Thursday, March 15, 2012

Horror High (1974)

Nerdy high school kid Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi), is put down and downright abused by nearly everyone he meets during the course of the movie. Vernon's English teacher hates him unreasonably for his preference for biology and chemistry, the jocks hate him for having a brain, and his school's janitor hates him for defending his pet guinea pig Mister Potts against the janitor's free-roaming cat. Only Vernon's classmate Robin (Rosie Holotik, 28 at the time, and hilariously bad at pretending to be more than ten years younger in a way that can only bring to mind sexual roleplay) has quite a sweet spot for him; for some reason, however, the sugary sweet girl has Roger (Mike McHenry) the jockiest of jocks for her boyfriend.

Things change for Vernon when the janitor forces the boy to drink one of his own experimental concoctions as a punishment for a guinea pig related cat death. Or rather, Vernon changes into his more primitive, violent, and hairy pre-human self and sticks the mad janitor into a convenient barrel of acid, which arguably is the place where he belongs.

From then on, Vernon takes to his special drug whenever he is threatened by another bully, and so, seeing as this takes place in high school, a series of murders begins that attracts the attention of police Lieutenant Bozeman (Austin Stoker). Because Vernon is a rather terrible liar, the cop soon sticks to the boy like a funkier version of Columbo.

Sooner or later, Vernon's little killing spree will have to stop.

Texan local indie horror production Horror High is the archetype of the silly yet plucky little film made by people possessing a small degree of talent and little practical experience with filmmaking but enough enthusiasm to produce an entertaining, at times surprisingly nasty movie.

Director Larry N. Stouffer does a bit more than the bare minimum, mixing the expected scenes of semi-amateur actors - with Austin Stoker giving the only "normal", professional performance - standing around stiffly with many more scenes that are at least trying to do more than just the point and shoot dance. The murder scenes are even downright dynamic, with fast editing and shot hand-held.

In fact, the murders are generally one of the film's highpoints. Even though their basic set-ups are silly going towards ridiculous, their execution seems surprisingly enthusiastic, with a nasty undertone of what felt to me like real hatred, which turns what would be silly nonsense into something that's even slightly emotionally involving. I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone connected with the production were working through their own school traumas here. However, it's also just as possible the producers were quite conscious about what a potential nerdy, horror-loving teenager would like to see and hear, namely, the revenge of the oppressed, and the Girl turning from the Jock to the Nice Guy (without realizing that the Nice Guy's not all that nice anymore).

If not for the emotional unpleasantness of the murder scenes, and the oh so very 70s ending, I wouldn't have been quite sure what to make of the film. The extreme broadness of the characters (most of Vernon's enemies are so vile it's surprising they don't have moustaches that they twirl regularly, and that no marching band plays a merry song when they die), the absurd funky rock soundtrack, Stoker's black Columbo performance, and the off-handed dumbness of the plot (what is it with a high school kid re-inventing the serum of Doctor Jekyll?), all suggest some sort of comedy. At the very least, it's difficult to encounter them and think them to be meant completely seriously. On the other hand, the film sure as hell doesn't contain much one could interpret as a joke.

It is in fact the weird tonal shifts between the ridiculous, the earnest, the inept, and the rather unpleasant that make Horror High a bit of a special movie for me, because they - as well as of course the film's plot - do talk directly to the angsty little nerd I once was myself. And if the film wasn't made by someone like the past me, it sure was made for somebody like that past me.


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