Color, 1984, 85 mins. 39 secs.
Directed by John P. Finegan
Starring Mollie O’Mara, Sharon Christopher, Mari Butler, Beth O'Malley, Peter Cosimano, Vera Gallagher, Charles Braun, Tony Manzo
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Troma (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Though it's best known for its in-house, ready-made cult films like The Toxic Avenger, Troma has a long history of picking up indie horror fans and tweaking them for its own target audience. Of course, that usually means coming up with some misleading ad campaigns that range from moderate fudging (Combat Shock) to laughably absurd (Dead Dudes in the House). Somewhere in the middle is the Pennsylvania-shot Girls School Screamers, which was originally produced as a supernatural Gothic film entitled The Portrait with its body count killing suggested rather than shown. Troma agreed to distribute the film with a change of title and some brief gory extra bits added in, almost all in the second half consisting of some added blood and a few shots of a squishy undead face.
At the Trinity School for Girls, the best students have been selected by the principal for a daunting job: cataloging the holdings at the Wells Estate, the mansion and grounds owned by a wealthy benefactor who's left everything to the school. As we've seen in a prologue, the place has a creepy history and has already driven one young boy into the hospital from shock after going inside at night on a dare. Among the girls is Jackie (O'Mara), one of the most recent recipients of the Tyler Wells Award for Academic Achievement from the creepy, scarred millionaire (Braun). Hearing a ghostly voice saying "Jennifer," Jackie joins her fellow students for the task while her boyfriend, Paul (Cosimano), sniffs around into the Wells' history courtesy of his dad's newspaper. Since they're stuck in a horror movie with only the elderly Sister Urban (Gallagher) to supervise, the girls pass the time on their first night by whipping home a makeshift Ouija board with some paper and a handy ornamental skull, which results in a ghostly disturbance and the discovery of a portrait that looks an awful lot like Jackie. Thanks to a handy diary, Jackie soon traces the weird occurrences back to some dark events from 1939 that will soon lead to a night of bloody terror.
With its basic script and cardboard characters, Girls School Screamers (nope, no apostrophe there) doesn't even try to doing anything innovative with the genre. Instead it's a pure pulpy programmer that wouldn't be out of place among those "teens in a spooky house" drive-in films that popped up throughout the '50s and '60s, except of course for the fashions and those gore inserts. It's an amusing time killer though with some decent atmosphere and a pretty killer house location that manages to overshadow most of the human actors. The Troma additions don't really hurt anything (apart from an ill-advised added shot at the very end); in fact, the extra blood gooses up the final stretch to make it feel more in line with the waning days of the '80s slasher craze.
After a handful of very sparse theatrical screenings via Troma, Girls School Screamers turned up on VHS from Lightning Video with a later revisit from Troma itself on both VHS and DVD at the end of the '90s with a pretty sorry-looking transfer that did the film no favors at all. Fortunately you can toss any of those editions away thanks to the 2021 Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome, which features a limited edition slipcover and a wildly inaccurate plot synopsis. The new 2K scan from the 35mm original camera negative is a tremendous improvement over anything we've had before, finally bringing out the fun blue-colored lighting and little details in the darker scenes that were completely obscured before. As with the other VS Troma titles, it truly looks like a different and much better film here. The English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track also sounds great throughout with no significant issues, and optional English SDH subtitles are provided. Two audio commentaries are included, a solo one with writer-director-producer John P. Finegan (who tends to go quiet a lot since he's by himself), and a second with editor-assistant director Tom Rondinella and second assistant camera/second assistant director Bill Pace. There's also a new making-of featurette, "28 Seconds of Violence" (29m40s), featuring Finegan, Rondinella, Pace, Cosimano, and sound designer (and composer) John Hodian. You get understandable overlap between the three at times but they're all worth checking out as you get to find out all about the four-week shoot in Philadelphia, the back story behind the house and its art holdings (as well as the owner, who appears in a one-scene role), the dialogue scene rewritten by an actor that got a positive critical response, thoughts on the Troma revisions versus the "classy" original intentions, and plenty more.
Reviewed on August 29, 2021