NIGHT SCHOOL: Blu-ray (Lorimar, 1981) Warner Archive
Ken Hughes’ Night School (1981) has been described as ‘tame.’ How sad. For although the grisly murders to occur throughout the film’s taut 88 min. are truncated into mostly close-ups of the time-honored female victim shrieking in terror moments before being attacked, their severed heads barely visible once decapitation has occurred, and (spoiler alert), the addition of making the killer a jealous woman instead of some homicidal bloke with a warped mother fixation (nice touch, that), Night School remains a moodily lit and atmospherically photographed bone-chiller, augmented by a cut above the rest acting from one-time English sexpot, Rachel Ward (as graduate assistant, Eleanor Adjai), Leonard Mann (a very tongue-in-cheek, Lt. Judd Astin) and Drew Snyder (as Eleanor’s paramour, Prof. Vincent Millett). Part of what sets Night School apart from your garden variety slasher flick is its oft cleverly written screenplay by Ruth Avergon, that feathers in a nice backstory of love and betrayal, and, finds time periodically, to really lighten the mood with some winningly cynical buddy/buddy chemistry between Astin and his second in command, Taj (Joseph R. Sicari). The other streak of inspiration has to do with shooting virtually all of the picture on location, mostly in and around Boston’s downtrodden and spookily lit Beacon Hill neighborhood (although the climactic motorcycle chase was photographed in New York City); cinematographer, Mark Irwin getting a lot of mileage from the perpetually cold and drizzly Spring thaw on a relatively minuscule budget of $1.2 million.
Night School is neither deep nor trying on the patience. It does, however, rather effectively play on the nerves, particularly in two rather inspired sequences that, sadly, break with the motivations of the killer; the first, the brutal decapitation of the kindly waitress, Carol (Karen MacDonald) after hours – her head left to be discovered by her employer in plugged kitchen sink; the second, the needless, but nonetheless perversely nerve-jangling finish of Wendell College’s Dean of Admissions, Helene Griffin (Annette Miller), a lesbian, whose noggin is found submerged in a toilet by her unsuspecting bi-curious lover, Kathy (Holly Hardman). As neither Griffin nor Carol is having an affair with Prof. Millet, the crux of Eleanor’s brutal revenge serial killings, their demise makes absolutely zero sense in terms of keeping with this character’s motivations. Evidently, Hughes and Avergon are merely going for ‘body count’ minus any sort of narrative clarity (even, consistency) – a quality generally lacking in every modus operandi of cinematic serial killers. I am also not trying to pump up Night School as a fine art. It isn’t, as no pulpy slasher flick ever is. What it does do, on occasion – spectacularly well – is achieve a sort of unsettling dread. It mixes the horror genre with the police procedural and a dash of the melodrama into a mélange that holds our interest long enough to make the ‘surprise ending’ a genuine surprise – especially in 1981, when serial killing was exclusively the domain of the deranged male.
Night School opens with some atmospheric long shots of a damp and dark Boston. We zero in on Anne Barron (Meb Boden), a comely teacher’s aide at the Jack-N-Jill Daycare Center, wistfully saying goodbye to the last of her young charges on a merry-go-round inside the gated/adjacent playground. Given the late hour, a steely-gray dusk already settled in, Anne’s dalliance and daydreaming are a bit of a curiosity. Oh yeah, you just know this is going to end badly. And, predictably – it does, as a figure wearing a helmet dismounts a red motorcycle and slowly approaches Anne from behind. The perpetrator begins to violently spin the carousel, propelling Anne in circles as ‘he’ pulls out a kukri and waits for the next turn to bring Anne that much closer to death. We cut – literally – to the next morning, and the grisly discovery of Anne’s decapitated body in the playground; her head, submersed in a nearby bucket. Anne’s employer, tearful and shaken, provides Lt. Judd with his first tip-off. Anne attended night classes at nearby all-girl’s Wendell College. Judd and Taj begin to suspect a connection between Anne and another victim discovered before our story began – her head too, cleaved from her body and found floating in a nearby pond. Even the Coroner (Ed Higgins) is awed by the killer’s efficiency.
