High school was a common setting for movies in the late 80’s, which was perfect for me since I was in high school at the time. Of course, high school can be a scary place, so it figures that it would become the setting for an 80’s horror film. Nope, Ferris Bueller doesn’t wear a hockey mask and slash up the school, but we do get a film that tries to scare as well as spoof the horror films of the day. Have a number 2 pencil handy for 1987’s Return to Horror High.
Our film takes place at Crippen High School where five years ago several grisly murders took place. Now, the abandoned school is being used as the set for a slasher film based on the actual events. The cheap producer of the film, Harry Sleerik (Alex Rocco), even has the cast and crew staying in the old classrooms to save on hotel charges. The film is a troubled production right from the start. In fact, one of the film’s leading men, Oliver (George Clooney…yes THE George Clooney) has decided to leave the production due to being offered a role on a TV series. As he tries to leave the set, he wanders into a dark hallway where he ends up meeting his end, complete with a big pool of blood to drive home the point.
The cast and crew, however, have no idea. Harry still needs to find a new actor, though. He ends up hiring local cop Steven Blake (Brendan Hughes), who had been on set as a technical advisor, to play the part. Steven also happened to have been a student at the school at the time of the massacre. Steven ends up fitting in on the set, especially with young actress Callie Cassidy (Lori Lethen). Callie is struggling with Harry’s insistence that she show more skin in the movie and the challenges of playing three different parts in the film. Remember, it’s a low-budget movie
Meanwhile, more cast and crew members start disappearing which the others say is what happens all the time on low-budget productions such as this. Little do they know they are being sliced up by a cloaked figure in a white mask. Soon, Steven and Callie begin to investigate and find that the killer from years ago is back in action.
Return to Horror High has what seems like a pretty simple premise, but the film actually gets quite complicated. First of all, the movie is told in flashback as a couple of cops, one of whom is Marcia Brady herself Maureen McCormick, investigate the aftermath of the movie shoot turned blood bath. The film also takes great joy in playing tricks on the audience. There are times we are watching what we think is the story unfolding, or a flashback to the actual murders, and then it turns out to be scenes being shot for the movie within a movie. Other moments turn out to be dream sequences. As things progress, we are left wondering what is and isn’t real, and I gotta say it worked quite well.
The filmmakers also have a lot of fun playing with the various clichés and tropes of 80’s slasher films. In some ways, the film has some of the same sensibilities as Scream, but coming several years earlier and with tongue planted a bit more firmly in cheek. The movie seems to recognize some of the sillier aspects of the slasher genre in the 80’s and pulls off a pretty effective parody while still maintaining a level of scares and blood that will please most horror fans.
There’s nothing terribly extraordinary about the cast, but they do a pretty decent job. I especially enjoyed Lori Lethen who has a cuteness and spunk that helps carry the audience through. It was fun to see Maureen McCormick in a strange little role, as well as Phillip McKeon (of TV’s Alice) playing an annoying football player in the movie within a movie. Of course, it’s an absolute riot to see George Clooney in a film like this, not so much because of his performance here (it’s a very small part) but because of what he became later.
I wasn’t expecting much going into this film, but Return to Horror High was a pleasant surprise. It works as both a parody of 80’s horror while still managing to be a fairly interesting entry in the slasher genre itself.