Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Graduation Day (1981)
by Alec "Foiled Rotten" Cizak
The class of the slasher genre emerged in 1981. Not that these movies were that great or classy. They were among the last “spam in a cabin” flicks, as Joe Bob Briggs once referred to them, to uphold some basic tenets of late ‘70s/very early ‘80s subversive cinema. In the case of the slasher, the youngsters represented the Other. This was reinforced any time an adult was present. Adults and especially authority figures, such as police or deans or politicians, were generally safe from the killer because they represented the old order, which was threatened by the new order. There are numerous essays and books that attempt to explain other aspects of the genre. Most of them focus on the idea that sexual activity was the prime cause for the kids being punished. If you watch the majority of the slashers released in 1980 and 1981, which unfortunately, I have, it’s obvious that this wasn’t really true across the board. Terror Train, for example, came the closest to proving the gender critics’ theory about the old switcheroo taking place between the killer and the final girl (i.e., the killer is effeminate, the final girl is masculine). But even Terror Train doesn’t dwell on the notion that sex will get you killed. Jamie Lee Curtis does not play a “virginal-type” in Terror Train or Prom Night. I would go so far as to argue that her character in Halloween is not all that pure either. She smokes a joint, after all, on the way to her babysitting gig.
But I digress. You’ll notice throughout this piece that I digress frequently. I’m a digresser. Things might be different were I reviewing any other movie.
The slasher genre was already dying by 1981. It was clear that no filmmaker trying to cash in on Halloween’s success understood why John Carpenter’s template worked. A few films got the suspense part, but failed to create any characters worth caring about, so that when the characters got killed, the audience’s emotional response was hinged to the cleverness of the murder or the believability of the gore (which was not a part of Halloween). By 1981, the genre was subjected to “deconstructionist” experiments, such as The Burning and Slumber Party Massacre. And the genre was ready to be outright spoofed. Student Bodies was an example of a film removing any remaining elements of horror and suspense and demonstrating that the genre had become a joke. Quite by accident, ex-rabbi Herb Freed co-wrote, co-produced and directed the silliest slasher ever made, Graduation Day. The title, thus, is more appropriate than Freed might have intended. Graduation Day marked the end of any possibility of taking the genre seriously. After 1981, very few slashers were worth watching, let alone discussing in any critical manner.
Graduation Day is bad. It approaches Ed Wood-bad. Throughout the film, a flash-editing technique is employed to no dramatic effect at all. The result is annoying. The opening sequence is a great example of this. The event from the past that will cause the eventual stalk and slaughter of teenagers occurs amidst a flurry of flash cuts between a track meet, the track coach, and the crowd in the bleachers. Most of this is set to a disco song called “Everybody Wants to be a Winner,” which is appropriate considering everybody who imitated Halloween did so not out of respect for the style John Carpenter employed, but the profits the film earned. The winner of the track meet drops dead at the finish line, which is also appropriate, and off we go on an adventure of cinematic incompetence that’s not even coherent enough to warrant the ridicule of an audience at a midnight movie.
Things are suspect right away. Paula, the eventual final girl who spends the majority of the film off-screen, has hitch-hiked with a truck driver wearing a purple shirt and yellow ascot. The driver tries to feel her up, tells her he has “enough tongue” for the both of them, and then accuses her of being a “lesbo” when she refuses. She is set up as the first red-herring when she gets out and walks through a forest where the first killing will take place. The killer uses a stop-watch to commemorate the confusing track meet from the beginning of the film. The first victim, like everyone who is actually murdered in the film, is an anonymous member of the track team the audience is never allowed to get to know and generate sympathy for. The coach is then set up as another red-herring in one of many terrible musical sequences in the film. As he walks across campus, we get a "meet the crazy kids!" montage cross-cut to a heavy metal tune called, for absolutely no logical reason, “Lucky Strike.” Oh, yeah: half the “crazy kids” we meet have nothing to do with the film’s alleged plot.
Crammed in among all the nonsense and moronic killings (after the first victim, the killer, for no apparent reason, adopts a fencing foil as his or her weapon of choice), we manage to learn that a character named Kevin, who looks like he’s thirty-five-years-old and belongs in a Lord of the Rings movie, was in love with Laura, the girl who dropped dead at the track meet in the beginning of the film. So much for red-herrings. So much, also, for the film maintaining its rep as a piece of subversive cinema. The moment the killer in a slasher turns out to be one of the “crazy kids,” the notion of the teenagers being the Other is pretty much snuffed.
