Killer to The Left/ Killer to The Right/ Stand Up/ Sit Down/ Fright! Fright! Fright!
Oh, hello- And welcome back to the NOFS Video Vault! You’ll have to excuse the stack of textbooks, I’m taking a night course in the mortuary sciences. It may come in handy with some of the more… difficult customers, I encounter from time to time. Speaking of scholarly pursuits, you’re going to love our featured fright flick for this month. Most of us went to high school, right? And most of us wouldn’t go back even if we were paid? Well, this frightful feature transports us all back to our alma mater with about as much teen angst as a twenty-five-year-old playing seventeen.
It’s a little horror, it’s a little comedy and a whole lot of laughs. It’s Return to Horror High (1987)! The horror/comedy with as many twists and turns as an M. Night Shyamalan coffee order. So get your pom-poms primed, kids because this one has the literal guts to scare the laughs right out of you! You’ll die laughing! It’s frighteningly funny! You’ll… you get the picture.
Back of The Box Overview
In the early ’80s, a series of grisly murders transpired at Crippen High and the killer was never captured. Fast forward a few years where a film crew uses the now-abandoned Crippen High as the set for a film about the murders. But a set crasher – the real-life killer the film is based on – makes a cameo appearance terrorizing the cast and crew. With bodies piling up around them, the film’s two lead actors set out to stop the maniac before they end up on the cutting room floor themselves.
Lori Lethin (Bloody Birthday) plays Callie Cassid/ Sarah Walker/ Susan, the lead actress in the movie being made about the real-life gruesome killings a few years earlier. Brendan Hughes (An American Werewolf in London) is the hunky but dorky Steven Blake, her onscreen (an off) love interest. Character actor Alex Rocco (The Entity) plays Harry Sleerik, the film’s sleazy producer who wheels and deals, gropes and feels his way through, in my opinion, the only truly solid performance in the movie.
And what film is complete without its director? The fictional film is helmed by Josh Forbes, played earnestly by the affable Scott Jacoby (Bad Ronald). The movie’s scribe, Arthur Lynman Kastleman is played by the hapless Richard Brestoff (The Entity) who’s constant rewrites are rejected by pretty much everyone but him. Andy Romano (Paint it Black 1989) hams it up as Principal Kastleman, the real-life Crippen High principal who experienced the murders and the aftermath first hand.
Rounding out the cast are a bunch of unknowns that pretty much no one has heard of. Pepper Martin (Scream 1981) is Chief Deyner, the always exacerbated police chief in charge of investigating the new murders of the film crew while Maureen McCormick (The Brady Bunch) is Officer Tyler the police officer with a thing for blood and her boss. Oliver the film’s first on-screen victim is played by a virtual unknown in his big screen debut who goes by the name George Clooney (Attack of The Killer Tomatoes). I wonder where that guy is these days? His co-stars, are stereotypical jock Richard Farley and equally stereotypical cheerleader Sheri Haines are played by Philip McKeon (976-Evil) and Darcy DeMoss (Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives) respectively.
Theatrical Reception/Home Video Release
Filming for Return to Horror High took place at John Hughes Junior High School (Woodland Hills, Los Angeles) and Clark Junior High School (Glendale) with a production budget of $1 million. New World Pictures (Creepshow 2 1987, House II 1987), the studio who distributed the film kicked things off slowly with a limited release in January of 1987. In April of that year, NWP expanded the release to it’s widest with 227 theatres. The box office gross (pardon the pun) was $1,189,709 domestically, just a tad more than the film’s shooting budget, with $198,533 earned in the first week of its release. This may have been different had New World Pictures not had a history of ‘inept distribution and promotion’ according to some Hollywood insiders.
Fun Fact: The film was almost given an X-rating because of a scene-within-a-scene sequence that featured the biology teacher’s heart being dissected. The scene had to be trimmed and edited considerably to achieve the desired R-rating.
“Return to Horror High is a fun romp through the hallowed halls of secondary education”
The home video release of Return to Horror High is a little murky. There was a VHS release (I know, I rented it like, six times!) but the release date for that has proven elusive at the time of this printing. A DVD was released by Anchor Bay in 2002 and the UK were lucky enough to get a BluRay release from 88 Films in 2017. The 2002 DVD release was as bare bones as DVD’s can come with only the theatrical cut of the film and its trailer included.
The British BluRay had slightly more to offer with a new HD transfer from the original negative, optional English SDH subtitles, a new audio commentary with director Bill Froehlich, co-writer Greg Sims and cinematographer Roy Wagner, the likes of which start off typical but as the film goes on, they open up by getting into the issues of releasing and promoting the film with New World, leading lady Lethin’s unannounced hairstyle change, the six degrees of Phil McKeon who had ties to pretty much the entire cast, and the film’s evolution from a serious slasher film into the comedic spoof that we all know and love today. There is also a featurette called Class Dismissed where Lethin makes an appearance, a stills gallery, and reversible cover art.
Reeks Like Teen Spirit
Some critics like Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times tore it apart writing: “True life or nightmare, recollection or schlock—each level of “reality” has the same camera angles, the same fake gore, and the same Saturday Night Live-in-the-Charnelhouse style acting. And the triple-twist climax is so wildly unlikely, and depends on such cretinous inattention from some of the cast, that you could only accept it in a drunken stupor.” Others had some praise, albeit backhanded.
“As horror films go, this one is not all that gory,” Lou Cedrone of The Baltimore Sun wrote, “but it does well enough to displease the people who don’t go for this sort of thing. Are there many of us left?” Critics jeers aside, the film, had it had proper distribution, was exactly what the slasher formula created and audiences wanted, it could have been bigger than it was allowed to be, especially with the sly standout self-referential slant that, in a time of endless slasher copycats, was a breath of fresh air.
I suppose there’s no accounting for some taste. Let’s be frank, this is not Shakespeare, but the folks that enjoy these movies aren’t there for high drama and deep meaningful performances, they’re there for blood & guts, and Return to Horror High delivers in all categories. Sure the direction is sloppy and the performances are cartoonish but that’s exactly what slasher movies are. The makers of this one just wanted to be a little meta with their movie, a movie well before the Scream‘s and Kevin Williamson’s of the world showed up, I might add!
Return to Horror High is a fun romp through the hallowed halls of secondary education, I hope you enjoy it. Before you go, be sure to check out our NOFS Community Board just inside the vault door. There you can follow us on Twitter, Instagram, the NOFS Sub-Reddit and become a fiend… er, a friend on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club. Oh and if upon your return you happen to see someone strapped to the slab over there in the corner, please remember to be kind and rewind otherwise the penalties could be… electrifying.