October Horrorshow: Horror High

Poor Vernon Potts. He’s the meekest kid in high school. He’s so skinny a stiff breeze would blow him over, he wears glasses (gasp!), wears his hair to hide his face, and carries himself as if he’s cowering from the world. It doesn’t help matters that, besides being bullied by his fellow students, his teachers and staff at his school treat him so unfairly that it could be considered abuse. Finally, the only girl in school who knows Vernon exists (Rosie Holotik) is also dating the star football player (Mike McHenry) who likes to beat him up. Writer J.D. Feigelson and director Larry N. Stouffer lay it on thick for Vernon in their 1973 drive-in horror flick, Horror High.

But, things look up for Vernon (former child star Pat Cardi, in his final onscreen credit — later he went on to be one of the founders of Moviefone) when he discovers a chemical formula that can transform him into a raving wild man with super-strength and ferocity to match, all Edward Hyde-style. As if the comparison weren’t easy enough for viewers to make, in the very first scene of the movie we see students watching a film of Jekyll & Hyde for their English class. Stouffer and company were not into subtlety.

One by one, all the characters in the film who treated Vernon poorly — the filthy janitor, Mr. Griggs (Jeff Alexander); the nastiest teacher ever set to screen, Miss Grindstaff (Joye Hash); even the football coach, McCall (John Niland) — meet grisly ends at Vernon’s transformed hands. The murders set the school alight, while Lieutenant Horror High 1973 movie posterBozeman (Austin Stoker), the detective in charge of investigating the murders, is baffled. He has his suspicions about Vernon, who is creepy and cold about the deaths when questioned, but can’t pin anything down.

All this leads to a denouement that horror fans will expect. In fact, there’s nothing about this movie that is unexpected or original, but this is one of those formulaic movies that hits all of its marks in a pleasing fashion. The pace is good and the storytelling is decent, if little more than an endless string of familiar tropes. It is what it is, never striving to be more than a few cheap thrills for the moviegoing audiences of the mid-1970s. Crown International Pictures had to go and mess everything up, though.

The cut I saw of this film was a digitized version of a poorly preserved print. The color is faded, there are pops and crackles in the sound, scratches on the film abound, there are many, many missing frames, and the film has a PG rating, despite some blood and gore. This is the cut from Crown, who, as part of their distribution agreement, trimmed the film after it had received an X rating from the prudes at the MPAA, for excessive gore.

While not great, this is a film that was worth the effort of keeping in good shape. Yet, I expected nothing less from Crown, who seemed to want to do as little as possible with their properties after initial theater runs (There are two restored versions of the original cut out there. One was released by Code Red DVD in 2008, and is difficult to find. The other is a release just this year from Vinegar Syndrome.).

Horror High is an almost textbook example of a drive-in horror flick. It was produced outside Hollywood, had an easy script that was cheap to film, spent its life floating around different locations in the southern United States, and had just enough blood to draw in the teens. The only thing missing is some brief gratuitous nudity, but, again, I saw a PG-rated cut.

For those who haven’t delved deeply into these years of horror history, it’s a good supplemental watch to what future auteurs like Wes Craven were doing at the time, and also a good showcase of the differences between a horror flick that does nothing wrong, and one that can wow. It’s also shitty and watchable, earning it our enjoyment here at Missile Test. Horror High lands in the top half of the Watchability Index, displacing The Demolitionist at #192.

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