Legend Films // 1981 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // June 20th, 2008
13 ½ Murders + 1423 Laughs = Student Bodies. The laugh count begins!
Before Scream in 1996, most slasher-type movies were treated with utter seriousness. However, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven finally decided to address all the stupid "rules" horror film characters operated under and crafted a brilliant satire on the genre's familiar conventions. It poked fun at the onslaught of slasher films, though never going overboard into full parody. (Scary Movie would accomplish that task several years later.) However, as good as Scream was, it wasn't the first to mock movies involving maniacs who murder teenagers. That honor would go to 1981's Student Bodies, which (finally) comes to DVD courtesy of Legend Films, a new distribution subsidiary of Paramount.
An opening disclaimer reads: "This film is based on an actual incident. Last year, 26 horror films were released...none of them lost money." We enter on a peaceful, Haddonfield-like town where all is quiet on Halloween and Friday the 13th. However, on Jaime Lee Curtis' birthday, an incessantly-breathing killer wearing green rubber gloves comes to a house to murder the babysitter. First, he terrorizes her with a series of phone calls, and then freaks her out even more by slobbering through the phone. The babysitter's boyfriend comes over for some action, and both are dispatched using the killer's weapon of choice...a paperclip!
A funeral is held for the two teenagers at Lamab High School. When two kids decide to slip out to have sex in a car, they are killed by a different weapon...a horse head bookend! The student body is now frightened; the killer (who identifies himself only as The Breather) is knocking off all kids having sex. In the words of one girl, "Oh, no...he could wipe out the entire senior class!" The police believe the one responsible is Toby (Kristen Riter), an innocent virgin who is asked by the school principal, Mr. Dumpkin (Joe Flood, A View To A Kill), to seek psychiatric counseling. However, as the body count rises (indicated by an onscreen counter), Toby's future seems bleak.
As suspected, the plot gets completely lost early on in favor of a non-stop string of verbal, visual, and audible gags. Surprisingly, however, I thought many of the gags hit, considering the target. After 1978, nothing was ever the same. Halloween became such a sensation that it laid the groundwork for endless clones involving stupid teenagers being murdered Agatha Christie style (a la And Then There Were None). Ironically enough, Paramount was chiefly responsible for attempting to duplicate every Halloween rip-off imaginable, with the Friday The 13th franchise being a major cash cow. It seems odd that the same studio would have made Student Bodies, but they obviously didn't give a damn about this film from the beginning.
The film was written by Mickey Rose, childhood friend of Woody Allen. They co-wrote screenplays for such Allen films as What's Up, Tiger Lily?, Bananas, and Take The Money And Run. Somewhere in the mid 1970s, Rose left Allen to do some writing on his own, though mostly limited to television projects. Then, in 1980, as Friday The 13th was threatening to trump The Empire Strikes Back, Rose wrote an Airplane-style spoof of the new wave of slasher films. Paramount greenlit the project for one reason only: to fill the void of studio pictures during a huge writer's strike.
Apparently, director Michael Ritchie (The Bad News Bears, Fletch) saw potential in Student Bodies, but something went horribly wrong. Ritchie's name is nowhere in the credits. Instead, Rose was given the director's credit and the producer is Alan Smithee, the notorious pseudonym indicating that someone wants their name off the project. What happened? When you watch the film, the jokes slowly dwindle in numbers, and the ending lands like a giant thud. After doing some research, my theory is that Richie either left or was fired during production, and Rose took it upon himself to complete the picture. Either way, Student Bodies shows numerous signs of post-production tinkering and anomalies, everything from bad dubbing to an ending that feels desperately tacked-on.
The film failed miserably at the box office. It barely scraped $1.5 Million in its opening weekend, while Paramount's Friday The 13th Part 2 made over thirty times as much mere months before. However, this is definitely one of those cases where time has been kind, with home video and frequent television airings elevating Student Bodies to cult status. I saw it on TV several years ago and found myself laughing quite often; even more so, I was shocked at how far ahead of its time it was. Forget Scary Movie and all its sequels; here we have the original slasher parody, which is so dead-on in hazing its straight counterparts it deserves rediscovery.
Okay, fine. Technically speaking, it's not a very good movie. Student Bodies merely offers up a collection of jokes and not much more, but at least it's true to its intention. Here we have a killer with a choice of wielding of guns, knives, and machetes, and opts instead for paperclips, eggplants, and horse head bookends. As with most slasher films, all of the teenage characters are nothing more than horny targets. In fact, all the males underscore this point by saying funerals, football games, and parades "make them hot." These unknown actors all play it completely straight, which only adds to the film's spoofish nature. Perfect example: when the babysitter asks her boyfriend if he's clean, he says, "Sure...besides you can't wash off herpes!"
Some of the jokes are certainly sophomoric and crude. When the Breather invades the female locker room, he decides to flog the dolphin; and when the prom queen gets killed, her boyfriend wants to have sex one last time "for old-times sake." There are even anti-PC gags involving a blind motorist and paralyzed motorist fighting over the only handicapped parking spot. The best laughs come from on-screen character blunders, such as arrows saying "unlocked" and "clues." However, the real highlight is an announcement interrupting the movie, with a "studio producer" saying that while the film contains no nudity, sex, or graphic violence the producers are still opting for an R-rating because they are the "most" profitable when it comes to a movie going public. As a result, the producer decides to "take the opportunity to say f*ck you!" Then the MPAA's R-rated logo flashes on the screen. Say what you want, but I consider that genius!
All of the performances are terrible, though I believe it was intentional. Few of the actors at work here appeared in anything ever again. In fact, the only one of any known origin is Richard Belzer, who gives the voice to The Breather. Belzer is probably known best as Detective John Munch, a character on such shows as Homicide, Law & Order: SVU, and even a guest appearance on The X-Files. Needless to say, I don't think he rates this film pretty high on his resume, since he's billed as Richard Brando. The most memorable character -- and practically all other Student Bodies reviews will tell you the same thing -- -is a comedian known only as The Stick. Standing at 6'3," he plays the toothpick-like janitor who tends to pee red and warn everyone that sex kills. Few know who he really is, though he's gotten famous for this hilarious role.
Fans who have been waiting for Student Bodies to arrive on DVD will be delighted with Legend Films for finally grabbing it out of the Paramount vaults. Surprisingly, the obscure comedy is presented in its original theatrical presentation of 1.85:1 anamorphic. While far from the perfect, it's much better than expected, with a lot of fuzziness in the first minute and then visually improving throughout. Colors are dull and muted, sporting that early '80s washed-out look. Fans should have nothing to complain about though. If anything, it's light years better than all the bootleg copies out there. Legend supplies a mono soundtrack, which is fine, but there are no subtitles or extras.
I like to include Student Bodies in my special list of "movies that will make you laugh, whether you like it or not." For anyone who grew up watching the slasher horror films of the late '70s and early '80s, this is a must see. I also recommend it for modern day audiences...and I'm talking specifically to those who made the new Prom Night a #1 box office hit.
Student Bodies and Legend Films are found not guilty. The court wishes to extend its gratitude to Mickey Rose and Michael Ritchie for having the drive to make this film in response to the slasher epidemic of the time. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R