At Wendell, Judd meets the Administrator, Helene Griffin who informs him Anne was close in friendship with another student, Kim Morrison (Elizabeth Barnitz). Applying all of the standard lines of interrogation, Judd learns from Kim that Anne was seeing someone in secret. Curiously, Kim assumes the guy was married, since Anne once described him as being depressed. Next, Judd sneaks into the back of Professor Millett's anthropology class to make further inquiries. Millett is cagey in his replies. Clearly, he has something to hide. But he also introduces Judd to his exchange student/graduate assistant, Eleanor Adjai. Neither is forthcoming in their answers to Judd’s questions. Afterward, Eleanor leaves Wendell for a nearby greasy spoon managed by Gus (Nicholas Cairis). The restaurant’s sharp-shooting waitress, Carol, brings Eleanor her food, but implies, after some polite conversation, Millett is renowned for being a womanizer who sleeps with all his pretty students. Moments later, the busboy, Gary (Bill McCann), who is mentally challenged, becomes fixated on Eleanor. This, presumably, creeps out Eleanor and she departs the restaurant for the long walk back to the townhouse she shares with Millett. Steadily pursued by Gary, Eleanor makes it home and locks the door behind her.
The obligatory ‘shower scene’ follows, a nude and perky Eleanor letting the hot and cleansing waters rush over her. Unbeknownst to Eleanor, Millett has just come home and, finding her in the shower, elects to partake of what is supposedly an erotic ritual in African cultures; Millett, smearing his lover’s body in a curious red dust that, once moistened, takes on the perverse characteristic of blood running down Eleanor’s body. Meanwhile, Kim – who works at a local aquarium as a diver, is preparing for the end of her shift, stripping off her diving gear in an isolated dressing room. She is assaulted by the same killer responsible for Anne’s murder, her severed head tossed into the fish tank. This moment is witnessed through the concave aquarium glass by an unsuspecting patron. Aside: given the immediate discovery of Kim’s head and the timeline we have been presented, it seems highly unlikely either Eleanor or Millett are responsible for the crime. Furthermore, how no one actually sees the killer get away here is a mystery best left to that casual Hitchcock reminder, “It’s only a movie.”
As two of his students have since died horrifically, Judd arrives at Millett’s townhouse, startled to find Eleanor there. She explains she is Millett’s assistant. Judd gives Millett’s study, lavishly appointed with tribal garb and photographs from his trip to Africa, the once over. Upon Millett’s arrival, Judd pointedly asks if he is sleeping with his pupils. Insulted by the question, Millett denies the allegation. Judd departs, seriously dissatisfied and Eleanor, tearfully, gets into an altercation with her lover, whom she clearly recognizes cannot be faithful to one woman. Millett pursues Eleanor to Gus’ diner and begs for her forgiveness. She confides in him. She is going to have his child. Given the solemnity of this news, Millett’s flirtation with Carol as she comes by to take his order just seems incredibly insincere and very cruel. Millett and Eleanor go home together and Gus, feeling slightly under the weather, asks if Carol would not mind closing up the restaurant by herself. She agrees, and again, rather predictably, this decision seals her fate. Accosted by the same serial killer, Carol is brutally dismembered; her body left to be discovered by trashmen in an ash can in the back alley; her head found in a water-filled sink in the kitchen.
Investigating Gus, Judd is convinced he had nothing to do with this latest murder. After visiting Gary’s apartment – a real dump with nude pictures of women plastered all over the walls – Judd also rules out the possibility the simple-minded busboy would have the wherewithal to commit such clever crimes. Next, Judd returns to Millett’s townhouse, startled by his collection of human skulls derived from tribal headhunters from around the world. Eleanor is, again, remote and uncooperative. Meanwhile, the college’s administrator, Ms. Griffin threatens sanctions or even dismissal if Millett persists in sleeping with his students. Her latest diatribe is predicated on an admission by one of Millett’s naive students, Kathy, who is heartbroken he has lost interest in her. Introducing a bit of lesbianism into the brew, Griffith invites Kathy to her home for the evening. Alas, their flagrante delicto turns ugly when Griffith is called away to the phone after drugging her charge. Kathy, awakens to find Griffith’s head in a toilet and the killer still lurking about to finish her off as well. On his way to Griffith’s apartment, Judd spies the killer escaping on motorcycle and makes chase. Momentarily eluding him, the killer returns to Millett’s townhouse. But, surprise-surprise…it’s not Millett. It’s Eleanor, who now confesses to her lover she has committed the murders to prove her love, and, in the manner of the ritual killings Millett has documented and taught in his classes.
