The late 1970s and for much of the 1980s saw the rise of the slasher horror movie. Capitalizing on the phenomenal success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), every studio in Hollywood and beyond wanted in on the action and began cranking out countless imitations – some good (My Bloody Valentine) and many bad ones. Lost among this glut of movies was the little-seen Night School (1981), a modest slasher featuring the big screen debut of a young actress by the name of Rachel Ward and a clever twist on the Final Girl template back when it was still novel.
The opening credits play over an atmospheric montage of the Boston streets at night. College coeds are being decapitated by a mysterious killer dressed all in black, donning a motorcycle helmet and armed with a kukri knife. The first one sets the tone as a teacher’s aide is trapped on a spinning playground carousel until she literally loses her head.
Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) and his partner Taj (Joseph R. Sicari) are police detectives investigating the murders. They have little to go on: no motive, no suspects and no witnesses. There’s a refreshing no-nonsense methodical investigation technique courtesy of the Harvard University-educated Judd who is determined to the catch the killer.
His investigation leads to a girls’ college where the carousel victim attended night school, in particular, an anthropology class taught by Professor Millett (Drew Snyder). Judd meets him and his beautiful research assistant Eleanor Adjai (Ward), an exchange student and his lover. Night School keeps us guessing as to the killer’s identity. Is it the creepy bus boy obsessed with Eleanor at the local restaurant? Is it Millett, the charismatic teacher that has affairs with some of his students and whose latest conquest is Eleanor? They even partake in a kinky primitive ritual in the shower together. He also doesn’t seem particularly upset that his students are getting murdered.
Leonard Mann is excellent as the intelligent detective. It doesn’t take him long to connect the dots and the actor does a fantastic job of portraying someone who is always thinking and figuring things out. He also plays well off of Joseph R. Sicari, Judd’s partner, who doesn’t take the job serious and what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for with street smarts.
For what was her first feature film, Rachel Ward is wonderful as an emotionally fragile woman with a dark secret. The actress cuts an enigmatic presence throughout the movie, obfuscating Eleanor’s true motives. Is she merely a helpless victim at the mercy of men obsessed with her, interested in only one thing, or is there something else going on? Right from her first appearance on-screen it’s obvious that the camera loves Ward, showcasing her stunning natural beauty.
Frequent David Cronenberg collaborator Mark Irwin utilizes a soft focus look that was popular in the early ‘80s. His excellent cinematography gives Night School some class and helps it avoid looking like just another generic slasher movie. He gives the murder sequences a Giallo feel and the detective work scenes a police procedural vibe.
After the success of Halloween, stage director turned film producer Ruth Avergon and her partner and husband Larry Babb shopped ideas for their own version of Carpenter’s film around to various distributors. Babb came up with “the idea of a guy running around Boston decapitating people,” according to Avergon. She did some research into the headhunters of Papua New Guinea and married it with her husband’s idea, turning it into a screenplay. They managed to raise the $1.2 million through private investors. Lorimar acquired the movie in a negative pickup deal with Paramount Pictures releasing it domestically.
The director of Alice Sweet Alice (1976) Alfred Sole was originally hired but left early on over “major creative differences.” The original lead actress – D.D. Winters (a.k.a. Vanity), his lead on Tanya’s Island (1980) – left with him and Rachel Ward was cast in her place. Avergon discovered her at a New York City casting call despite the fact that she didn’t resembling what was originally envisioned for the character.
Sole was replaced by veteran British director Kenneth Hughes (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) who, along with cinematographer Mark Irwin, gave the movie a stylish look. They also did a fair amount of location scouting ahead of time in order to achieve what Avergon wanted: “to juxtapose this elegant, gorgeous Old World look with this horrible thing that was going on.”
Night School is a fascinating study in gender politics under the guise of a slasher movie. The gender of the killer colors the motivation for the murders in a way that wasn’t seen in a lot of movies at that time. The method of killing that the murderer employs – steeped in primitive practices and rituals – is also novel and separates it from many of its contemporaries. Night School deserves to be rediscovered and recognized as being a cut above many other movies of its ilk.
“Interview: Cinematographer Mark Irwin on Filming Night School (1981).” Man is the Warmest Place to Hide. April 14, 2013.
Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. McFarland and Company. 2002.