Horror High (1974)
WRITER: Jack Fowler
DIRECTOR: Larry N. Stouffer
STARRING: Pat Cardi as Vernon Potts
Austin Stoker as Lieutenant Bozeman
Rosie Holotik as Robin Jones
John Niland as Coach McCall
Joy Hash as Miss Grindstaff
Mike McHenry as Roger Davis
Jeff Alexander as Mister Griggs
QUICK CUT: Take the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then transplant it to a high school in Texas with a nerdy kid killing his oppresors, and you get Horror High.
Vernon Potts - At the same time, both our main character and the villain of the movie. He's your typical brainy kid who gets a ton of shit thrown at him just for being smart and an outcast. Until he discovers a Jekyll-like formula and seeks bloody vengeance.
Robin Jones - The only person in the entire school that is Vernon's friend, and potential love interest. She's too busy being led around by her meathead jock of a boyfriend though.
Roger Davis - The meathead jock of a boyfriend. Also the star football player, and chief tormentor of Vernon. He prefers brawn over brains, and it shows.
Lieutenant Bozeman - The baddest cop in the whole of Texas. He's a little bit awesome, all told. I'd call him Detective Shaft, but he's really more like the Black Columbo. Which is still pretty awesome.
Coach McCall - The football coach at Horror High, and also the gym teacher. He just doesn't understand why someone like Vernon is more interested in science over football, and treats the kid accordingly.
Miss Grindstaff - Horror High's English teacher, who thinks her class is the most important one in the entire school. To the point of actually affecting Vernon's grades in other classes. Oh, and she has a bit of a fetish for paper cutters, and a hatred of loud noises. How those two can coexist, I do not know.
Mister Griggs - The school's janitor, and overly gruff. He's no friend to Vernon, but that pretty much describes everyone in this film that doesn't have breasts. He and his cat are constantly threatening Vernon in the biology lab. He's also good with a pestle.
THE GUTS: This time out, the movie kicks off with a kid that's got very 70's hair and glasses, for this is indeed the 70s, riding his bike through town, while reading a book. This is Vernon, our lead. He's not quite our hero. The credits roll over this, with an oddly melancholy tune that suits the movie, but feels almost too cheerful and at odds with a movie called Horror High. And since it's Vernon's Song, written for this movie, well of course it suits things.
With that out of the way, the movie wrenches us in another direction as we're suddenly in a darkened classroom with a projector going. This is fast becoming a running theme in these reviews, isn't it? We also shift gears as we go from the whimsical melancholy music to a film of Jekyll and Hyde. Not even a movie really, it sounds like a dramatic reading. We never actually see the movie they're watching, just hear it. Fair warning, this movie is very much a Jekyll and Hyde story, so they're not even trying to hide it.
On top of that, they violate the big rule about referencing other, better movies in your own little shit film. It's especially bad when your movie is pretty much the same plot, but nowhere near as good.
The bell rings and the teacher, Miss Grindstaff, won't let the students go until she's given homework assignments and handed back papers. With the class gone, she asks Vernon to stay.
She accuses Vernon of not turning in a report on Robert Louis Stevenson, but he badly protests that he did. I'm not sure if he's lying or it's bad acting.
Vernon hunts for the report and finds it in his medical bag (Didn't everyone have one in high school?), and the teacher hands him the biology report he accidentally handed in to her. Oh, after she cuts it up into tiny pieces, and gives his real report an F, for being so careless about English. Not only failing him for one paper, but also consequently failing him in a class she doesn't teach.
And then...Sweet merciful gods! The movie throws a loud screeching sound at us after she slices up the paper into confetti. Why, movie, why?? What did I do to you?
*looks around* Oh right. This.
Sadly, you better get used to the loud screeches and bad theramin music, because this movie loves them a little too much.
He picks the remains of his biology report out of the trash, and we see fellow classmate Robin was standing by the door the whole time, watching every excruciating second. There's nothing like being humiliated in high school. Except for being humiliated in front of an audience.
Vernon returns to the bio lab and his guinea pig project, where a cat is lazing atop the cage. He scares the animal off with a broom and checks on his pet science project. And if you're thinking a cat openly wandering the school is weird, don't worry so did I.
As he's calming down Mr. Mumps, Mister Griggs comes in and chides Vernon for scaring his cat. The janitor keeps her around to kill rats, you see. Your explanation, people! This will consequently be the least nonsensical thing in the movie.
Vernon and Mr. Griggs get along famously, as the janitor tells him to leave his cat alone or there will be trouble. It is so nice to see kids being such close friends with the school staff!
