Although it frequently misfires and occasionally keeps firing away on empty satiric chambers, "Student Bodies" is a likably sarcastic and knowing assault on the cliche's of horror movies. The first of four parodies of the ongoing horror cycle -- the other projects are titled "Thursday the 12th," "Saturday the 14th" and "The Monster Wasn't Nice" -- it opens with a wittily disarming prologue: "This motion picture is based on an actual incident. Last year 26 horror pictures were released. None of them lost money."
Within the first few minutes, writer-director Mickey Rose does a pretty thorough job of exposing the most transparent scare techniques of "Halloween," "Friday the 13th" and "When a Stranger Calls" to well-deserved ridicule. There's the subjective image cliche', representing the point of view of a heavy-breathing psycho as he stalks a fresh victim. There's the ominous music cliche', the threatening call cliche', the unlocked door cliche', the endangered teen-age baby sitter cliche', the scary-walk-up-a-flight-of-stairs cliche' the horny-teen-agers-as-victims cliche'.
Rose is particularly inventive with the telephone. The first victim, a high school dum-dum named Julie, receives a helpful homework call from a girlfriend while studying for a big test on the Civil War. "Just remember, the North won," her friend remarks, causing Julie to exclaim "Oh, heavy!" As soon as this load is lifted from her mind, the poor girl is startled by a succession of calls from the heavy breather. She tries to hang up, but the phone won't stop ringing. In fact, it gets so agitated that the receiver literally jumps off the hook and drools in her lap.
Julie is the first of a dozen murder victims -- each one a candidate for homecoming queen or a boyfriend -- knocked off on the verge of fornication. The suspects turn out to be the janitor, the principal, and the psychologist at the high school, plus miscellaneous teachers, notably a woodshop instructor who makes a fetish of horse-head bookends. The murder spree continues at the funeral service for Julie and her boyfriend, the homecoming parade, the big game and the prom, edging ever closer to the heroine, Toby Badger, a Nice Girl (she wears a "No" button on her sweater and a bigger "No" button on her bra strap) played with charming deadpan sincerity by Kristen Riter, who actually succeeds in giving the scattershot material a character to rally around.
A sophomoric amusement at best, "Student Bodies" would seem to recommend itself most intimately to high school kids in a giddy mood. One can imagine something very similar being cooked up by a wisecracking group of movie-saturated adolescents. The demented high school setting sustained by Rose and his entertaining cast of unknowns ought to be irresistible to most students and not a few teachers. A few episodes even achieve a surreal comic perfection, transcending the horror spoof per se to illustrate nightmares of adolescent humiliation. The most notable example is the moment when Toby, entering her classroom, hears the following announcement over the public address system: "Toby Badger has just come from a psychiatric session with Dr. Sigmund. While it would be unfair to reach a conclusion before the doctor has had time to study his findings, there is reason to believe that Toby may be the psychotic killer. Please treat her as you always have until further notice."
Rose, a former gag-writing associate of Woody Allen, makes a sloppy but also energetic and uninhibited directing debut. The miscellaneous yet undeniably wacky, hilarious quality of his humor recalls the tone of the early, off-the-wall Allen projects to which he contributed -- "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas." Maybe he was more of a funny influence than anyone realized. While his direction leaves plenty of room for improvement, it would be a shame if he didn't get another quick opportunity or two to direct again. "Student Bodies" wouldn't be harmed by more finesse and consistency, but it demonstrates a comic originality and zest that are fundamentally more valuable than impeccable taste and judgment, especially for a humorist.
The movie seemed to inspire about equal amounts of enjoyment and hostility from a packed house at the K-B Studio. The sources of the hostility also seemed to be mixed: on one hand a rejection of the parody itself as "dumb" or unsatisfying; on the other, a curious disappointment at finding the movie making fun of horror cliche's in the first place.