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They work by day, take a full schedule of classes all night and somehow find time for study and an occasional date. Women in the evening curriculum at Boston’s distinguished Wendell College do a lot to get ahead in life. But there’s someone who will go to even greater lengths. Someone who will do anything to get a head. A killer whose m.o. is the ritualistic decapitation of victims makes terror a required course at Night School, directed by Kenneth Hughes (Casino Royale 1967) and starring Rachel Ward (The Thorn Birds; After Dark, My Sweet) in her screen debut. Leonard Mann plays the homicide lieutenant assigned to the puzzling case. He has hunches, not clues. Suspects, not evidence. And a rising body count. Finals are coming early this year at Wendell. And for those who don’t make the grade, heads will roll.
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But what's really amazing is that, upon closer inspection, Night School is even more twisted than most of the slasher franchises earning critical outrage at the time. We're talking not one but two predatory professors, male and female, a kinky tribal body paint shower scene, peeping toms, lesbian seduction and a ruthless leather-clad biker claiming people's heads with a sacrificial blade. When all it said and done, the movie makes Halloween and Friday the 13th look like downright boring!
Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) is charged with solving a series of ritualistic decapitations in and around the Beacon Hill area of Boston. And his first clue is a doozy: each of the victims was sleeping with Vincent Millett (Drew Snyder), an archeology professor at Wendell College with a history of having affairs with his students. This doesn't sit well with his latest conquest, Eleanor (Rachel Ward), a live-in assistant and partner on several African expeditions who takes the news hard.
Meanwhile, the killings continue, creatively dispatching any woman who even looks at Millett sideways. Everything points to Professor Millett, but that explanation seems a little too obvious. The lack of clues left at the scene forces Austin to round up several suspects including a mentally handicapped dishwasher who seems fixated on the nearby co-eds...and Eleanor in particular. Or is it the school administrator who resents getting Millett's sexual hand-me-downs? Whoever it is hides their identity behind a black motorcycle helmet and stylish leather biker gear.
Night School is ridiculous, but it's so professionally done that it almost fools the audience into taking it seriously. Hughes' goes the Hitchcock route in several scenes; particularly during a clever diner sequence in which the customers begin to suspect their soup has more than a hair in it. How the killer chooses to dispense with each head becomes more and more outlandish, driving the movie into black comedy territory. And despite the lack of expected gore, each kill scene tops the one before with a satisfying body count of clueless victims.
Making her feature film debut, Rachel Ward is an atypical final girl. The film bounces between characters frequently, but she's the anchor amidst a giallo-esque plot, delivering a strong, sexy performance that's not afraid to bring the crazy. As one unbelievable scene follows another (starting with the idea that any of these girls would find Professor Millett - a dead ringer for Frasier Crane - irresistible), Night School sets up the audience for a not-so-surprise ending that still satisfies whether you saw it coming or not.
Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation is naturally grainy (the movie has a decidedly small-screen look about it) with bold, beautiful colors. It doesn't have the feel of a movie that was ever made to be razor sharp and the lack of forced image enhancement is appreciated. There's zip in terms of extras but fans should be happy to have it on hi-def!
I'll give the film some props for the opening murder scene, as it at least shows a little ingenuity, but it's all downhill from there. As the decapitations begin to add up, Boston police can only put their finger on one connection: the victims attended night school at Wendell College (well, that and the fact that each of them has her head stashed in water, but the cops can't make heads or tails of that). Since the early victims numbered among the students of anthropology professor Drew Snyder (Vincent Millett), Lt. Judd Austin (Leonard Mann) pays him a call. Snyder can't tell him very much about the girls, but even a dumb cop like Austin eventually figures out that the good professor has been giving private tutoring sessions to a number of his students, including those recently separated from their heads - one big hint is the fact that the guy is living with his young research assistant, Eleanor Adjai (Rachel Ward). That pretty much puts the good professor on the radar screen. Oh, by the way, the randy professor isn't even the biggest pervert on the faculty.
Among the list of those thanked for their services is a wide assortment of purveyors of alcoholic beverages - that actually says quite a lot about this 1981 film, particularly the ending (which, once you think about it, is pretty great - unlike almost everything that came before it). Personally, I think this film could have used a lot more gore. There's one scene in particular that really, really sets up a gruesome shot sure to make many in the audience recoil - then, for some exasperating reason, the filmmakers pull back and once again show us nothing. It makes for a pretty frustrating experience. If you're wondering why Night School hasn't been released on DVD yet, you obviously haven't seen the movie.