Sunday, October 14, 2007
While I rarely see it mentioned these days, Ken Hughes 1981 slasher NIGHT SCHOOL is, to my eyes, among the best of the genre. The British born Hughes, probably best known for his striking 1964 adaptation of OF HUMAN BONDAGE and CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968), delivers a sleek and strange little film with NIGHT SCHOOL, and it is one of the only slashers that truly resembles the Italian Giallo that inspired the genre in the first place.
The award winning Hughes was born in Liverpool in 1922 which puts him at nearly sixty when he directed NIGHT SCHOOL, his final film as a director. He had gotten his start in the early fifties with some low budget British productions and had his big break come just after his fortieth birthday with the interesting 1960 production of THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE. While not at all prolific, nearly all Hughes productions caused a bit of stir, from the searing Kim Novak performance he directed in his Somerset Maughn adaptation to the grotesque work Mae West delivered for him in SEXTETTE (1978). Hughes was certainly no stranger to controversy when he signed on to helm NIGHT SCHOOL in 1980.
NIGHT SCHOOL is mostly remembered these days for introducing a ravishingly beautiful young British actress to the screens named Rachel Ward. The talented Ward had just appeared in some television roles when she went to America to film NIGHT SCHOOL. Within a year she would be on the verge of major stardom with her great role as Domino in the fantastic Burt Reynold's directed SHARKY'S MACHINE (1981) and would hit international pay dirt with the mini-series THE THORN BIRDS in 1983. Ward turns in a really fine performance in her first film under Hughes direction, and her work is just one thing that elevates it above most slasher films of the period.
NIGHT SCHOOL was filmed in Boston in the fall of 1980 on a relatively small budget but the veteran Hughes knew exactly what he was doing, so the lack of money and short schedule caused few problems. One of things that separates Hughes work from other slashers of the period is that while it is partially set at a college, the people in it are not teenagers. Much like the Giallo's that inspired it, the characters in NIGHT SCHOOL are grown ups dealing with the psychological ramifications of their pasts.
Working from a screenplay credited to producer Ruth Avergon, Hughes cast his film incredibly well, and surrounded Ward with some very talented players. Most notable is Italian born Leonard Mann (who reminds me of Giallo favorite George Hilton) as the intellectual police detective who is searching out the machete-wielding, motorcycle-driving killer. Also worth noting is Drew Snyder as the slimy college professor who is obsessed with ancient tribal rituals and himself. He makes for a wonderful red herring in a film filled with them.
Everything about the film screams Giallo, from the killer's motivations to the music to the black masked killer. NIGHT SCHOOL has much more in common with ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972) and SPASMO (1974) than it does with FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) or PROM NIGHT (1981), and Hughes seems to be relishing every minute of it.
Among the film's most notable moments are the opening murder on a child's playground (some discarded dolls can actually be seen in the dumpster behind them, another Giallo reminder) and the shower sequence, which has Rachel Ward being covered in a child's red paint by the professor. NIGHT SCHOOL has many unsettling images, but instead of feeling cheap they feel like direct links into the mind of the killer, something that Italian directors like Sergio Martino and Umberto Lenzi excelled at in the sixties and seventies.
NIGHT SCHOOL benefits greatly from the eerie mood that Hughes and company are able to give it. This is a dark little film and the melodically creepy piano based score by Brad Fiedel is one of the best of the period. The film's sharply cold and menacing look is rendered perfectly by Cronenberg cinematographer Mark Irwin and it is one of the most striking looking slasher films ever made. Irwin would shoot the legendary VIDEODROME (1982) just a year later and it is interesting to compare the arresting looks of both works to each other.
Hughe's film is also a rare case of a twist at the end actually making sense. So often in these films the inevitable surprise feels forced and unnatural, but NIGHT SCHOOL'S resolution feels perfectly organic with what has proceeded it. A slight misfire with a stab at humor in the last sequence doesn't work, but the climax does and NIGHT SCHOOL is one of the most perfectly rendered English language slasher films ever made.
The film opened up in the spring of 1981 to the usual critical disdain and decent business. It didn't resonate as heavily with audience hungry for campfire tales and teen murders, and it had a shorter run than other slashers of the period. The film, despite its well earned R rating for nudity and violence, does appear cut but a rumored uncut print is out there somewhere. I have never come across it though and NIGHT SCHOOL remains, like many other films of the genre, a bit neutered. The film was labeled a Video Nasty in Britain (where it was known as TERROR EYES) in the eighties and two scenes were chopped from the UK video release.
NIGHT SCHOOL remains out of print in this country and to my knowledge it has never had a DVD release anywhere. I know I am pretty much alone in my admiration of the film, as it is not often mentioned as a fan favorite. To me though, it is a work of the slasher genre that very actively went out of its way to pay tribute to the Italian films that had started it. That, along with the addition of Rachel Ward at her loveliest, is enough for me to consider NIGHT SCHOOL as one of the best slasher film of the eighties.