The 13th Floor

Slashback! Nubile Students Lose Their Heads at NIGHT SCHOOL (1981)

We’ve been singing the praises of winter-bound horror movies lately, and I’ve always been a fan of the claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere the chill of the season lends to any suspense tale… even humble slasher fare. Well, you can’t get much chillier than a winter in Boston — which just happens to be the setting for this week’s slasher flick from the genre’s Golden Age: the stylishly sleazy NIGHT SCHOOL, which was released outside the States as TERROR EYES and quickly became an entry on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasties” list. It’s not nearly as salacious as its reputation would suggest, but it’s definitely a frosty little bite of body-count exploitation that always seems to satisfy.

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The premise of NIGHT SCHOOL is basically a microcosm of familiar exploitation elements: an exclusive girls’ college specializing in night classes; a lecherous anthropology professor (Drew Snyder) who apparently beds a different student every other night; an austere-looking lesbian headmistress (Annette Miller) who secretly puts the moves on the teacher’s rejects; and a rash of ritual beheadings, perpetrated by an interloper in a slick motorcycle helmet and matching leathers, whose weapon of choice is a massive, razor-sharp kukri knife. The level-headed detective assigned to the case (Leonard Mann) is looking for a solid connection between the victims, nearly all of whom were also the professor’s sexual conquests.

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While the formula here is lifted almost entirely from the giallo genre (in fact, the killer’s costume precisely echoes that seen in Andrea Bianchi’s 1975 thriller STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER), NIGHT SCHOOL is yet another studio’s attempt to ride the still-peaking slasher wave; this time the now long-defunct Lorimar Film Entertainment, partnered up with Paramount — who were still riding high from the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH the previous year, and eager to pile on more disposable fare for body-count-hungry audiences before the franchise’s sequel dropped that summer.

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NIGHT SCHOOL under-performed in theaters compared to its slasher brethren of the day, but since that inauspicious premiere it’s managed to build a cult following on the VHS release — which touted the presence of then-recent Golden Globe Award nominee Rachel Ward in her first lead role. It’s no surprise the acclaimed actress-filmmaker doesn’t list this title on her resume, however; her performance here is… well, let’s say she hadn’t found her instrument yet. But even at this stage she has a smoldering charisma that would serve her well in future femme fatale roles… and, as revealed in a slightly kinky shower scene, she’s definitely easy on the eyes.

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Also of interest here is the participation of director Ken Hughes — best known for the family musical classic CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG — who, in what would turn out to be the final film of his career, proves himself remarkably adept at crafting suspense, fully exploiting the ice-bound Boston settings, and he doesn’t shy away from portraying shocking violence, though most of the beheadings are not explicitly shown. The grisly aftermath of the murders, however, is another story.

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The script by Ruth Avergon (who also co-produced) isn’t particularly fresh — the killer’s identity is laughably easy to suss out — but there are some moments of originality and nerve-wringing suspense: standouts include an agonizing chase through a locker room, the excruciating build-up to the reveal of a severed head in a diner, and a murder we hear almost entirely behind a closed door. Also contributing handily to the chilly atmosphere is composer Brad Fiedel, who turns in a simple but memorable piano motif and some unsettling electronic themes, nearly on par with his work for Jeff Lieberman’s supreme backwoods slasher JUST BEFORE DAWN, released the same year.

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While it’s still eluding Blu-ray release, NIGHT SCHOOL is available on DVD via MGM’s print-on-demand “Archive Collection,” and the source print for the remastered disc is in pretty decent shape. It’s well worth checking out for fans of chilly winter slashers with a steamy erotic edge.

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