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By the time of Slaughter High‘s release in 1986, the slasher cycle had all but come to an end. The successful franchises, such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, continued to produce sequels at an almost yearly rate, but aside from those rare few, the so-called slice and dice pictures had failed to match the popularity of their early 1980s counterparts.
As the MPAA had begun to pressure studios to tone down the gore following the controversy surrounding Tom Savini’s gore work in Friday the 13th, splatter effects had been replaced by self-referential humour and mild T&A.
But away from the judgemental eye of Hollywood, many European producers were still free to exploit the demands of the market, offering fans elaborate death scenes and large breasts, just like in the genre’s heyday. And even as ‘slasher’ became a dirty word for many filmmakers, movies like Slaughter High would gain a cult following for its shameless exploitation.
Starting life under the name April Fool’s Day, Slaughter High resulted from the minor success of the festive slasher Don’t Open Till Christmas, a British-produced thriller that was released the same year as two other Christmas-themed horrors, Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night. While the movie was dismissed by critics as being unforgivably amateur, even by the standards of the slasher formula, one celebrated aspect were the make-up effects, which had been created by Coast to Coast.
The company had been launched by Peter Litten, a promising young artist whose credentials had already included the original stage production of the Rocky Horror Show and a residency with the BBC. Following his entry into the film industry with Quest for Fire and the cult thriller The Last Horror Film, Litten joined forces with George Dugdale and the two went into partnership with Coast to Coast, creating the memorably gruesome set pieces for Don’t Open Till Christmas.
Around this time they had also begun to collaborate with Mark Ezra who, like Litten and Dugdale, was trying to launch a film career. With horror movies proving to be an easy sell on a relatively low budget, a slasher film was the ideal choice to serve as their calling card and so the trio approached the two producers responsible for Don’t Open Till Christmas. Steve Minasian had started out in Boston co-owning a chain of theatres before branching out into film distribution under the banner Hallmark Releasing Corporation, scoring major success in the early 1970s with the cult picture The Last House on the Left.
Through Georgetown Productions they financed Friday the 13th, which would become one of the highest-grossing movies of 1980 and the catalyst for the subsequent slasher boom. Dick Randall was a shrewd businessman who had made a name for himself during the 1960s distributing all manner of exploitation movies, although it would be through such unrestrained splatter flicks as Mil gritos tiene la noche (Pieces) that he would become most notorious for.
Approaching Randall in the hope of financing a picture, the only option he would entertain was a horror movie and, with everyone’s association with slasher films, the formula was already in place to create something similar. Taking their cue from Agatha Christie’s classic tale And Then There Were None, the trio developed ideas for a story in which a group of characters would be isolated inside a large building and killed off one-by-one, in a manner perfected on the big screen by Mario Bava with his Hallmark-distributed classic Reazione a catena (Twitch of the Death Nerve).
The initial set-up of many slasher films was revenge, where someone is wronged during the prologue, only to return later in the narrative to exact bloody vengeance against the guilty party. Keeping with the tried and tested formula, Ezra pitched the basic outline for April Fool’s Day to the producers, despite having no treatment or basic plot, instead improvising as Randall asked questions and raised concerns. Once some kind of agreement was made over the storyline, Litten, Dugdale and Ezra set about expanding on the story while also conceiving unique set pieces that would become the talking point of the movie.
Marty Rantzen is an awkward and shy student at Doddsville County High School, often the victim of his classmates practical jokes for his lack of social skills and his geek-like demeanour. As an April Fool’s prank, unknowing it is his birthday, a group of students arrange a prank in which the beautiful and popular Carol leads him into the girls’ locker room with the promise of sex. Her friends follow from a discreet distance, with video camera in hand, while one of the boys, Skip Pollock, dresses in a jester outfit.
Carol sends him behind a shower curtain and orders him to strip, but after taking off his clothes he pulls the curtain back to find a group of students filming as one empties a fire extinguisher over him while they repeatedly chant ‘Where’s the beef?’ The coach walks in to find two of the boys dipping Marty’s head into the toilet bowl and orders the students to attend detention at 3:45pm in the gym. After class, while the group face their punishment from the coach, two of the students, Ted and Carl, sneak out and find Marty in the corridor, where they offer him a joint as a peace offering.Marty retreats to the science lap to mix up some chemicals but curiosity soon gets the better of him and he lights his joint using a bunsen burner. Soon he starts to feel sick and rushes to the gents to vomit, allowing Skip enough time to sneak into the lab and add some powder into one of Marty’s mixtures. Returning to the lab, Marty places the tampered cup onto the burner but soon it bursts into flames. Trying desperately to turn off the bunsen burner, a bottle of nitric acid falls from a nearby shelf and showers Marty, followed a moment later by an explosion as fire pours out into the corridor.
Unable to stop the inferno, the students watch in horror as a deformed Marty is taken away by paramedics, forever scarred by the prank they had played on him. Ten years later, Carol is a struggling actress and model whose sleazy agent, Manny, is trying to pressure her into appearing naked in her next movie. After a decade apart, the group of friends make their way to their former school for an April Fool’s reunion, to relive their childhood antics and share stories of their adult lives. Unsure on who organised and event, they are shocked to discover that they are the only graduates to attend, with the school now closed and deserted.
