NIGHT SCHOOL (1981) Blu-ray
Director: Kenneth Hughes
Warner Archive Collection

The women of Wendell College are getting an F for failing to keep their heads in Warner Archive's Blu-ray of the studio slasher NIGHT SCHOOL.

When elementary school teacher's aide Anne Barron (Meb Boden) is the second victim of a killer who decapitates his victims and submerges their heads in water, Harvard-educated Boston detective Judd Austin (Leonard Mann, THE UNHOLY FOUR) and his partner Taj (Joseph Sicari, HOT TO TROT) discover that she attended night school at the Wendell College for Women. Her closest friend Kim (Elizabeth Barnitz) mentions that Anna had a boyfriend but kept his identity hidden even from her, but Austin already suspects handsy anthropology professor Vincent Millet (Drew Synder, PREDATOR) who is also dating his fiercely jealous exchange student aide Eleanor Adjai (THE THORN BIRDS' Rachel Ward); indeed, subsequent victims appear to picked from the women with whom Millet has even shared a casual flirtation, and pregnant Eleanor might be next. There are other suspects, of course, among them school principal Helene Griffin (Annette Miller, BOARDWALK) whose concern for the all-female student body is less than academic, coed Carol (Karen MacDonald) who has taken Millet dumping her particularly hard, and dishwasher Gary (Bill McCann) from the school's diner hangout who has shown an unnerving interest in Eleanor. When Austin makes the connection between the murders and rituals researched by Millet, he begins to suspect a modern-day headhunter is loose on the streets.

Set on location in a Boston so chilly one could believe it was actually shot in Canada – especially with cinematography credit going to Cronenberg regular Mark Irwin (THE FLY) – NIGHT SCHOOL is a dud in terms of mystery and killings but not without interest as a studio slasher. Directed by Kenneth Hughes (CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG) in 1980 just as the MPAA was really starting to crack down on the slasher genre, the killings are brutal without seeming butchered – with the murder of Kim seeming particularly protracted and cruel as she shrinks back from a series of slashes that never seem to make contact but result in plenty of blood being splattered on white shower walls – but the film is never as sleazy as intended, with Hughes seemingly embarrassed even by Ward's cheesecake shower scene. Hughes is far more successful at drawing out suspense in the aftermath, as in the sequence in which the audience waits for a severed head to be discovered as a diner owner goes about his morning preparations (with melons spilling out of an overturned box). In one of his few American roles, New York-born Italian-American actor Mann – who spent much of the sixties through the mid-eighties in Italy starting with THE FORGOTTEN PISTOLERO and a couple other westerns, gialli (DEATH STEPS IN THE DARK, THE PERFECT CRIME), erotica (THE BODY), crime (THE LEFT HAND OF THE LAW, WEAPONS OF DEATH), and even Ruggero Deodato's last cannibal effort CUT AND RUN – turns in a fine lead performance with little to work with, while Ward (who would later also appear in the slasher THE FINAL TERROR) is a little awkward when required to deliver lengthy dialogue. Snyder fares best as the womanizing professor/suspect. The film was also one of the few slasher films written by a woman (Ruth Avergon's sole writing and producing credit).

Released theatrically by Paramount in 1981, NIGHT SCHOOL ended up on VHS from Fox-subsidiary Key Video in 1985 and would not be revisited again until Warner Archive put out an anamorphic DVD-R in 2011. One of Warner Archive's few October horror offerings, their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray is probably sourced from the same master. Grain is prominent in the underexposed night scenes, intentionally so, with blooming streetlamp sources, and an early 1980s reliance on diffusion even in bright scenes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio cleanly conveys the dialogue, some unnerving sound effects as the killer drags their wicked kukri knife along metal surfaces, and the moody scoring of Brad Fiedel (FRIGHT NIGHT). Optional English SDH subtitles are provided. The sole extra is a standard-definition fullscreen trailer (2:26). (Eric Cotenas)