One could write a book on the disjointed elements of Graduation Day—there is an inexplicable acoustic “jam” in the middle of the movie. Some guy who has nothing to do with the other characters cross-breeds Elvis and T. Rex for a god-awful performance of a god-awful song called “Graduation Day Blues.” Most notable is the eventual killer singing back up and “jamming” along with a harmonica. Then there is the most notorious musical number in the film—some horrific New Wave band called Felony plays a song called “Gangster Rock” for seven and a half minutes. By the time it’s over, the song’s annoying refrain is stuck in your head for the rest of the movie. Finally, the film’s most memorable line of dialogue is uttered near the end when a detective who is barely connected to the plot asks the final girl, Paula, “Who are you? What’s your stake in all this?” It’s a question that could be presented to every character in the movie.
But I digress. Again.
It’s my job to extract some sort of meaning from this mess, to come up with a clever take that suggests there is more going on than just an embarrassing narrative failure that still managed to rake in nearly twenty-four million dollars. It took me three miserable viewings to figure out what’s really going on in Graduation Day. Then, of course, in a half-waking state, I realized that the gold nugget of wisdom Graduation Day offers is this:
Life ends after high school.
For most of the conformist, yuppie clones that litter the American landscape, nothing could be more true. High school is it. Life never gets more glorious than scoring a winning touchdown on Friday night or “finger-banging old Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her purty pink panties” in the back of a beat up Chevy on a Saturday night. It’s no accident that the killer and victims in Graduation Day are athletes (save Linnea Quigley, who gets killed simply because she showed her famous tits to her music teacher. But I digress). These are the shining jewels of every high school, and in most cases, as we all know, they go on to get married; work mindless, routine office jobs; put their fluids together to pump out one or two replacement clones and die without ever having established any meaning to their lives. Depressing? Of course. That’s why God invented suicide. But they don’t even have the guts to do that. So, enter Kevin, the goofy thirty-five-year-old with a goofier white-boy afro.
Herb Freed wants us to think Kevin is avenging the death of his true love, Laura. In fact, he is saving his classmates and teammates from entering the adult world and becoming one of the half-dozen jaded, corrupt, dishonest authority figures lurking in and around the high school. Folks like the music teacher, who dresses like Jerry Lewis, talks like Liberace and bangs young girls “just like the old man in that book by Nabokov.” Folks like the principal and his secretary (played by a healthy, pre-bulimia Vanna White), who banter back and forth about doing work, particularly the bothersome task of explaining to parents where their children might have gone off to, before agreeing to meet up later to drink and screw. The worst kind of adult these kids can become (and a great many athletes do, in fact, become) is a law enforcement officer. The school cop is a smarmy fuck who threatens to throw the kiddies in jail for smoking weed before lighting up a joint for himself (read: Adults are hypocrites). The detective who shows up late in the movie to look for the students who have been murdered is the worst of them all. He has no interest in doing his job. When asked where his badge is, he shrugs and says, “Must have lost it.” And he harbors no illusions about his feelings towards the youth (thus, the Other) when he tells the principal, “I hate schools.”
The one adult the movie tries to set up for a ninth-inning Gatorade shower of sympathy is the track coach. The film fails, however, for several reasons. The coach is a red-herring right up until the very end. Also, he’s played by the bad guy from El Dorado, Christopher George (who ended his career pretty much the same way Bela Lugosi did, in one bad horror movie after another), who looks like a mean old fuck even when he’s smiling.
Nope. There’s nothing attractive about growing up and becoming “mature.” Adults are just teenagers who are allowed to get away with their bad behavior. The message of Graduation Day is difficult to find, but it’s there:
Trust no one over the age of twenty.
Halloween established, among many other conventions of the slasher genre, the contempt for authority. When Annie’s (Nancy Loomis) father fails to recognize the stench of marijuana in his daughter’s car, the audience knows he’s useless. When he blames the break in at the hardware store on teenagers, the audience knows he’s an enemy. Like most so-called conventions of the slasher genre, this element is used and abandoned throughout the canon of films that picked up the loose dollars Halloween left in its wake. Friday the 13th opens with a truck driver who won’t take a camp counselor all the way to Crystal Lake. That allows Mrs. Voorhees to pick up the unlucky gal and slit her throat in the forest. Like most slasher conventions, the contempt for authority gets twisted around in movies such as Terror Train, where the authority figure is a senior citizen whose demeanor is so friendly the audience can’t help but sympathize with him. This, of course, ruins the convention as it was originally intended. Some films incorporate authority into the band of kids being stalked, an example being The Prowler. The point here, before I digress again, is that the conventions of slasher films, as they have been defined by critics and theorists, are barely conventions since they don’t play out the same way on a consistent basis from film to film.
Graduation Day, however, bears the honor of taking the useless, corrupt authority figure to a campy, inept extreme. The film’s cynical portrayal of all adults is, in fact, its only redeeming feature.