After completing my Associate of Arts degree at the local community college back in the early 2010s (which feels like yesterday, but was already a decade ago), I enrolled in a new writing program at Metropolitan State University. Many classes were offered in a hybrid format, meaning that I could do a lot of work online, but still had to show up for classes once or twice a week in the evenings at the university’s Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses, a format that fit great with my daytime work schedule, but would require more vending machine coffee than I usually consumed on a weekly basis.
Although a more unconventional path than attending a big college campus with dorms, social gatherings, and weekly mysteries that I had seen on TV so many times growing up, this night class format was a fascinating and enriching experience (and much less expensive than the dorm route would have been). My classmates came from all walks of life—some raising families, some changing careers (whether by choice or necessity), and some like me who were just getting started in, as Prince once said, “this thing called life.” The same could be said for my teachers, who all held day jobs in the fields in which they taught.
Looking back, I learned a lot from the people around me in addition to an amazing curriculum. Those night classes were unconventional, eclectic, altogether enlightening, which is why I couldn’t resist choosing Ken Hughes’ Night School as my third film to celebrate in Daily Dead’s Class of 1981 retrospective series. The name alone tugged on my nostalgic heartstrings (much like Tom Piccirilli’s amazing novel The Night Class), and while the premise isn’t exactly what I expected, Night School still gave me a valuable education in giallo-style scares.
Directed by Hughes from a screenplay by Ruth Avergon, Night School starts out on an ominous note, with a young woman who is a teacher’s aide at a Boston daycare center being brutally murdered on a merry-go-round by a killer concealed in a motorcycle helmet and black leather (including those classic black giallo gloves). By the time Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) and Sergeant Taj (Joseph R. Sicari) show up to investigate the crime scene, the woman's dismembered head is found in a bucket of water—the disturbing calling card of a new Boston killer who recently left another head in a duck pond. Aside from the disturbing decapitations, there's one other crucial detail that links the two recent murders: both victims were enrolled in the same anthropology night class taught by Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder) at the local Wendell College. Coincidence? Yeah, Judd doesn’t think so, either.
And so begins what at first seems like a police procedural, with Judd trying to follow the trail of blood from the dismembered head to the hands that committed the gruesome crime, leading him into the halls of Wendell College where he encounters school administrator Helene Griffin (Annette Miller) and exchange student (as well as Millett’s assistant) Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward). Night School actually doesn’t spend a lot of time in the film’s school like I thought it would, with the motorcycle helmet murderer instead striking their victims while they are at their jobs, including a supremely creepy scene at an aquarium where one of the students moonlights as a scuba diving aquarium feeder. It’s a refreshing change of pace from a slasher killer constantly striking at college parties or in campus dorms, instead showing how these students all have to work long hours outside of the classroom just to make ends meet… before they meet their untimely ends.
Those untimely ends are played out with unsettling realism, making Night School a particularly haunting and effective watch. There’s nothing cinematic or clean-cut about how the murders are executed. The kills are messy, drawn-out, and downright unsettling to watch. Using a large knife, the killer seems to play with their victims, relishing in their panicked pleads for mercy. The victims do their best to fight back, though, and they never make it easy for the helmeted killer, inflicting their own violence back on their attacker in a style that would later be used to great effect in Wes Craven’s Scream.
This spooky realism is further enhanced by the macabre mystery at the bloody heart of Night School. In true giallo fashion, we don’t know who is wearing those black leather gloves until the film’s final minutes, and writer Avergon provides plenty of masterful misdirection along the way. It’s a shame this is the only screenplay Avergon wrote, as she expertly subverts expectations of the slasher subgenre at every turn. This is especially true after one of the killer’s latest victims has been murdered, but the decapitated head has yet to be found. At this point in the film, we know that the victim’s head is missing, and in this particular murder, must be somewhere in a restaurant where the victim worked. Avergon knows that, too, and she milks that anticipation for all that its worth, to the point where the missing head’s location becomes an almost unbearable source of tension and even a bit of self-aware comedy, too.
Knowing that Avergon fully embraces the delightfully devious misdirection of the giallo genre, the reveal of who is under that motorcycle helmet may actually not come as a surprise to most viewers, but it’s still one hell of an unveiling that packs an emotional punch, all capped off with a thrilling motorcycle/police car chase through the narrow streets of Boston that's superbly paced and expertly choreographed. While Night School is assuredly an American slasher, it also gleefully borrows from the giallo wardrobe, right down to those black leather gloves. It’s a shame that four decades after its release, Night School still seems to be somewhat of a forgotten relic when it comes to ’80s horror, because aside from some outdated snippets of dialogue and a few questionable character portrayals / motivations, it ages considerably well. If you haven’t enrolled in Night School yet, I highly encourage you to do so... you won't even need that vending machine coffee to stay awake for this course in giallo-centric carnage.
Visit our online hub to catch up on all of our Class of 1981 retrospectives!