Erotic Underground Interlude: Night School (1981)


Ken Hughes' Night School is a forgotten intersection in the desert of American Cinema.  Fusing elements of Giallo thrillers and the then-still developing slasher genre and then hardwiring them into an erotic thriller with an interesting subtext of sexual power dynamics yields a remarkable oddity.  Featuring an unforgettable debut performance by Rachel Ward, an intelligent script, and a series of gruesome kill sequences, this is a film whose cult status is well deserved.  

A serial killer is preying on young women in Boston, decapitating each victim.  College educated Lt. Austin and his world-weary partner Taj's investigation leads them to night classes at an all-female college, in which they encounter a professor with a dangerous secret.  Ruth Avergon's script is the one of the strongest elements.  On the surface this is a film about a motorcycle helmeted killer stalking young women, however, beyond the procedural and bloodshed there is a compelling dissection of sexual dynamics.  Drew Snyder's womanizing Professor Millett is emblematic of everything wrong with people in positions of power having relationships with subordinates, however Avergon is more interested in how anthropology, both classical relationship archetypes and rituals, come into play.  There is an almost mythological quality to the killer, with each murder adding to esoteric nature of the crimes.  

Rachel Ward supports as Professor Millett's current assistant and lover.  Her debut is stunning, both in the way Ward handles the material, but also in the subtleties on display.  Her scenes with Snyder are emotional mooring, a corrupt morality tale that anchors the more fantastical elements of the story. Leonard Mann stars as Lt. Austin, an educated and charismatic detective who is partnered with Josepeh Sicari's Taj.  Their dynamic is the strongest attribute of the film, presenting two different approaches to police work that have various strengths and flaws.  

Everything exists within a dangerous world captured by Mark Irwin's bruised cinematography.  Even the sex sequences have an aura of menace hanging on the edges, made possible by unique angles and color choices.  This is where the Giallo similarities truly reveal themselves, melding with violence to create a lurid visual nightmare, a concept that Irwin would evolve during his work with David Cronenberg on Scanners and Videodrome.  


The end result is a fascinating cult classic that upends the slasher genre with a series of groundbreaking, if predictable, twists and turns.  The film is available for digital rental and on a stunning blu ray from the Warner Archive Collection.  Ken Hughes' patient command and understanding of the script are what allows what could have been a forgettable clone to remain revered by acolytes of the genre.  As the slasher was heading into its golden age of brutality, nudity, and crude humor, Hughes reversed course and created a thoughtful rumination on the limits of love and obsession, both of the self and of others. 


--Kyle Jonathan