Night School is a slasher that doesn’t get a lot of talk against comparable like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night, etc. Hell, it doesn’t even get much talk against the likes of mid-range slashers like Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, Madman, etc. These days, that’s likely because Night School was hard to come by, but with Warner heeding the requests of many a Home Theater Forum request panel over the better part of the 2000’s, that’s no longer the case. Night School was released day and date with an even more neglected slasher, Killer Party, on Warner’s disc on demand label on November 1, 2011. A day late for the Halloween rush, but hey, that’s nothing new for the movie that Paramount sloughed into theaters between tentpole slasher releases My Bloody Valentine in February and Friday the 13th, Part II in May 1981. So how good is a slasher movie directed by the director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Well, J. Lee Thompson directed Huckleberry Finn before giving us Happy Birthday to Me (and the wicked 10 to Midnight and a whole onslaught of nasty Charles Bronson flicks) and that turned out alright, didn’t it? Sound the bell, school’s in, sucka.
Night School begins at, you guessed it, a school. A young teacher has just dismissed her class of Kindergarten kids as they head outside during nightfall (they must go pretty late in the east coast). Rather than head home herself, she decides to get a few extra revolutions in on the playground merry-go-round. Unbeknownst to her, a motorcyclist clad in leather arrives and decides to take the lady for a spin. The cyclist takes hold of the merry-go-round and starts spinning the teacher faster than it takes even Rachel Ward to undress in a slasher movie. As she spins, the killer brandishes a special kind of bent knife and taunts the victim. Next thing we see, her head’s in a bucket and we have a case on our hands.
The lieutenant investigating is Judd Austin (Leonard Mann, Silent Night Deadly Night 3) along with assistant Taj (Joseph R. Sicari, the poor man’s David Hess). They discover that the girl was pretty introverted but went to the Wendell College for women. Trying to break that lead, Austin crashes the anthropology lecture of Dr. Millett (Drew Snyder, Firestarter, Commando). He finds out the victim had a secret boyfriend, one much older than she…but who? It doesn’t take long for news to spill to the audience that Dr. Millett does more than just teach his students. Taking the news perhaps most gingerly of all is exchange student Elanor Adjai (Rachel Ward, in her film debut, later to be seen in the slasher The Final Terror). We learn through a steamy, soft focus shower scene that she’s having an affair with the professor, but the professor seems to be linked to a lot of women. In fact, a lot of those women start ending up dead – and in similar ways.
One by one, heads are sliced and submerged into liquid. Too arbitrary to be mere coincidence, we learn through Elanor that Dr. Millett often lectures about a similar phenomenon in tribal communities, whereby the elders sever the heads of evil men and submerge them in water in order to cleanse their spirit before the afterlife. With all the victims being beautiful girls that may or may not have slept with Dr. Millett, the pressure is up on the professor. There’s also some developmentally challenged pervert who, get this, has a HOCKEY MASK in a room full of naked women cut-outs (talk about one Paramount picture influencing another!). Seems like he’d be a pretty good candidate. But as Night School lets out, there are a few more twists to keep us from handing in our tests, and our patience.
Straight up, this is the Mark Irwin show. At this point in his career he’d already been Cronenberg’s DP for Fast Company and The Brood, and proving how small the Canadian film community was at the time, he’d also been William Fruet’s go-to cinematographer on Funeral Home (and later Trapped and Spasms). Irwin would go on to a notable career in Hollywood, lensing the likes of Scream, Dumb & Dumber, American Pie 2 and Passenger 57 among a laundry list of other big films, including a lot more from Craven and Cronenberg. Yet still, of all his films, this nothing little slasher from 1981 might just be his crowning achievement. For a film with little blood, sporadic deaths and a pretty polite script, it’s pretty amazing the intensity Irwin is able to draw out of the death scenes just by way of staging the camera. In the Argento way, the camera is very much a participant in the carnage, and Irwin shoots the film with such craftsmanship that you know you’re being guided by a master.