As the police zero in on Millett’s townhouse, Judd again sees what he assumes is the killer fleeing on motorcycle. Judd makes a harrowing chase through the vacant city streets and manages to cut the bike off, causing a horrific wreck in which the rider is killed. Removing the dark helmet, we discover Millett – not Eleanor – lying bloodied on the pavement. Millett is buried at a nearby cemetery; a tearful and distraught Eleanor walking away in her grief before the ceremony has ended. From his parked car not too far off, Judd emerges and inquires cryptically if ‘it is over’. Eleanor nods with panged remorse as she quietly walks off into the distance. A short while later, Judd begins to have second thoughts. He knows Eleanor – not Millett – has committed the murders. Alas, the case has been closed. With the particulars still ricocheting about his brain, Judd gets into his car, unaware someone is in the backseat. Now, a figure identically dressed as the killer rises and pretends to strangle a terrified Judd. But only a few moments into this faux assault, Taj removes the cyclist helmet in a fit of amusement. What a gag! What a pal! He sure had Judd fooled. Relieved, Judd burst into weakened laughing as does Taj. It really has been quite a wild ride for both of them.
Night School has some good points to recommend it – mainly, its’ even cadence and cleverly restrained visuals that suggest just enough to elevate the audience’s blood pressure. The grotesqueness of the crimes is more implied than revealed, allowing our imaginations to run wild. We never see a decapitated body, and only in brief long shot, a severed head in full reveal. The others are merely hinted at with a rather perverse visual tease, as in a few sticky strands of hair poking from under a toilet seat, or the discovery of a blonde hair in a plate of stew after Carol has been Ginsued. If anything, the murders in Night School are not ‘tame’ but ‘artfully’ handled with considerable visual finesse and a respect for the audience, not to churn their stomachs with abject gross-out disgust. Personally, I can admire Hughes for this. The performances throughout are all fairly ‘stock company’ horror dumb show; the paralyzed female victim, helpless, scantily clothed and screaming – the killer, shot in a sort of slo-mo to heighten his/her approach. The finale of Night School is rather interesting, since the real killer never gets her comeuppance. Crime does pay for Eleanor, who loses the great sex of her life, but gets to remain a free woman – presumably, to stalk again once her primal impulses are stirred. In the realm of horror movies that are truly great films besides, there are only – sadly – a handful; Psycho, Village of the Damned (both in 1960), The Birds (1963), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and, Halloween (1978) among them. Night School is not of this class. It is, however, quite creepy and disquieting, serving up the scares as it should while not outstaying its welcome.
Photographed by Canadian cinematographer, Mark Irwin, Night School arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC) in an impressive 1080p transfer culled from a 2K scan of the interpositive. As with virtually every release WAC undertakes, Night School has been given the utmost respect in hi-def. The B-budget quality of its theatrical release has been well preserved. The image sports a moody, soft-lit, somewhat grainy appearance with true colors; Boston, looking appropriately cold, wet and dingy. Irwin’s use of filters to achieve a sort of dark and depressing surrealism, are perfectly realized herein. Flesh tones are accurate and colors have the appropriately ‘dated’ feel of a film from 1981. This is not a punchy transfer with eye-popping hues and that is precisely as it should be. WAC has compressed the movie on a BD-25 rather than a BD-50. It works, despite the slightly lower bit rate, chiefly because Night School is such a short movie and this disc contains no extra features. It’s DTS 1.0 mono is derived from a magnetic master. Again, Night School is not a movie you are watching for great audio. What is here is adequate and just that. Bottom line: as Halloween approaches, horror movies are once more in vogue. Night School may not represent the best of the genre. However, on the flip side, it’s not half bad either. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)