31 Days of Hell: The Other April Fool's Day Slasher – Slaughter High (1986)

While Michael, Freddy, and Jason tend to get most of the slasher love during the Halloween season, the slasher boom of the 1980s produced so many genre entries that horror fans willing to explore off the beaten path can find some really fun lesser-seen titles with which to mix up their watch-list. While there were an absolute ton of slasher flicks in the '80s (not all of which were good, to put it mildly), a handful of lower-tier indie slashers have floated to the top of the pack over the years as cult-classics for various reasons; usually their gore, their strangeness, or both. It's a list that includes the likes of Hell Night, The Mutilator, The Boogeyman, The Slayer, and 1986's Slaughter High, among others. A British-produced (though American-set) indie slasher that (mostly) knew how to effectively work with a low budget, Slaughter High has earned a modest but faithful cult following over the years, for a few reasons.

What first drew audiences to the film in 1986 was that its marketing billed it as “from the makers of Friday the 13th;” instant slasher cred. This isn't really true, though: one of the film's producers was an executive producer/financier on the original Friday the 13th, and Harry Manfredini composed the score, but that's where the shared crew members end. However, the film is by the producers of Pieces, and just as that film was their take on (IE, ripoff of) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this is their answer to Friday the 13th. This in itself provides some intriguing credentials, and gets to the other reason why Slaughter High has become a minor cult classic over the years: two decades before it was standard practice, this was one of just a few films in the VHS era to be released by Vestron Video in both R-rated and unrated cuts, and the unrated cut is VERY gory, and boasts some truly wild special effects. This isn't all that Slaughter High has to offer, though: the film also has a weird sense of humor that makes it more fun, some great on-location atmosphere, and a totally wild finale that goes to some really bizarre places. Sure, it also has some significant shortcomings and may not be a great film (or even a very good film) by most objective standards, but it is a very fun slasher movie that is pretty ideal for Halloween-time movie nights with friends who enjoy some gory 80s cheese.

The tale begins with a high school's ruling clique of popular kids brutally bullying awkward, hapless nerd Marty with a string of mean-spirited pranks on April Fool's Day... but when one of the pranks goes awry, Marty ends up horribly disfigured in a chemical fire. Flash forward ten years, and the same clique have reunited for their high school reunion (also on April Fool's Day, which should be the first red flag) and returned to their old school, only to find it long-ago boarded up and deserted; there is no reunion, and someone has sent prank invitations exclusively to their group of friends. They unwisely decide to break in to the school to explore and party anyway, not stopping to think that this is almost certainly a revenge plot by the guy whose life they ruined exactly ten years ago. This set-up should clue you in to two of the bigger characterization issues that Slaughter High struggles to overcome (at least at first): unlike an I Know What You Did Last Summer situation that is clearly an honest accident, these characters are largely unlikable bullies who don't give us much reason to care whether they live or die, and they are also incredibly, incredibly dumb. They spend the entire movie doing wildly ill-advised and unrealistic things that are idiotic even by the generous standards of slasher movies, where wandering off on your own or sneaking off to have sex while there's a killer on the loose are normal behavior. They make Marty's job very easy. Which is just as well, because the utter cruelty of their bullying in the opening scenes sets this up not to be a movie where we root for our protagonists to outwit the killer, but a movie where we snack on popcorn while we wonder how these jerks are going to die. The two main characters, played by Caroline Munro (Maniac, The Spy Who Loved Me) and Carmine Iannaccone, are the most likable, largely because they deliver the strongest performances, but even so, between what awful bullies they were and the blatantness with which they break every rule of the slasher movie playbook to an extraordinary degree, they basically have earned the nightmare they're finding themselves in. Viewers without a taste for B-grade horror movies and a sense of humor that likes to laugh at them may find the film dead in the water as a result of this characterization; to be sure, the script is not good (by writer Mark Ezra's own admission – he hammered it out in less than three weeks, and really does not like the rushed and half-baked results). Having a cast of characters we really don't care about, and who are functionally just fodder for the gory effects setpieces, certainly robs the film of some of the suspense it might have if we cared more about the characters. But if you're here primarily for the practical-effects-fueled slasher scenes, and you like the sound of getting some cheesy-movie-loving friends together (ideally with some alcoholic beverages) to laugh as would-be slasher victims break the rules of the genre, then these may not be problems, and may in fact be (semi-ironic) positives.

