August 24, 2017

Movie Review: Graduation Day (1981)

In 1981 the slasher sub-genre was starting to gain some steam. After having the formula solidified by Halloween in 1978 and popularized by Friday the 13th in 1980, the genre began to take off. All manner of horror films sought to exploit the lurid and exploitative nature of slasher film. Sequels started to pile up alongside such early entries as My Bloody Valentine, Hell Night, The Burning, and The Funhouse. Each of these movies employed some crazed killer paired with creative and gruesome death sequences. There was even a film made satirizing the style, Student Bodies, which bears a passing resemblance to the movie we are looking at today, Graduation Day.

Graduation Day was directed by Heb Freed. Prior to this film, Freed also directed the ghost story Beyond Evil, which starred John Saxon and Lynda Day George (who was married to Graduation Day star Christopher George). The story was from the mind of David Braughn (who was also behind Beyond Evil), while the screenplay was co-written by Freed and Anne Marisse (Freed’s wife, who wrote another one of his films, Haunts). The resulting film is easily watchable, while riding the border between scary and funny. At 97-minutes, it might run a bit long, with some scenes (and musical montages) that run a bit long and could have been better served by being shortened. Still, it is a fun slasher that is definitely a product of its time.

The movie gets off to a roaring start with a montage set to a song called “The Winner.” It was more of a music video set to clips of a high school track meet. As the song ends, we witness a girl winning a race, encouraged by her coach, Michaels (Christopher George, City of the Living Dead, Pieces, Enter the Ninja), and promptly collapsing on the track and dying. No explanation is given as we jump ahead a few months to the eve of graduation. A black gloved killer is running around campus killing off members of the gymnastics and track team.

They set up a number of possibilities for who the killer is. They show the killer wearing black gloves, grey sweats, and sometimes having a stopwatch. All of these items line up with characters that could be behind the killings. Is it Anne (Patch MacKenzie), the older sister of the girl that died at the outset, Coach Michaels? Somebody else? Combine that with the clueless teaching staff (some who may be getting to close to student bodies, if you know what I mean) and The movie seems to take some cues from the Italian giallo, of course it is given the American slasher spin, but the elements are there.

Graduation Day is not a perfect slasher, it may not even be a good slasher, but despite that I enjoyed it. There really are no interesting characters, I mean Christopher George might qualify as interesting, but that may be because he is the best actor in the film and he is working hard to bring something to it. There is not much to the film, in terms of characters, there are the multiple choices for who the killer might be, but so far as a hero goes or anything, not much. It is hard to see the good, objectively, it is just there to be what Roger Ebert called a “dead teenager movie.”

However, subjectively, I like the kills. There is good use of a variety of bladed weapons, including some nice use of a sword. The movie has some good moments, like when Patch’s Anne confronts Christopher George’s Michaels. I particularly enjoyed when we get the reveal of the killer and what happens then to fake out the ending. I cannot reveal it, but every time I watch the movie it shocks me, seriously. It has a good ending, the killer's demise is pretty appropriate, even if I don’t care much about the character.

On a side note, it is fun to notice some of the actors who appear in it. Notably there is a small role played by a pre-Wheel of Fortune Vanna White, you will notice her as she is roughly two feet taller than anyone else in the movie. There is also an early appearance by Linnea Quigley. Her part is interesting as she was hired as a replacement actress after production had started, she replaced an actress who would not do the nudity required by the role. This leads to an end reveal when her body is discovered, but it isn’t her, it is the original actress as that had already been shot.

This Blu-ray release by Vinegar Syndrome features a new 4K restoration in its original aspect ratio. It looks quite good, dated to be sure, but it is the best it has looked since it originally hit the screens. The package includes some interviews with the director, producer, and one of the stars, as well as a couple of commentary tracks.

In closing, Graduation Day is not a particularly good movie, but I find myself quite enjoying it. It is no game changing slasher, it does not transcend the genre nor does it try to. It is what it is, it has some good kills, a good ending and Christopher George. So, grab some friends and enjoy!


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