With a storm now raging outside they decide to remain in the school, despite Carol warning that they should return to town where it is safe. They explore through the dark, cobwebbed building, eventually stumbling across a room with a large ‘Welcome Back’ banner and a large selection of alcohol and food. Believing it to be Skip who has organised the event, the friends start to relax until they notice their old lockers in the corner of the room. They eventually open Marty’s to find his yearbook full of old photographs.
Skip explains that after the accident Marty was subjected to six months of plastic surgery but none of the skin grafting was successful, leaving him mentally deranged and, as Skip claims, ‘Don’t you realise that we turned him from a nice little guy into a crazed lunatic. And you know what? They say he still roams the nut-house, ever hopeful of that chance to escape. Escape back to his old school so he can take his evil revenge out on us all.’ His tale is revealed to be a joke and that he has no knowledge of Marty’s life after high school, much to the annoyance of his friends.
A figure moves ominously through the darkness of the building, claiming his first victim with the school caretaker Digby, who has been maintaining the school since it closed five years earlier. It’s finally time to party as the friends indulge in pot and cocaine, but it is during a drinking challenge that Ted is killed when one of the beers is mixed with acid, causing his intestines to burst out through his stomach.
The group try to escape but the doors are locked and the windows electrified while Shirley, who was sprayed with Ted’s blood, searches for a bathroom to wash herself. Carl is the next to be murdered, stabbed through the back after he manages to reach his car, but unable to start the engine he sees a masked figure in the rear view mirror, who impales him through the back of the chair. The next to perish is Shirley, whose bath fills with acid as a Jester watches through the window. By the time the others run to save her all they find are a bathtub filled with bones.
With Litten’s background being in make-up and special effects, the gruesome death scenes are the most impressive aspect of Slaughter High. While Ezra and Dugdale worked together on the screenplay, it was Litten who would design the set pieces while also casting for the roles. The movie’s main selling point was the presence of Caroline Munro, who was a veteran of both Hammer and the James Bond franchise, while also becoming a a fantasy icon through her roles in Starcrash, Maniac and The Last Horror Film, all three co-starring character actor Joe Spinell.
The remainder of the cast were auditioned through the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, with the majority of the British performers having to adopt American accents due to the story being set in the United States. Principal photography took place over a five-week period in the summer of 1984, at St Marylebone Grammar School in Westminster, London, which had closed in 1981 and thus allowed the production the chance to work uninterrupted. The exterior shots of the school were shot at Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey, which had also closed in the early 1980s and had since become a popular filming location, particularly for music videos.
Unable to get passed Marty’s barricades, Frank suggests that Joe tries to break through the door in an old tractor, but while he tries to fix the engine from underneath he is disemboweled the mower as it collapses on top of him. While having sex Frank and Stella are electrocuted as the bed is wired up to the mains, before the mysterious figure then disposes of Nancy by drowning her in mud. Carol, finding herself alone and scared, takes refuge in the girls’ locker room, the same one where they had played the prank on Marty ten years earlier.
But when blood begins to pour from the toilet she runs screaming, finding a baseball bat and attacking the jester when it appears in front of her. After beating him and running once again the figure gives chase But when blood begins to pour from the toilet she runs screaming, finding a baseball bat and attacking the jester when it appears in front of her. After finding an axe, Carol hides in the shadows and swings her weapon around, burying it deep into Skip’s face. An unmasked Marty finally corners Carol and impales her with a javelin while cackling with delight, but moments later he is tormented by the spirits of his victims.
Marty, his face still bandaged from his burns, wakes up screaming in a hospital bed, revealing the his revenge against his fellow students had all been in his mind. But after dispatching of both his doctor and a nurse, Marty finds himself free to bring his fantasies to life. This epilogue was created after principal photography had wrapped, when the filmmakers viewed a rough cut of the picture and felt that the ending was something of an anticlimax. While Munro’s involvement would be key to the marketing of the movie, it would be the performance of Simon Scuddamore as the mentally disturbed and vengeful Marty that would be one of Slaughter High‘s saving graces.
But his real life would be even more tragic than that of his character, as Scuddamore would take his own life shortly after completing work on the movie at the age of just twenty-eight. While Slaughter High would fail to launch the careers of its stars, Gary Martin (Joe) would enjoy modest success as a voice artist, while Billy Hartman (Frank) would appear in the 1986 cult hit Highlander, before landing the regular role of Terry Woods in the popular soap opera Emmerdale a decade later.The movie was sold to Vestron Pictures at the Cannes Film Festival under the title April Fool’s Day, but soon afterwards the producers were informed that another picture had been developed by Paramount Pictures under the same name and so a list of alternatives were suggested, eventually settling on Slaughter High. While the script and performances were often criticised in reviews, one celebrated aspect of the movie was the gruesome special effects, created at a time when even Friday the 13th was showing signs of restraint in order to appease the mainstream.
It would become a popular favourite on home video for years to come and, for horror fans, would become one of Munro’s most recognised roles. Litten, Dugdale and Ezra would collaborate together once again as writers and directors on the 1990 horror picture Living Doll, in which a disturbed porter at a morgue falls for a young woman and tries to preserve her corpse after she is killed. Munro, who would marry Dugdale after divorcing actor Judd Hamilton would take on less roles following Slaughter High, in which she had played the role of a high school student at the age of thirty-five.