Friday, October 23, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Cultural appropriation

Halloween might be cancelled, but it's still October, and that means it's time again for the peanut butter and chocolate we call The Switcheroo, with Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending doing my weird, gross, nostalgic 1950s sci-fi thing for a spell, whilst I do some nice, wholesome slashers from the brightest days of the 1980s.


Directed by Ken Hughes
Written by Ruth Agerton

Spoiler alert: high, I guess, I said reluctantly

There is a certain unassailable logic to the approach taken by the 1981 slasher Night School, which, as the Italian gialli before it, and about five thousand episodes of Law & Order afterward, aligns itself more with the police procedural/murder mystery side of things.  Obviously, that makes sense: by definition, any slasher film is going to involve a maniac killing people, and since in most jurisdictions killing people is against the law, it seems as likely as not that the cops probably would, at some point, start investigating all the dead bodies.  And since this is perfectly reasonable, it seems equally reasonable to simply go ahead and follow the cops as they track the killer's traces.  It's clean, it's easy, and I expect it's awfully expedient for the slasher screenwriter, since to the extent that the usual slasher still has to expend some measure of energy on establishing a cast of ready meat, the police procedural slasher doesn't even have to do that much.  All it needs to do is just keep introducing random victims every twenty minutes until a feature's length has elapsed, whereupon the mystery can now, like a miracle, be solved.  Maybe they're not all like that—though it says something that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single police procedural slasher appears to be especially beloved*—but Night School is definitely like that, and still probably a little less good than that makes it sound.

It begins with young Anne (Meb Boden), working at a Boston daycare center, who this evening finds herself on the playground, alone with her thoughts.  We never learn what those thoughts might've been, for as Anne plays listlessly on the merry-go-round, a stranger in identity-obscuring motorcycle gear has approached, and without a single word, begins to torment poor Anne by spinning her round and round, taunting her with their wicked recurved blade, until they've had enough fun and finish Anne off by beheading her with a single stroke.  The next morning, one Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) has planned a whole day with his girlfriend, but don't get used to her, because once she fulfills her function of perfunctorily humanizing our hero, she's banished from the movie, literally never to be seen again.  (In truth, though, she has two functions: she's also here to have a conversation with Judd that establishes he graduated from Harvard, though its necessity is unclear.  He went to Harvard, and this movie is 89 minutes long.  I'm sure he'll mention it at least three more times.)  Anyway, Judd gets a call from his partner Taj (Joseph R. Sicari, sadly not enough of an entity in this story to justify a "rise of" joke), and Judd dutifully arrives on the crime scene.  He notes that, like another recent victim, this one's also been decapitated, and also had her head immersed in water—previously in a lake, this time in a bucket—and he wonders if that's a coincidence.  Taj, an idiot, thinks it is, so it probably is not.

Anne, they learn, was taking night classes at the women's school, Wendall College.  (In fact, Anne may be the only person here for whom the title Night School strictly applies.)  Lacking any better leads, Judd pays the school a visit, where he meets the headmistress, Helene Griffin (Annette Miller), as well as Anne's anthropology professor, who indeed did teach her all about men, Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder).  He's presently lecturing on human savagery with the help of another student, Kim (Elizabeth Barnitz), Anne's best friend.  Neither seems to actually know very much about the dead woman, though one knew her biblically, and it's pretty clear that Millett is banging Kim, too.  He's also banging Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward), his assistant; in fact, he's living with her.  But he's banging a lot of people.  So when Kim likewise turns up dead, maybe it's actually not as statistically unlikely as Judd suspects, though, in fairness, Millett's initial response to Anne's death—that is, to virtually confess to the murder—had already turned our Harvard-honed sleuth onto the idea.

As Night School is a mystery more than it is just about anything else, maybe its most fundamental failure is how Goddamn clumsy its mystery framing comes off: Millett is so incredibly obviously the killer that you know he could not possibly be the killer, and thus the "twist" reveal of the killer's true identity is rendered equally obvious in turn.  It plays at having red herrings, but has no earthly idea how to establish them as dramatically-credible alternatives: the worst and most-obviously-not-the-killer is pervert flasher and busboy Gary (Bill McCann); Headmistress Griffin, meanwhile, at least could be the killer, since it turns out her main objection to the (frankly, logistically-implausible) liberties that Prof. Millett's been taking with his student body is just plain sour grapes.  (Heck, she should be thanking him.  Presumably she'd have never even had the opportunity to sexually exploit Kathy (Holly Hardman), Millett's fourth—possibly fifth—lover, if Kathy hadn't run to the headmistress in tears when he blew her off.)  But Griffin's not pushed especially hard by the script as a real possibility—she never even shows up on Judd's radar—which leaves her "predatory lesbian/sex murderer?" thing barely more than an excuse for some extra sleaze.

