Hell High 1986 Review
Hell High 1989
Directed by: Douglas Grossman
Starring: Maureen Mooney, Christopher Stryker, Christopher Cousins
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Unleashed a tad too late to make an impression on the slasher cycle, Hell High is an entry that deserves a second look due to its effort to branch away from the standard template. It is not one that is particularly obscure and has always been fairly easy to locate on VHS and then DVD. Surprisingly enough, most genre fans have never paid it much attention, which is an unusual feat for a film so widely available.
Producers David Steinman and Douglas Grossman had set out to make a feature from as early as 1982. Whilst searching for opportunities, Grossman touted himself as a writer around Hollywood and interviewed with a few studios to little avail. He eventually landed the job of adding the finishing touches to a Jim Kouf script titled, Up the Creek. The film was a moderate success and Grossman put the profits towards developing his own project the following summer. What Do You Want To Do Tonight? was finished in 1986, but the distribution deal that they secured initially fell by the wayside over a disagreement on the fee.Tragedy struck when lead actor, Christopher Stryker, fell ill and died shortly after of an AIDS related complication. In the aftermath, the movie was picked up relatively cheaply, given a minuscule cinema run and then re-titled and shipped out quietly on VHS where it barely made a ripple.
In the first scene, a young girl heads off to a hut in some secluded swampland with a handful of toys. Whilst she is playing, a roaring motorbike engine is heard pulling near and so she heads off to avoid detection amongst the surrounding shrubbery. Two rock and roll teens burst in to the shack and begin to make out, but somewhat stereotypically, the female (complete with a hairstyle that is ‘air-baloon-like’) ‘doesn’t feel safe’. Her gentlemanly boyfriend accepts her decision with the charming words of, “You f*king bitch!” He also pulls the head off of one of the toys inside, much to the displeasure of the on looking child. Both rockers jump on to their motorcycle and begin to speed off, but just before they leave, they are hit by a bucket full of mud, thrown in anger in response to the dismemberment of the dolly. The bike loses control and violently crashes into a pit of bizarrely misplaced spikes.The kiddie looks on in shock as the riders bleed to death.
Fast forward to present time and the infant is now grown up and a teacher at a local high school. Her strict approach causes friction with one rebellious group of students and after an aggressive confrontation, they plan revenge on her. The posse head up to her house later that night with a prank in mind to torment her, but what they find waiting for them is not what they expected…
I was really impressed with Hell High’s modification of the ‘avengement’ theme that has been used many times by the likes of Slaughter High, Terror Train and Evil Night.The story we have hereseems to owe more to the revenge flicks of the seventies such as Massacre at Central High and Horror High than the titles that it shares its release date with. It focuses very heavily on building the personalities of its key players, which translates to around fifty-minutes of high school frat pranks, flirting and teen-banter. These characters are loud, brash and fun to watch as they do everything possible to worm their way in to the audience’s psyche. Christopher Stryker’s Dickens is a sociopath without a shred of remorse and his persona is unequivocally evil. He drowns out his friend/nemesis, Jon-Jon’s morals by inflicting peer pressure on him. Eventually, Jon-Jon reluctantly has to submit to the notion that he is in fact not as confident of his moral stance as he’d like to believe. The other two gang members have perhaps less of an impact on the story, but still provide worthwhile dialogue. In the aftermath of their crimes, they successfully build the picture that their shallow regret is far more centered towards a fear of punishment than a recognition of the horrendous acts that they committed. This leaves them without sympathetic redemption and also creates an interesting paradox. Who do we root for, the murderer or the victims? Perhaps neither is deserving of audience support.
I touched on the authenticity of the synopsis and it becomes most obvious when the film’s ‘bogeyman’ begins her rampage. We are not given a loon in a mask or a super-human assailant, but instead a killer that has been twisted by the actions inflicted upon her, which makes her very human and VERY real. The murders are brutal, if not particularly gory and include a vicious pencil to the head and a fire-poker impalement. Perhaps the lack of a more physically imposing aggressor made it more of a challenge to convey a genuine fear factor.
There’s a great money shot that was used on most covers and marketing material and it sees the teacher running down the stairs in silhouette with a knife in her hand a la Norman Bates. In fact, the photography from Stephen Fierberg is by far the best thing technically about the picture. The scenes in the swamp are particularly gloomy and atmospheric and superbly lighted. Kudos to the producers for making the most of a low budget and Hell High shows no obvious signs of being lesser funded than the Friday the 13th sequel developed the same year. The editing is not sharp enough to create any true suspense or shocks, but I must admit that at times I felt rather unsettled during my viewing, which left an impression all the same.
Whilst I found myself to be moderately engrossed during the majority of the plot, I do concur that the average dramatics may be off-putting to some viewers. We have teens, we have lady lumps (I counted three boob-shots in the first twenty-minutes) but this is not a traditional stalk and slasher. The attempt to add a psychological theme is a bit of a risk and much like mayonnaise on chips, you’ll either love or hate it. It has a ‘kind of’ central character to relate to and also a confused, but intriguing moral to its story. It’s low-level of popularity exists for a reason though and I’m not sure whether to highlight or warn against it.
Hell High is an oddity of a genre entry, and I mean that in both a complimentary and non-complimentary way. I most definitely enjoyed watching it again after so many years, but was left feeling like you would after a passionate fling that lasted for only two-minutes. Enjoyable, but worthy of being so much more.
Eighties enthusiasts should track it down, but it’s one that I recommend with reservations.