One theme, five killer films. This week, we explore the horror of back to school with five hidden genre gems you’ll definitely want to study.
Students these days contend with an abundance of fears, from concerns about the current COVID-19 pandemic, to predatory bullies and the potential for a mass casualty school shooting, to the more mundane stresses associated with the coming of age. School can be hell, even in the best of circumstances, a notion the horror genre has exploited for decades.
Few can forget the power of schoolhouse horror films like Massacre at Central High (1976), the masterful Class of 1984 (1982) or the creepy, campy fun of Troma’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986). The American slasher cycle of the 1980s dutifully clogged the video aisles with memorable school-themed horror classics like Slaughter High (1986), Return to Horror High (1987), Hell High (1989), and Cutting Class (1989), which featured Brad Pit in his first major role.
This week, we are pulling off the band aid and heading back to school. So sharpen those pencils and prepare yourself for an education in lesser known schoolhouse shockers.
1. Svart Lucia (1992)
Accomplished Danish filmmaker Rumle Hammerich co-wrote and directed Svart Lucia (Black Lucia, aka The Premonition), a dark coming-of-age high school horror released in 1992.
The film is an inverse of the Scandinavian Christian feast day celebrated on 13 December for St. Lucy, known in Danish as Santa Lucia, who was a 4th century martyr. According to legends, Lucy would bring comfort and aid to Christians hiding in subterranean catacombs by wearing a candle-lit wreath upon her head, which allowed her to carry as much food as possible with her free hands.
Hammerich handles the material well, craftily using the festive backdrop as a launchpad for an intense, lurid tale of forbidden attraction between a schoolgirl named Mikaela (Tova Magnusson) and her literature teacher (Lars Green). Mikaela writes him a provocative and erotic essay and eventually takes to stalking him and spies on his questionable sexual endeavors.
Strange and increasingly violent events begin happening at the school, climaxing with the murder of Mikaela’s friend Sandra (Liv Alsterlund). Convinced her teacher is responsible, Mikaela confides her beliefs to her friend Joakim (Figge Norling) and discovers an even more horrific truth. Violent deaths and a plethora of red herrings blend perfectly with Hammerich’s visually stunning aesthetic, solidly reminiscent of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento.
Svart Lucia is a wonderfully offbeat high school chiller, a pre-Scream early 90s stalk-n-slash picture for fans of European thrillers with arthouse vibes.
2. Fortress (1985)
Arch Nicholson’s Fortress is an Australian-American coproduction and one of HBO’s earliest original projects based on Gabrielle Craig Lord’s novel of the same name.
The story follows young British schoolteacher Sally Jones (Rachel Ward), who is working at a remote, rural schoolhouse in the Australian Outback. One fateful day, a quartet of heavily armed masked criminals invade the school and abduct Jones and her pupils in a clumsy kidnap-for-ransom scheme.
Each of the criminals wear vintage character masks, such as Dabby Duck (Vernon Wells), Mac the Mouse (Roger Stephen), Father Christmas (Peter Hehir), and Pussy Cat (David Bradshaw). The band dumps their hapless victims off in a subterranean cave and depart the area to further arrange the ransom scheme, while Jones and her diverse range of pupils must pull together to fight for survival against their captors and harsh environment. After briefly escaping their temporary underground hell, Jones and the children ultimately decide to fight back, climaxing with a dramatic scene of the hunted becoming the hunters — culminating in an orgy of violence.
Fortress and its novel were based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1972, known as the Faraday Primary School kidnapping, in which two armed criminal kidnapped a female teacher and her six pupils from a rural schoolhouse in Victoria, Australia.
Fortress also takes some cues from William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, particularly the questioning of morality and immorality and the struggle between groupthink and individuality in terms of survival. The film boldly featured depictions of graphic violence and death uncommon of many made for television productions at the time.
Fans of Raquel Ward should also review her first motion picture role in another schoolhouse horror film, Night School, an underrated early American slasher film from 1981.
3. Dangerously Close (1986)
A subset of the schoolhouse horror-thriller sub genre revolves around vigilantes taking on the role of judge, jury, and executioner against bullies and outcasts. Films such as Brotherhood Justice (1986), starring Keanu Reeves, Keifer Sutherland, Billy Zane, and Lori Loughlin, and Wolfpack (1988), are two such examples.
B-movie auteur Albert Pyun (The Sword and the Sorcerer, Cyborg, Dollman) also contributed to the sub genre with a lesser known schoolhouse vigilante horror thriller called Dangerously Close in 1985.