With the janitor gone, Vernon talks to what I believe may be his only friend in Mr. Mumps, and we learn he's working on a formula of some kind. Robin pays him a visit and they seem friendly enough, so maybe there's hope for him yet. He tries to talk to her about his formula as well, but she seems far less interested, and weasels her way out like Mr. Mumps wishes he could.
Robin's boyfriend Roger turns up and drags her out of the room, literally. I smell a jock. The nerd/jock rivalry is almost palpable in the scene.
We next see Vernon entering the coaches' office, and the foreground is partially obscured by people, and there's loud grunting noises. I don't know what the movie wanted us to think, but I sure do know what it looked and sounded like. And it was not the arm wrestling that it was revealed to be!
Vernon is there to try and get out of phys ed for the day, and get back to biology, but the teacher's getting tired of Vernon constantly skipping out on gym for more mental pursuits. He makes this clear with the classic line, "What's more important than PE class?" I gotta say, I feel for Vernon here, as I was never a fan of gym.
He tries to explain his project to the meathead coaches, but they just laugh in his face and call it silly. I smell a plot point.
So Vernon has to actually go to gym for a change, and surprise surprise, he gets tormented by all the more athletic sort of students there. Ah, some things never change. This locker room is also the tiniest locker room ever, and everyone's stuff is kept in baskets? Is this a 70s thing, or a bad movie thing? Either way, the entire scene is weird. I have closets bigger than this room.
Of course, Roger is there and keeps calling Vernon 'Creeper' which doesn't make any sense to me. His skin isn't yellow, and he's not wearing a red furry ruff...
He takes Vernon's notes and starts going through them, saying they don't make much sense. Well, gosh, maybe if you actually took some classes more challenging than remedial wood shop, you might understand some biology. But what do I know?
After tearing out a handful of pages, the students start playing keep away with the book, and the movie slips into slow motion to drag out Vernon's torment and mine. Where's the fast forward button? And if this is the football team, and they can't catch a simple, tiny notebook, they really need more practice.
Later that night, Vernon breaks into the school to work on his project. I've heard of loving schoolwork, but that's just going a bit far. Mumps' cage is a mangled, bloody mess, and Mr. Mumps is sitting next to a dead cat. Apparently, Vernon's formula worked, and he now has a bad-ass guinea pig.
The janitor comes looking for his mousetrap, and manages to not see its bloody remains, or Vernon. Once he's gone, Vernon scoops up the unlucky black cat, and is about to dump the evidence of his guinea pig's rampage into sulfuric acid. However, he gets interupted by the returning janitor who noticed little tiny things like lights turning on, and voices.
When he sees the cat, he gives Vernon one hell of a beating with the flashlight. They pull no punches...well, I guess they do technically, but you know what I mean. There's a savagery to the beating that I've not seen in awhile.
Vernon rushes for the formula and when Mr. Griggs sees him going for it, he forces the boy to drink it, since it seems so important. Vernon is naturally hesitant, since the furmula has yet to enter human trials, but when Griggs breaks a bottle and threatnens to cut him if he doesn't drink up, well... Let's just say Vernon found his motivation.
As if beating the kid wasn't enough, Griggs then goes back to Mumps and pounds him into a pile of ground beef with a pestle he grabs. This man is just brutal.
Griggs is ready to continue his beating of the boy, but Vernon starts having convulsions. Griggs asks what's the matter, and gee, I dunno. Maybe it has something to do with Vernon saying that drinking the formula could kill him?
And in the lamest Jekyll transformation ever, Vernon dives behind a desk, then leaps up to toss Griggs around like a frisbee. There have been many transformation scenes in the history of cinema, and this is not one of them. We never even see how the changes altered Vernon.
But we do get to see Mister Griggs' face shoved into the vat of acid, and the gruesome results. Sweet.
We next see Vernon waking up, covered in blood. The tint of this movie is so red already, it is hard to tell where the blood ends and his skin begins. I swear, it looked like his head was dunked in blood, but I'm pretty sure that's just the way the shot looks and his face is mostly clear.
He's naturally horrified by the blood, and nervously cleans up and gathers up his clothes to get rid of them, and...DAMNIT MOVIE STOP THAT ANNOYING WHINE THAT KEEPS GETTING LOUDER!
*scratches at his ears* Gnnnghh.
Once he's all cleaned up, Vernon sneaks back into school and cleans up the mess and evidence there as well. When the chem professor arrives, Vernon lies and says it was like that when he got there, and someone must have broken in. And by someone he means Vernon.
