Saturday, January 29, 2011

HELL HIGH (1986)

I’d have to classify this one as another "little movie that could," because in spite of the fact that a lot of die-hard horror junkies have crucified "Hell High" repeatedly, it really isn't as terrible as they say. In fact, it's not anywhere near terrible. If you think this is an awful experience, then you've been comprehensively sheltered by your mother's rack. You want to see some bullshit? Sit through the first six "Witchcraft" films with a "Demonoid" chaser, and then come back to this one. That shit load will tatter your patience like gasoline would an infant kidney and expand your understanding of what bad truly is. I don't give a fuck what Joe Bob Briggs says: if you call this movie bad, then you have a shallow barometer when it comes to your understanding of awful cinema.

The performances are above par for a low budget genre film, and it achieves a rich atmosphere. One of the things that elevates the value of "Hell High" is that the depth of characterization isn't typically what you find in horror films. I'm not saying this movie is some Mike Leigh shit, but it's still far more than what you typically get in movies like this. There are a lot of things that lift this movie above the average curve, so I'm just not sure why people hate it. Granted, there are a few retarded things that defy logic, but they seem to awaken a craven blood lust in the common horror fan that makes them wanna bury this movie. It is a seldom occasion that I am pleasantly surprised by a film so bitterly maligned. Most of the time when I approach something that's strongly hated by people I walk away with the impression that the subject at hand isn't really worth hating. But I actually found "Hell High" to be completely charming.

I can understand why most casual film goers might dismiss "Hell High" with a smirk. Most horror films are typically greeted with strong cynicism by general audiences. And on the off chance it's of remarkable quality, the movie will be sifted from the grit and the grime of a classless horror section and upgraded to thriller/suspense. So, when people who joyfully hold hands with a film genre that has become the red-headed step child of the cinematic realm revolt against movies like this, I’m baffled. This film is certainly not without its faults, but it also has some elements that work quite well.

Since acquiring this title as part of a lot I’d won off of eBay, “Hell High” had been collecting dust until very recently. I was in no hurry to see it since I’d been warned about it by friends. But whenever I’d peruse the shelves, my eyes were always attracted to the colorful spine. The box itself almost has a vintage JD schlock look to it. Most every guest that enters my video room almost always inquires about the title. One night last week, my friend Joe and I weren’t exactly having much luck during our routine weekly movie night. We’d tried sitting through a sex comedy bomb called “Pretty Smart,” only to hit eject after its first quarter. I'd never actually had a film with that quotient of nudity suck the life out of me. It was almost like being with a real woman. We sat there, feeling empty for a few minutes before I uttered what has become my usual Wednesday evening catch phrase: "Well, Joe. Pick a movie."

Joe got up, moved to the shelves, and almost immediately grabbed the box and said, "How about Hell High, maaaaan? It looks awesome." For the past month or so, Joe would do this any time I'd ask him to pick a movie, and I would hear this exact phrase up to four times a night. And I would rear from the suggestion, like the tape itself had a sort of psychic stink, and suggest he find something else. The "Pretty Smart" experience had robbed me of any spirit that evening. Thoroughly demoralized, when Joe suggested "Hell High," I sighed, and said, "It can't get much worse, right?" Joe cackled and rubbed his hands together as I slid the tape into the deck.

Joe Ryan is someone whom I’d refer to as extraordinarily pure in some ways. He has absolutely no sense of pretension. While pouring over the various titles in my library, he will often grab things I’d never think of watching even though I own them, and somehow he will convince me that we must see that particular film. Joe has a sort of new born enthusiasm that’s untainted by a bunch of hyper negative shitheads on IMDB. He doesn’t really care what anyone thinks, or about a movie's star rating. All he really understands is if something is fun or not. If the box looks fun, he will give it an opportunity. Having fun does not require a complex understanding of good technical film making. Joe simply seeks to be entertained, and through his enjoyment I’m often made aware of a film’s good points instead of simply focusing on its struggles. Watching a movie with him can be an overwhelmingly positive experience. After sitting through a few tapes with Joe, I began to realize that most people who watch a lot of movies develop a false sense of their own sophistication. They begin to think that a film must be worthy of them. They go into the film with the same mentality an English teacher relies on to grade papers. They lay in wait for errors to occur so they can spring out of their chair, smugly waggling their fingers, which of course makes them feel important. To these people, films are more like opponents in a game of chess instead of entertainment for their benefit. They don't enjoy movies. They use them. I don’t know why, but nothing makes a would-be film snob feel more secure in his meaningless position than tearing a movie to shreds in front of an audience. After all, turning people off is the easiest thing in the world to do.

