Monday, December 4, 2017

SLAUGHTER HIGH - BLU-RAY REVIEW

Set within a dilapidated old high school, a class prank that went horribly wrong years earlier sets the impetus for SLAUGHTER HIGH (1986), a rather ludicrous if quite memorable slasher film which has arrived on Blu-ray in a brand-spankin’-new transfer as part of Lionsgate’s continuing Vestron Video Collector’s Series.

Mark Rantzen (Simon Scuddamore) is the school geek of Doddsville High (or as the U.S. ads proclaimed, “The Dork of Doddsville High”!) who is constantly teased and bullied by his classmates, including class clown Skip (Carmine Iannaccone) and the school’s most popular hottie Carol (Caroline Munro). However, when one of their pranks goes very wrong, Mark gets badly disfigured in a chemistry mishap, which - needless to say! - leaves him yearning for revenge in a big (and hopefully messy) way. As per the usual template for this sort of formulaic fare, years later, Skip, Carol and the rest of the so-called dork/geek’s wrongdoers are mysteriously invited to a school reunion at their now very-run-down old alma mater, where they are - no great surprise there! - ritualistically killed-off one-by-one.

A predominantly-British production with some fleeting American input courtesy of producer Steve Minasian - one of the silent partners behind Sean S. Cunningham’s historical benchmark for the slice’n’dice/jab’n’stab genre, FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - SLAUGHTER HIGH was, like some of Minasian’s other films, such as PIECES (1982) and DON’T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984), co-produced by exploitationer extraordinaire, Dick Randall. Hoping to cash-in on the last remnants of the slasher boom (which, by 1986, was, for all intents and purposes, very much on its last legs), co-directors Dugdale, Ezra and Litten were hoping to inject something new into a by-then-tired-out genre with some creative—and decidedly vicious—killings and dark humour, while, at the same time, staying true to the film’s type. The killer, although his identity is obvious right from the get-go, wears a rather unnerving jester/clown mask, which provides some necessary extra punch to many of SH’s kill scenes and, in a nice touch, amps-up the tension in others with the faint sounds of jingling bells being heard emanating through the desolate hallways of the derelict learning institution. All the standard archetypes are present, but what sets this movie apart from the rest of the slasher pack are its inventive, over-the-top kills: including one poor guy who shotguns a beer only to realize the can is filled with some sort of green ooze; which, quite literally, makes his stomach explode! In yet another oddball—not to mention completely nonsensical—demise, a female victim takes a bath and is reduced to a bloody skeleton by corrosive-laced water which pours into the tub from the tap.

In an additional connection to FRIDAY THE 13TH, composer Harry Manfredini contributes a cut-and-paste score, consisting of numerous cues from his earlier, now-iconic compositions, but he also contributes a suitably awful yet wholly appropriate theme song (co-written by John Caribbi), which perfectly establishes SH’s silly tone; although, it must be said, the film does display quite the unabashed mean streak, one which is far more pronounced than is usually seen in your average psycho killer film. In this respect, it is rather akin to Danny Steinman’s FRIDAY THE 13TH PART V: A NEW BEGINNING (1985), one of the nastier endeavours to be found in the entire stalk’n’slash/cut’n’gut canon.

Originally titled APRIL FOOL’S DAY, a title which had to be nixed when Paramount’s FRIDAY THE 13TH producer Frank Mancuso, Jr. announced Fred Walton’s same-named slasher spoof that very same year of ’86, Vestron Pictures did release the present film theatrically. However, in all probability, most people likely caught this via Vestron Video’s Beta/VHS videocassette release, which was made available in both R-rated and unrated versions. The film first debuted on U.S. DVD in 2009 via Lionsgate and their ’80s ‘Lost Collection’, and even though it was uncut, it was derived from a less-than-impressive, tape-sourced master. This same edition later popped-up in a 4-Film Collection and an 8-Film Collection, both again from Lionsgate, and which also included numerous other Vestron Pictures releases. Working from the interpositive, Lionsgate’s latest release is obviously their most attractive presentation of SH yet, which has been remastered in 2K for the occasion. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded Blu-ray is once again presented uncut, while the heightened HD resolution is a vast improvement over all versions that have gone before, exhibiting far more detail, solid black levels and fairly robust colours, latter of which especially come alive during the hallucinogenic, candy-coloured ending. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio option also sounds crisp and clear, with no noticeable issues whatsoever, especially given the limitations of the low-budget production, and for anyone that may need them, Lionsgate has once again provided English SDH subtitles.

