Written by: Bill Froehlich & Mark Lisson and Dana Escalante & Greg H. Sims
Directed by: Bill Froehlich
Starring: Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, and Alex Rocco
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
A cursory glance of Return to Horror High might give the impression that it was a meta-precursor to the likes of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream. Its big hook here involves a killing spree breaking out on the set of a slasher movie production, making it a natural conduit for some pointed observations about a genre that had dominated the 80s. You have to squint pretty hard to see any of that, however, as it turns out Return is just as brain-dead as most of the genre’s output, especially around the time of its 1987 release, when this thing had just about been run completely into the ground.
In fact, it might even be more brain-dead than the usual junk since it swiftly hacks and slashes throughout whatever pretenses it might have. To its credit, it’s an odd pitch compared to many of its contemporaries, as it opens on a grisly crime scene, where seven (or eight) cadavers have been discovered by authorities, all of them hacked up so badly that they’re not even sure they’ve matched correct body parts together. Only one survivor remains: screenwriter Arthur Lyman (Richard Brestoff), who explains he’s been part of a horror movie production filming on location at Crippen High, the site of a grisly slew of murders a few years earlier. As he recounts the situation two a couple of perplexed deputies, the story flashes back to the tumultuous set, where drama and slaughter abound—or does it?
That’s sort of the holding pattern you find yourself in with Return to Horror High: you watch as elaborate murder sequences unfold, many of them gruesome as hell (especially one involving a giant fan blade), only to have the camera pull back and reveal it’s just part of the movie that’s being filmed. And it’s fine—if not clever—at first, especially when it leads to some decent observations about this type of filmmaking. For example, one scene is interrupted by a lecherous producer (Alex Rocco) insisting that the camera captures the lead actress’s (Lori Lethin) breasts, prompting her to rightfully launch into a rant about the inherent misogyny of these films. Scenes like this actually capitalize on the film-within-a-film structure at play here and create the sense that Return to Horror High is actually up to something.
But alas, it’s not up to much at all, as satirical scenes like this are few and far between (and all but non-existent for the latter half of the film). Soon enough, the recurring fake-out gag wears a little thin too, leaving viewers with little to do other than chew on a murder mystery. See, it turns out the killer from the previous massacre was never caught, so he’s presumably back committing this latest round that we’ve seen the fallout from in the frame narrative—maybe. Return to Horror High is perhaps too clever for its own good, as it blends fiction with reality one too many times, leading to a back-and-forth climax that pulls the rug from beneath audiences multiple times. It’s nonsense in the highest order, resulting in a plot that utterly collapses on itself when put under even the slightest scrutiny. Look, I know this is true about many slashers, but this one is especially egregious in its illogical twists and turns, so much so that it’s a tad irritating.
But if you can look past that—and I’ve probably looked past worse, to be honest—there’s some gold to be mined from Return to Horror High. Even though much of the gore is in the service of “fake” deaths, it’s still a sight to behold since this movie is absolutely drenched in messy, sloppy bloodshed. Like the screenwriter notes during his interview with the police, everything he owned was drenched in blood after spending one day on the set, a claim that bears itself out over the course of his flashbacks. An abundance of gags—including one with a literally explosive breast—is strewn throughout the film, delivering exactly what audiences expected and craved from this genre. In that respect, Return to Horror High is quite in line with its contemporaries, as it mostly exists as a literal gore showcase, with an added “behind-the-scenes” wrinkle allowing viewers a glimpse of the “process” behind all the splatter they’d reveled in for years.
Some fun performances are also sprinkled in for good measure since this one boasts more familiar faces than the usual slasher fare. Most notable these days is the presence of George Clooney, here starring as an actor who’s about to start a gig on a new TV show, allowing him to leave this sort of junk behind (how prescient!). At its time of release, one of the more interesting casting decisions would have been Maureen McCormick (TV’s Marcia Brady herself) featuring as an oddball rookie cop, whose bizarre character tics must exist to make her a suspect, I guess (who else but a total psycho would chomp on a hot dog at such a grisly crime scene?). Pepper Martin—professional wrestler turned actor—is her boss, and seems delightfully bemused by the whole thing, as you can practically see him wondering “what the hell am I doing here?” aloud.
My favorite performance is Rocco as the outsized caricature of the sleazebag producer who doesn’t give a shit about art. He doesn’t want to hear it when his director insists he’s crafting a “psychological thriller” that’s mostly about the characters, so he’s always demanding more gratuitous nudity and gore. His constant feuding with the director allows for some obvious yet still incisive observations about the moviemaking process on the exploitation scene, where producers often reigned supreme in their demands for crass entertainment. Return to Horror High clearly sides with that side, too: not only does it paint the director and screenwriter as ineffectual putzes, but it also fashions Rocco’s producer into something of a huckster hero with its late turn of events. It turns out this guy is the 80s equivalent of William Castle, willing to do anything to promote his film. You can’t help but giggle at it a little bit, even if one of the final reveals here truly makes zero sense at all.
There’s a certain irony to Return to Horror High’s decision to lionize its producer character, as it feels like a product of too many cooks in the kitchen itself. The insistence on gore and story twists for the sake of it feels very much like something Rocco’s character would demand, solidifying the film’s place as just another blood-soaked slasher despite its trimmings. And that’s fine—certainly, it has its moments that stand out, and the killer’s reveal here is among the wildest in the slasher canon, so it’s not a total wash. Mostly, it just comes off as a muddled exercise in poking around the slasher genre a bit, only it never quite does it with any authority. As such, Return to Horror High isn’t exactly a spoof, though it’s most definitely a farce by the end, playing out as a sort of lamer, more confused version of April Fool’s Day. And, like most mangled jokes, it's not quite as funny the second time around.
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