Written by: Leo Evans, Douglas Grossman
Directed by: Douglas Grossman
Starring: Maureen Mooney, Christopher Stryker, and Christopher Cousins
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
The teachers are tough, but their exams are murder.
A surprising entry in the 80s “slasher” canon tucked into the tail end of the decade, Hell High is a gnarly little movie, albeit for reasons you might not expect. Given its reputation and the sort of films it’s lumped in with, it’s always been positioned alongside the basic slasher crowd. However, it’s really anything but that, even if it does boast the bits and pieces usually associated with that genre. Here, though, it’s like Douglas Grossman took all the pieces to the puzzle, scattered them out, then wedged them haphazardly together into something that looks familiar enough if you squint perhaps. The result is one of those sociopathic, paint-huffing sort of movies that feels like it’s out to dig into your skull and rewire your brain from the inside out.
Despite the title, we open nowhere near a high school. Instead, the prologue is situated somewhere near a swamp, where it looks like some obligatory teenage horndogs are making out. Things grow disturbing, however, when the boy becomes abusive and begins beating his date with a doll belonging to a little girl playing nearby in the swamp. Unbeknownst to this scumbag, the little girl has witnessed the whole thing and is plotting her revenge by gathering up a bunch of swamp slime to sling into his eyes as he rockets by on his motorcycle with his distressed date in tow. Her aim is true, as the slime lands right in his eyes, blinding him, and causing a wreck that flings into his date onto a set of metal poles sticking out of the ground because fuck you, that’s why. The two are impaled, leaving the young girl aghast at the unintentional horror she’s caused during a prologue that can stand with the likes of The Mutilator in terms of sheer, bewildering insanity.
We jump ahead 18 years, finally arriving at the titular high school, where that young girl has grown up to become a biology teacher (Maureen Mooney) administering an exam to a class full of holy terrors. Ringleader Dickens (Christopher Stryker) is especially an asshole, and it doesn’t sit well when the teacher has the gall to stand up to him. As such, he becomes fixated on poor Miss Storm, who is still quite traumatized and awkward thank to those events 18 years ago, which have become a local urban legend. Stories whispered around school insist that some swamp monster claimed the souls of those two dead teenagers, so no one dares to trespass the place—well, except for Dickens, of course, since Miss Storm still lives near the grisly site.
Needless to say, Dickens has bitten off more than he can chew, not that the film is in any kind of hurry to arrive at that point and (rightfully) deliver his comeuppance. You actually wonder if that’s even going to be the story—you can kind of see that coming into focus at first, but Hell High is full of diversions that feel more at home in a teen comedy (well, an especially demented teen comedy). Dickens and his gang are the sort of ne’er-do-wells that could go either way in that type of film: on the one hand, they are incredible assholes. But on the other hand, they are rebelling against authority, and even offer a sanctuary of sorts to Jon-Jon (Christopher Cousins), a sensitive jock who’s just ditched the football team and is mocked by former teammates for his cowardice. In a weirdly sympathetic move, Dickens offers to let Jon-Jon into his gang alongside Queenie (Millie Prezioso) and Smiler (Jason Brill) a couple of other leather-clad outcasts who just want to have a good time. Sharing a newfound, mutual dislike of football, Jon-Jon just wants to have a good time, too.
As such, the gang’s exploits at first feel like they’d be right at home in something like Screwballs or Porky’s. In a disturbing precursor of what’s to come, they peep in on Miss Storm while she’s in the shower at her home before setting their sights on something more innocuous: ruining the big football game at school. Where most kids might accomplish this by being rowdy in the stands and causing a stir, this bunch decides to drive Dickens’s car right through the fucking field, allowing Jon-Jon to intercept a pass and ride off with the game ball, leaving the visiting team in hysterics. It’d be an all-time great prank moment in a teen comedy, and Grossman plays it as such, allowing the viewer to revel alongside this quartet of miscreants as upbeat pop tunes keep the film bouncing along to the beat of carefree teenage dreams.
And then the fucking bottom drops out once Dickens returns to his original conquest: still smarting over the incident with Miss Storm earlier in the day, he returns to her home to terrorize her. At first, even this takes on the form of a prank—I hesitate to call it a “harmless” one—but, relatively speaking, it’s not nearly as harrowing as events later in the film. After donning some killer masks, the kids visit the swamp and collect some of that muddy slime to fling at Miss Storm’s house. In a wonderfully delirious scene, the gang hoots and hollers as they pelt the house, in the process unlocking all of Miss Storm’s repressed trauma and putting the film onto a dark, unsettling path, one that’s far removed from just about everything that came before it. To say Hell High takes some odd, unexpected turns isn’t even the half of it.
This is especially true if you approach from the perspective of the slasher movement since Hell High eventually turns the whole thing inside-out. Taking more of a revenge film structure, it particularly inverts the typical dynamic: rather than gathering a bunch of teenagers to die at the hand of an unseen (or masked) killer, the latter is actually the target of these masked hooligans before she exacts bloody vengeance. It’s more I Spit on Your Grave than it is Friday the 13th, with all of the unseemly implications that entails. Dickens’s exploits escalate horribly from pranks to straight up sexual assault, and the script goes out of its way to make this stuff as weird as possible. For example, when Queenie is dispatched to see what Dickens is up to in the house, you expect her to recoil at the violence unfolding in front of her. Instead, she pushes Dickens asides and mounts Miss Storm herself, so she’s not exactly a nice girl who’s gone astray via peer pressure—she’s every bit as nuts as Dickens himself, it would seem.
Speaking of Dickens, he’s weird sort of trickster character who’s emblematic of the film’s slippery nature. Stryker’s performance is both playful and sinister in equal measure, giving Dickens a Luciferian quality: you can see how his charisma would draw someone into his circle, yet you can’t help but be taken aback by his menacing qualities and moments. One minute, he’s allowing Jon-Jon into his gang; the next, he’s pulling a switchblade on an injured football player being carted off to an ambulance. It’s a dichotomy that captures the schizoid nature of Hell High, a film that invites you to delight in its utter wackiness before it blindsides you with genuinely disturbing assaults and harrowing depictions of trauma victims. You laugh at the absurdity of prologue, the football prank, and even a motorcycle chase that ends with a fiery crash, yet you find yourself cringing multiple times during a climax filled with bleak violence and grimy assaults. In most cases, such a wild disparity would feel like tonal confusion, but Hell High is so thoroughly strange from the opening gun that all this madness blends into a fugue of teenage debauchery and vigilantism that drags you along without much regard for how you’re taking it.
What is for sure: Hell High is quite unlike its slasher contemporaries, so much so that it probably shouldn’t be among such ranks. As Joe Bob Briggs explains in his introduction on the film’s DVD, its biggest problem was its timing: by 1989, the slasher well had all but dried up, so anything even resembling one had quite an uphill battle, including one that upends the formula like Hell High. Ironically, the reason it was (and likely continues to be) dismissed is exactly why it works so well. If you go into it expecting a silly late-80s slasher, you’re essentially bum rushed by something quite different, even if it looks similar on the surface. Like a psychopath wearing another person’s suit as skin, Hell High is a weird, gangly, messy perversion of 80s slashers. From a distance, it might fool you with various affectations, like its bouncy tunes, masks, and goofball characters; let it approach, however, and it’ll stab you right in the throat and laugh about it.
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