And so we have the two big, interrelated problems of Night School.  The first one is that every single one of these people is deeply unpleasant, including our protagonist, and to the extent Mann remembers his lines well enough to act (which is not a guarantee in every scene), his detective is still just a standard-issue dick movie cop, except without the competence to back up the pose.  (I'm particularly negatively impressed by the way he leans on one victim's traumatized boss, after the guy finds her head, apparently because he's just that reflexive a bully.)  Everyone else is an equally vague sketch, or less (to the extent these characters are characterized, it's with rampaging inconsistency), and those who aren't completely lifeless (mostly the townies) still wind up more annoying than invigorating.  As for Ward, increasingly central as the plot drags along, she's further trapped by her flat declamatory style and an unconvincing British accent, the latter of which maybe wouldn't be so bad if Ward weren't an actual British subject.

The second problem is that Night School finds a monotone rut and never, ever leaves until, maybe, the last ten minutes, which are only different because by that point they've revealed the killer and there's an admittedly-not-terrible cop movie car chase through Boston that was, presumably, the single biggest line-item in this slasher's surprisingly high, $1.2 million budget.  So: there will be a murder.  Judd will "investigate," by ineffectually bothering Millett and Eleanor.  Repeat.  All slashers are, in a sense, arbitrarily long, but Night School acknowledges it openly: it would be the exact same movie if Millett were fucking eight students, it would be the exact same movie if Millett were fucking just two, and the only distinction would be the runtime.  Just remember to throw in Ward getting naked in the shower, twice (and I don't imagine you'd forget, inasmuch as "Rachel Ward being extravagantly beautiful, in lieu of Rachel Ward being an adequate actor" is one of the film's few selling points), and the narrative, at least, would be virtually identical.  (A third problem emphasizes the glum repetitiveness of the story even more: to the extent contemporaries praised Night School, and they didn't praise it much, it was for Mark Irwin's grimy cinematography, and I'm not sure why.  It's basically a late-70s hangover and not the least bit fun to look at, particularly in a number of daytime exteriors that have been overexposed to the point it looks like World War III began with a 3000 foot airburst over Massachussetts, but which, paradoxically, somehow still come off as overcast and drab.)

Now, this is not all that distinct from "the slasher film" as usually constituted, and this is why slasher movies, as a rule, don't actually earn most of their points from "good stories" or "character depth."  They earn them from nasty kills and wacky nonsense that wouldn't fly in any other genre.  And this is where Night School at least starts to redeem itself, though it has a funny way of getting there.  Here's the thing: if it were not for the nudity (and, I dunno, in 1981, it's possible it could get away with the nudity it has) I would almost have guessed Night School was going for a PG.  It did not get one; it's an R-rated genre, and it's unclear to me if a single theatrically-released movie even tenuously characterized as a slasher ever actually did get less than an R until the 2000s.  (Shit, I Know What You Did Last Summer is still rated R.)  But for an example of the form at this budgetary level, Night School might be the least interested I've ever seen a slasher be in the ways that human bodies can be damaged and destroyed.  The kill scenes are so fake (the killer waves a knife in the general direction of victim; the victim has some red sauce on them in the next shot) that you wonder why the film even bothers showing them.  Director Ken Hughes must've wondered himself, since with more than half of his kills, he opts not to; and the ones he doesn't show, which can get by on horrific suggestion and portentous shot design, are actually better than the ones he does, which maybe says nice things about Hughes's instincts but nothing complimentary about his slasher movie.

