Return to Horror High (1987)

Five years ago, a series of murders rocked Crippen High School. The killer was never found. Now, the horror has returned!

VHS release pictured: 2002, Lions Gate Home Entertainment.

Starring: Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, Alex Rocco | Director: Bill Froehlich

Return to Horror High: VHS of the Month Review

by Sam Rakestraw

* * * SPOILERS * * *

School is back in session this time of year and it's time for students to wrack their brains in the classroom after summer vacation. If you're not in school, you can still wrack your brain at home with this needless doozy of a flick with some appearances from talented and even iconic faces. A slasher film in a high school would be too generic and easy in 1987, so how about a film within a film story that goes a little bit too overboard in a spectacularly confusing way? This is an AP course for Return to Horror High –no relation to 1973's Horror High.

Bob Froehlich, with credits on shows like MacGyver and Freddy's Nightmares, was given $1 million to produce, write, and direct a slasher movie with the help of Balcor Film Investors. They tell the story of a film crew, not too different from themselves, filming a slasher movie on location in a high school where several students were murdered in true slasher fashion –the killer was never caught. You can obviously gather where it will go from here, but Return to Horror High has some brain benders in store for you.

I hope you're a fan of Kurt Vonnegut because Return to Horror High is told in a non-linear fashion with events being told at different and sometimes even in tandem with each other. This does help spice up the usual slasher formula, even if it is just reorganizing it in a different sequence. The movie takes itself seriously at first before things start getting silly and slasher movie tropes are lampooned or subverted, opening with a text crawl of the details of the 1982 murders at Crippen High School before cutting to that very school with police and full body bags all around. Arthur (Richard Brestoff), the nervous and overworked screenwriter, appears to be the sole survivor of a second massacre that had befallen the film crew of Cosmic Pictures as he recounts the story to the police.

Producer Harry Sleerak (Alex Rocco) had gotten the town's permission to film and even have his crew stay in the high school as they shoot a low-budget biographical slasher movie (which sounds really cool when you think about it) about the murders and the masked killer that perpetrated them. Callie (Lori Lethin) is the lead actress, and her fellow cast members include Oliver (George Clooney), Steven (Brendan Hughes), Josh (Scott Jacoby), and Richard (Phillip McKeon), Dillion (Cliff Emmich), and Choo Choo (Panchito Gomez) work in the special effects department. Amos (Al Fann) is the janitor. The school's principal (Andy Romano) helps them out as a technical advisor and Steven is a local graduate himself. It's all well and good until Oliver drops out of the project and is killed on the way out.

From there, more deaths around the set occur but are played in tandem with actual scenes the crew is making for their production. The movie within movie includes a killer wearing a droopy-looking mask going around the school killing teachers and students indiscriminately. Harry proves to be a difficult producer to work with as he makes constant script changes and grueling demands of actors. He even asked them to stay overnight in the school as they make the movie to save on production costs. Steven and Principal Kastleman also have a bit of history as Steven used to date his daughter Kathy while in school. She has since gone to get a master's degree as is explained, but the two always seem on edge when around each other. Meanwhile, Callie notices that the crew is getting smaller and smaller.

In my opinion, the things not to like outweigh the things to like about this movie. This is actually the first time I've felt this way about a movie curated by the calendar. However, its objective and what I don't like about Return to Horror High may be what it's praised for. We'll start with the good before the bad. The most unique thing the film had going for it was the nonlinear story as another way to experience often linear slasher narrative. Telling a slasher story with the body count already predetermined also helps add depth to the event and that's what it's all about –what went wrong when they were shooting. There are some pretty memorable kills as well, but this ties into what can be disliked about it.

There is a scene where Harry demands more gore in the movie and says that it's the best part of films such as these. However, when Richard is caught in a booby trap that pulls him into a fan (what could be the film's most memorable kill) the camera cuts away to the next scene altogether before anything happens. There is another scene that could've made for a great kill scene since it was so nicely done was when the masked killer dissects a science teacher (Vince Edwards). Apparently, it was enough to get them an X rating so some of it had to be cut. This is revealed to be a scene shot for the move within the movie, which can take away from it. In fact, the actual kill scenes are kind of lackluster with none of them being overly memorable except Richard's.

Of course, the most glaring criticism goes out to the final twenty minutes. Several twists happen at once that raise more questions than answers. It's not impossible to accept, in fact, some may welcome it. But I personally give myself headaches when thinking about it. It's definitely worth checking out to see how it sits with you. I think if they bribed me with better gore (at risk of sounding like Harry) and more memorable kills, then I would take whatever whacked-out ending they could muster.

Let's also talk about the elephants in the room because we have some recognizable names in the cast list. We have George Clooney prior to finding television fame in E.R. in his film debut, granted for only the first 10 minutes. Alex Rocco who usually portrayed villains like Moe Greene in The Godfather plays a more petty antagonist as Harry the producer. Even child actor Phillip McKeon makes one of his first grown-up appearances soon after the sitcom Alice ended. In the present day, they're this movie's only claim to fame.

Return to Horror High was given a small theatrical run by New World Pictures. The maximum number of theaters it played in was reported to be 227. Objectively, it didn't flop and grossed about $250,000 short of $2 million. For four months of running in limited theaters, that's pretty good. While no one may remember watching it on tv or from the video store, those that saw a young George Clooney in an obscure flick will more than recall going to the theater.

When it comes to legacy, Return to Horror High has none. Bob Froehlich would move on with other horror productions until the mid-90s, the most well-known one being the second Children of The Corn movie. The last home media Return to Horror High ever got was back in 2002 by Anchor Bay on DVD. The VHS release was handled by the home entertainment division of New World Pictures –New World Video which is our tape this month. Even if you don't like the movie, you got to love that skeletal cheerleader box art. That will fit any tapehead's collection like a charm.