It's a well-known fact that high school is Hell. It's as dead set certain as the competing concepts of individual liberty and social conformity. Often referred to as "the best days of your life that you'll never actually experience in that fashion" to a Nazi-like concentration camp where personality, not ethnicity or religion, is the subject of the genocide, your average institution of standardized learning is a cornucopia of creepy elements. Buried within sterile, unfriendly rooms you find near illiterate teachers more capable of playing the bureaucratic games necessary to keep their job than of successfully teach you about the symbolism in A Tale of Two Cities. You see athletes who strut the halls like their jockstraps don't stink as they begin the pre-professional process of looking down on the worthless losers they're forced to associate with for the next few weeks. There are surgically altered Barbies all buckin' for a...friggin' as they mix sex with stupidity to prepare for their future 'backside to club pole' careers. From geeks to freaks, stoners to scary loners, everything about school just sucks. Heck, most state-sponsored student storehouses (and all parochial academies) stink like a strange combination of sweat, anxiety and crotch, a heady brew that instantly recalls redolent days in front of the mirror dabbing Clearasil on one's blackheads. So, is it that much of a stretch to impose zombies and maniacal monsters into the monitorless passages of this prison for the intellectually insane? Ghoul School doesn't think so. This undeniably nuts time capsule from 1990 wonders what would happen if an entire student body (actually, about 12 hired extras) ingested contaminated water and became full-fledged members of the extracurricular Flesh Eating team. The answer is a goofy, if not always good, z-grade horror flick (which is, in and of itself, another way of describing those bastions of non-collegiate matriculation).
Steve and Jeff are a couple of horror fans making their way through the everyday doldrums of high school. One day, a pair of ex-students show up to rob the janitor. Seems legend has it that the sawdust spreader hides a secret stash of...something in his basement lair, and the dull delinquents want it, bad! While searching the secluded cellar, the robbers accidentally cause a chemical spill, contaminating the school's water supply. From then on, anyone who comes in contact with the funked-up fluid turns into a flesh-eating zombie. Naturally, the swim team is the first to mutate, and they begin a spree of slaughter all throughout the school. Soon, more students are longing for human skin and our gore-loving geeks must find a way to save the day. With the help of a heavy metal band and their goofy groupies, our hapless heroes battle reanimated rejects in an all out war for the future of mankind – or, at least, a chance to make it out of homeroom alive.
Let's get the obvious elements out of the way right up front. If you are a fan of The Howard Stern Show, Jackie "The Jokeman" Martling (who used to be the King of All Media's sidekick until contract negotiations got him canned), his wife Nancy Sirianni (the subject of many a call-in bitch fest) and that legend of late night New York television, the incomparable Joe Franklin (an entity that has to be experienced to be believed), then you will be mildly amused at their creative cameos as part of the otherwise odd Ghoul School. Obviously utilized to drum up publicity for the film (Martling was still a Stern regular back in 1990 and Franklin still helmed his surreal talk fest on NYC's WOR Channel 9), they are more like inserted elements than actual participants in the film (Sirianni does have a hefty role, but is such an acting lightweight that she leaves little impression). Other recognizable faces in this otherwise unknown fright film are Richard Bright (Al Neri from The Godfather) John P. Fedele (Sourass from Lord of the G-Strings) and Ivan Sergei (known to fans of TV fare like Hawaii, Crossing Jordan and Jack and Jill). The combination of amateur and proto-professional performances creates a cracked dichotomy within this movie. On the one hand, we have the unintentional humor provided by the student-grade cinematics. On the other flailing fist, there are the so-called hired guns mugging and mucking up the place with their out of whack weirdness. The result is a movie constantly battling itself. Part of Ghoul School wants to be a classic cult camp fest. But a bunch of slumming celebrities keep tossing the plot back into the realm of ridiculous reality.
The result is a film that should be more fun than it is. You can occasionally feel Ghoul School balking at its own ridiculous ideas and pulling back to try and salvage some seriousness. This is a movie that makes fun of all facets of high school, from the juvenile jockocracy of sports to the AV geekdom of rabid gore nerds. It even throws in a little over-the-top blood to keep everything nice and nasty. It circumvents several of the clichés in standard zombie moviedom to create it's own vision of a video vomitorium. But there is something hampering this horror film, a certain pseudo-solemn mentality that feels as if someone in the crew thought that they actually had a real life scary movie on their hands. Sadly, that is not the case here. Ghoul School is a dopey, deliberate goof, a homage to all the hack and stack body bonanzas that made the 80s so macabre. Indeed, writer/director Timothy O'Rawe has the fundamentals of the average flesh feast down to a sanguine science. He knows whenever his narrative sticks a little, some grue will grease the plot guns magnificently. But interspersed amongst all the torso ripping, gut garroting and face munching are far too many meaningless scenes of pointless exposition. It's almost as if O'Rawe figured he needed to be top heavy with plot to make sure his movie moved along quickly. Cinematic fundamentals like editing and mise-en-scene are far more effective at making storylines more efficient. But this first time director doesn't quite have those filmic chops.