The class arrives and gets to work on their exam with everything going normally, until one of the girls screw up and has to start over. She takes her bad checmicals and disposes of them. Or she would do so, but Mister Griggs' cleaned off skull bobs to the top and makes her scream. I guess Vernon forgot that little piece of evidence.
What must be the most bad-ass pimp walk music cracnks up as the cops and an investigator arrive. The hilarious and utter 70's-ness of the moment are just sheer awesome on screen.
It's worth noting that one of the cops is even played by football great, Mean Joe Greene. He doesn't really do anything, but he's there.
Then the awesome is cut short as the lieutenant interviews Vernon about what happened. Vernon lies some more, and it seems like the cop mostly believes him. But not before asking the kid a couple of, "Oh, just one more thing"s.
As if his day couldn't get any worse, Vernon has a test in English, which he has trouble getting through because the teacher keeps using the paper slicer. I loved those things in high school, playing with the giant bladed arm. Those things were great. But I digress.
He talks to Robin just outside the door after class, and he should have kept right on walking, as the teacher calls him back in to discuss his test. I hope he didn't hand in his Home Ec homework this time, that would be awkward. I don't know if it's the very 70s music, but this just strikes me as a setup for a cheap porn flick. Student hands in the wrong paper, teacher flunks him, but if he's willing to do some...extra credit work, well...
She tells Vernon he's doing poorly, and if he wants to graduate he has to attend all the following Literature Club meetings, but they conflict with the only night he can get to the library. This doesn't matter to her, since she only feels that English is important, and reminds him as he's leaving that the next meeting is that very night. Which the movie punctuates with another musical sting. Horror High loves doing that to make these utter mundane travails seem important.
Trust me, they are not.
Later, Vernon makes more formula, and lays in wait for the teacher. She thinks she hears something and goes back to grading papers. And I am going to pretend like the soundtrack did not suddenly start to sound even more like a porno. But let me make sure I didn't buy Whore o' High on DVD instead...
Vernon doesn't so much sneak in but awkwardly enter the room in a very obvious manner to turn off the lights. He needs the camo suit and helmet from Nail Gun Massacre.
Miss Grindstaff calls out trying to figure out who's there, despite there being more than enough light to see Vernon's clothes. Ahh, Hollywood darkness. She screams and runs off, finding every door locked no matter how much sense it makes for them to be locked or not. Grindstaff finally enters another classroom, and keeps calling out to see who's there like she's not even sure there is someone there, despite her clearly seeing she's not alone.
The teacher backs away from the voice, and passes right by another paper cutter, one with the blade lazily left in the upright position. She puts her hand on the board below, and you would expect with all the slicing she does, Grindstaff would at least recognise the feel of those machines. Not only that, but the blade is between her and Vernon. She looks right at it. She has glasses, but that is spectacularly blind to miss it. This is beyond stupid.
Compounding the stupid, while her hand is on the cutting board with a sharp instrument ready to be brought down upon them, she threatens Vernon's ability to graduate. How could this possibly end?
If you guessed with her fingers getting chopped off, you win. But wait, there's more! Vernon grabs his teacher, shoves her down on the desk, and proceeds to cut her head off with the blade.
If you people could only have heard my laughter at the next twenty seconds of the movie.
The head falls to the ground, makes a very loud thump of something clearly not human headlike, and a mannequin head clearly spins into view so we can see right into its empty, plaster neck. It's very obviously a mannequin. And it's missing hair.
I laughed for a good long time. And I laughed even harder when the movie pulled back to reveal it was just an experiment the cops were doing to see where a head would go under such circumstances. Amazing fake out that threw me out of the movie in all the right ways. But still looks so hilariously awful, even in context. Brilliant.
Even the sheer idea of cops sitting there cutting off mannequin heads is bizarrely insane.
After more questioning by the cops, Robin shows up as Vernon's convulsing, and he holds himself together long enough for her to ask him out on a date.
He rushes off to gym with a smile on his face, but that's short-lived as the coach gives him grief for being late, and threatens to expell him. Careful, that didn't go well for the last person who tried.
Coach McCall offers Vernon a deal to get out of gym for the rest of the year, and spend as much time in the lab as he wants. All Vernon has to do is help Robin's dickweed of a boyfriend pass his next chem test so he won't flunk and get kicked off the football team. Boy, I didn't see that coming miles away. Oh, if only Roger hadn't torn up Vernon's notes...