The affluent Vista Verde High School is a cesspool of class-conscious elitists who allow select outside students (i.e. poor) with specific talents to attend classes through its “magnet program.” The school is kept in check by a group of preppie vigilantes known as the Sentinels, a jingoistic cabal of athletic male models with a disdain for outcasts and hoodlums. Downtrodden Donny Lennox (Eddie Peck), one of the magnet students selected for his journalism credentials, is groomed by McDevitt (John Stockwell, who also co-wrote the film), leader of the Sentinels, who feels Lennox’s role as editor of the school paper could benefit their public relations image.
Urged to drop his mohawk-wearing, punk-loving friend Krooger (Branford Bancroft), Donny becomes hypnotized by the wealth and clout of McDevvit and the Sentinels.
As Donny witnesses the Sentinels spiral into a cyclone of violence committed against minorities and lower class magnet constituents, students are beaten and attacked in drive by shootings. Eventually, Krooger goes missing with speculation the Sentinels had him killed. Infighting among the Sentinels and the escalation in violence ultimately unravels the gang.
The film, while not particularly gory, offers social commentary that remains relevant considering America’s current political and social environment. The soundtrack features a coterie of punk ballads by bands like The Smithereens, Green on Red, T.S.O.L. and Lords of the New Church. And genre fans will also appreciate seeing Return of the Living Dead alum Thom Matthews and Miguel A. Núñez Jr. sharing the screen again.
4. The New Kids (1985)
Following his major box-office success with Friday the 13th (1980), filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham directed a lesser celebrated schoolhouse horror-thriller film called The New Kids.
The $6 million production included a choice cast, including Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps, Maniac Cop), Lori Loughlin (Amityville 3-D), Eric Stoltz, who would be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor the same year for his role as Rocky Dennis in Mask, James Spader (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Stargate), and John Philbin (Return of the Living Dead).
The script, co-written by Brian Taggert and Stephen Gyllenhaal, father of actors Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, 2001) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Monster House, 2006), features teenage sibling duo Abby (Lori Loughlin) and Loren McWilliams (Shannon Presby) who become orphaned following a tragic accident that kills both of their parents. Abby and Loren move to a rural town in Florida to live with their aunt and uncle who own a run-down amusement park called Santa Land.
The pair acclimate to their new school, but Abby soon catches the eye of Eddie Dutra (Spader), a drug dealing gang leader who rules the local high school. After Loren defends Abby’s honor and embarrasses Dutra, Abby is stalked and harassed by Dutra and his gang in an ever-escalating turn of events that eventually leads to a showdown in Santa Land.
The climax is a kaleidoscope of viscera, with Dutra’s gang facing grisly deaths at the hands of Abby and Loren within the creepy confines of the amusement park.
Critics at the time of the film’s release discredited Cunningham’s effort, with the New York Times disparaging The New Kids as a “teen-age revenge melodrama that is both sadistic and wimpish.” But The New Kids has lots to offer. Aside from the stellar cast and likable protagonists, Cunningham effectively uses his past experiences pioneering slasher tropes to amp up tension and dread during the second half. And the gory crescendo offers a delectably satisfying demise for the psychopathic schoolhouse bullies.
5. Detention (2012)
From the dizzying, fast-paced and blood-drenched intro scenes to the utterly batshit crazy climax, Joseph Kahn’s Detention is a bare-knuckle high school horror-comedy that thrills as much as it much as it generates legitimate laughs.
The students of Grizzly Lake High become the target of a serial killer mimicking the villain in a popular horror movie series called “Cinderhella”. The school’s principle Karl Verge (Dane Cook) is convinced that a student is responsible for the murder and mayhem.
Verge rounds up his likely suspects and sentences them to an all day detention of prom night, forcing an unlikely ensemble of heroes — including the skateboarding hipster Clapton Davis (Josh Hutcherson) and the often ignored outcast Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell) — to disrupt Cinderhella’s killing spree amidst a inter-dimensional time traveling conspiracy.
The result is a brilliant pop culture homage and cinematic reference smorgasbord of iconic teen films like Back to the Future (1985), Freaky Friday (1976, 2003), Clueless (1995), The Breakfast Club (1985), as well as aspects of prom-themed horror films like Prom Night (1980) and Carrie (1976).
Fans and critics alike tend to split on either loving or hating Detention, but the film’s hyper pacing, slick visuals, and myriad of subplots result in a uniquely entertaining horror-comedy that’s both fearless and unapologetic and well worth its 87 minutes of screen time.