- Mrs. Hummers
During that same time, I frequently found myself going to a friend's house in an effort to sneak a peek at another movie, this one on HBO (a luxury the McGaughy family never indulged). The film was Student Bodies, and at the time I was disappointed with what I saw, erroneously thinking it was supposed to be a straightforward slasher flick (hey, gimmie a break: I was 9, and blond). Having only seen bits of the film (damn those parents coming home)--and now realizing it's a parody--I gleefully popped this baby in with a fresh outlook and different expectations.
The film starts with a claim that's actually true (does that ever happen?!): "This motion picture is based on an actual incident. Last year, 26 horror films were released...none of them lost money."
Following in the footsteps of Airplane!, Student Bodies was somewhat fresh for its time, if intentions count for anything. It was made in 1980 (long before the Scream and Scary Movie franchises saw the light of day) and released three months before fellow parody Saturday the 14th in 1981, and a year before the partial-tongue-in-cheek The Slumber Party Massacre (an intended parody that got a little lost in rewrites).
Student Bodies was also shot during a 94-day strike by the Screen Actors Guild, which may be why you won't recognize any of the cast, save for one: Richard Brando, now known as Richard Belzer (!), whose gravelly voice is heard as "The Breather" (for a disturbing laugh, just envision him reading his lecherous lines). The film was produced by Allen Smithee (aka Michael Ritchie), and is the only directorial effort from Mickey Rose, who wrote a smattering of episodes for moderately successful TV shows during his career.
The movie hit theaters smack in the middle of the slasher craze, right after that first wave of hits that I hold dear to my heart and consider the genre's most entertaining. It was released in between Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, and right before Halloween II, Hell Night and The Prowler. It came after the highly influential and oft-ignored Black Christmas, as well as When a Stranger Calls (a slasher in disguise), Prom Night, Terror Train, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, The Burning, Final Exam and (the not great) Graduation Day.
But what's remarkable in retrospect is that it came before so many other slashers that it seems to tip its hat to/mock heavily: The Dorm That Dripped Blood and Alone in the Dark dropped in 1982; The House on Sorority Row (one of my all-time favorites!), Curtains and Sleepaway Camp in 1983; and Fatal Games, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Splatter University and The Initiation (which has so much in common with this parody, I was stunned to remember it came afterward!) didn't arrive until 1984.
So, enough of my trip down memory lane: The story revolves around the antics of "The Breather", frequently presented in POV shots that hide the killer's identity. The killer is an out-of-shape Peeping Tom ("My luck...I picked a jogger!") who has a penchant for selecting silly murder weapons (a paper clip, an eggplant) despite access to a bevy of sharp alternatives; is frequently foiled by wads of gum ("Argh! Sugarless!"); disguises his phone voice with a rubber chicken, earning him the nickname "Chicken Lips"; and wears green rubber gloves and ridiculously oversized galoshes--the exact same kind I had as a kid, those black boots with giant buckles (I cracked up every time the camera cut to them. I passionately hated squeezing my feet into those damn things, an arduous task that delayed my snow playtime, the thin layer of rubber ultimately offering zero warmth from sleet and snow--and good luck getting your shoes out of them).
Virginal Toby (Kristen Riter, heavily channeling Adrienne King toward the end), who has a series of rape-repellant buttons on each layer of her clothing, tries to get to the bottom of her classmates' murders along with friend Hardy (Matthew Goldsby). All the slutty prom queen candidates are dropping like flies, while their boyfriends are getting killed with a garbage bag.
We soon meet the bevy of suspects: disturbed, misogynistic shop teacher Mr. Dumpkin (Joe Flood), who has an unhealthy horse head bookend fetish (did any of you make those whale clothespin paperweights in middle school like me?!); the cheese loving Principal Peters (Joe Talarowski) and school matron Miss Mumsley (Mimi Weddell), who have to be the inspiration for Seymour and Agnes Skinner; school shrink Dr. Sigmund (Carl Jacobs), who is looking for a case to make him famous; Nurse Krud (Janice E. O'Malley), who knows a little too much about garbage bags; science teacher Ms. Van Dyke (Peggy Cooper), who likes to chop off frog penises ("What's in a name? Everything!"); while the creepy, whiplashed, lanky janitor Malvert (played by "The Stick") likes to talk about himself in the third person ("Malvert afford hookers! Malvert pee red!"). Even Toby--who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time--falls under suspicion.
The film pokes fun at the stupidity of the sexually crazed students, and offers ample red herrings (everyone owns green gloves!). But the mystery is pointless; this film is a parody, so it's the laughs--not the Scooby-Doo plot--that matter most. Does it work? Yes and no. I smiled and got a light laugh at some of the most random bits of dialogue, like when butch Ms. Van Dyke reaches for a call ("I'll get it...I'm farthest from the phone!"), or when horny Charlie kisses his hungry girlfriend and asks "What's that chicken-y taste?!" ("It's chicken!"). There's also Mrs. Hummers, who stiffs the mother of her dead babysitter at the girl's funeral ("I wanted you to have the money I owed her...I also included Julie's car fare. One way, of course."), and an amusing way to end a phone call that I'm anxious to try.
But my favorite lines come from Mr. Dumpkin, trying to save his ass from getting chain-sawed ("Take my car! It's a gorgeous K-car! I just washed it an hour ago!") and Miss Mumsley, trying to convince Malvert to take the fall in case suspicion falls the wrong way ("What difference would jail make to you? You'll have fun with the boys...homosexuality is the up-and-coming thing!").
There are plenty of horny jokes ("I can't help it! Hollow bulls get me hot!") and fart jokes; some physical gags (including a gross phone); a body-count ticker and other screen messages that alert the audience to obvious plot points; a direct message to the audience from a ratings board expert; and a tasteless cheer at a funeral that made me chuckle--in many ways, this film does what Heathers went on to do much better, lampooning a heartless staff and student body.
I also enjoyed seeing Riter run around disguised as Olivia Newton-John after a run through the school's drama club prop hall ("They're doing a non-musical version of Grease," says Hardy. "They couldn't get rights to the music.").
Speaking of music, the film has fun with the genre's loud cues, and gets in some painfully cheesy techno-carnival chase samples (reminiscent of so many bad slashers), which I think is intended to be a joke (actually, on second thought...). And it's nice to see that product placement was alive and kicking in 1981: I literally lost count of the Dr. Pepper logos. I just don't have time to play "Where's Waldo?" with each shot (lord, everyone in this film is a Pepper, including Barry, the school's "boy queen" candidate. I dare you to keep track!). Coors and Dunkin' Donuts aren't far behind.
So, is it any good? Eh, not so much. I have to admit a large attraction to the film is based on nostalgia. Ultimately, this is an uneven affair that drags a lot, plodding the jokes instead of being fast and snappy with them. It's not awful enough to be hysterical, doing just enough to be mildly amusing but mostly being slow and uninspired. The acting is pretty awful, but that comes with the territory in a parody of films famous for bad acting (Riter does a decent job, but she's no Anna Faris!).
But worse, it's cheaply shot and edited, and gets pretty lazy (watch for plenty of breathing dead bodies, and some funny stunt work). It leads to a clumsy, pasted-together finish that apes films like Friday the 13th and Carrie without any fresh twist, doing nothing remotely smart or clever with the material.
It still has enough to amuse, and for fans of slasher films, Student Bodies is a library essential. It isn't the "killer comedy" it claims to be (get it?!), but it does enough to keep you moderately entertained. Especially if you want tips on making horse head bookends, man's highest cultural achievement.