Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Horror High (1974)

When I was a kid, our local ABC affiliate was WNEP (still is), and every afternoon, they would show a movie on the program "Dialing for Dollars." The premise of the show is fairly self-explanatory. You watch the movie, and at some point , the host (I want to say it was Nolan Johannes at this point in time, but if it wasn't, both he and his family have my apologies) would call a random phone number picked from viewer submissions and give the lucky person a chance to win money. Now, I know some other areas had the same type of program, but ours had a twist: gerbil racing. Yes, poor Nolan had to stand in front of a glass-fronted box split horizontally into three sections (or "racetracks," if you will), each containing one gerbil. The lucky contestant would pick a gerbil, and with not much fanfare at all (I know, hard to believe), the three rodents would be released into their respective sections. The terrified animals would usually sit stock-still, hyperventilating, but sometimes one or two would actually make a break for the other side of the case, the first making it past the finish line being the winner. And there was much rejoicing.

So, what the hell do gerbil races on "Dialing for Dollars" have to do with Horror High? Well, it was on this program that I first encountered the film, only I saw it under the title (and if you ask me, a better title than its theatrical one) Twisted Brain. To make the film palatable for network television, much of the violence had to be cut, and the filmmakers shot about eight minutes or so of a dead-end subplot involving the main character's dad and some floozy he's visiting. It is some of the dullest shit you will ever see, and I mention it specially here, because in my youth, I distinctly remember the film (and my enjoyment of it) grinding to a halt with this section. Without it, and in its uncut state, the film, while nothing to do cartwheels over, is an enjoyable variation on an old theme.

Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi) is the brainy whipping boy of his high school. He harbors a crush on school beauty, Robin (Rosie Holotik), and she obviously feels the same about him but is dating jock Roger (Mike McHenry). The problem is everyone at the school, other than Robin, hates Vernon for some wafer-thin reason or another. The slovenly, slack-mouthed janitor, Mr. Griggs (Jeff Alexander), gets psychotic when Vernon shoos Griggs' cat out of the school laboratory. Gum-chomping Type "A", Coach McCall (John Niland), despises Vernon for never being on time for Phys Ed and being a weakling. Miss Grindstaff (Joy Hash) abhors Vernon, because he pays more attention to science than her English class. Meanwhile, Vernon conducts experiments on his guinea pig, Mr. Mumps (note: not a gerbil and not suitable for racing), in an effort to change humans physically (the actual applications of such a drug are never explored) like illicit drugs do mentally. Needless to say, our young scientist takes his own medicine and transforms in hairy and bloodthirsty ways, bent on revenge (shouldn't that make it mentally and physically?).

In case it's not evident in my shoddy synopsizing, Horror High is a take on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic horror tale The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long to make something along this line. In 1957, producer Herman Cohen hit on the notion of horror movies where teenagers were the monsters. His "trilogy" of I Was a Teenage… movies (yes, I know Blood Of Dracula breaks the title motif) mixed juvenile delinquent themes with horror themes and played to packed drive-ins across the U.S. (to carloads of teens who were probably too busy necking to pay attention). A similar trend hit the film industry during the 1970s. Films like Blacula and Blackenstein blended the blaxploitation and horror genres with varying results. Here, the film seems stuck between the two. It has the "Leave It to Beaver" values dominant in visual media of the 1950s/early 60s and the sanguinary violence of the late 60s onward that became a huge staple of exploitation cinema. The chemicals Vernon uses in his potion bubble and smoke in that bygone way all transmogrifying potions in black and white movies do. Director Larry N. Stouffer is also a big fan of employing severe Dutch angles whenever Vernon is about to strike. At one point, I actually felt my neck stiffen from keeping it at an angle, and I had several flashbacks to the 60s' "Batman" TV series. The violence, in contrast to the more overtly camp aspects, is more horrifying in its graphic depiction. Watching Vernon stomp a victim to pulp with a pair of cleats draws a pretty clear line between the cutesy and grisly facets of the film.

The act of transformation in and of itself takes on a different flavor due to the film's setting. Vernon changes from 98-pound weakling to super-alpha male, sure, but the change can also be seen here as a metaphor for puberty and burgeoning adolescent sexuality. The creature makeup, in fact, bears this reading out, as it consists of little more than patches of hair pasted on Cardi's face and hands along with thickened eyebrows. Add to that, Robin almost triggers the change in Vernon when she tries to get intimate with him. Here, Vernon has orgasmic spasms and suddenly needs to excuse himself. It's an interesting angle, and the film would have been stronger exploring it more deeply. But it is in there.

Out of all the actors in the film, the two who do the best work are Cardi and Austin Stoker as Lt. Bozeman. While Stoker does bring some slight amount of gravitas to the proceedings (the man does have a natural authoritative air, used later to good effect in John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13), Cardi has his hands full playing both wimp and wildman. The introduction of Stoker's character presents a "cat and mouse" angle that, like so much else in the film, is underdeveloped. What's noticeably smart is how Cardi plays Vernon's reactions to events. The best example is after a human skull is found in a drum of sulfuric acid (why schools stopped leaving large containers of acid in classrooms is a mystery) during a science exam. While the other students scream and gather around to gawk, Vernon quietly continues his experiment. It's a subtle touch, and the film benefits from it, but the filmmakers didn't exploit this angle to its fullest potential. Everyone else delivers solidly bad performances, most notably Rosie Holotik. Literally half her performance consists of rolling her eyes and acting bubbly. I thought she could easily have been one of Marcia Brady's friends who think that Greg is "just groovy." Not that it really matters much, because every character with the exceptions of Vernon, Robin, and Bozeman are written and played to be utterly detestable and therefore okay for Vernon to slaughter.

When I initially saw this movie, I couldn't make out most of it, because the print on "Dialing for Dollars" was so crappy. Having seen it clearly, with all the scenes intact and with what I must say is a great psychedelic rock score, I'm a bit more pleased with it on the whole. There are nuances struggling to get to the surface, but it's difficult to say if they come from the filmmakers or if they're inherent in Stevenson's original story. Perhaps it's a little of both. Is it a great horror movie? No. But it's not the worst, and it does have a bit more going on under the surface than some. The problem is it's just not quite enough. Horror High is a better than average horror movie, but it could have been a really good one.

MVT: I have to give it to the original score by Don Hulette on this one. It's catchy and funky and fuzzy, and it really sets a great tone for the movie.

Make or Break: The "Make" is the scene where the skull is discovered. Vernon's refined non-reaction says all you need to know about how he's decided to proceed from this point forward.

Score: 6.5/10


  1. I've always wondered why there's not a larger Jeykll & Hyde sub genre, to be honest. Love Austin Stoker so I'll have to track it down. Thanks for the good review, sir!

  2. I think the problem is that most of them are just not that good. My favorites are Dr. Jekyll And Sister Hyde with the beautiful Martine Beswick and the recent "Jekyll" series from the UK.

    This DVD actually has a decent interview with Stoker. Happy viewing, and thanks for reading and for the comments.