleeve…
In a fun twist on the sub-genre, the final chase takes place in the morning sun. Apart from a brief moment at the outset, it’s the first time we see a masked Marty in all his gory glory. Baseball bat in hand, the vacant stare of the wrinkled mask, and the unsettling jangles of the jester hat bells, he chases Munroe back to where it all began, the girls’ locker room, for the final kill.
Like any self-respecting horror film of the ’80s, just when you think the screaming has stopped, it has one more scare up its sleeve… and it’s an interesting one. Following Maniac’s (William Lustig, 1980) Don’t Go In The House-style ending of Marty tormented by zombie-like versions of his victims, he wakes in a hospital, his face bandaged. Hearing a commotion, a doctor rushes into the room to find a nurse pinning Marty down. The Nurse turns; it’s Marty in her dress, a maniacal look in his eye and his hand clutching a hypodermic needle. It’s a sequence eerily similar to a scene in Christopher Nolan’s wonderful The Dark Knight (2008), moments before Heath Ledger’s the joker destroys the hospital dressed as a nurse.
Interestingly, at the very beginning of the film when the first prank is played on Marty and one of the bullies wears the jester mask, the coach yanks the mask off: ‘It’s the Joker,’ he says. In another odd parallel, as Marty is being wheeled off following a face full of acid, he lies on the stretcher, the unharmed side of his face on show. As Munroe approaches to apologise he spins around revealing his scarred left side, screaming in madness, very similar to Gotham villain Harvey Two-Face Dent, the ‘other’ bad guy in The Dark Knight. These are likely little more than a fun coincidence, but I’d love to think Nolan is a secret Slaughter High fan.
Originally titled April Fool’s Day and even playing first in Cannes under that title, the producers were forced to amend their chosen appellation to Slaughter High when Paramount announced their own slasher film that was also going with the April Fool’s theme. It’s a shame because although I personally like Slaughter High as a title, it’s very clear from the start of the film that the narrative heavily utilises the 1st of April. The deadly pranks, the theme song composed by Friday the 13th maestro Harry Manfredini and of course the killer’s jester mask, (the mask of the fool), which as slasher movie masks go is certainly one of the better ones. One can’t help but wonder if they had have been able to release under the original title, could the film have had a greater impact?
Caroline Munroe would continue acting, mainly in British television, and is still working today. Tragically actor Simon Scuddamore who played Marty committed suicide in November 1984 of an intentional drug overdose. When not performing, he was a volunteer at a school for troubled children which led to him being unable to shoot at weekends due to his commitments with the school. Slaughter High would be his only feature film credit.
With two credited directors, Mark Ezra and George Dugdale (who was married to Caroline Munroe at the time of shooting), and even a third if certain DVD extras are to be believed, it’s a shame they never ventured into this strange realm of the English slasher again. Clearly the intention of setting the Slaughter High ‘in America’ was a deliberate attempt to sell the film to the US market, but it would be fascinating to know how the same story, with a few necessary tweaks, would have played out had it been set in England.
Bizarrely, we’re still to receive the definitive slasher icon England deserves. There have been several attempts over the years, some even following in Slaughter High’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek footsteps. 1994’s baffling comedy-horror Funny Man features a jester demon as the villain like an undead version of Marty, while the more recent 2009 Alex Pettyfer starring effort Tormented (Jon Wright) deals with a bullied child who returns from the grave.
While not a top-tier slasher, Slaughter High comfortably sits alongside the likes of Graduation Day (Herb Freed, 1981) and Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983) in terms of gruesome fun. With its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek, a wry sense of humour and a mask that even Michael Myers would be proud of, perhaps our English slasher icon has been here all along.
See you next April, fools!
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