The slasher subgenre of horror was in serious decline in 1989. Audiences, even the very forgiving horror hounds, had grown tired of film after film bringing out the same old tropes over and over again. Wes Craven would reinvigorate the genre with New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996) but in 1989 it was all but a corpse.
In his introduction and audio commentary on the Arrow Video Blu-ray release of Hell High (1989), Joe Bob Briggs argues that it is for these reasons that Hell High has mostly been forgotten and not due to the film itself. Briggs rates the film quite highly and praises how it subverts the tropes of the genre, creating something new and interesting.
With all due respect to the Drive-In King, Joe Bob Briggs is a filthy liar. At least when it comes to this film. Hell High is nigh on terrible. This film deserves to be forgotten no matter how hard Briggs or Arrow Video want to revive it. I will admit that it does play around with the genre tropes. At least as far as killing off characters you least expect to die, and having some fun with how it deals with the killer. But it hardly subverts anything and it takes far too long to do anything the least bit interesting to make it really worth your time.
It begins with a young girl walking down a long dirt road to an old shed out in the swamps. As she is playing with her dolls, a motorcycle carrying two teenagers pulls up. The teens bust inside the shed and begin a make-out session. The man throws the woman down and yanks up her top. The little girl is outside looking in through a hole in the wall. The girl teen begins to protest. This place is too scary she says and she wants to leave. The boy teen gets up in anger and then tears the head off of one of the dolls. They both get on the motorcycle and start to leave. The little girl throws some mud into a bucket and tosses it at the teens as they drive away. The motorcycle crashes slinging the teens into some metal poles, impaling them both.
Flash forward 18 years and the little girl is now Miss Brooke Storm (Maureen Mooney), a high school biology teacher. A not very good biology teacher. She has no control over her classroom. She mostly yells at them and at least once she slaps one of the boys. In her defense, the kids are all monsters and need more than a little discipline.
They are also our “heroes” and work like a low-budget, Frankenstein version of John Hughes characters. There is the fat but funny guy, the slut, the thug, and the jock. The jock, Jon-Jon (Christopher Cousins), is actually an ex-jock as he’s just quit the football team. The film doesn’t bother providing any real reasons why he quit (as that would be boring character development) but uses it as an excuse for his fellow jocks and the football coach to call him “coward.” The thug, Dickens (Christopher Stryker), uses this moment to take Jon-Jon under his delinquent wings, telling him that what a person needs is not popularity but fun.
They drive to Miss Storm’s house and spy on her, giving us a gratuitous shower scene (something Joe Bob tallies in his introduction as a positive for the film). It is also a bit hilarious because the obvious body double is obvious because her bust is about three sizes larger than Maureen Mooney’s. Later, the entire gang goes back to her house to play a prank.
But first, there is a lot of boring nonsense where Jon-Jon drives to the slut’s house (her character name is Queenie and she’s played by Millie Prezioso if you are keeping score) where they have a get-to-know-you chat and she shows him her boobs. Then they go to a football game where…nothing happens. At all. The football coach also asks Miss Storm out on a date. She declines and then later accepts because her friend tells her she needs to get out of the house once in a while. The coach tries to push his way into her house after the game and when she declines, he gives us a monologue where he thinks she would have slept with him had they only won the game.
I tell you this as a way of showing you how long and rambling this film is in its middle section. One imagines the screenwriter thinking this was all good plot development or at least interesting while he was writing it, but I can assure you it is neither.
Back to the kids and their prank. They stop by the swamp to get some “slime” (they call it “slime” but it’s really just some watery mud) they dig out of a couple of potholes. For some reason, they put the slime inside of garbage bags and they use their hands – not shovels or cups or any other logical device. This bugged me way more than it should have. These characters somehow had the forethought to pick up three trash bags (though why they didn’t use buckets or bowls or some much easier-to-manage slime receptacle is beyond me) but didn’t think they’d need a shovel or cup to scoop it out with is behind belief. That the filmmakers also decided this was perfectly fine is a crime against cinema.
But I digress.
The gang takes the bags full of slime to Miss Storm’s house, climbs up on the roof, stomps around, and throws the slime against the windows. This regresses Miss Storm to her childhood and that terrible accident, breaking her mind and sending her into a murderous rage. I won’t spoil what happens next as this is the most interesting part of the film. As noted earlier, the film does have fun killing off characters you expect to live and allowing those you expect to be murdered first to hang around a little longer. The killer is not the typical crazed psychopathic butcher you find in every other slasher flick either.
None of this makes up for the 60 minutes worth of utter tedium you have to sit through to get there, but at least the last 20 minutes of the film do something that entertains.
Arrow Video presents Hell High with a brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative. Extras include a new commentary from writer/director Douglas Grossman and cinematographer Steven Fierberg, and an archival commentary from Douglas Grossman. Plus an additional commentary from Joe Bob Briggs. There are new interviews with Grossman, Fierberg, actors Christopher Cousins and Maureen Mooney, and composers Rich Macar and Christopher Hyams-Hart. Also included is a tour of the filming sites with author/filmmaker Michael Gingold, a deleted scene, alternate titles, trailers, and TV spots, plus two essays in the full color booklet. In other words, there is way more supplemental material than this film deserves, but eat your heart out anyway.