No, O'Rawe just wants to make the kind of films he and his jaded generation grew up grousing over, half-baked brainstorms by the likes of Band, Olen Ray and Kaufman. He's not all that interested in keeping things consistent or clever. He tosses in the criminal idiots looking to rob the drunken janitor as a kind of a catalyst excuse, a Class of Nuke 'Em High nod that barely works as justification for all the skin jonesing. Our bumbling burglars, who look and act more like aggravated gay lovers than crackerjack break-in artists are really unnecessary to the story. They arbitrarily appear whenever O'Rawe needs them, hoping that their trigger happy terror rubs off on the rest of the evil entities. As for the zombies, the make-up effects are fairly good, capturing a nice combination of Romero/Savini era ghouls with the messier Fulci/Bava freaks. The fake blood is a bust, though. The claret resembles watery V-8 and never once splatters the scenes with potent pigment. Instead, wounds seep that kind of orange offal you get when you open an old can of Spaghetti-Os. Sometimes, the effects, the acting and the filmmaking all come together to create a comic bit of corporal chaos. But then some strange scene – like the pointless exchange between the principal and...well, frankly anyone – comes along and undermines the fan boyishness. Splatter Rampage, who picked up this fossil for DVD distribution, are experts at the mixture of anarchy and atrocity to create resplendent, revolting films. Too bad they can't go back in time and impose some of their skill on this flawed flick.
Still, there is a great deal of sly stupidity to celebrate in Ghoul School. The entire 'swim team on the reanimated rag' angle is hilarious, especially seeing the less than athletic members of said aquatic squad running around in Speedos and far-too-tight one piece bathing suits. Equally laugh inspiring is the horrible basketball team that can't make a lay up, but sure understands the basics of brave hairstyles. Then there's the heavy metal band that's hired to play the big school dance. From the obvious air guitar antics of the spastic group leader (he's doing every position in the axeman's guidebook except "Believable Chord Changes 101") to the be-wigged rest of the assemblage, this is one sour, not power trio that makes Rush look like dire death rock renegades. Our video loving heroes Steve and Jeff do have a nice kind of "never known the touch of a woman" way about their best friendliness, and their penchant for pop culture riffs (probably very ripe by 1990 standards) make them into unlikely, unusual leads. All the gunplay is faked (actors simulate the 'kick' of their weapon as the soundtrack cracks with a thunderous ammunition boom) and there are salient sequences where the scares are as palpable as the snickers. And you have to give the old clueless bastard some credit: Joe Franklin was NEVER an actor, and he proves it by failing to properly play himself in all of his scenes. His retarded line readings alone are worth the price of a rental. Same goes for Martling. Simply telling a series of his dirty jokes in an attempt to win Franklin over, you'll laugh more than groan at his well-worn gags. Had this movie been more mindless, and less mannered, it would have become a minor classic. As it stands, the filmmaking flounders too much to move into myth.
Focus and scope are the keys to why Ghoul School only half-succeeds. Had creator O'Rawe kept his goals simple and his monsters messy, he would have crafted a delightfully dopey diversion like Redneck Zombies or Flesh Eating Grannies. Instead, there is a serious scary movie fighting against a funny zombie farce for cinematic supremacy, with neither notion striking a knockout blow. On the one hand, the gore and goofiness play perfectly against the backdrop of a typical high school gone screwy. Entrails are eaten and heads explode. Add in the horrid rock and roll rejects and a little of Franklin's fumbling free association and you've got corpse grinding gold. But then the delinquents show up, all sneers and smirks, dragging their derivativeness directly into each and every scene they show up in, hampering the good humor Ghoul School has created. Like a balloon being inflated and deflated over and over again, this movie is bound to cause a little horror hyperventilation. Timothy O'Rawe and the rest of this cast have their spirit in the right splatter job places, and you can smell and taste their respect for the genre. But like so many living dead dioramas that have come before and after, Ghoul School scuttles a sure fire premise. High school is an otherworldly realm where it's not dog eat dog, but clique devour faction. Turning such a truism into a metaphor for the consumption of human variety meats would have helped this movie make it over the top. Still, flaws and all, this is a harmless, often hilarious slice of surreal horror. Sad thing is, it could have been so much better.