Two of the death scenes really speak out to Irwin’s abilities as an artist of camera and light. The first is right off the bat, where the teacher is spun round on the merry-go. The closest we get to blood is a red shirt that the film cuts to in the next scene, but the way Irwin lenses this, the camera is spinning around with the girl. We’re feeling the vertigo and the blur, with the outstretched knife the only thing noticeable each revolution, light glistening off the blade. The killer teases the victim by raising and lowering the knife, and Irwin too teases the audience with how many times the camera spins around 360 (a tough feat on its own in cinema, but even tougher during a night scene that’s as impeccably lit as this one). It’s just beautiful to watch, a kind of camera ballet.
The other masterfully cinematic death comes later when the killer closes in on a woman in an apartment. Taking cues from Polanski and how he liked to conceal central moments behind architecture, Irwin intentionally keeps the camera behind the door frame. The killer slams the door and all we see are shadows under the door and the occasional slam. Otherwise, he’s confident enough in his camera to allow the audience to play theater of the mind, listening to the murder and imagining the worst of fates. Irwin’s not done yet, though. He has the actress wrestle with the door throughout the scene, ultimately revealing just enough of the kill to remind us that it’s even worse than our minds could have even envisioned. The confidence Irwin has in his compositions, and the thrill with which he moves his camera, truly is a sight to behold, and this isn’t just for these scenes – the film is filled with amazing visual set-pieces that had they been shot by any other cinematographer could have ended up flat and languid (as is often the case in a lot of slashers from the time). Not with Mark Irwin, though. This guy gives Dean Cundey and John Alcott runs for their money in the genre, that’s for sure.
Another guy who makes a notable impression in the film is Composer Brad Fiedel. He’ll always be remembered for the Terminator soundtracks, but horror fans should know him from Just Before Dawn and Fright Night, among others. His echoed piano notes and extended violin swells help give the film a seedy, after hours kind of atmosphere, and it’s a feel that really complements the story that unfolds. He accentuates the kills with the synth bursts that would define the genre, and like with Irwin’s cinematography, this skilled work by a guy who’d go on to much greater fame helps elevate Night School above its peers.
It seems every crew member who’d later hit it big took residency in Night School – the film is edited by Robert M. Reitano, who’d later go on to do Sleepless in Seattle, The Juror and My Blue Heaven. At the time, this was only his second feature, but even at this point the editing is clever and economical in its storytelling. Of particular note is the murder in the bathroom, how he elliptically cuts back and forth between the toilet reveal and the curious co-ed, drawing maximum suspense out of what was otherwise just a tick on the bodycount checklist.
Of course I’m giving praise to all these young filmmakers when really, the reason they all probably excelled here is because of the veteran leadership by Director Ken Hughes. It’s clear all these elements work so well together because Hughes had a pretty particular vision, and one he executes in the best of the old Hollywood style. The story, eh, give or take, but the way it is told is brings it absolutely to life. There’s a bit of controversy with which the ending is handled, but whether you appreciate the direction Hughes takes the film or not, it’s certainly worth appreciating. He spins the slasher his own way, the way you’d probably imagine an English bloke telling a gaudy joke. “Modern man has to only take a small step to wind up in the primeval jungle of his ancestors” says the professor in the film, and you get the feeling Ken Hughes was probably thinking that while being reduced to making a slasher picture after years as an esteemed English director. Rather than phone it in he embraced the opportunity, creating a fine film in the template that had been written before him, but his way, with his ending.
Although Ken Hughes would live until 2001, this would prove to be his last film credit in any capacity, and you get the feeling with that ending he went out with a sense of humor about it all. You could tell he took the picture seriously, but that at the same time he understood the genre in which he was working, and that’s probably why Night School succeeds. As serious as Night School is, there’s a playfulness in the reveal of the killer and a joy by which it’s told though the editing and Irwin’s camera work that makes it survive the collegiate self-importance of its story. If the film has any notoriety today it’s probably because Rachel Ward gets partially nude, but if I were in this class I wouldn’t be talking to the vapid hot chick – I’d be copying the notes of Ken Hughes, Mark Irwin, Robert Reitano and Brad Fiedel. You’ll learn a lot in this movie just paying attention to what they have to say.
