Slaughter High AKA The Jolly Killer (1986)
Distributor: Arrow Video
DVD Release Date: 11 July 2011
Directed by: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, Peter Litten
Starring: Caroline Munro, Simon Scuddamore, Carmine Iannaconne, Donna Yeager
Review by: Ben Bussey
Good afternoon class. Can I have your attention please? Don’t give me that look, I’m just as anxious for the day to end as you are, but let’s push through it shall we? Now I’m going to start you off with an easy question. Who here has ever seen Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? By show of hands. Come on, don’t be shy about it. Okay, quite a few of you. So, those of you who did see it; who among you felt, as I did, that it would have been considerably more effective as a recurring element of a sketch show rather than as a full half-hour comedy programme in its own right? Did any of you feel, as I did, that its recreation of the badly dated production values, limp writing and weak performances found in the genre-based television of the late 70s/early 80s was only fitfully amusing, and that it didn’t take long to grow tiresome?
Now, it’s no secret that I like me some slashers. They’re that rare breed of film where innovation of any kind is irrelevant, so long as the requisite quota of absurd gory deaths, cheesy dialogue and gratuitous nudity is met. However, this might just be me, but I don’t think it hurts if the material is approached with at least a degree of sincerity. The bad writing and bad performances should not be self-consciously so. They needn’t be trying to make Citizen Kane with a machete, but the viewer should at least get a sense that all those involved really want to make a good, solid movie. As you may have surmised by now, I did not get that impression from Slaughter High.
As it was made at the tail end of the first wave of slasher movies, it’s more or less a given that Slaughter High would feel a bit stale. Typically, it’s an adolescent revenge story that can be summed up in a sentence: a nerd who was humiliated and accidentally disfigured in an April Fool’s prank that went too far seeks revenge on those that wronged him by staging a bogus five-year high school reunion. (It may come as little surprise that the film was written and shot as April Fool’s Day – curiously, it even carries that title in the opening credits – until Paramount paid off the producers for the rights to the title before releasing their better known April 1st slasher the same year.) Taken on its own the overfamiliarity of the premise is no great problem, but add it to the other little niggles and it all gets a bit trickier to swallow. The real elephant in the room is the age and nationality of the actors. It’s again pretty much accepted that the bulk of the ‘teenagers’ in these movies are in reality a bit older, but this one really takes the biscuit. Caroline Munro, lovely as she is, was 37 when this film was made, and she looks it. That’s not a slur, by the way. Any straight man of flexible morals would still happily accept an invitation to visit the girl’s showers with her, but as Penthouse Forum fantasy archetypes go you’d buy her more as the sexually frustrated gym teacher than the promiscuous cheerleader.
But here’s the real kicker; though it tries to pass itself off as an all-American slasher, Slaughter High is actually a British production. This fact is abundantly clear almost immediately, as there is not a single convincing American accent to be found. Nor does much of the dialogue ring true-blue USA. Subsequently the whole endeavour feels like some half-arsed British amateur dramatics production of an American play. It doesn’t help that school setting and the surrounding countryside (brief though its appearance may be) also look about as convincingly American as Dick Van Dyke is convincingly cockney. You can dress it up as Mom’s apple pie, but it still smells like spotted dick with custard to me. (Yes, Americans, that’s the actual name of a British pudding.) And perhaps it’s inevitable that a film with three directors would feel a tad disjointed; just because it worked for Airplane!, don’t expect similar results.
Of course, none of this need be a negative. This enhanced absurdity may well boost the entertainment value for some, particularly given the death scenes which, even for the time, are notably lurid; take the mid-coitus electrocution, and the exploding stomach (both of which are briefly shown in the trailer below). Fans of the ridiculous should be happy as Larry, then. But, to bring it back to my Garth Marenghi analogy, to me it just feels a bit too knowing, too clever-clever nudge-nudge wink-wink. While it wears its 80s origins on its sleeve, in many respects Slaughter High feels spiritually closer to the (considerably inferior) 90s second-wave slashers, in all their ‘post-modern/ironic’ self-importance. It’s doesn’t skimp on the gore and nudity like most of those did, though, which I’ll admit does go some way to making amends.
The disc itself is another winner from Arrow, with commentaries, interviews and other such supplemental material in abundance, and the digital transfer of the film looks great. But still, were I to compile a list of the great forgotten entries in the first wave of the slasher genre, I rather doubt there’d be a place for this one. Check it out by all means, but don’t anticipate a lost classic.