One of the more common complaints about this film is that the acting is lousy. To the contrary, the performances are actually pretty good. Most of the cast are charismatic enough to entertain and engage. The more sinister characters are somewhat sympathetic. No one's really unlikable. The only problem I had with regard to the characterization is that you don't get enough time to really connect with Maureen Mooney's character, or what's going on inside of her head. The most noteworthy performance comes from Christopher Stryker, who plays the wannabe ring-leader of a would-be gang at the center of this story. Stryker shows great promise here, but unfortunately his career was cut short as he passed away several years after the movie’s filming due complications from AIDS.

The story begins years prior, with young Brooke Storm, ridiculously patterned after Patty McCormack’s Rhoda from “The Bad Seed,” playing out in a rural country side. Quality time with her dollies is interrupted when a pair of free wheeling teens bust into her shed for some heavy petting. When the boy’s advances are rejected, he rips the head off of Brooke’s doll as she watches through a slat in the wall. The teenagers climb back onto their motorcycle, and as they depart, Brooke hurls a pale of “swamp slime” into their faces, which results in a grizzly accident. The prologue is camp to the bone, and it does not do the rest of the film any justice. But still, it’s catchy and fun.

Years later, the unstable Brook is stuck teaching biology to a bunch of ungrateful delinquents at the local high school. Trouble maker Dickens gets disruptive, and Ms. Storm belts him in the mouth for it. Naturally, Dickens demands satisfaction. Christopher Cousins plays Jon-Jon, a guy coping with the disapproval of his former football team mates after quitting mid-season. Dickens capitalizes by wrangling disenfranchised Jon-Jon into his band of misfits, and soon they’re all off to terrorize Mr. Storm with Halloween masks and sacks of swamp slime. Ms. Storm has long been tormented by the deaths she caused so many years ago, and is in a fragile mental state, so they have her freaking out in no time. In the most inexplicably hilarious Scene, one of Brooke’s friends stops by, ceasing the students’ reign of terror. In spite of the fact that the house is covered in swamp slime, the back door being busted out, and her friend on the floor in hysterics, she decides to give her some fucking Quaaludes and leave. This is probably the only time in a movie where Quaaludes were actually used for their practical purpose. However, once the friend leaves, the terrorism resumes, and eventually backfires when Ms. Storm snaps.

While this film is often lumped in with late wave slasher films, it has more in common with something like “Class of 1984.” Vengeful students run amok and terrorize their teacher, which results in the teacher striking back. There are some definite horror elements within the film. It’s definitely not a run-of-the-mill slasher, primarily because of the revenge theme. There is no purely evil masked antagonist slashing through a string of high-as-fuck bangers and mashers. The performances are strong, and there are actual Degrassi-grade characters within the film, which give the situations some weight. "Hell High" further endears with a strange ending that feels like something out of an old E.C. comic. The unfortunate re-title to “Hell High” from the far more evocative “What Do You Want To Do Tonight?” almost prevents you from thinking you could get something brighter. I can see why some folks might have been disappointed if they were expecting a by-numbers slasher film set against "Grease." Fuck, I'd like to see that myself. However, "Hell High" is still fun. It doesn’t shake the foundation of the genre, but it does achieve an atmosphere worthy of any cold, damp night.

Thanks goes to FaggotSmasher for the trailer.

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