Written by: Ruth Avergon
Directed by: Ken Hughes
Starring: Leonard Mann, Rachel Ward, and Drew Snyder
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You see, animals kill when they're hungry, or when they're threatened. But man is the only animal who destroys his own kind for the sheer pleasure of it."
The fabled slasher class of 1981 boasts several legitimate genre classics to its ranks, partially because this was the year the formula really settled in, prompting filmmakers to let loose and deliver maximum splatter with minimal plotting. Some outliers like Night School still remained, however, clinging a bit more tightly to the genreís giallo roots in the process. Where so many of its contemporaries were concerned with herding young people into a space to stage their gruesome deaths, Night School feels the slightest bit more mature and refined. As its title suggests, its targets are slightly older than the usual bunch in these types of films, and thereís a bit more emphasis on the procedural aspect than usual, giving it a slightly different vibe than many of this eraís slashers.
But donít worry: slaughter is still very much on the agenda, and the film makes no bones about that intention in the very first scene. It appears to be innocuous enough at first, as it features a young teacherís aide playing with a student on a merry-to-round before a parent arrives to take them home. Before the aide is able to leave herself, a mysterious figure dressed in black leather and a motorcycle helmet approaches, begins violently spinning the merry-go-round, and brandishes a blade, much to the horror of the woman trapped on the ride. After toying with their target, the psycho extends the knife, severing the poor girlís head instantly, drawing the attention of a local police force already investigating similar murders. Eventually, a connection arises when detective Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) realizes each victim attends an all-woman night school.
Eventually, Austin narrows it down even further, as it turns out the victims are all in the same anthropology class taught by Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder), the ultimate sleazebag professor clichť. Not only is he already shacking up with his assistant Eleanor (Rachel Ward), but heís also carrying on affairs with just about any student that walks through his door. Naturally, he becomes the most obvious suspect, and the script doesnít exactly shy away from casting suspicion on him. Call me crazy, but I think somethingís up with any guy who comes home and performs an apparent blood ritual in the shower with his lover. Maybe just keep an on him, in my opinion.
Of course, itís not quite that simple since the script weaves in a little bit of misdirection and red herrings. As a result, Night School is compulsively watchable even if its procedural and mystery angle points to a pretty obvious direction. Even if youíre pretty sure youíre know where itís headed, it at least has the decency to introduce a wrinkle here and there, introducing peeping toms and lecherous deans to the fray, allowing them to upend the narrative ever so slightly. While Ken Hughesís workmanlike direction doesnít completely embrace the ultra-stylized trappings of gialli films, the script is certainly guided by that genreís sense of wild, unhinged prevision, making Night School something of a stopgap between the two splatter movements.
One of its more entertaining wrinkles involves the killerís M.O. At a time when most slashers were looking to up the ante in terms of creatively-staged carnage, Night School settles on having its psycho routinely sever their victimsí heads. That might not sound as entertaining as other films from this era, but the fun here begins after the heads are removed. See, you just never know where the severed heads are going to turn up. Maybe one will pop up in a public aquarium and startle horrified old ladies and small children; maybe another will turn up in the toilet, allowing Night School to join the ranks of The House on Sorority Row and Curtains, both of which feature similar gags.
The best, though, comes when Hughes playfully teases out one sequence: with viewers having already watched a waitress be brutally murdered after hours, theyíre made to squirm when a couple of patrons show up the next morning, blissfully unaware of the carnage thatís unfolded. When one of them digs a clump of hair out of their stew, it sends the cook scurrying to the back, looking to uncover the culprit. Various grotesque possibilities unfold, and you keep expecting this head to pop up like some demented game of Whack-a-Mole before the cook finally discovers its location, leaving the poor guy scarred and shaken as the police badger him for details. Whatís more, this M.O. eventually offers a clue that ties into the killerís motive, so itís not just some macabre embellishmentónot that Iíd have a problem if it were, obviously.
Night School might not be exactly like its fellow slasher classmatesóitís the one that probably thinks itís a little better than everyone else and flaunts it with its studio credentials. However, it still very much knows how to party when it needs to, as evidenced by the scummy characters, radical gore, and an ending thatís predictable yet still distinctive. In fact, itís hard to think of many slashers that end like this one, earning it another superlative to its credit. If nothing else, itís a change of pace from the usual slasher shenanigans and boasts two noteworthy performances from Snyder and Ward, the two lovers caught in a tempestuous relationship, to say the least. Between them and the filmís other scuzzy trimmings, thereís more than enough intrigue to Night School, a film that deserves a higher profile than the one itís garnered over the years. Arriving alongside such a distinguished crowd will have that effect, I suppose.
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