It might be because it belongs to a sub-genre full of incompetence that NIGHT SCHOOL comes out looking like a good film. It is a slasher film that doesn't quite fit with the rest of its 1980s brethren. It feels different, much more like a giallo film (I'll get on to that soon enough) than yet another stalk and slash routine. It has a particularly grimy look to it without a hint of the kind of pop aesthetic that usually accompanies a slasher film made during the most aggressively garish of decades. The film feels lived in, slimy and dirty. None of the actors (even the gorgeous Rachel Ward) look particularly actorly, if that's the right way to put it. It might sound hyperbolic, but compared to other films of the era, it looks downright cinema verite.
It's that particular level of visual reality, the look attained by shooting the flick in the less than touristy parts of Boston, that helps make NIGHT SCHOOL, at the very least, a kind of one-off in the slasher sub-genre. It has the look of a police thriller and the attitude of one to boot, and those two elements help the tacky veneer of the 1980s slasher film to feel absent, even though the script plays out according to slasher rules. It is very obviously inspired visually by the giallo film, right down to the motorcycle gear worn by its killer which appears to be lifted from either STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER or WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO YOUR DAUGHTERS?. While the narrative differences between the middle-to-late era giallo film and the average slasher are few, one of the things that have always kept the two at a great distance was the presentation. NIGHT SCHOOL manages to nail the presentation of the giallo. In fact, if you swapped out the Boston location for Rome, you wouldn't have to change a single thing about it in order for it to play well with the giallo.
The story is, naturally, simple and to the point. We begin with the murder of a teacher's aide named Ann outside of the school she works at. The police find her body close to where the attack took place. The head however is on the other side of the lot, sitting in a bucket of water. This is the second attack this week and both murders are strikingly similar. Both victims were decapitated, their severed heads found submerged in water (the first disembodied head, interestingly enough, was found in a duck pond). The cops investigating the crimes, Lieutenant Austin and his partner Sergeant Taj, quickly zero in on the only link the two girls have in common. They both attended Wendall College, an all-girl's school in the city. Lt. Judd meets with Helene Griffin, the headmistress of the school, and an anthropology professor named Vincent Millett, neither of whom are very much help. One of Ann's friends, Kim, gives Lt. Judd his first lead. Ann was seeing a much older man.
It doesn't take Lt. Judd long to put two and two together. He confronts Millet about his involvement with Ann, but Millet denies knowing anything about her death. He also meets Millet's obsessive girlfriend, his British research assistant/student Eleanor Adjai. Eleanor has had her suspicions that Millet was fooling around with other students, even though Millet denies it repeatedly. While having coffee at a local diner, she meets a flirty, mouthy waitress and grows upset when she begins to talk about all the gossip she's been hearing regarding Millet's womanizing ways. Eleanor leaves the diner but finds herself being followed by Gary, a slow-witted, creepy guy who works as a busboy at the diner. Soon enough, more bodies are being found decapitated with the heads submerged in water.
The most disappointing thing about NIGHT SCHOOL is how uncomplicated the narrative is, especially with its foot so firmly in the giallo (in fact, I'm sure several of you can guess the killer's identity right now). It becomes rather apparent half way through the film as to who the killer is. So apparent that it causes the viewer a good bit of frustration. How the hell do the cops not see it? Well, they don't see it because they don't have the same vantage point we do obviously, but that fact cheapens the experience a bit. Some gialli did the mystery elements better than others and the best gialli were always those films that allowed us to uncover the killer's identity with the detective(s). They felt interactive and immersive. For much of NIGHT SCHOOLs running time, we're simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. For the first time ever I wished there were more red herrings in a film.
That isn't to say the film slacks off completely. People who detest jump scares will probably detest this film as it contains more than its fair share of them. But, I will admit, several of them really work and when the film decides it wants to be suspenseful, it pulls it off admirably. There are a couple of extremely well done sequences in this film and it becomes more and more obvious as the film goes on that director Ken Hughes (whose only other notable films were the decidedly ungiallo-like OF HUMAN BONDAGE, a few bits of CASINO ROYALE, and the family classic CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) and writer/producer Ruth Avergon were not only well-versed in horror and thriller conventions but with the techniques of the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. There are clever misdirections (such as the killer emerging from behind a door in the room where the soon to be victim is standing instead of bursting into frame, something the film has presented us with numerous times, and the incredibly amusing turnaround when we fully expect someone to find a severed head in a pot of beef stew) and several winks to classic suspense films, like PSYCHO, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE and HALLOWEEN. It's a low budget, low intellect flick that delivers so many good moments that it is a shame when it doesn't quite come together.
The in-jokes are relatively few as the film tries to maintain an aura of deadly seriousness. Even by 1981 the slasher film was beginning to cycle back on itself, so we're treated to a character moaning about the tired, old "head in the fishtank" routine and the now standard trick ending (ie. FRIDAY THE 13TH) is turned on its head and laughed at. Hughes and Avergon are well aware of what they expect us to find around every corner and for every time they deliver, they subvert our expectations and provide us with a little something new (well, new at the time anyway; it's all old hat now). But they never let the playfulness trump the dedication to telling their story straight (had this film been released only a few years later, the image of a hockey mask sitting on the shelf surrounded by pictures of nude women would have been a real crowd pleaser). They strike that balance perfectly and it really does keep NIGHT SCHOOL on track and elevate it slightly below the top tier of slasher films.
I like this film quite a bit although I understand the criticisms of it. I think that has more to do with my love for the giallo film than it does for the way I think the film operates as a slasher film. I think the cast (Leonard Mann, Joseph R. Sicari, Drew Snyder, Annette Miller, Karen MacDonald and the stunning Rachel Ward) are all perfectly fine in their roles and the score by (frequent James Cameron collaborator) Brad Fiedel is one of my personal favorite slasher film scores. It's one of those films that I find myself willing to watch whenever I have a chance. It is, for me, a good reminder that sometimes a diamond (or, at the very least, a piece of quartz) can be found in a mountain of shit.