Code Red // 1974 // 84 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 13th, 2010
There is something evil out there...possessed by a force that doesn't belong to this world -- and it's going to kill me!
From what I've learned watching decades-old teen movies, high school used to be a very different experience than it is now. There was a time when...
* Teachers could degrade, demean, and even smack around students without fear of lawsuits.
* Dominant kids could demoralize the meek without being demonized in newspapers and scholarly journals.
* Custodial positions were routinely filled by sex offenders and alcoholics who stayed in the building 24 hours a day.
* Students had unfettered, unsupervised access to places like science labs and gyms.
It was from this permissive atmosphere that was born that most iconic of film genres: the geek-vengeance horror movie.
Exhibit A: Horror High.
The unfortunately named Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi, Battle for the Planet of the Apes) is the geekiest kid in school. The cool kids mock him. His teachers don't like him. The custodian is nasty to him, and let's not get started on the football coach. The only one who's even remotely civil is the lovely Robin (Rosie Holotik, Don't Look in the Basement), who is unfortunately dating head bully Roger (Mike McHenry, Summer School Teachers).
But Vernon is good at something: science, particularly biology and chemistry. He spends his time doing some kind of experiment involving a cute, white guinea pig he's named Mr. Mumps.
One night, he sneaks into the lab after hours and finds that Mr. Mumps has gone from snowball cute to Tasmanian Devil scary. The experiment is working! Unfortunately, the mad Mumps has devoured a cat belonging to the creepy custodian Mr. Griggs (Jeff Alexander, The House of Seven Corpses). When Griggs discovers the carnage, he's none too pleased. After knocking Vernon around and demolishing Mumps, Griggs forces the boy to ingest the potion he'd been using on Mr. Mumps. Bad move. Vernon morphs into a freakishly strong beastie with a terrifying, pigeon-toed gait. In short order, Mr. Griggs is head-dunked into a vat of sulphuric acid.
Vernon transforms back to his wimpy self, but now he knows he has a secret weapon against those who make him miserable. When this mild-mannered science kid turns himself into a rampaging monster, will his tormentors have any place to "Hyde"? Or will Vernon become the menace of Horror High?
Horror High is such a rudimentary thriller that it tips its hand in its opening moments, with an English teacher showing her class a filmed version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- well, actually, a filmed version of someone reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here we meet not only our protagonist, the unfortunate Vernon, but pretty much every other character of note as well. We also get pretty much the whole plot laid out for us, plus an up-close look at a device we instinctively know will used as a weapon down the road. It's efficient, if lazy, storytelling, but let's be real: No one hit the drive-in to see Horror High hoping to find a complex, thought-provoking chiller.
What I imagine people wanted were a few scares, a bit of grue, and some sex. Well, the here's the bad news: Horror High was rated PG, and it's not one of those "How did they rate this PG?" low-budgeters that popped up so frequently on the '70s drive-in circuit. Horror High is solidly PG, undeniably PG, would barely eke out a PG-13 rating if such a thing existed at the time.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. While I have a weakness for the old-school horror romps with half-naked co-eds and promiscuous bloodletting, there's certainly a place for the comparatively gentler thrillers like this. This particular "gentler thriller" is so ridiculous you can't help but have a good time.
Shot on the extra-cheap, Horror High sometimes resembles a John Waters effort, and some of the actors -- particularly Joy Hash as a nasty English teacher and Alexander's disheveled janitor -- seem to have walked out of one of Waters' Baltimore tales. Special effects are below the level of homemade. "Monster Vernon" is created by adding a couple of blotches to Cardi's face, mussing his hair, and having him affect weird, hunchy walk. Since it's clear what's going to happen once the credits are done rolling, there's not a lot of suspense, although a scene involving Hash is a little creepy, and the kills are hilariously over-the-top. Attempts to create tension or deeper meaning are also pretty funny, including a slow-motion taunting in a locker room, and Vernon's habit of flashing back on bad things people did to him just before he goes all monster on someone he doesn't like. It's all very entertaining in a good bad-movie way.
