Friday, March 6, 2015

Retro Review: Graduation Day (1981)

Graduation Day (1981)
Directed by Herb Freed
Released on Blu-Ray & DVD by Vinegar Syndrome


1981’s Graduation Day, one of a countless number of “event-day” slashers released during the early-80’s heyday of the genre, starts amidst a splash of funky period fashions and tunes with a montage of various track and field events which lead up to the death that sets off the next 90-some-odd minutes’ worth of nefarious doings. This initial sequence is spiced up with plenty of cross-cutting between various events and shots of the crowd, with a liberal usage of slow-motion thrown in for good measure. Laura, a star sprinter, is cheered by her classmates and goaded by her bullying coach before crossing the finish line and promptly expiring.

Shortly after this prologue, we are introduced to Anne, Laura’s older sister, who has returned home after serving in Guam. She’s hitching a ride into town with a contender for the least-appealing ladies’ man of the 1980’s, a stereotypical sexist pig who reminded me of Fred from “Scooby Doo” well past his prime and having let himself go. After a sexual harassment-filled lift from this shining example of early-80’s masculinity, Anne arrives at her familial home, where we’re next introduced to  her drunken lout of a stepfather, himself a likely contender for the decade’s worst parent. It becomes clear by this point that the movie, likely intentionally, is paraded before us a line-up of potential suspects, many of whom are likely red herrings, but most of whom provide us with a reason to dislike or distrust them.


 "You're not one of those lezbos, are ya?"

After a less-than-welcoming family reunion, Anne goes to visit her late sister’s boyfriend, Kevin. Kevin lives with his grandmother in a cluttered old house. The grandmother seems a bit off her rocker, talking constantly to either herself or her television, but is paid little mind by either the characters onscreen or the viewer. During this scene, as is present throughout Graduation Day, both sound and image (working together as well as in juxtaposition) are used to ratchet up the tension.

From there the story moves on to the local high school, where preparations are underway for – you guessed it – graduation day. We are introduced to a number of Laura’s classmates and members of the track team, as well as some of the teachers and administrators of the school. There are a couple of points of interest here. Eagle-eyed viewers should stay watchful for scream queen Linnea Quigley in an early role as Dolores. The story goes that Quigley replaced another actress originally chosen for the role who objected to the nudity required for the film’s “topless chase” scene. That previous actress still appears in pictures of the track team, and her decapitated head makes an appearance in the film later – perhaps as a stand-in after Quigley’s character has met her demise, belying the film’s extremely low budget origins. Viewers may also be surprised to see veteran letter-turner Vanna White in one of her earliest film appearances as the character Doris, who mainly exists to sport some questionably high-waisted pink pants and discover a dead body. Add in a lengthy sequence of roller-skating, very dated dance moves and an extremely lengthy musical number from a band called Felony who looks like they’ve never even neared a misdemeanor (doing a tune called “Gangster Rock” no less), and you’ve got all the makings for a second-string slasher classic.


I'd like to buy an AAAAAAAAAA

Many of the school’s staff members seem to fall into a number of tired tropes from the genre, but there is just enough of an off-kilter take to prove entertaining – such as the toupeed crooning Lothario serving as the music teacher, genre mainstay Christopher George as the hard-driving coach who many blame for Laura’s death, and character actor Michael Pataki, who definitely brings the lion’s share of quirk to his portrayal of Principal Guglione.

While I don’t want to go too far into the events of the movie from this point (as any slasher fan who hasn’t seen this flick should seek it out and witness it firsthand), I would like to discuss some of the film’s pedigree and DNA. The film’s director, Herb Freed, has said on multiple occasions that he and his wife and writing partner, Anne Marisse, were not inspired by similar slasher films of the era. While I have some doubts about that statement, I’ll leave it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions. What I find more interesting is the likely unintended similarities that Graduation Day shares with a number of Italian gialli: multiple POV shots from the killer’s perspective, black-gloved hands wielding an assortment of often-outlandish weapons, and the use of music and editing techniques to drive certain sequences. Despite falling firmly in the 80’s slasher genre, Graduation Day certainly shares a number of similarities with Italian gialli, and benefits from the resemblance.


Coach, I don't think that's a regulation ball...

Stephen Thrower, in his highly-recommended book Nightmare U.S.A. – The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents, suggests a Marxist subtext to the film, and though this is somewhat present, it in no way beats the viewer over the head or distracts from the proceedings.

From a technical standpoint, Vinegar Syndrome again exceeds expectations with their Blu-Ray of Graduation Day. Though the print is not completely free of white specks or damage, the film likely looks better than it has since the early 80’s, and displays a consistent grain and filmic presentation that does not show any signs of being DNR’ed into oblivion.  The disc features interviews with star Patch Mackenzie, director Herb Freed, editor Martin Jay Sadoff (for those interested in the technique and skill of film editing, I highly recommend checking this out), and producer & story writer David Baughn.  Two commentaries are also present; one features producer Baughn, while the other is conducted by the presenters of slasher-themed podcast “The Hysteria Continues”.


Bottom Line: While Graduation Day will likely never be mistaken for a top-tier 1980’s slasher film, it has just enough going for it to make it a worthy entry in the genre, and deserving of both the top-notch treatment given it by Vinegar Syndrome as well as a place on your movie shelf.