Return to Horror High (United States, 1987)

March 13, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Return to Horror High Poster

Sometimes just having a clever idea isn’t enough. Not nearly enough. Take Return to Horror High. If I was being generous, I’d admit there’s something in the premise that could make for an entertaining horror-comedy/parody with a blurring of reality and fantasy. (Not unlike what Wes Craven did a few years later with A New Nightmare.) The problem is that the premise, once compromised by an inadequate director, inept actors, horrific dialogue, and a host of other problems, is unable to rise to the surface. It sinks in the muck, leaving behind only a vague trace of what might have been.

In a brief introduction, we are given the backstory: In 1982, a mass murder was conducted by a killer at Crippen High School. Five years later, a no-name film studio decides to make a movie based on those events, called Horror High. With almost no budget to speak of, producer Harry Sleerek (Alex Rocco) and director Josh Forbes (Scott Jacoby) opt to shoot in the real (and now disused) school, rather than on a sound stage. They hire cheap actors, with one – Callie Cassidy (Lori Lethin) – intended to play three roles. Some of the real-life participants in the 1982 events, including school principal Kastleman (Andy Romano) and police officer Steven Blake (Brendan Hughes), are invited to participate. However, as filming proceeds, life imitates art with members of the cast and crew falling victim to the same killer who stalked the halls of Crippen High in 1982.

In its attempt to tell a vaguely coherent story, Return to Horror High spans three separate time frames: 1982, when the original murders took place; during the filming of the movie-within-a-movie; and in the immediate aftermath. Intentional or not (it’s hard to say), the lines between the first round of killings and the filming occasionally become blurred and we’re unsure whether various bloodlettings are actually happening or are filmed representations of the 1982 massacre.

Return to Horror High offers a clinic in bad acting, including a young George Clooney in a small role (he becomes the first victim from the movie team). It’s no surprise that lead actors Lori Lethin and Brendan Hughes didn’t go on to have long and productive Hollywood careers. In addition to Clooney, there are a few recognizable faces, although none would be considered Hollywood royalty. The late Alex Rocco is the film’s biggest name with previous roles to his credit in The Godfather, Get Shorty, and a variety of TV shows. Philip McKeon had a short career in a variety of TV and direct-to-video movies. And Maureen McCormick will forever be best-known for playing Marcia in “The Brady Bunch” (and its various spin-offs).

Return to Horror High is designed with a tongue-in-cheek approach. That doesn’t excuse the sloppy filmmaking (by Bill Froelich, who never made another film), the confusing writing, or the lack of consistency and coherence. The movie has the feel of something that was being written on the fly, with pages of the screenplay being delivered to the set with the ink still wet. The humor is neither sufficiently consistent nor sufficiently funny to warrant the lack of character identification. Generally speaking, in a horror film (even a horror/comedy), viewers bond with one or two people to become their avatars in the mayhem. In Return to Horror High, those individuals are supposed to be Callie and Steven, but these two are so flat, boring, and ineptly portrayed that it’s impossible to become even minimally interested in them or their fates. When Steven is “killed” in a dream sequence, it provokes little more than a shrug.

As for the blood & gore… Return to Horror High lacks the budget to hire a Tom Savini so the producers opted instead to invest in gallons upon gallons of red syrup. At no point does it actually look like blood and its overuse is amusingly excessive. The gore components are pretty tame compared to “straight” ‘80s slasher movies – this is most likely a budgetary issue rather than an artistic one. The murders generally happen off-screen or in a way that’s partially obscured, thereby limiting the production’s need to craft replica viscera.

If there’s a point that can be made in Return to Horror High’s defense, it was ahead of the curve in recognizing the inherent satirical aspects of late-‘80s slasher movies. With a bigger budget and minimal attention to filmmaking basics, this could have been enjoyable. Unfortunately, it’s so badly made that it fails to achieve even the minimum necessary level of technical competence. It stands today as a nostalgic reminder of how cheesily awful ‘80s movies could sometimes be.

Return to Horror High (United States, 1987)

Director: Bill Froelich
Cast: Lori Lethin, Brendan Hughes, Alex Rocco, Scott Jacoby, Andy Romano, Maureen, Philip McKeon, George Clooney
Home Release Date: 2024-03-13
Screenplay: Bill Froelich & Mark Lisson and Dana Escalante & Greg H. Sims
Cinematography: Roy H. Wagner
Music: Stacy Widelitz
U.S. Distributor: New World Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Home Release Date: 2024-03-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Nudity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1