At any rate, once Marty springs his trap and the horror starts, the film finds its footing well enough as it can excel at what it's really good at. Slaughter High gets a lot of mileage out of two very strong points: a fantastic found location, and great, genuinely gruesome special effects. The production values certainly betray the film's low budget in other ways – namely its flat, mediocre cinematography and lighting design – but the film gets a massive boost in production values because of the absolutely perfect location that they were able to find. The movie is shot in an authentic long-abandoned school exactly like what the script calls for, and it would take a lot of money to craft a creepy, derelict building this good. The atmosphere is very strong (even when it's in spite of, not enhanced by, the cinematography), with the shell of a school itself taking on the feeling of a character; it certainly has more personality than most of the leads, and is at least as creepy as Marty and his jester mask. The flashback scenes (presumably shot last) do a convincing job of cleaning up the abandoned building and making it look like a functional, typical high school, lending a stronger sense of eeriness to the bulk of the movie when it is crumbling and dark. The location does more than any other aspect of the film to set it apart from its countless '80s slasher siblings.

Then there's the matter of the gore effects, which are excellent, and truly nasty and gruesome. The knowingly over-the-top April Fool's conceit of the whole thing, and the shameless tropeyness of it all, adds a certain tongue-in-cheek vibe, and means that it doesn't feel as outright mean-spirited as some slashers like The Mutilator and the first Sleepaway Camp. But even so, this is definitely one of the gorier slasher movies made outside of Italy; it's no surprise that the MPAA hacked it up as much as Marty hacks up his former bullies, and it's definitely a case where the unrated director's cut contains enough extra effects work to substantially change the experience of the film for the darker and meaner. Marty was apparently quite the science nerd in high school, and he uses his knowledge to engineer some unusually inventive and unpleasant kills beyond the usual slashing; he even pulls out the stops for an intestine-spewing gut explosion and a stop-motion-animation body-melt that would make Lucio Fulci proud. Once it kicks into gear, it does an admirable job of ramping up the craziness, leading to a climax which is... pretty weird, in a very entertaining way.

Tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top in some moments, genuinely nasty in others; in some ways cheap-looking and hampered by its low budget, but in other ways packing some solid and memorable production value... Slaughter High is certainly a movie of inconsistencies, and it's most definitely uneven. But at its best it's a lot of fun and quite effective in its horror, and while it may not add up to a genuinely good movie, there's enough to like that slasher fans should have a really good time with it, especially in a group movie-party kind of setting. Its reputation as a minor cult-classic is well-deserved, and certainly hard-fought. The movie actually was shot under the title April Fool's Day, but had to change its name when Paramount's April Fool's Day, which started production shortly thereafter, bought out the title for a large sum of money (which didn't make it past the producers to the filmmakers, who were none too happy that their heavily April Fool's Day-themed film suddenly needed a new title when they got there first). It went on to be a cult favorite of the video store era, but then went out of print after Vestron Video closed their doors, and became a highly sought-after rarity for most of the 1990s and 2000s, until it belatedly made it to DVD (as a poor-quality VHS-to-DVD rip from Lionsgate) in 2009. Fortunately the last decade has been more kind to Slaughter High, with the film first getting a very good UK special edition DVD from Arrow Video a few years ago (oddly enough, with the original April Fool's Day title card on their restored widescreen print), and then Lionsgate giving it an excellent US blu-ray upgrade through their Vestron Video Collector's Series line in 2017. One could make a strong argument that Slaughter High is better suited to April Fool's Day viewing than Halloween, but for those looking for a different '80s slasher than the ones we typically encounter this time of year, this British answer to Friday the 13th definitely makes a good (though not great) alternative.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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