Night School does not make up for it with more refined thrills: while the extended struggles that mark the kill scenes can be, and sometimes are, staged and edited with some noticeable intensity that slightly elevates their craptastic backyard make-up effects, at least two of them are ruined outright on the soundtrack.  This film has a lot of undisguised ADR, done by what I expect were stand-in VAs who refused to attempt any emotion more heightened than "mild aggrievement," and, accordingly, Night School winds up with some deflatingly whiney deaths.  (Sound's a problem generally: Hughes fucks up the timing on a fake-out jump scare when we hear a dog barking, like, two hours before its head finally pops out to frighten Eleanor.  On the plus side, Brad Fiedel's Casio score's okay.)  The unseriousness of death here is a pity, though, because the motorcycle-riding madperson, whom the film invites us to dub "The Headhunter," by connection with Millett's apparently-a-little-too-close anthropological study of the indigenous warriors of New Guinea, is even tolerably cool, a black leather terminator in a faceless black helmet who gives some reasonably good slasher in their generic implacability.  And if the Nepalese kukri they use as their weapon of choice would be unknown to New Guineans... well, nobody who worked on Night School went to Harvard.

All's not lost!  Night School finds some semblance of animation in a most unexpected place, with extended sequences of body discovery that mine as much joy as possible out of the fact that the Headhunter, in accordance with the purloined rite, practices purifying immersion upon their trophies.  It's downright jarring, honestly, since subsequent to several of his movie's kills, Hughes, either bored or simply realizing that his screenplay was twenty pages long, decided that his sourpussed serial killer flick was, secretly, a comedy.  These scenes include a long and successful suspense gag, where you know that waitress's head's gonna turn up somewhere, and you just hope it's not in the beef stew.  My favorite, however, involves dropping a head into an aquarium, which allows the finest performance of the whole film to evolve naturally, as a confused sea turtle wonders why a production assistant beaned it in the noggin.  In no other respect (give or take that car chase; give or take a very strange "primal" sex scene that frankly tarnishes the basic appeal of Ward's body) is there any hint of the entertainment that drives a successful slasher.  But the upside of the police procedural, and the foundation of its enduring popularity, is that it is kind of hard to make them genuinely unwatchable.  Meanwhile, at least sea turtle slapstick points in the direction of the enjoyable trash that Night School could've been.

Killer: The Headhunter [Eleanor  Adjai]
Final Girl: Professor Millett, kind of
Best Kill: Headmistress Griffin is attacked, and almost gets out of the room, but the Headhunter pulls her back in, slamming the door and letting us imagine how she's getting beheaded behind it
Sign of the Times: Classes in classrooms
Scariest Moment: The motorcycle stunt in the car chase, probably.  Theoretically, somebody could've been hurt.
Weirdest Moment: Brennan called it already, but obviously it's the "ritual" sex scene involving Millett smearing red paint all over Eleanor's naked body.  The shower seems like a bit of a self-defeating venue for "body paint," though, right?
Champion Dialogue: "How do you want your eggs" "Cooked."
Body Count: 6
1. Anne is beheaded on a merry-go-round
2. Kim is beheaded at an aquarium
3. Headmistress Griffin is beheaded in her bathroom (or, anyway, it's where her head winds up)
4. Kathy is beheaded likewise
5. Carol the diner waitress (Karen MacDonald) is beheaded outside her restaurant
6. [Professor Millett] gets the ass-end of that motorcycle stunt
TL;DR: Night School wallows in all the laziness and gorelessness that its police procedural structure affords, and even on its merits, it's a pretty lousy whodunnit, but it has some compensations in the form of some tonally-off but welcome moments of dead body-based physical comedy.
Score: 5/10

*Regarding "no beloved police procedural slashers," there is no actual reason why Seven, a masterpiece, would not count as a slasher, but it isn't usually categorized as such.

2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)


  1. “Classes in classrooms” ouch
    Well, it seems like this is my Colossus of New York, a movie I hoped you’d like more than you did, though I generally agree with the crux of what you’re saying.
    Also, as a rule, I find police procedural slashers to be frustrating but this is among my favorites for those terrific body discovery gags.
    And you really nailed Rachel Ward’s whole vibe. Everything about her is so hollow and fake that even her actual accent rings false.

    1. Meanwhile, the surname "Adjai" is from West Africa (not 100% sure what ethnic group, or if it crosses between ethnic groups, but it's at least attested in both Nigeria and Ghana). So there's that, too. Maybe these dorks did go to Harvard.

  2. I laughed a bit too hard at "classes in classrooms"