High school graduation! A time for stepping out into the world, for proclaiming one's burgeoning adulthood and independence, for redressing past slights in a fountain of blood and viscera!
Incidentally, as graduation is a season rather than an exact date, I have chosen to tie this Year of Blood essay to the 2012 commencement ceremonies of my alma mater, which I hope will appreciate being honored with a tedious and crude early slasher film. Go Cats.
Halloween came out in 1978 and made a previously inconceivable return on its investment; as soon as the dust had settled, a few exceptionally canny producers realised that they could copy it as close as possible without directly remaking it and didn't need a tenth of John Carpenter's skill as long as they doubled-down on the exploitation elements incipient but not teased out in his original. These first rip-offs were shot largely in the spring and summer of 1979, which meant they started trickling into theaters early in 1980. Most of them met with at least small success - for all of them were dirt cheap and success is relative - and one film in particular, Friday the 13th, made such a huge splash that it encouraged everybody else to jump on the bandwagon as soon as possible. Therefore, 1981 was just plain rotten with the things, and then 1982 saw the crop of movies made by the people not efficient, fast, or good enough to get there projects in by '81, the glut of those two years combined to make everybody pretty sick of the formula, especially because the '82 films were significantly weaker than the preceding two years. So in 1983, audiences started cooling off a bit, which is good, because the filmmakers were starting to run out of ways to present the same core situations in new ways; and as of 1984 it was pretty clear that the boom had run out of steam and was about to die under its own weight. That, then, was the first phase of the slasher film, and would have been the only phase of the slasher film if Wes Craven didn't ruin everything with the really excellent A Nightmare on Elm Street, which added the paranormal to the subgenre, and revitalised it for another five years until it became quite impossible for anybody to pretend that there was live left in the tired old things.
This matters because- well, I guess I should stop myself. It actually doesn't matter, does it? We're talking about slasher movies, not the evolution of the civil rights movement. But I bring it up because Graduation Day, our present subject, is a slasher film from 1981, and that tells us quite a lot already: that it is late enough to be entirely derivative and formulaic, but early enough to still have at least a bit of energy; it is certainly early enough not to be decadent and desperate to shake things up with stupid gimmicks. Truth be told, 1981 is my favorite year for slasher films: it is the year of The Burning, which is perhaps my favorite film in that genre of the entire decade, and the year of Friday the 13th, Part 2, the best film of its franchise, and if we cross the U.S. border into Canada, we find that it is also the year which saw the release of My Bloody Valentine, one of the best of that country's slasher productions.
Graduation Day, mind you, is not remotely at the level of any of those movies. Indeed, only hindsight permits one to even dally with the idea of calling it "good"; its chief merit is that it lacks the awesome stupidity of many of its successors. Its actual points of true quality are slim: for it has uninteresting characters, and the plot is clunky and spends far too much time on a middle act that ends up doing nothing whatsoever beside inflate the running time by introducing us to many characters and situations that end up having exactly no impact on the main narrative whatsoever. One of these characters, it must be said, is played by Linnea Quigley, one of the most consistently welcome faces in godawful 1980s thrillers and horror movies, even when (as here) she's given virtually no chance to parade around naked; parading around naked and being aware in a breezy, high-spirited way that the movies she appears in tend to be abnormally cheesy are the two things she does best, y'see, and taking t'one away means she has to be even better at t'other. But there is simply no such thing as a moment with Quigley in it that's a waste, even when she is fully clothed and horribly underused by a screenplay that doesn't have any excuse to bring her in to begin with and then just dumps her the moment she's done her bit to get the running time over 90 minutes.
What the film is actually about, instead of Quigley, is a dead track star, Laura Ramstead (Ruth Ann Llorens), who collapsed right in the middle of a meet, with a freak, unpreventable heart attack. Blame has fallen, as it will, on her demanding, mean coach, George Michaels (Christopher George), and I will freely own that it is my fault and not the movie's that I never stopped being distracted by his name. And naturally, Michaels is royally pissed about the whole town turning on him for something he doesn't think was his fault, especially since he's been fired over it, and once the school year ends, he's out on his ass. In the meantime, Laura's sister, Anne (Patch Mackenzie), a U.S. Navy ensign, has returned home to receive an honorific on her sister's behalf at the high school graduation, but this is only a pretext: she's actually hunting around to find out what happened. Maybe. In the event, Anne rather unceremoniously vanishes from the movie for every second of 25 minutes, over a quarter of the 96-minute running time, and this tends to make it hard to figure out what she's up to in the first place or whether we're actually meant to regard her as our protagonist or not. Of course, what she's really up to is providing us with our second candidate for being The Killer! since this being a slasher film and all, and the opening scene having dealt with the matter of a teenager's death, it was a fait accompli even in 1981 that the remainder of the movie would concern a masked Someone offing the people involved: is it Anne, murdering all the track stars who stood by as her sister perished? Michaels, killing the ungrateful kids who lost him his job? Laura's boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy), who has been having a really tough time since she died? Or one of the several kids on the track team, driven to madness from all of this? Generally unhinged and distasteful Principal Guglione (Michael Pataki)? Or maybe it's one of the characters who doesn't do anything at all, of whom there are quite a few, and one of them is played by future game show icon Vanna White, if hunting down movies where minor celebrities embarrassed themselves before becoming famous is your thing.
