Film Reviews

Hell High (1989) – Blu-ray Review

It’s safe to say that by 1989 the slasher boom of the 80s was over. That’s not to say that there weren’t any strong horror releases, with the Tom Hanks-starring horror-comedy The ‘Burbs, cult body-horror Society, and Stephen King adaptation Pet Semetary all proving to be popular then and to this day. But it seemed that the days of a masked, psychopathic stalker with a dark past getting gory revenge on a bunch of attractive teenagers were over. The likes of the Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises were all past their best, and any notable imitations that followed in the wake of the success of 1978’s Halloween or 1980’s Friday the 13th had come and gone, the formula perhaps coming across as tacky, cheesy and overdone to audiences by this point.

Unfortunately, 1989 was the year that Hell High was released, and due to its slasher-style trailers, posters and premise – a high school teacher with a traumatic past comes back for revenge on her tormentors – it didn’t appear to be something that would make film fans flock to cinemas, and seemed to be largely forgotten. That is until now, as the legends at Arrow Video have unearthed and restored this little gem, and presented it to us with cool new artwork and some decent extras to make it another worthwhile purchase for collectors and fans of cult horror movies.

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As previously mentioned, Hell High concerns high school teacher Brooke Storm (Maureen Mooney), a woman with a troubled past whose temper can sometimes get the better of her. When unruly student Dickens’ (Christopher Stryker) behaviour pushes Storm over the edge and her dark side comes to the fore in front of a whole class, Dickens pledges revenge on the teacher, and along with friends Jon-Jon (Christopher Cousins), Queenie (Millie Prezioso) and Smiler (Jason Brill) they will give Miss Storm the fright of her life. But of course, things are never that simple and soon it won’t just be Brooke Storm getting the fright of her life.

Hell High has the hallmarks of a traditional slasher movie. Mainly blood, boobs and a few cool deaths, along with a thread of  humour running throughout. There’s even a couple of more disturbing moments moments which add to Hell High‘s overall slightly offbeat, B-movie vibe. But that aside, looking back at the film, it has more aspects in common with the psychological thriller genre than it does just straight-up slasher fare. The opening scene providing the reason for Brooke Storm’s dark side, and her private life outside of her job and the tragic event instigated by Storm’s younger self (played by Amy Beth Erenrich), is certainly something that would stick with anyone throughout their life. As well as also providing the urban legend that a large part of Hell High is based around! But scenes like this show that there is a little more to Hell High than simple hack n’ slash.

Talking of hack n’ slash, there isn’t much to speak of in between the opening scene and the final 15-20 minutes of Hell High, but that does allow for the audience to get familiar with the characters in the film. A standout performance by Christopher Stryker as the brilliantly unlikeable, arrogant and self-proclaimed group leader, Dickens makes it clear the type of person that Dickens is right from the start, and Stryker certainly makes the most of this. His involvement in one of the film’s more disturbing scenes proves Dickens is much more than a playground bully, and perhaps a future in jail awaits the teenager in later life.

Christopher Cousins’ Jon-Jon is an interesting character but in a different way to Dickens. Quitting the high school football team and shunning the popularity that this would bring, Jon-Jon is clearly his own person and has more traditional hero traits than anyone else in the group; tall, handsome, strong and calm for the most part. Putting Jon-Jon at the centre of the film would certainly have made Hell High a very different film, which is actually a credit to writer, director and producer Douglas Grossman, who clearly had his own unique vision for it. As for the other characters in the group, Millie Prezioso is quite likeable in her role as quirky, flirty and cool chick Queenie, and Jason Brill provides some sort of comic relief as the big, dumb but fun Smiler. All in all, a mixed bag of a friendship group but hey, aren’t most friendship groups? And at least the above make for some memorable characters and moments.

The most memorable of these moments probably comes within the final act of Hell High, where Dickens and the gang play their trick on Miss Storm but things turn messy, and later get brutal and bloody, proving that the psychological aspects of the film are interesting but the horror/slasher part is where it’s at! An awakening, seemingly dead body, a few cool deaths and a bit of torture all combine to give Hell High a memorable ending. The final scene itself giving a feeling of trauma passed on. Again, that psychological thriller theme doing Hell High a favour.

The extras for this Blu-ray presentation of Hell High are pretty solid. Featuring in-depth and informative interviews with writer/director/producer Douglas Grossman, cinematographer Steven Fieberg, and composers Rich Macar and Christopher Hyams-Hart, as well as cast members Christopher Cousins and Maureen Mooney reflecting on their early careers and their time filming Hell High. ‘Back to School: The locations of Hell High’ has a recent tour of the sets and locations used for the film. There is also archival interviews, trailers and TV spots, as well as a deleted scene that is actually mute as no audio was available on the recording, which shows how much content Arrow are willing to find for their releases to please fans and collectors.

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Another good edition to this release is the option to watch an introduction by popular US film critic, horror lover and creator of  The Last Drive-In series, Joe Bob Briggs before the start of Hell High. Clearly a big fan of the film, Briggs sets it up perfectly for the viewer, whether they have seen Hell High before or not – albeit with a few minor spoilers. But Briggs’ enthusiasm for Hell High and horror is there for all to see.

Overall, while not being a stone cold classic, Hell High still offers something slightly different for 80’s horror fans while also treading into familiar territory, which makes it an interesting, at times fun and at times slightly disturbing watch, and one that 80’s horror fans everywhere should enjoy in a package from Arrow that collectors will appreciate.

Hell High is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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