Youtube Film Club: Hell High (1989)

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Misleading, even by the standards of the time

The surprising thing about being a film reviewer dedicated to finding the bottom of the cinematic barrel is you keep encountering new things. If there’s one genre I’d be happy saying I’m an expert on, it’s 80s / 90s teen raunch movies. I’ve seen hundreds of them, and once built a full-sized armchair out of VHS tapes of that ilk, but here I am, 40 years old and still discovering ones I’d never heard of.

“Hell High”, though, isn’t really an 80s teen raunch movie, it just uses that as a backdrop, or a selling point, or because the director wanted to see some boobs. What it really is, is a cross between a good old dirty 1970s revenge movie, and an EC Horror tale; featuring a surprising number of people who have it as their one and only credit (some of whom are quite good).

 

Creepy kid in a pink dress skipping happily down a deserted country road! She has a little shed in the middle of nowhere she goes to play with her dolls, and as she’s there one night she’s interrupted by a 1950s greaser couple, who’ve picked the shed (in a swamp, we later discover) as a good place to have sex. Because they tear her doll to pieces, she gets mad, waits til they’re driving off on a bike and then throws mud in the guy’s face, causing them to crash and die horribly.

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Eighteen years later, and that little girl is now biology teacher Brooke Storm, who has the great misfortune to have a group of complete psychopaths in her class. She’s withdrawn, clearly still traumatised by the events of her youth, but the gang are very definitely not withdrawn. There’s rapist-murderer in waiting Dickens (Christopher Stryker); sex enthusiast Queenie (Millie Prezioso); and chubby hanger-on Smiler (Jason Brill). Joining them is the former quarterback of the school’s football team, who quit due to some existential crisis based around losing his girlfriend – Jon-Jon (Christopher Cousins), who decides that having fun with the school outsiders is better than his old life.

 

Their first prank is to drive a car on the middle of the football field during the “big game” and Jon-Jon manages to catch a pass. He’s shown in slow-mo celebrating this, despite the fact that he presumably did it hundreds of times while an actual member of the team; perhaps it’s some sort of freedom thing? Anyway, despite this giving them a 100% chance of being both arrested and expelled, they merrily go on with their day, and decide to have some fun with Miss Storm. After spying on her in the shower, a switch flips in Dickens’ head, and he decides to pay her back for slapping him in the class earlier.

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So they go back, with the ultimate aim (for Dickens) of raping Miss Storm, although everyone merrily joins in with the initial prank stages. In between attacks, she takes a sedative and sleeps through them breaking in, leading to what is the most curious scene in the entire movie. Queenie and Dickens have been hostile to each other throughout, so when she walks in on him pawing at the unconscious half-naked body of their teacher, you think she’d freak out, right? Well, I bet you didn’t think she’d throw him off, only to show him how to really sexually assault someone, mounting her, stroking her body and giving the guy she hates (she and Jon-Jon seem to have a thing) a free show.

 

Anyway, Miss Storm eventually wakes up and, having snapped herself, gets some revenge on the kids. But I don’t just want to recap the movie for you, because I get bored reading those long-ass reviews on other sites and I’m sure you do too.

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What’s most curious about “Hell High” is the pacing. It’s all over the place! Most of the murders take place in a very small amount of time, and thinking about it, the killer isn’t really in the first half of the movie at all, being “created” by the actions of the kids. If they were going to spend so much time with the school, then some sort of resolution to that story might have been nice. And, of course, there’s expectation. Call a movie “Hell High”, have a trailer where people in awesome Halloween masks are doing bad things, and, well, people are going to expect a slasher movie. Okay, the original title, “What Are We Doing Tonight?”, isn’t amazing either, but it’s at least better than the one they ended up with. There’s an interminable subplot about trying to pin the murders on the star football player they all hate, too, which leads to a really quite messed up ending.

 

Actor ages is the other one. Now, I appreciate this happens in lots of movies, but here it’s really obvious. Of the four main scumbags, Jon-Jon and Dickens look closer to 30 than high school age, and then there’s the “18 years later” bit at the beginning. I guess it’s supposed to leave us wondering which of the women is the killer later on, but the problem is Queenie is nowhere near old enough and Miss Storm is way too old (she looks about 35 or so? But add the kid’s 5-7 years at the beginning with 18, and…ah, who cares).

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It’s interesting, certainly. And Prezioso (for whom this was her only role) is pretty decent, as is most of the cast. Christopher Stryker (Dickens) didn’t even get to see the movie released (filmed in 1985, released in 1989) as he died of AIDS in 1986; he could have had a long career of playing unhinged types. It’s shot well, and has plenty of fans – Joe Bob Briggs, who’s like a cross between a less funny MST3K and a less informative Roger Ebert, but is inexplicably popular in the US, does a commentary track for the DVD – but is ultimately a bit too poorly paced to be a success. It also joins a number of other ISCFC-covered movies in representing the entirety of someone’s directing career – this time it’s Douglas Grossman, who seemed absolutely fine, and presumably quit for his own reasons rather than not being able to get hired.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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