Looking fresh off the shelf of your local Mom and Pop VHS video barn, the DVD transfer of Ghoul School looks direct from magnetic tape tolerable. You would have a hard time convincing anyone that this image came from an original negative or actual source print (thanks to the commentary tracks, we learn that the negative was lost). This is obviously a brethren to Beta or a fine first generation dub of an existing analog master. There is just too much grain, lots of fuzzy facets and a faded, crocked color concept in the 1.33:1 full screen print. Low budget movies usually look lousy, and this high school horror is no exception. The occasionally decent lighting scheme aside, this is one substandard looking film.
Surprisingly, the aural aspects of Ghoul School are very good. There is nice clarity to the dialogue and a sense of spatial atmosphere to the background. While the musical score is far too Casio keyboard for its own good - especially in faux-Dolby Digital Stereo - and several of the sound effects fail to have substantial impact, it's clear that the sonic situations were handled much better than the cinematic qualities of the film.
Tempe usually treats its consumers with real added value respect when putting out their product and Ghoul School is no exception. While recent releases like Zombie Planet seem to get short shrift in the bonus department, this title is loaded with interesting material. We get not one, but two commentaries, a punch line spool of Jackie the Jokeman's work, a make-up F/X segment, a 1988 promo reel used to get financing for the film, a 30-minute collection of shorts by director O'Rawe and the typical compendium of Tempe trailers. Together, this DVD package presents a nice overview of the production and its problems.
Writer/director O'Rawe provides the first commentary track and it's one big overblown mea culpa. He begins by admitting his own weak skills as a writer and director. He then laments the loss of the original F/X guy (who apparently just "disappeared") and apologizes for the semi-decent job the replacement team did. He systematically deconstructs the acting, the sets, the lighting and the pace. Before you know it, he's convinced you that the fun but flawed film you've just sat through was actually a ballistic bowel movement aiming to destroy your artistic sensibility. It's nice that O'Rawe is so honest with his feelings, and you have to give any auteur credit for admitting his faults. But there is just too much apologizing here.
Cinematographer Michael L. Raso offers up another alternative narrative track that spends less time asking for forgiveness and more time on the technical aspects of the movie. He explains how certain shots were achieved, the basics of independent movie making and the reasons why O'Rawe's first feature, the never-released Basement failed to see the light of day. Though O'Rawe is far harder on the film that Raso, the DP gets his opportunities to question the casting and performances. Together, these two discussions give us a clear picture of a film in trouble, almost from the beginning, and some of the reasons why Ghoul School was less than successful.
Of the other bonus material, the featurettes function to fill out some of the details that went into the making of the movie. Most of them are superficial and straightforward, without much depth. And Tempe knows how to cut a decent trailer. Yet the best extra of the bunch is a trio of short films by O'Rawe offered in something called The Meadowlands Showcase. This cable access program gives the director a chance to feature a few of his homemade mini-macabre. Tag, You're It starts off with a man asking directions from a stranger near a cemetery. He is attacked, and suddenly takes on the fiend's freakish face. Next up is Evil Vision. While visiting a public washroom, a man spies on what he thinks is a couple copulating in a stall. Turns out, he's caught a serial killer in the act. A somewhat pointless chase ensues. Our final offering is entitled A Halloween Tale and centers around a horrible hag of a woman who hates Halloween and won't give trick or treaters any candy. Naturally, she gets her comeuppance. The first two installments are black and white...and rather weak. The third vignette is in color, and though it suffers from some bad print issues, the gore and make-up effects are nice and cheesy.
High School is so horrible in and of itself that to pepper the precariousness with flesh eating fiends seems like overkill. But Ghoul School decided that the best way to illustrate the miscreance of math and the evil of English was to toss in some bold bloodletting and just a little humor. Sadly, the results don't really add up to a triumphant whole. What you get instead with this low budget bungler is a lot of good intentions, some flawed but friendly fun and a couple of crackerjack cameos. The result is low-grade horror the way the video industry used to deliver directly to tape. Though the filmmaking is bargain basement basics with very little finesse, and the level of professionalism percolates between acceptable and atrocious, Ghoul School becomes a amiable reminder of the way in which horror hobbled around during the goofy Greed decade. If there is one good thing about high school, it's that after four years, your sentence is commuted to a stint in the State or Community college of your choice, where binge drinking, aimless sexual experimentation and outrageous personal politics are allowed to overwhelm and consume you. Ghoul School is not so illuminating. But it will remind you of why you never attend those pesky alumni reunions.
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