School Killer 2001
aka El Vigalante
Directed by: Carlos Gil
Starring: Paul Naschy, Carlos Fuentes, Zoe Berriatúa
Review by Luis Joaquín González
Spanish people, in general, are notorious for doing things slightly differently than everybody else. It’s an unwritten rule for us that we take a standard task and add our own slant on it, whether it be for the better or for the worse. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that this post Scream inclusion to the stalk and slash cycle wasn’t by any means a run-of-the-mill genre entry.
El Vigilante or School Killer – as it’s known on these shores – was released with something of a buzz during the early noughties. This was due to the fact that it included a starring role for Paul Naschy who was Spain’s very own Christopher Lee. He was a former bodybuilder that stepped into Lon Chaney Jr’s shoes to portray ‘Wolfman’ Waldemar Daninsky in a script that he had penned for Hell’s Creatures (1968). He reprised the popular role for the series of sequels and became a horror icon by playing Dracula, The Mummy and even Jack the Ripper throughout the following decades. Perhaps the purest example of a fan dedicating his life to the genre that he adored, Naschy passed away in 2009 at the age of 75, leaving behind over a hundred movies.
It’s a shame that such a charismatic actor didn’t make more slasher films. With his hulking frame and imposing presence, he was perfect bogeyman material. His participation in the obscure El Lado Oscuro (2002), the Giallo, El asesino está entre los trece (1976), and this new-age stalk and slasher are the only examples that we have of him slashing it up. The plot for School Killer seems fairly routine at first glance and involves a group of six kids heading off to a dilapidated school to spend a weekend exploring the creepy corridors. Upon arrival they notice that some lights are turning on and off by themselves and it seems that they’re far from alone. Soon after, they begin being stalked and slaughtered by the deranged groundskeeper. The strange thing is, he was supposed to have died many years ago…
I was having a chat recently with Haydn Watkins, co-author of the upcoming book Alone in the Dark: 80 years of stalk and slash. He agrees with my controversial theory that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a tad too supernatural to be a standard inclusion to the genre. If that’s the case though, how do I justify putting a film like this on a SLASH above? Well, whilst there are ghostly apparitions here and even jumps in the time/space continuum, the hulking maniac murders victims with methods more common to the standard template than Freddy’s subconscious fantasies. We get stabbings, slashings and a gruesome decapitation that allow us to be sure that this is on the right website.
Director Carlos Gil had been a successful assistant to Steven Spielberg on the original Indiana Jones trilogy. His experience is clearly evident here and he wraps the movie in a foggy blue tint of cinematography that works wonders in setting the tone of desolation. A large campus is used as the backdrop for the stalking scenarios and the darkened corridors isolate the players exceptionally. Naschy gives us a killer with a relentless brutality and although generally I prefer a strong silent antagonist, his delivery of grim dialogue does add ruthlessness to his impact. Only a couple of the main cast members are clearly developed and the rest were pretty much interchangeable, but their jesting succeeded in convincing us that they were indeed a group of close friends. There are the supernatural flourishes that we don’t usually see in these movies, but they are more of an after-effect than a key ingredient and the inclusion of trademarks like the heavy breath POV, mean this is definitely a stalk and slasher. It is an authentic one for sure, but not enough to push it outside of the category.
Whilst I certainly enjoyed School Killer and was impressed by the way it was conveyed, it shot itself in the foot somewhat with that age-old issue that plagues countless horror films. Our group of youngsters had various opportunities to escape the site and save themselves or get help, but the more that they bizarrely chose not to, the sillier the whole thing began to look. Whilst the script did try to rationalise their peculiar indecision, each explanation became more and more farcical and it had a huge effect on the credibility of the story. For example, the troupe learn early on that the tyres on their car have been slashed, which would make the average everyday Joe start sprinting until their legs buckled from exhaustion. These nitwits however decide to return back inside the complex and wait around until it’s their turn to get butchered. I am hesitant to call this lazy scripting, but it certainly should have been handled more creatively. I also felt that the film would have played better with a more suitable score, but it’s impossible to say whether this was down to a small-ish budget.
There’s a lot about School Killer that I really liked. It’s suspenseful, creepy and original, with a few Kevin Williamson-alike referential quips from the cast (Including a mention of Scream 3 funnily enough). We get a couple of hot chicas, an extremely convincing head-lopping and a downright creepy atmosphere. There’s just something that holds it back from touching on greatness, even if, it’s hard to ascertain exactly what that is. I guess that the film is best summed up by its conclusion, which is bold and ambitious but somewhat inadequately executed.