While the ISCFC has covered many of the big slasher series, there’s some gaps for classics and one-offs. Dear reader, we know you’re sat there, paralysed, wondering “which old horror movie should I watch? The ISCFC won’t tell me!” so consider this a public service.
“Graduation Day” is from the first wave of slashers, riding high on “Friday 13th”, “Prom Night” and “Halloween” money. It’s got a good ol’ simple plot too – Laura is the star of the track team, but collapses after over-exerting herself in a 200 metre race and dies, apparently due to a blood clot on her brain.
Just so’s you know this is Troma country we’re in, the movie tests if you’re paying attention quite early on. Laura’s older sister is Anne (Patch McKenzie) and she’s in the Navy, and she comes back several weeks later for the graduation ceremony. Why not the funeral? She said she was stationed in Guam which is, admittedly, most of the way across the Pacific, but I’m sure the military would let you go home for your own sister’s funeral, right? After being unapologetically mauled by a guy giving her a lift, she turns up in town and the red herrings start. She establishes a little connection to Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy, who looks old enough to have a kid in high school), although it seems fairly obvious to our 2016 eyes that Anne is a lesbian.
We may be the only Linda Shayne fan site in the world. She was in “Screwballs” as the excellently named Bootsie Goodhead, and was also the credited co-writer on that movie – she worked a lot with Jim Wynorski in the early 80s. She later moved into directing but her career faltered in the early 2000s (she directed a teenage Neil Patrick Harris in her last movie, who says how much he hated her, so maybe she wasn’t that nice a person). Anyway, she’s the first member of the track team to get theirs, a few minutes after Anne arrives in town, and has such a small role that she’s uncredited. Sorry Linda!
The movie progresses in classic slasher movie fashion. There’s a picture of the track team which is gradually getting all the faces Xed out as they die. There’s red herrings aplenty, like the Xs being done in lipstick, yet when we see the killer’s bare arm, it’s thick and hairy and clearly a man’s. There’s the (clearly gay) music teacher who has sex with one of the female students for a passing grade. There’s the biggest one of all, the track teacher who’s almost psychotically angry. There’s the way that several people have the same grey tracksuit and stopwatch that the killer is seen holding. There’s the way that every single person at the school is absolute scum. The usual.
This is all very standard, if we’re being honest, but “Graduation Day” emerges from the pack by keeping a decent pace up; sticking to the “shock, scare or kill every seven or eight minutes” mantra; and having a strong cast. “That Guy” par excellence Michael Pataki is the Principal, there are no really bad weak links in the rest of the cast, and there’s a couple of future “stars” in very tiny roles. Linnea Quigley, who’d go on through the late 80s and 90s to be the premier B-movie scream queen, is the girl who takes her top off to get an A, and was in fact hired because the movie’s first choice (who you can see in the opening shots wearing a no. 46 jersey) refused to take her clothes off for the role. Ah, never change, low-budget scumbag movie producers! Then there’s Vanna White (“Looker”) as one of the background girls. She would soon go on to huge fame as a host on US game show “Wheel Of Fortune”, which she still does to this day, and this represents one of the very few acting appearances where she’s not just playing herself.
It’s not all fun and games, though! The killer holds a stopwatch which he stops at 30 seconds, because that’s all the time it took Laura to die. Now, one of the kills takes way longer than that, like 2 or 3 minutes, but still that stopwatch gets stopped at 30 seconds because reasons. Come on, movie! Then there’s the rollerskating pre-graduation party. Very slightly successful new-wave-ish band Felony are playing one of their songs, and kids are skating round while Linnea Quigley and her boyfriend appear to walk several miles into the nearby forest to have some sex and get murdered (seriously, she runs back to the party for ages and still doesn’t make it). This song goes on, according to someone who timed it, over seven minutes, and if you haven’t reached for the fast-forward button long before then, you’re a better man than I.
The bit of the slasher film template I don’t care for is how long it takes someone who’s still alive to find a dead body and for the authorities to be alerted. In a 96 minute movie, the first body isn’t found til 73:00, and with the last five minutes being a nightmarish coda, there’s really not a lot of time for the inevitable Final Girl shenanigans. Talking of which, Anne is a trained combatant, and the best she can manage is to just about almost hold her own against the killer, rather than – I don’t know – kill him immediately? I was a bit unsure if she was even going to be the final girl, because she flat-out disappears for the entirety of act 2, pretty much.
The ending is great when you think the killer is going to get away with it scot-free, but then goes a bit OTT when Anne discovers the real killer’s identity and what he has in his attic. The real horror, though, is Anne and Laura’s mother and step-father. He’s an angry, miserable drunk who openly hates Anne, doesn’t care at all that Laura is dead, and only tolerates her in the house because he wants some of the insurance money which would normally go straight to Anne (not sure how that works out). The mother is constantly downplaying what a piece of garbage he is, and one can only imagine the sheer misery that goes on in that home when Laura leaves at the end. Sorry, that should be “Laura leaves, not waiting for the second funeral of her sister or to talk to the cops about the mass-murder that just happened”.
It’s not terrible, by any stretch, even if it has some weird lulls. And, if you think about it, the reason for the killer doing killing makes no sense, if you go with the “blood clot” explanation. But, if you’re at all interested in the history of slasher films, then you definitely ought to put this on your viewing list (plus, it’s on Youtube, so it won’t cost you anything).
Rating: thumbs in the middle