Night School. 1981. Directed by Kenneth Hughes. Screenplay by Ruth Avergon.
Starring Leonard Mann, Rachel Ward, Drew Snyder, Joseph R. Sicari, Nick Cairis, Karen MacDonald, Annette Miller, Bill McCann, Margo Skinner, Elizabeth Barnitz, & Belle McDonald.
Fiducial Resource Industrial/Lorimar Film Entertainment/Paramount Pictures
Rated R. 88 minutes.
Night School is an ’80s film I’d not seen until just recently. It might not be at the top of the pile, but this Kenneth Hughes-directed slasher, featuring Rachel Ward’s first onscreen credit, feels less like an American genre picture, more of a European-style thriller with horror elements, as if it were a Giallo set in the middle of Boston’s mean streets.
Decapitations. Gruesome crime scene discoveries. A slick and gorgeous, at the same time gritty style. Maybe not huge on substance, though it tries, it shoots for the stars; the story attempts going into a rumination on misogyny, its internalisation by women, and the primitivity of modern man.
Of course the film never quite reaches the proper heights, marred by a little bad acting, some flimsy writing. What saves the whole thing is the directorial style, the cinematography, as well as the nasty Giallo-like kills, as if Argento and Bava were both guiding Hughes by the hand. Never derivative, simply a loving homage to the Italians.
And those decapitations! Get some.
A gruesome scene opens the film with a decapitation, starting out strong. Unnerving atmosphere comes in right away, Boston feels ugly, scary, foreboding. Makes the viewer feel nothing and no one is safe. Right after the first kill, there’s a beautiful cut acting as a shot of blood; the camera pulls out to reveal a red coat in a crowd of people. Just a perfect edit.
Moreover, the suspenseful atmosphere is bolstered by a wonderful score that uses strings and synths to both put us in that classic horror space, and also disrupt us with the electronic bits, a solid technique in building fear – this and some clever scenes which throw us off balance, then jump in for a scare; a couple beats, no fright, a pomegranate being smeared across two lovers looking as red as blood, followed by the next scene’s beat coming with a scare. This one, two, three rhythm to the visuals cracks the viewer in the mouth when a good fright lands.
Aside from that there’s a fantastic feel of Giallo, set in America: the black leather, the black bike helmet, a shiny steel kukri knife looking bright and sinister at once, splashes of crimson blood and pomegranate interchangeably, dark alleys, hallways, shadows. The gorgeousness of the style juxtaposed with the brutal killing is striking. Part of the fun is wondering where the next head will turn up – in an aquarium, or a full sink, or who knows where else. Bunches of stylistic fun to soak in.
Then there are several images, specific shots that feel extremely rare for an American slasher film. For instance – my favourite – a semi nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the staircase shot; it’s not the same type of shot, but it’s undeniably similar, and because it’s slightly different it doesn’t feel ripped off. As our detective heads up a staircase, the shot captures him as if he’s stuck in an inescapable spiral, the decapitation murders case spinning him around from end to the next until he doesn’t know which way is up and which is down.
“There‘s always a reason“
Where the film fails is its writing. Although the bones are there, the themes lined up to get knocked down scene by scene. Instead of unfolding these themes properly, the screenplay gets bogged down in the slasher aspects.
Supposedly civilised city characters here view the jungle and primitive society as savage, however, urban serial killers are as vicious, if not more, and without ritual meaning. We’re shown the difference between the urban brutality of U.S. cities and the more primitive, sometimes spiritual nature of violence in those outside ‘normal’ society, illustrating that, at our core, we’re no different than the people living in a jungle. Except for the fact we can’t admit to our primitivity, whereas they’ve accepted it wholly.
At the centre of the story and its plot is the concept of internalised misogyny. Here, a man’s infidelity in the face of the love of a woman, a baby on the way, drives the woman to kill those he lusted after. An allegory of how far into madness the misogynistic behaviour of a man can push a woman. This isn’t jealousy, this is a woman determined to be respected, to have her body and baby and the sanctity of that bond respected. Ultimately, he also pays a dear price, too.
A college class and its professor present this aspect of primitive humanity, studying other cultures who still live in tribes in isolated parts of the world. This sets up an urban v. wilderness theme. Only writer Ruth Avergon never brings it all to fruition. It isn’t all her fault. Because the acting, for the most part all around, can’t hold up these themes. Ward gives it a shot, in her feature film debut, just isn’t enough to carry the deep sense of gravitas needed to sell the big themes at play. They’re certainly present, it’s no doubt. Sadly they never get to where they’re headed.
Night School could’ve been much better. Still enjoyable, very much so. It’s an early ’80s gem, despite its few big faults. The way its best moments emulate Italian horror, specifically Argento and Bava, is a treat; it isn’t the only American horror to do so, it’s just incredibly stylish. A visual feast. Likewise, those visuals bring us into the shadowy, uneasy streets of Boston with such ease, making the bright, flashy moments feel bigger. In comparison to the brightness the dark feels all the more sinister.
I do wish the screenplay made more of its themes. When a slasher ups its game with additional themes there’s a memorable quality to them, aside from the standard blood and gore – in this case, heads. It could’ve still been awesome if the acting was better, too. But alas, Hughes and Avergon and the rest did what they could, do a point.
Nice flick for a group of friends. It doesn’t have any laughs, not even any unintentional ones, either. But it’s fun, it’s brutal, and the identity of the killer’s fun to find out through all the weaving the plot does. Enjoy this slasher/American Giallo for what’s it worth, just expect its best, most intriguing themes to die on the vine. Go in for the cut off heads, you won’t be disappointed in the least.