The point being, we have a lot of potential suspects, and this is a problem. Not just with Graduation Day; it is endemic to the lesser slasher movies, and it's always irritating for the same reason, which is that it leaves the movie feeling profoundly arbitrary. In the end, as it turns out, Graduation Day turns out to have a perfectly sound ending that plays fair, at least as fair as it needs to be: the killer, when revealed - and to the surprise of absolutely nobody ever in the whole world, it's not Anne, despite how urgently the film tries to make her the foremost suspect for the first half - makes sense, and has not been obliged to do anything impossible or out of character, and could absolutely have been in the places where the murders took place at the time they did.
Still, that's more of a nice accident than an obvious bit of planning: for all the foreshadowing or clues planted along the way, the killer's name could just as easily been drawn out of a hat, and it's sheer luck that one of the two or three people who make the most sense ended up winning out. And that's what happens when you have that many red herrings leading up to a twist ending that is surprising largely because by the time it rolls around, the viewer has given up caring or paying more than cursory attention: the whole edifice comes off like a shallow joke, just a whole big gotcha exercise without anyone or anything to care very much about. This is always a problem in slasher movies - it is the fatal flaw of the otherwise decent Prom Night, for example - but it is somewhat intensified in Graduation Day because of the mystifying choice to set up our protagonist and Final Girl, Anne, as a murder suspect, and this means that we are left without, not just a surrogate, but without any one character to be our anchor through the plot, and so the movie twists about until after an hour has gone by and we meet Inspector Halliday (Carmen Argenziano), just about the only person who ever appears onscreen who cannot be the killer, and is thus available for us to follow along with him, and this is unfortunate because he's a damnably uninteresting character, as will tend to happen to a cop who shows up two-thirds through a slasher movie.
The disengagement that results from the lack of a set protagonist isn't the only reason Graduation Day isn't much good, though it is readily the most important. There's also the generally terrible acting, with the two largest parts, Anne and Coach Michaels, being the two most notably ill-played, unfortunately (and in two excitingly different ways: Mackenzie always looks mildly angry and intensely nauseated whenever she does or says anything, and her line deliveries are thus all pained and sullen, while George's emotional range can be best described as "shouty" and "shoutier"). In defense of the film, Herb Freed, a director you don't need to know about, does a fairly good job, in fact, of keeping some kind of tension flowing through the whole thing, partially by overusing POV shots like a brilliant, unhinged madman; he also stages the demure murders (I take it that very little budget was available for the effects makeup) in off-kilter ways that make excellent use of implication, off-screen space, and an editing rhythm that I can't even begin to describe - overall, the editing, by Martin Jay Sadoff, is an erratic bag of tricks - now we'll cut from shot to shot at an almost imperceptibly fast rate! now we'll hold uncomfortably long! now we'll cut back and forth between two shots really quickly, just because! - that doesn't work, but when death is involved, it has a nicely disorienting feeling that gives the murders much more of an impact than they might otherwise have.
I don't think I have anything else nice to say. In truth, this is a fairly unremarkable slasher movie that was made early enough that it enjoyed a certain purity which would be almost impossible in the subgenre even a single year later, and which has to do for being oddly made instead of doing anything that's actually, legitimately good. The flip side is that outside of some of the acting, there's nothing actually, legitimately bad; maybe if there was the film would have a bit more zestiness and maybe it wouldn't. As it stands, it's a slasher film that won't make you stupider for having watched it, and lovers of the form cannot be choosy.
Incidentally, before I leave: the movie does not see fit to include a massacre at the graduation ceremony itself, nor does it even depict that event. I consider myself shocked and let down.
Body Count: 9, which is certainly on the high side, particular considering its age. That does, however, include poor Laura and her heart attack, which is maybe unfair.