Fewer sub-genres of horror are more maligned and critically sneered at than the Slasher Film. To the extent that in my academic past, I had not one but two teachers borderline horrified by my love for some of the films in this often grue-filled category. One of them actually said, “But Heather, you’re so sweet! How could you be into those movies?” If I hadn’t been the highly awkward and sheltered young person that I was back then, I could have responded with something about art exploring our darker impulses and tragic circumstances. Then, backed that up with historical references to the Grand Guignol theatre in France, some of Shakespeare’s bloodier works and any number of ancient Greek plays. Instead, I’m sure my response was something pithy like, “They’re cool.”
As far as early 1980’s slashers go, Graduation Day is one cool movie. Made in 1981 by director Herb Freed, Graduation Day on the surface seems like your slasher-prototype. In a small California town, the star runner on the high school track team, Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens), dies of natural causes immediately after winning the big race. A few months later, a black gloved killer start offing her teammates, even dramatically crossing their faces off with lipstick on a framed group photo. Naturally, there are red herrings. Could it be the Laura’s strange older sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie)? Maybe the hard-bitten Coach Michaels (Christopher George) who leers at his female students a little too long? Even the nosy and possibly brain-damaged Officer MacGregor (Virgil Frye)? Or even Anne’s creepy, alcoholic stepfather who still hangs on to the grief of losing her younger sister?
It could be any, all or none of the above and for a film like Graduation Day, I would hate to spoil which one it is. The film does play with certain conventions that were already veering towards cliché by ‘81, right down to an appearance by future epic scream queen Linnea Quigley as a cute and often topless stoner high school chick who seduces her teacher for a passing grade and attempts to have sex in the woods. (Granted, Linnea Quigley popping up is something that should really happen in every movie.) But scratch underneath the surface and you have a film with some fairly strong cynicism painted towards adults, brilliant quick-cut editing courtesy of Martin Jay Sadoff that brings to mind films like Fando y Lis and Easy Rider, a nifty twist-reveal ending and a killer appearance by the eternally underrated New Wave cult band Felony. (More on them in a minute.)
The universe of Graduation Day is populated with teachers and authority figures that range from sleazy/borderline pedophile to abusive to bumbling but at least harmless. The latter includes a hilarious turn from the inimitable Michael Pataki as the ineffectual Principal clad in a polyester-pants nightmare. Pataki, who sadly passed away back in 2010, was one of those guys whose mere presence improved everything he was in, which ranged from voicing George Liquor in an episode of Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon to playing a homophobic biker in the gay motorcycle-gang film, The Pink Angels. Graduation Day is no exception and the film gets even better whenever he is on screen.
The aforementioned editing is incredibly creative and heightens the darkly strange tone of the film. Looking at Sadoff’s resume, it all makes sense when you realize he worked on the visually stunning 1971 underground erotic male tone poem, Pink Narcissus.
Another unlikely pairing that works greatly to the film’s advantage is the appearance by the band Felony. A Los Angeles based group whose ultra-charismatic lead singer, Jeffrey Scott Spry had previously played with Ron Asheton’s existent-for-a-hot-minute band The New Order back in the 70’s, Felony were and remain one of the quirkier rock bands that emerged out of the New Wave scene. Here, they perform their non-album song, “Gangster Rock,” looking like a bunch of gothed-out Mafiosos, their appearance is the absolute highlight in the whole film. It doesn’t matter that the song, which seems to be played in a continual loop, goes on for several minutes because it is so good that you barely notice. Even if you do, the odds of you minding are fairly slim. Felony would later on have a bit of a hit with their song “The Fanatic,” which was used on the soundtrack for the film, Valley Girl.
Graduation Day may not be a perfect film, with the last twenty minutes dragging a wee bit, but between the editing, a great cast, especially Pataki, George and Patch Mackenzie as the strong but subtly sensitive Anne and a willingness to explore a darker universe where kids are never truly safe, killer or no killer, it is a surprising treat of a movie. Previously available through Troma, it has been cleaned up quite nicely by the always reliable folks at Vinegar Syndrome, complete with multiple supplements to keep even the staunchest of horror film cineastes happy.