The abundant extras begin with an affable audio commentary care of co-directors Dugdale and Litten, which is nicely moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher. Working with Dick Randall, they were given the opportunity to direct this FRIDAY THE 13TH clone and were asked by both Randall and Minasian to create something that was (quote) “the same, but different”, and that much of the film was (quote) “driven by what they could afford.” They discuss many of the cast members who, outside of veteran scream queen Caroline Munro, were all in their mid-twenties while trying to portray high-schoolers, and that many of the actual U.S.-born-and-bred actors were criticized for their ‘unconvincing’ American accents (?!). Much of the film was also (quote) “very loose” in its conception. Many of the ideas for the killings were simply thought up when Dugdale and Litten (quote) “met-up in a pub and had a chat.” In a surprising revelation, they explain how they had no input whatsoever into the music, and that fully half the film’s budget was used to hire Manfredini. The pair also discuss SH’s main shooting location, an actual still-standing if disused Victorian asylum which doubled for Doddsville High, along with the ‘accidental’ full-frontal nudity from Scuddamore and his unfortunate and very sad suicide soon after completing SH (which, despite rumours, was not a result of appearing in the film). They go on to discuss plenty of other anecdotes, including the killer’s signature jester/clown mask, which was simply purchased at a costume shop and used as-is; Randall’s brief cameo in the film, which they insist was not intended as a caricature; that Caroline Munro’s Soho apartment in the film belonged to London strip club magnate Paul Raymond; and that the extended chase sequence which concludes the film was helped along by (quote) “Steadicam guru” John Ward. Both Dugdale and Litten prove to be excellent raconteurs, and they span the film’s ninety minutes with ease. In a second audio commentary, or rather audio interview (21m01s), Felsher talks with composer Manfredini about the unavailability of his music, and how the only track they could locate was a (quote) “Mono Music and Effects Track”, which is included following the interview. Manfredini also discusses his early career and film work, such as Sean S. Cunningham’s HERE COME THE TIGERS (1978) and the cultural impact of FRIDAY THE 13TH, which generated a lot of work for him. He also admits that he was initially attracted to SLAUGHTER HIGH simply for the money, as well as how the film’s ostensible if obviously non-U.S. setting (quote) “threw him for a loop.”

Other no less significant extras include Red Shirt Pictures’ Going to Pieces (18m29s), an interview with co-writer / co-director Mark Ezra wherein he discusses, among other things, his recollections of Dick Randall, who was (quote) “a very funny and interesting guy”, and the problems which arose from trying to shoot an American film in London. He also goes on to discuss co-directors Dugdale’s and Litten’s different responsibilities, and how they almost got ex-“Rat Pack” star Peter Lawford to play the coach. In Red Shirt Pictures’ My Days at Doddsville (14m35s), Caroline Munro discusses how she became involved in the production and the challenges and benefits of working with three directors; in particular Dugdale, whom she was dating at the time. She also talks about the locations used and the physical demands her role placed on her. In addition, the disc includes an extensive still, poster and promotional artwork gallery (6m55s), as well as the film’s quite graphic theatrical trailer (1m43s) and a couple of radio spots (1m50s).


Although it has been readily available over the years, SLAUGHTER HIGH has, thanks to Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series, finally arrived in what can easily be touted as THE definitive presentation of this fan favourite. Order it from Amazon or DiabolikDVD.

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