While Vernon thinks over the deal, he tutors Robin, none too subtley talking about ancient, beastial man. Gee, what could he be implying? And somehow this conversation leads to him and Robin kissing. I don't think that will help Roger pass his test...
Before anything goes any further, Vernon zooms on out of there to tell Coach McCall what his answer is with their deal. Because girls are icky, I guess. I'm also randomly amused by the bowl of ice cream they were eating that goes from fresh to melted in between cuts.
The coach wanders around the empty school, looking for the expected Vernon, but gets rushed by the cops who just happened to be there. Granted, with all the murders, they're probably renting a place nearby. Still, crazy fast response times.
The beat cops try to offer the lieutenant some assistance, but he doesn't want their help, yet. So they're just kinda standing there. Except for one of them, who hilariously twitches his mustache in what may be one of the more random bits of sillyness I've seen in a serious film. Or even in a film like this one. Bam!
Eventually the cops accept the coach's alibi of, you know, WORKING there, and eventually leave him be. With McCall calling out that he's going to report them to the principal. He's been working for too long, he's clearly forgotten that threat doesn't work once you graduate.
Once we're past that pointles waste of time scene, we get more of them, this time with McCall wandering the halls checking things out. This could ave at least built tension, but the scenes are completely silent except for thunder outside. If they had spent the money to get some music laid down in these scenes, they'd be bearable, and at least be building towards something. However, as they are, they're boring scenes of a guy poking his head into rooms. Bleah.
Vernon finally arrives after changing into something more furry, and a pair of spiked cleats. He confronts the coach in the gym, and again the movie starts with the weird music noises. Coach asks what sounds Vernon is making right after, and I can't hear any noise he's making, so are we to then assume that the weird music note is Vernon? Is that his growl? Or what?
The coach tries to attack Vernon with a cricket bat of all things, and Vernon reacts accordingly. He screeches, and then picks up the coach and throws him all the way across the gym into the bleachers. I think they may have reused the mannequin from earlier, since it is clearly not a real person, and the violence with which the fake coach flies and lands is particularly laughable.
Vernon then proceeds to do a Mexican hat dance on the coach. I can picture the cops now. "The man was stabbed 327 times. With very small blades."
The cops hear the screams, since it's apparently being piped throughout the school, and come running. They're not fast enough, and might even be terribly slow, because Vernon somehow manages to tie the coach up by his feet and dangle him from the ceiling like a Christmas turkey. Outside, they find Roger, and the movie actually plays a 'wah waaaah' sad trumpet type sound when he gets caught. The sound and music in Horror High completely takes the piss.
Vernon is biking to school the next day, and the cops find him, driving alongside. They tell him about arresting Roger, and Vernon *ahem* just can't believe it. They drive further and further away, until they're almost afterthoughts in the frame, as they continue to talk about the arrest. It's almost just talking over a random scene of a tree by that point.
The lieutenant definitely isn't that dumb, as he throws several bits of evidence that accumulate to point straight at Vernon. Sure, they're all circumstantial at this point, but taken together they can make a strong case. At least enough to start building a real one. There's the bag of laundry, with bloody clothes, that Vernon won't part with no matter what, there's the coach calling out for Vernon last night not long before he died that the cops overheard, and then there's the glass beaker they found near the body, which Vernon carelessly left there after drinking his formula. Yeah, not looking good.
At school, Robin is naturally freaking out that her boyfriend might be a murderer and that she could have ended up a victim. Vernon calms her down and tells her there won't be any more murders, since he's all locked up.
Roger gets out since there's no evidence, surprise on that. He calls Vernon so they can talk, and Roger threatens to reveal that he saw a certain someone sneaking into the school the night he got caught if Vernon doesn't comply.
Vernon tries to drink more potion at the school, but gets startled. He runs for it and finds Robin wandering the halls so she tells Vernon it's a trap, still believing Roger to be the killer.
Instead of letting her believe that, Vernon confesses to the killings. Robin doesn't believe him, since under normal circumstances she'd be right. She'll soon believe him though, as he starts to change, and will get rid of his last little problem. At the sight of the changing Vernon, she runs off and screams for a good couple of minutes. A surprise she never got that many more roles, with a scream like that, it's truly noteworthy.
We then get a ton of padding with running and screaming. This movie is a true assault upon my ears. Jeebus.
Vernon utterly fails at finding her, and there's more running. Running right into a locked gate inside the school, and then more running. Robin screams to be let go, and I'm sure Vernon would except he probably can't get the doors open either. And more screaming. Finally, she runs through a door she couldn't get through before. Ahh, plot locks. Vernon keeps chasing her, with the annoying sound hurting my ears some more, and he finally finds her hiding behind a door.
