The high school bully has long been a staple in cinema, genre related or not; every David needs a Goliath, and every school is loaded with both. When producers realized that teens were showing up to drive-ins (whether to watch the movie or not), a lot of films began to cater to the Clearasil crowd, especially horror. I Was A Teenage this and I Was A Nuclear that flooded the market - for a time, that is. The next big wave happened in the ‘70s with the watershed Carrie (1976) getting every studio to open their notebooks (and check books too), with naturally very mixed results. Leading up to Cassie White and her hormonal blowout was Horror High (1973), a fun, gritty, and goofy update of the Teenage movies of the ‘50s filtered through Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
Released by Crown International, Horror High hung around Texas in the fall before rolling out to the rest of the country in the spring of ’74. Made for under $70,000, one assumes it at least made back its money; so many of these films simply fall through the cracks of time. Horror High definitely is worth a look for monster and/or ‘70s fashion fans. Speaking of horror…
We open to the strains of “Vernon’s Theme” which is good because that’s the name of our hero (played by Let’s Kill Uncle’s Pat Cardi), who’s taking in the sights as he rides his bicycle to school. Soon within the hallowed halls Vernon is subjected to a litany of abusive behavior; from the jock Roger, the gym teacher Coach McCall (John Niland, who went on to play pro football), and his English teacher, Miss Grindstaff (Joye Hash – The Last Picture Show). Oh, and we mustn’t forget the janitor, Mr. Griggs (Jeff Alexander – Curse of the Swamp Creature), a slime ball who keeps going after Vernon because the lab gerbil keeps bugging Griggs’ cat.
A confrontation with Griggs has Vernon forced to chug one of his experiments, and voila! he turns into a slightly shaggier, pigeon-toed, growling teenager who quickly disposes of the janitor in the *checks notes* vat of bubbling acid kept in the science lab. Drunk with power and high as a kite, Vernon uses the potion to eliminate everyone that stands in his way.
Horror High is a film stuck in cinematic limbo; 15 years too late to ride the wave of Universal Monster reinvention and a few years shy of capitalizing on Carrie’s success, it remains a mostly unknown curiosity. Some of the reasons for its anonymity could be warranted: it isn’t particularly well acted, and there’s some sag even at 85 minutes. But – and I can’t stress this enough – that’s never stopped us before from enjoying a film, has it? Especially one that features some really creative kills, plus Austin Stoker (Assault on Precinct 13) as the cop on the case.
As for those kills, we get a guillotine paper cutter, death by spiked cleats, our aforementioned vat of acid and more; not only that but they’re done in a fairly splattery way for ’73. One and done director Larry N. Stouffer (okay two and done; he had a little ditty in ’68 called Sands of Ecstasy for those keeping track) isn’t afraid to show off the pretty solid effects work of Jack Bennett (Deadly Blessing) and Donald Crawford (Fair Play), especially them tap dancing cleats (for when you really need to aerate those organs). What Horror High lacks in elegance, it makes up with gooey gore two steps to the left of H. G. Lewis. This is good, because the script yearns for social relevance that really isn’t there.
Screenwriter J. D. Feigelson (here under the pseudonym Jake Fowler) would go on to write the excellent TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow, which did manage to make some interesting statements on small town evil, but here it’s all surface and one note. It would take Carrie to flesh out the real horrors of high school, the crippling fear that causes extreme behavior; Horror High misses the opportunity to go deeper.
Or they simply chose not to. After all, this is a Crown International release, and their commitment to the finest exploitation trends of the day was commendable; there is no trenchant social commentary to be found in the likes of The Pom Pom Girls and The Van, thank you very much. To everything a purpose if you will, and Horror High offers up a gruesome Cliff Notes version of a literary classic in a way that should appeal to the teenager in us all. Sometimes a well-aimed spitball is as good as a strong dissertation.
Horror High is available on DVD from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SCHIZOID (1980)