Return to Horror High 1987
Directed by: Bill Froehlich
Starring: Richard Brestoff, George Clooney, Vince Edwards
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I bought Return to Horror High many years ago on a budget VHS and it was one of those that I watched, didn’t think much of, put back in its box and left in the bottom of my wardrobe. Recently I began thinking about it again after seeing a program about George Clooney and felt that I should dig it out for a second viewing. I can’t explain why, but I had the feeling that it may have been something of a hidden gem that didn’t get rightful praise first time around. Lately, I’ve found things in movies that I brushed off years ago that I didn’t notice when I saw them initially.
So this is another of the multitude of slasher movies that has a ‘soon-to-be’ star amongst its cast. In fact, there are many fairly good performers here and it’s quite well produced for its time of release. I remember reading a review of the Playstation Survival Horror classic, Resident Evil, where the writer said something along the lines of, “The voice-overs are so wooden, they make me think that George Clooney is convincing.” That seems like an incredible statement aimed at an Oscar-winning (and twice nominated) actor. Back in those days though, when he first appeared on the screen, the general consensus amongst everybody was that he was a pretty boy with zero talent. Nowadays, I can’t think of many better character actors.
A film crew are looking to shoot a slasher movie on the set of a notorious massacre. Crippen High School has been closed ever since the aforementioned killings and the maniac was never caught. As members of the production begin disappearing, it seems that the nut job may well have returned.
What is interesting is that this is most definitely produced with the mission statement of parodying the stalk and slash cycle. Alongside the likes of April Fool’s Day and Evil Laugh, it is clearly a tongue in cheek tribute to the style that had dominated horror throughout the early eighties and it emphatically underlines its self awareness. The film crew are working on a low budget feature and they highlight every possible stereotype from the guide book list. The producer doesn’t care about plot as long as there’s enough blood and boobs, whilst the director is trying to be recognised for the opportunity of a more respectable project and paycheque. Within the first ten minutes, their lead actor quits to take up a role on TV and scenes are rewritten on demand if a performer disappears or they want something a tad more explicit.
Wes Craven’s Scream was rejected by the MPAA as an R rating nine times initially until Bob Weinstein stepped in and told the board to, ‘Think about it as a comedy’. This completely altered their viewpoint and it was given the go ahead for wider consumption. Return to Horror High is also aiming for laughs, but the problem is that whereas Kevin Williamson’s script was clever and subtle, Bill Froehlich’s goes for an unappealing Troma-esque style of slapstick that just doesn’t work. The goofy vibe fails to combine with the horror and the tone is completely ruined by wasted efforts at inane quips. For example, if you find the thought of someone peeing on their own shoe to be funny then this will rock your world. Me, I am looking for a little more from a screenplay than that.
It also suffers from milking the same idea until it has run bone dry and then doing it again all over. The plot works with a few different timelines and attempts to blur them in order to pull a trick on the audience. We skip between scenes of the aftermath of the current massacre, flashbacks to the way the victims were killed and also snippets from the original murders from five-years earlier. Usually, the parts that are from the first wave of slaughters end with the on-screen director shouting ‘cut!’ We then learn that this was actually just a film within a film, so this means that the people that are about to be killed are playing the people that were killed all those years ago…? Even if the first time we see this, it could be considered a smart gimmick, after it has been repeated to the point of confusion, all that credibility disappears. We build a level of rapport with personalities that turn out to be false and it leaves us without someone to really root for. It doesn’t help that the most interesting characters on display are those from the ‘film within a film’. The ones that carry the majority of the runtime for us are as shallow as a rain puddle in the desert and incredibly hard to care about.
Perhaps because of the lack of clarity and the minimal attempts at suspense, Horror High’s good points are not able to achieve their deserved recognition. Some of the cinematography is really neat, like the wide-framed shots of a dark corridor that are accompanied by the constant squeaks on the soundtrack that represent the fact that the maniac is nearby. There are also a few twists that I certainly wasn’t expecting in the final ten minutes that will catch you unawares, but make little sense when you think about them after. Because we have already witnessed too many false dawns and wrong-footed scenarios, we are never sure if what we are seeing is real or not. There’s a great surreal artist from Cataluña called Joan Miró whose pictures are so complex that you only figure out the true meaning upon a second look or reflection. Whilst the ability to successfully mangle the lines between fantasy and reality is a strength in itself, Bill Froehlich’s ideas are poorly structured and therefore write ambitious cheques that their delivery can’t cash.
Despite an incoherent spine, the film rarely bores and it’s fairly well acted in a campy way. There’s one really gruesome murder that involves a guy being nailed to a desk and dissected (Vince Edwards no less) and you have to appreciate the irony of a Biology teacher getting cut open that way. The loon has a great mask/cape disguise and there’s a decent score here too. Also if you ever wondered what an icon of fashion like George Clooney would look like in a hilarious mullet, then check out his five-minute walk-on. Now that really is the funniest thing about this supposed ‘comedy’.
The most annoying fact about Horror High is that it is purely and simply a waste of a good budget. As it stands, it’s little more than an interesting time-capsule for fans of one handsome Hollywood superstar. Really though, it should be regarded as an early example of the Scream methodology, but in all honesty, it’s simply not good enough for that.
Final Girl: √√