Thank you for padding that out as long as you did, movie. The run time is already less than 90 minutes. I almost wish they'd shaved off even more with these scenes.
The cops finally show up, and now it's Vernon's turn to be on the run. He won't be stopped by a silly locked door, however. Instead, he just dives right through a pane of glass. See, Robin? THat's how it's done.
For some reason he tries to get back inside, but he sees Roger in there taunting him. Again, a silly piece of glass isn't going to stop Creeper, and he bashes through and drags Roger outside. Vernon pounces on him and is more than happy to pound away. At least until he gets mowed down in a hail of gunfire, and finally a shot gun blast from Joe.
Thanks, Mean Joe!
With Vernon being executionalled, the movie goes dark and you can hear Robin asking if he's all right, and for a split second you start to think it might all be a dream. That's not helped by the lyrics of Vernon's song talking about dreams. Then you her Robin say other things, and you realise it's just him remembering the nice things she said to hin, in contrast to him reliving the nasty things from his tormentors before he killed them. In his final moments, his mind doesn't go to revenge, but to the one person who truly liked him. I kinda like the symmetry.
Video: Actually, for a movie this old, pretty good. Yes, the colour is way weird, there is a lot of grain and film scratches, but it looks the way it should look. If the colour was less red, this would be a solid looking movie.
Audio: I hate the audio in this movie, a lot. For the most part, it sounds very good, but...then there's the annoying music, the sounds that get increasingly higher in pitch, and the ones that just start high and stay there. They are really unbalanced with the rest of the sound, and I had to ride my volume control, eventually deciding to just listen to it quieter to save my ears.
Special Features: I watched the new 35thish anniversary edition DVD that just came out, and it's got some good features. Since its release, this movie has only been seen in an edited for tv version. Years after it came out, there was nine minutes of added footage, introducing a subplot with Vernon's father that go nowhere but remove all the fun, gory stuff to give the movie more of a story, and tone things down for tv. They included these scenes, and the altered title sequence where the movie was called Twisted Brain as features, and they are best left out of the movie. They take away what little teeth the movie had, and then drags down the pace even further with the father character. There's also a 20 minute interview with Lieutenant Bozeman, Austin Stoker, which is pretty good to watch, and very informative. Finally, there's a commentary with a bunch of geeks that is one part informative and one part MST3K. This was a blast to listen to, because even when they were tangenting away from the actual film, they were still funny to listen to. Annoyingly, they made many of the same jokes I did, but I decided to keep some of them, because they're still funny.
Best Line: "Get that light out of my face!" said by Coach McCall to the cops. When the light they were using was turned OFF.
First Kill: Not for a little more than a third of the way through the movie at the 24 minute mark, when Vernon shoves Mr. Griggs into an acid bath.
Best Kill: Can you guess? Can you go wrong by slicing a woman's fingers off, and then decapitating her with a paper cutter? A clue: no.
Blood Type - B+: There's quite a bit of blood here. The movie is not shy about it. Bloody cat, bloody guinea pig. Blood covered pestle and flashlight. Severed head and fingers. Curb stomping with cleats. So much blood. All that, and a melted face to boot. I only mark it down to a high B because it looks cheesy and too red, and they do play it safe a lot, leaving the gore more implied than actual
Sex Appeal: There's a naked mannequin, but that's it.
Movie Rating: Horror High takes the makings of a classic story in Jekyll and Hyde...and proceeds to waste all that opportunity. The acting in this movie is actually surprisingly good, especially Bozeman, and another football great, John Niland as the coach. You wouldn't expect the latter to be as good as he was, and Stoker is way too good for this movie. The directing is surprisingly, visually rich. Great angles, very cinematic shots. Surprising for something of this nature, and from the early 70s. But then the writing comes along and drags the film way down. The pacing sucks. The movie is slow, and plodding, with very little actually happening until the plot gets punctuated with a dead body. And then back to boring wandering around and padding. This might've been a solid 45 minute episode of some show, but dragged out to almost 90 minutes is painful. It gets two out of five Cokes from Mean Joe.
Entertainment Rating: But this is a hilarious movie to watch. I was thoroughly entertained, and got some great laughs. The kills are pretty damned good, and the cinematography is surprisingly worthwhile. It's definitely worth seeing, especially the proper 35th Anniversary edition from Code Red. Pop this in, make some popcorn, and enjoy this with friends? That's an easy recommendation to make. Four out of five beakers of Mumps formula #9.