As was common at the time, the film has a hazy, soft focus look, with pro mist filters everywhere fuzzing out visible light on screen. Don’t expect sharpness from this transfer, but it’s still mighty beautiful. As is usual with Warner Archive “Remasters”, this transfer has some edging due to post-processing and sharpening, but it’s a bit more muted than it was in Killer Party, still preserving a film-like look. Irwin shot using fast, grainy stocks, and the transfer keeps the grain structure intact with only moderate artifacting in some of the grainier corners of some of the lower end luminance values. The print is a little dusty, with white speckling throughout, but there’s no major noticeable film damage. In terms of color, Night School presents much warmer than it has in the past on video. There’s a hotter orange glow that seems to soak every scene, and I think this color timing is the most flattering for Irwin’s visuals. I’ve never seen this theatrically so I can’t comment on whether the orange was present then, but it definitely was a lot colder on VHS. The color now gives it a bit of a vintage look, but it also complements Irwin’s hazy photography to give it more of a flattering nostalgic warmth. It’s clear for good and bad, Warner put some work into this, and that’s the main thing to champion for an old forgotten slasher like this.
We’re dealing with another Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix on this one, and it sounds about what you’d expect. There’s no hiss, even when you crank up your receiver, but the counter effect is a flatter, duller sound space. The track is clean, though, with no noticeable damage, and sound effects, music and dialogue all present cleanly and audible. Mono or not, Brad Fiedel’s seedy overtures and abrasive synth work during the murder sequences come through as affecting as ever, and that’s the main thing.
There’s not much, but at least we get the fun theatrical trailer (notice how much colder the print presents here than it does on the feature proper on this DVD). The trailer is presented in 1.33:1 in what looks to be open matte. Remember, this is a DVD-R made on demand, so don’t come in expecting the Criterion treatment…although with the pedigree with those involved that should be just the treatment Night School gets!
Although it maintains a lower profile than most slasher films (hell, even most slashers from its 1981 release!) Night School is a classy, wonderfully put together little thriller. It’s a lesson in Hollywood fundamentals, with exemplary work from big names like Ken Hughes, Mark Irwin, Brad Fiedel and Robert Reitano. It has a shower scene with Rachel Ward, too. Death scenes are elaborately staged, where the punchline is not the gore, but instead the coverage and the way it’s all put together by the skilled craftsmen. This is a movie for horror fans who appreciate the craft of filmmaking, not just the money shots. But hey, there are severed heads and even a scene where a turtle starts to pick apart a woman’s neck, so there’s that too. Whatever I can say to make you sign up for this class of the slasher crop, I will. Warner presents a warmer, film-like video transfer and a clean mono audio track, so this DVD-R shouldn’t deter you from checking it out, either. Night School is all class; worth enrolling.
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A- indeed. It has gone on to be one of my favorites. It is so well made. The DVD as given it new life I think.
Also, your up-top year says 1986. Just thought you should know.
Great review, rhett!
This just came in the mail last week! :)
Gonna pop it in tonight for my nightly October viewing
Thanks guys. Have fun watching it, vamp. Let us know what you think of it.
Grrrrr, I wish this had a blu release already!
Excellent review, rhett.
NIGHT SCHOOL is one of my favorites.
Those horror fans that refuse to buy DVD-Rs are missing out.
Can't find this on netflix. gonna hafta check the video store. Great review, rhett!
Earlier this year, I revisited a few slashers that I didn't care for the first time around. I found much more to appreciate about each one of them with the sole exception of Night School. This one's pretty much shit.
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