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Ghoul School: Super Bloody Splatter University
It's a well-known fact that high school is Hell. 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 shows 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 old 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 fest. But a bunch of slumming celebrities keep tossing the plot back into the realm of ridiculous reality.
This is a film that should be more fun than it actually 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. 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. 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. As for said zombies, the make-up effects are fairly good, capturing a nice combination of Romero/Savini era ghouls with the messier Fulci/Bava freaks. It really helps to sell the Demons nature of O'Rawe's homage. The fake blood is a bust, though. The claret resembles watery V-8 and never once splatters the scenes with potent pigment. Still, there is a great deal of sly stupidity to celebrate in Ghoul School. The entire 'reanimated swim team' angle is hilarious, especially seeing the less than athletic members of said aquatic squad running around in far-too-tight bathing suits. 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 make them into unlikely, unusual leads. 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. 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.
With its fresh off the shelf of your local Mom and Pop VHS video barn appeal, 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. 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.
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.
Okay, here's the scoop. Back in 2004, Tempe Entertainment and head honcho J. R. Bookwalter (who played a part in Ghoul School's production) offered up a fairly comprehensive and tricked out version of this title. It had a nice combination of new and old context. A few of the elements from that release have been ported over for this latest rehash, included the original fundraising promo reel for the film (a hoot), the short film entitled A Halloween Tale (decent), and two of the three featured commentary tracks (one featuring director O'Rawe, the other offering producer and director of photography Michael Raso). New to this particular release are a look at the original opening credits (in all their Commodore 64 glory), a third alternate narrative (featuring Raso, John Paul Fedele, as well as Camp's very own Henrique Couto) a Making Of presentation from 1990, and a look at the 2006 DVD photo shoot.
But that's not all. Also included are a student gore film called Say No to Drugs (interesting), a set of Halloween Tale Bloopers, a local TV show called Halloween Takeover (hmmm...), and another unreleased feaurette entitled Dead Weight (ugh!). None of these really make the Camp Motion Pictures release a better digital compendium than Tempe's title. Indeed, the third commentary is mostly explanations and jibes that we've already heard before. The shorts don't really stand out that much, with the new backstage material being more mundane than meaningful. In essence, if you have the original release of Ghoul School, there is no need for a double dip. If you don't own it and are interested in checking it out, this DVD is as good as any.
There's a fine line between nostalgia and nausea, one that Ghoul School constantly crosses without ever once contemplating the consequences. It's not a completely bad film, just one that doesn't recognize it own lame limits. As a result, what we end up with is a low budget bungler with a lot of good intentions, some flawed but friendly fun and a couple of crackerjack cameos. It's the kind of low-grade horror that the video industry used to deliver – almost always 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 still deserves its original Recommended rating. The newfangled packaging from Camp Motion Pictures is another story all together. Whether this direct double dip is worth working your wallet over remains a question of one's own penchant for crappy camp – or awkward old school splatter. This is one movie that definitely delivers both in voluminous VCR variables.
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