Friday, February 13, 2009
Rarely mentioned these days among thriller or horror film devotees, Ken Hughes 1981 film Night School is among the most undervalued of the often-maligned American slasher 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, disturbing 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 turn Mae West delivered for him in Sextette (1978). Hughes then was certainly no stranger to controversy when he signed on to helm Night School in 1980, after Alice, Sweet Alice (1977) director Alfred Sole turned the project down.
Night School is mostly remembered these days for introducing a ravishingly beautiful young British actress to the screens named Rachel Ward. The undervalued Ward had just appeared in some television roles when she went to America to film Night School, and 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 powerful mini-series The Thorn Birds in 1983. Ward turns in a nicely rendered performance in her first film under Hughes direction, and her work is just one thing that elevates Night School 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 sometimes seedy 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 of Brad Fiedel, to the black masked killer. Night School has much more in common with films like 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. The film also features an eerie climatic scene at a cemetery that recalls Lucio Fulci's masterful A Lizard in Woman's Skin (1971), and its odd supporting tribal storyline recalls any number of Italian Cannibal films from the period as well.
Among Night School'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 being played just for cheap-thrills they feel like genuinely twisted 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 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 indeed 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 the works to each other.
Hughe's film is also a rare case of having a twist at the end that 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 audiences 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 apparently 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. Along with being an effective thriller, Night School is key a work of the American slasher genre that very actively went out of its way to pay tribute to the Italian films that 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.
***This is a revamped version of an article that I wrote here a couple of years back.***