As the put-upon Vernon, Pat Cardi offers some good geek. Looking like the love child of Nancy Kulp and Joey Ramone, he's not the "cute geek" sort, the one you know will clean up nice and expose the good-looking kid underneath, like Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Rather, he's a hopeless geek, and you know from the outset that mutant transformation is his best path to fulfillment. Rosie Holotik is fine as the pretty, nice, and slightly dumb girl whom Vernon likes, and Mike McHenry is suitably jock-villainous as her boyfriend and Vernon's chief nemesis.
The film also sports a bizarre soundtrack which adds to the general air of lunacy; a discordant mix of soft pop, drumlines, screechy car-alarm riffs, and some funky jive whiffs, including one that bursts forth when the lead detective -- who happens to be black -- shows up to investigate the killings. The film opens and closes with a strangely somber ballad, "Vernon's Theme," that sounds like a Janis Ian B-side.
Code Red's release of Horror High: 35th Anniversary Edition is a joy from beginning to end. This is the sort of film that, if it gets a release at all, is usually tossed out to the bargain bin with tech pulled from an old VHS copy and no supplements. Code Red, on the other hand, seems to "get" that films like this have a following, and they treat Horror High with the respect the film and its fans merit -- an edition that doesn't take itself too seriously, but provides a worthy technical representation and cool supplements.
This disc gives us the Uncut version of Horror High, significant because, I believe, an earlier DVD release offered the version that played on TV throughout the 1970s and '80s. The image is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that's surprisingly clean, given the age of this low-budget film. Colors look pretty good, though blacks are weak and dark scenes -- of which there are many -- are a mixed bag, occasionally looking a bit muddy. Overall, it's decent work, its flaws kind of adding to the Chiller Theater ambience of this one-time TV favorite. Audio is the original mono track, and while it does the job, dialogue is sometimes muffled or drowned out by the music. As always, subtitles would have been a welcome treat.
For supplements, there's a feature-length commentary by "Geeks" Marc Edward Heuck, Paul Goebel, and J. Keith van Straaten, who have a good time alternately critiquing and riffing on the film. Unfortunately, the print they were watching had a few defects that were later fixed, including some missed frames, so their comments don't always synch up to what's happening on screen. Still, this is a really fun track; unlike most group riff commentaries, these guys are genuinely funny and know better than to try to talk over each other.
We also get nine minutes of scenes that were used for the TV version to cover the time left by cutting out stuff that I guess was deemed "inappropriate" viewing. I can't think of nine minutes that would have needed to be excised for a broadcast showing -- the few grue scenes happen so quickly that there's probably less than a minute worth of material anyone would find objectionable. I expected the deleted scenes to just be alternate takes; instead, they feature Vernon's otherwise-unseen father and his girlfriend talking about Dad's concerns about Vernon. They're so completely separate from everything else, I couldn't even tell you where they fit in; their only purpose, as far as I can tell, is to plump up the running time so that Horror High could fit into a two-hour slot (and, I'm guessing, were pulled along with a few other scenes when the film was shown in a 90-minute slot).
In addition, there's a nice interview with Austin Stoker, who plays the cop, an Alternate Opening, the film's trailer, and some other "Pointless Code Red Trailers" [sic].
Also, in a move that makes me cherish this disc even more, Code Red is releasing Horror High: 35th Anniversary Edition just a few months past the 36th anniversary of the film's release.
Did I mention that this is a pretty goofy movie that works best when viewed with a bunch of snarky friends and a few drinks? I didn't? My bad...
If more studios put the kind of care into their niche releases that Code Red does, I'd have a much bigger DVD collection. Horror High might not be a great movie, but it's great fun, and this disc is a must-have for fans of shlock. Highly recommended.
Code Red can walk out with its head high; Vernon, on the other hand, gets the
pigeon-toed perp walk of shame.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scene
* Alternate Opening