What's the matter with kids today? They're getting killed off by the hundreds in an avalanche of films like "Graduation Day" and "Night School," both of which are currently inhabiting metropolitan film houses. Growing up used to be tough; now it's deadly.
Schools provide a context for both bonding and alienation, two qualities that blood-and-cuts filmmakers like to play off against each other. And students are always in season, whether they're graduating, working at summer camp ("Friday the 13th"), going to night school or earning extra money as baby sitters ("Halloween"). The recent parody "Student Bodies" built itself around this fact; a new Australian import exploits it with the most honest title of all -- "Dead Kids."
"Graduation Day," badly acted and seemingly shot with varied-quality stock footage, follows a demented killer who hunts down the members of a coed high school track team. Dressed in a fencing outfit, the masked killer has apparently been inspired by the death of the team's star runner after her fanatic coach pushed her too hard in a race. The recurring motif to the half-dozen gruesome killings that follow is a stopwatch; at least that gives the squeamish a pretty good idea of when the coup de grace is about to be applied. (The "Jaws"-like approach music is a good clue, too.) Most "shocker" staples are here -- partial nudity, naughty words, false tracking shots, fake endings and an immense contempt for women. "Graduation Day" is an equal-opportunity exploiter, but it's only the girls who are chased, menaced, terrorized and gruesomely dispatched.
The bodies start piling up pretty quickly and it's a wonder that nobody -- not fellow students, parents or teachers, much less the coach -- starts missing the rapidly decimated track team as graduation nears. Since it's a school for scoundrels, one feels little sympathy for either the victims or the killer (who is easy to pinpoint in the first three minutes of the film). "They're animals. I swear to God, they get worse from year to year." No, that's not a critic, that's the assistant principal talking about the kids. Well, when they say "Gotta run," you know they're not going to be fast enough. One guess that they're cutting class is only half right.
"Night School," which opened yesterday," aspires to something more, but ends up falling back on a half-dozen decapitations and the grizzly uncovering of the victims' heads. Need one mention they're all women? Actually, this is one Dick Tracy could solve: Professor Miller's anthropology students at the women's college are losing their heads over their teacher. Is the prof, who seems to be into kinky ritualism when he can concentrate in his hot and steamy classroom, guilty? What about his jealous assistant, played by newcomer Rachel Ward, who looks and acts like a full-bodied Jean Shrimpton? Or the peeping Tom? Maybe it's the detective, Leonard Mann (who acts like an undergraduate male model between Arrow ads and seems unable to make heads or tails of the murders). Who is this motocycle-garbed killer? "I suddenly find myself up to my neck in heads," he complains at one point; he's really in over his head.
If the script is a little faulty and obvious, Mark Irwin's cinematography almost makes up for it. Irwin works with a subtle pallete and his 1981 Boston is suffused with the vivid dampness and ember glow of Jack the Ripper's London (without the fog). Because of its look and solid editing, "Night School" is more substantial than "Graduation Day." The recent and disturbing preoccupation with decapitation seems to come to a head here (there's a total of eight in the two films); one gets the feeling the filmmakers are a little bit out of theirs, too.