Long ago, 41 years ago to be exact, the unknown director Larry N. Stouffer released Horror High (1974 / trailer), a Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde Goes to High School flick that proved to be rather a success despite, going by word of mouth, being rather run of the mill.* Thirteen years later, a sequel in name only finally followed, Return to Horror High, a film that nowadays is famous primarily for being the feature-film début of some actor named George Clooney, whose appearance in the film — as Oliver, the first to die — ends after about five minutes. (Let it be said: he has more and longer hair, and he does have the same smile, but he totally lacks the innate charisma that he began to exude around the time of From Dusk Till Dawn [1996 / trailer].)
* Still, Horror High can't be all that bad, seeing that it features Austin Stoker (of the original Assault on Precinct 13 [1976 / trailer] and the William Girdler disasterpieces Abby [1974 / trailer], The Zebra Killer [1974 / trailer] and Sheba, Baby [1975 / trailer]) in his hunkadelic prime.
But as we have never seen Horror High, we've decided to review Return to Horror High on its own merits as a stand-alone movie. And, indeed, there is little of a teenage Dr. Jekyll in this movie here, which is about a film crew showing up at the high school of the first film, Crippen High, to shoot a movie based on the original murders only to — apparently — get bumped off one by one.
We have to admit that when we popped this baby into the DVD player, we were surprised to realize, the minute the bonkable Brady sister Marcia (Maureen Denise McCormick in her coked-out phase) appeared onscreen in the part of a cop — the characterization of which seems to consist of the channeling of a subconscious dominatrix that gets hornier with the more blood seen — that we had seen this flick years ago, either when it first came out or, more likely, while it was part of a double or triple feature at some second or third-run grindhouse. We can even remember: way back then, we totally hated Return to Horror High.
Well, times change. By the end of the film we knew why we had once hated Return to Horror High — it falls totally apart during the last W.T.F. five minutes — but this time around we rather found the rest of it fun. In the right state of mind, the film might still be a confusing mess by the end, but it is rather enjoyable as a horror farce and comedy filled with good dialog and mildly familiar faces including, aside from McCormick (Skatetown, U.S.A. [1979 / trailer] and Snow White: A Deadly Summer [2012 / trailer]): Vince "Dr. Ben Casey" Edwards (Space Raiders , Motorama [1991 / trailer], Cellar Dweller [1988 / trailer] and The Fear [1995 / trailer]*), Andy Romano (The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini [1966 / trailer] and Welcome to Arrow Beach [1974 / trailer]), and the great character actor Alex Rocco, who just died last week (18 July 2015) and can be found somewhere in too many good films to count (including Smokin' Aces [2006 / trailer], Blood Mania [1970 / trailer], Stanley [1972 / trailer], Lady in White [1988 / trailer], Entity [1982 / trailer], Motorpsycho [1965 / scene, co-starring Haji], The St. Valentine's Day Massacre [1967 / trailer], Brute Corps [1971 / trailer], Bonnie's Kids [1973 / trailer], Detroit 9000 [1973 / trailer], Three the Hard Way [1974 / trailer, starring Jim Kelly] and Freebie and the Bean [1974 / trailer].
* We saw and reviewed the sequel to this flick, The Fear: Resurrection (1999) — it blows feces.
But let's get to Return to Horror High itself, which, for years, has been denigrated as being one of the most confusing messes ever made. When the film opens, the cops — including Officer Tyler (McCormick) and Det. Richard Birnbaum (Edwards) — arrive on the scene in time to gather together the various body parts of all the dead. From there, Return to Horror High goes meta before the concept of meta even existed, its storyline transversing multiple temporal and narrative levels that interblend to the point that you often no longer know whether you're watching the present, the film being filmed, the "real" past that the film-in-film is based on, a dream sequence, or whatever.
Regrettably, while the non-linear structure is intriguing, the filmmakers never really master the full integration of all levels, which makes it easy to understand why so many people don't like the movie. Still, the cross-level narration does offer a few good laughs and really isn't as confusing as its reputation makes it out to be, providing you pay attention (or, Allah forbid, watch it twice). Its biggest flaw is simply the movie's impossible ending: the big (and inanely impracticable) twist involving the film crew is too stupid to even be funny, negates many of the past events, and multiplies the dozen of loose ends and impossibilities.
True, the satire of the un-killable killer works better here than in, say, Stagefright (1987), where the joke fails because it comes across as serious, but the major twist of the ending is neither effective as a joke nor plausible (if one can even talk of plausibility in a slasher film). It comes across as an insult to the viewer, or as a sign that the four credited scriptwriters (Bill Froehlich, Mark Lisson, Dana Escalante and Greg H. Sims) simply didn't know how to end the movie. Not surprisingly, an aspect of the plot itself — that the screenplay of the film-in-film is being made up and constantly changed along the way — comes across as probably mirroring the real movie shoot itself: one can't help but wonder whether the full plot of Return to Horror High was even known as the movie was being filmed.
For that, however, the four scriptwriters do put some truly funny dialog and characterization into the movie. Alex Rocco as the producer who knows he's making trash definitely shines in both regards, while McCormick's cop is a highpoint of physical characterization: both are consistent in garnering the most laughs (or at least giggles) and being the most enjoyable characters. But even the two relatively faceless heroes — Callie Cassidy / Sarah Walker / Susan (Lori Lethin of Bloody Birthday [1981 / trailer] and The Prey [1984 / trailer]) and Steve (Brendan Hughes, also seen somewhere in Sundown [1989 / trailer], The Howling IV: The Freak Show [1991 / trailer] and To Die For [1988 / trailer]) — occasionally garner a good and intentional laugh along the way.
Likewise enjoyable, of course, is the inordinately high amount of — Holy Beanbags, Batman! — 100% natural breastage. If you look carefully, there's even some Afro-American honeymelons in the background of the girl's locker room scene, as big of a rarity in exploitation films back then as now. (Why don't the exploitation flicks of today have this enjoyable feature, regardless of the skin color? And why, when they do, must it always be plastic? And will full male frontals ever return? Rhetorical questions, one and all — but these are the kind of questions that enter in our mind during our Koran study group.)
Yes, Return to Horror High is confusing and, yes, the ending sucks, but time has been kind to the movie. It may be disjointed, but it is funny, and aside from the plethora of naked natural mambos it doesn't always skimp on the gore. Likewise, the equally eccentric soundtrack (by Stacy Widelitz) is surprisingly effective and experimental, if not also occasionally a bit too heavy on 80s synth.