Hell High (1989)

APRIL 14, 2009


Not counting sequels and the occasional guilty pleasure like Dr. Giggles, were there ANY good slasher films to come along between Wes Craven’s exemplary takes on the style (84’s Nightmare on Elm St, and 96’s Scream)? I really can’t think of one that sticks out. But I heard good things about Hell High, from 1989 (though produced in 1986), so I was hoping that would be the one to break the mold. And to some extent it does, in that it’s a pretty good movie. The problem is, it’s not really a slasher, by my criteria.

Now, to be fair, no one involved wanted to make a traditional slasher (the director doesn’t even seem to want to make a horror movie at all, judging from his interview on the extra features), but you can break traditions while still fitting a general mold. But Hell High (which is a horribly misleading title; it was originally "What Are We Doing Tonight?" or something to that effect) doesn’t even do that. It’s actually the reverse: there are slasher traditions (opening flashback, a guy in a mask, an isolated house), but the mold itself isn’t there. For starters, the guy in the mask isn’t the killer, nor are the other three people wearing masks in the scene. They are the “group”, wearing the masks to scare their teacher. So if anything, it’s a twist on the “prank goes wrong” template, but it still never quite FEELS like a slasher movie, even when folks are killed.

Speaking of the kills - they’re all lumped together! One of the group dies around the 45 min mark, but the other two are killed in the same scene. And it’s not like Halloween, where the killer is just sort of stalking everyone and taking his time - the “killer” doesn’t even EXIST until more than halfway through the movie, when the prank makes them snap and take revenge. So it’s really more of a hero killer/revenge type movie, at least to me.

All that said, it’s definitely a pretty good horror movie in general. For starters, there’s an AMAZING 80’s pop soundtrack, coupled with a truly memorable and creepy main theme and some Carpenter-esque cues during the horror scenes. Someone needs to get me this soundtrack ASAP. Also, it’s almost a shame that the mask wearing folks aren’t the killers, because two of the masks they wear are pretty awesome:

I also love, love, LOVE the opening sequence. A doll’s head is ripped off, a guy tries to nail his girlfriend in a dirty shack in the middle of a swamp, and then a little girl inadvertently kills them by throwing mud into the guy’s face as he is driving his motorcycle. And they are impaled by a bunch of sharp metal poles sticking out of the ground for no discernible reason.

The film’s only real problem is that after that glorious opening, a bit too much time is spent on setting everything up. The four main kids seem to take hours hanging out and chatting before finally going to pull their little prank. That, coupled with the fact that all of the violence occurs in a very brief section of the runtime, gives the film a jarring pace that could have easily been fixed by moving some sections of the narrative around. For example, before the four kids go to the house to scare the teacher, two of them go and watch her shower. Yes, we need the traditional nude shot, but couldn’t this have been combined into the scene with all four of them? Also, the central mystery doesn’t quite work in any form - we’re supposed to think that the girl in the film’s opening is one of two females (the only two in the film of any significance), but as it is eighteen years later, the girl would be about 23-25, unlike the two women, one of whom is 18 at most and the other is 35 at least. It’s like they were trying to average it out, but weren’t even close to successfully misleading us in either direction.

Unlike most largely unknown horror films from the era, the DVD has a surprising wealth of extra features. Joe Bob Briggs provides both an introduction and a commentary, as he is one of the film’s biggest champions. His commentary is quite good, it mixes MST3k like observations with actual film production information, which is what Simon and I hope to do with our public domain series (provided we can actually FIND any information with our limited resources). Director Douglas Grossman also provides an audio commentary, which is typical (very proud of the crew, apologizes for using horror movie clich├ęs, etc.). Oddly, he didn’t bother to use headphones, so we can hear the movie’s audio from his viewing room, and it’s not in sync with what we are seeing. He also has people with him that obviously aren’t part of the commentary, so we just hear their muffled voices from time to time. Weird. The disc also includes a pair of interviews, one with Grossman, and the other with screenwriter Leo Evans. Both are fairly upfront with the film’s flaws, but are proud of it nonetheless. Some trailers and TV spots round things out. And since the movie is rather short (79 minutes, with opening credits over black), it’s not too much of a bother to sit through both commentaries (as opposed to say, one of the LOTR movies’ extended cuts; it would literally take an entire day to watch Return of the King and then all FOUR tracks), so I would recommend both, especially since they are so different.

I hope some folks check this movie out. It’s delightfully off-kilter, and it’s a shame that the slasher label will set up people to expect a different kind of film. I watched some of it again (this review was written two weeks after my viewing - thanks jury duty!) and found that now that I knew what NOT to expect, I liked it even more.

What say you?


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