Color, 1987, 94 mins. 11 secs.
Directed by Bill Froehlich
Starring Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, Alex Rocco, George Clooney, Scott Jacoby, Andy Romano, Richard Brestoff, Al Fann, Pepper Martin, Maureen McCormick, Vince Edwards, Philip McKeon
88 Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB HD), Anchor Bay, Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Though it was met with only mild interest upon its original release back at the end of the Reagan era, the semi-comic slasher film Return to Horror High has earned an odd place in the genre history books as one of the earliest pre-Scream meta horror films and part of a pair of New World releases featuring a young George Clooney (along with Return of the Killer Tomatoes), shot near the end of his two-season stint on TV's The Facts of Life. However, Clooney (who actually has a very small part here) is just a small part of a bizarre cast including a slew of familiar TV faces like The Brady Bunch's Maureen McCormick (as a very zealous cop), Scott "Bad Ronald" Jacoby (with a mustache), and Vince Edwards (Ben Casey), as well as Alice's Philip McKeon, brother of Clooney's small screen co-star, Nancy McKeon. In other words, it's a peculiar pop culture artifact that's proven to be surprisingly durable over the years and arguably plays better now than when it was first released.
When cops arrive in the dead of night at Crippen High School where a violent incident has been reported, they find a slew of dead bodies and one survivor from a film shoot being conducted on the premises. Even weirder, the same location was the site of another unsolved massacre years earlier (in 1982) that had fueled the production, and in flashback we see how the shocking events unfolded. Producer Harry Sleerik (The Stunt Man's Rocco) decides to make a sex and gore-filled fictional version of the notorious slashfest and brings in some veterans of the actual events including the original principal (Romano), all the while screwing over the cast and crew and trying to coerce his leading lady (Bloody Birthday's Lethin) into doing nude scenes. Soon the real bodies start piling up, but since a horror movie is also being shot at the same time, it isn't always clear which murders are actually real.
Originally written as a straightforward horror film but given heavy injections of comedy along the way, this film was a moderate hit on VHS after being essentially thrown away in a small theatrical release by New World during one of its busiest years (packed in with titles like Flowers in the Attic, Creepshow 2, Death Before Dishonor, House II: The Second Story, and Wanted: Dead or Alive). The eye-catching cheerleader skeleton art was enough to lure in a lot of curious horror fans, some of whom were delighted with the film's peculiar rhythms and crackpot story turns while others were just left confused. The scare level here is extremely low (not helped by the fact that it's shot in frequently low lighting with that trademark dim, druggy New World '80s veneer over it), but as a tweaking of horror conventions of the time it's more successful with some nice interplay between the different levels of reality and storytelling at work in the script.
Available on DVD from both Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment as part of package New World deals with just the trailer as an extra, Return to Horror High gets the deluxe treatment from 88 Films as part of its Blu-ray debut (number 25 in its Slasher Classics Collection). The new HD transfer from the original negative looks considerably better than the dreary prior versions, though it still retains the drab, low-budget look of the film with the dark scenes in particular still looking very much of the era. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included for the English LPCM stereo track, which sounds fine given the modest nature of the original source. A new audio commentary with director Bill Froehlich, co-writer Greg Sims and cinematographer Roy Wagner starts off as a fairly standard love fest for everyone involved but gets interesting fairly quickly as they go into the issues of releasing and promoting the film during a regime change at New World, the challenge of dealing with the leading lady's unannounced hairstyle change, the McKeon ties to just about everyone brought into the cast, and the film's evolution into a semi-comedic riff on the horror genre. Lethin also appears for a video featurette, "Class Dismissed" (14m28s), which spends as much time on the rest of her career as this film (which she describes as a great time as well as a challenge since she essentially got to play three separate roles). Also included are the theatrical trailer (which has some fun original footage) and a stills Gallery (5m41s), plus reversible cover art options and a liner notes booklet by Calum Waddell about the film's place in the later wave of '80s slasher films.
Reviewed on January 7, 2017.